Captain James Cook FRS was a British explorer, navigator, cartographer and naval officer. He made three historic voyages to the Pacific, to become the first recorded European to reach the east coast of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. His contributions included charting the coasts of New Zealand, eastern Australia, north-west America and numerous Pacific islands, disproving the existence of a great southern continent, and scientific discoveries in the fields of natural history and ethnology.
James Cook was born on 27 October 1728 [7 Nov 1728 (NS)] in the two-roomed mud cottage of his parents, James Cook and Grace Pace, in the village of Marton-in-Cleveland, North Yorkshire. He was baptised at the parish church of St Cuthbert’s on 3 November, and entered in the parish register as: “James, ye son of a day labourer.”
He attended school in the nearby village of Great Ayton where his father had found work as a farm foreman. At age 16 or 17, he was sent to work in the fishing village of Staithes on the Yorkshire coast. He began as a shop boy for a grocer and haberdasher before joining the merchant navy as an apprentice.
He spent the next few years as a seaman for shipowner John Walker of Whitby, sailing the dangerous and unpredictable waters of the North Sea coal trade. Years later, he would command similar Whitby-built ships on his historic Pacific voyages.
In 1755 he enlisted in the Royal Navy. He began as an able seaman on HMS Eagle and within a month was promoted to master’s mate. After two years of service he passed the master’s examination, qualifying him to navigate and handle ships of the Royal Navy.
He served in North America on board the warships HMS Pembroke and HMS Northumberland during the Seven Years’ War, developing his knowledge of hydrographic surveying—the technique of measuring water depths and underwater hazards. In 1759 he and other ships’ masters surveyed the Traverse in the St Lawrence River, enabling the British fleet to pass safely and attack Quebec.
Shortly after his return to England in 1762, he married Elizabeth Batts, the daughter of Samuel Batts, landlord of the Bell Inn, Execution Dock, Wapping. They were married on 21 December 1762 at St Margaret’s Church in Barking, Essex. The marriage register records:
James Cook of ye Parish of St Paul Shadwell in the County of Middlesex Batchelor and Elizabeth Batts of ye Parish of Barking in the County of Essex Spinster were married in this Church by ye Archbishop of Canterbury Licence … by George Denning Vicar of Little Wakering Essex.
He sailed to North America in April 1763 to survey the north and west coasts of Newfoundland. While he was away, his wife gave birth to their first child, James, at Shadwell on 13 October 1763.
|Cook's house at Mile End|
Cook returned to England seven weeks later and soon after bought the long-term leasehold of a substantial house in Mile End Old Town, in London's east end. His family would live in the eight-roomed house at No 7 Assembly Row until after his death.
The task of surveying Newfoundland lasted almost five years. Each year, he returned to England for the winter months before resuming his work in North America. During this time, two more children were born: Nathaniel on 14 December 1764 and Elizabeth on 14/15 September 1766.
In May 1768 Cook was promoted to lieutenant and given command of the research vessel HMS Endeavour for a scientific expedition to the South Pacific on behalf of the Royal Society. Joining him on the expedition were astronomer Charles Green, botanist Joseph Banks, his assistants Daniel Solander and Diedrich Spöring, and artists Alexander Buchan and Sydney Parkinson. His wife's cousin Isaac Smith was one of the ship's crew.
HMS Endeavour sailed on 25 August 1768 carrying 18 months of provisions. After rounding Cape Horn, the expedition reached the island of Tahiti in time to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun in June 1769.
Leaving Tahiti, Cook embarked on a confidential mission to search for Terra Australis, a great southern continent then thought to exist in the Southern Ocean. He sailed due south to latitude 40°S without sighting land, then turned westward. Sighting New Zealand, he spent the next six months charting the North and South Island.
The Endeavour resumed its westerly course and in April 1770 became the first recorded European expedition to reach the east coast of Australia. Cook charted the east coast to its northernmost tip, and, before beginning his homeward journey, landed at Possession Island off far north Queensland, known by its indigenous inhabitants as Bedanug or Bedhan Lag. It was 22 August 1770 and he later wrote in his journal:
I now once More hoisted English Colours, and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern coast from the above Latitude down to this place by the Name of New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours, Rivers, and Islands, situated upon the said Coast; after which we fired 3 Volleys of small Arms, which were answer’d by the like number from the Ship.
Historians continue to debate whether this ceremony took place as described in Cook’s journal and whether he had authority to claim possession of the Australian continent. In 2001, the Kaurareg people successfully claimed native title rights over Possession Island and other nearby islands.
Cook arrived back in England in June 1771 after a voyage of almost three years. In his absence, two of his children had died: his newborn son Joseph had died in infancy, and his only daughter Elizabeth at age 4.
He was promoted to the rank of commander in August 1771 and commissioned to undertake a second Pacific voyage in search of the elusive great southern continent.
Within a week, Cook sailed from Plymouth in HMS Resolution accompanied by HMS Adventure. The two ships touched at Cape Town before continuing their southward journey, but became separated in fog soon after crossing the Antarctic Circle in January 1773. He later rendezvoused with HMS Adventure in New Zealand, only to become separated a second time.
Over the course of three southern summers Cook circumnavigated the globe, reaching as far south as 71°10'S, without sighting the great southern continent. In the winter months, he visited Tahiti, Tonga, Vanuatu and other South Pacific islands, and, on his journey back to England, explored the South Atlantic, including South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
He remained in England until Mrs Cook gave birth to their sixth child. Hugh, named after friend and fellow naval officer Sir Hugh Palliser, was born at Mile End on 22 May 1776 and baptised at St Dunstan, Stepney, on 5 June 1776.
Cook sailed from Plymouth on 12 July 1776 in HMS Resolution. Joined by HMS Discovery, the two ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and, after stopping at Tahiti, they became the first Europeans to reach the Hawaiian Islands (which Cook named the Sandwich Islands). The north-west coast of North America was sighted in March 1778, and for the next six months he charted about 4,000 miles of coastline from Oregon to Alaska. The thick ice in Bering Strait proved impassable and after several failed attempts the ships returned to the Hawaiian Islands for the winter.
Captain Cook died on the shoreline of Kaelakekua Bay, Hawaii, on the morning of 14 February 1779. He had gone ashore with an escort of marines after HMS Discovery’s cutter was stolen by some of the islanders. Cook and four of his men were killed when they attempted to take the island's king, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, hostage until the stolen boat was returned.
Cook's body was carried away by the islanders, then cut up, burnt and the bones distributed among the island chiefs. The British recovered part of his body and, at sunset on 21 February 1779, his remains were buried at sea.
News of his death reached England in January 1780. It was reported that:
His Majesty, who had always the highest opinion of Captain Cook, shed tears when Lord Sandwich informed him of his death and immediately ordered a pension of £300 a year for his widow.
The pension was actually £200 a year, not £300. In addition, the Admiralty gave Mrs Cook part of the profits from publishing her husband's journals.
Cook left a will dated 14 June 1776, giving an annuity of £10 a year to his father, and legacies of £10 each to his two sisters, Christiana Cocker and Margaret Fleck, and to his friends Thomas Dyall and Richard Wise. He gave his widow a life interest in his house at Mile End Old Town and one third of the rest of his estate. The other two thirds was to be held in trust for his sons until they turned 21. His will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 24 January 1780. A transcript of his will is here.
Of his six children, three died in infancy. His three other sons all died young without having children of their own. His eldest son James, who rose to the rank of commander in the Royal Navy, drowned in 1794 in a boat accident off the coast of Dorset. His second son Nathaniel, also an officer in the Royal Navy, died on board HMS Thunderer during a hurricane in the Caribbean Sea in 1780. His youngest son Hugh became a student of Christ's College, Cambridge, and died of scarlet fever in 1793.
His widow survived him by 56 years. She died in 1835 at Clapham, Surrey, aged 93, and was buried with two of her sons at Cambridge.
A monument for the Cook family at St Andrew the Great, Cambridge reads:
Of CAPTAIN JAMES COOK, of the Royal Navy. One of the most celebrated Navigators, that this or former Ages can boast of; who was killed by the Natives of Owyhee, in the Pacific Ocean, on the 14th Day of February, 1779: in the 51st Year of his Age.
Of Mr. NATHANIEL COOK, who was lost with the Thunderer Man of War. Captain Boyle Walsingham, in a most dreadful Hurricane, in October, 1780: aged 16 Years.
Of Mr. HUGH COOK, of Christ’s College, Cambridge. who died on the 21st of December, 1793: aged 17 Years.
Of JAMES COOK, Esq.: Commander in the Royal Navy. who lost his Life on the 25th of January, 1794; in going from Pool, to the Spitfire Sloop of War, which he commanded: in the 31st Year of his Age.
Of ELIZᵀᴴ COOK, who died April 9th. 1771, Aged 4 Years.
JOSEPH COOK, who died Septr. 13th. 1768, Aged 1 Month.
GEORGE COOK, who died Octr. 1st. 1772, Aged 4 Months.
All Children of the first mentioned CAPᵀ. JAMES COOK, by ELIZABETH COOK, who survived her Husband 56 Years, & departed this life 13th. May 1835, at her residence Clapham Surrey in the 94th Year of her Age. Her remains are deposited with those of her Sons JAMES & HUGH, in the middle Aisle of this Church.
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