Childhood & Early Life
James Cook was born to James Cook, a farm laborer and Grace Pace in Marton, Yorkshire. He was the second of the eight children born to the couple and was baptized at the St. Cuthbert Church.
In 1736, the family moved to a farm in Great Ayton, where he attended a local school. After five years of education, he began working for his father, who by then, was promoted to farm manager.
He worked as a shop boy in a grocery shop in 1745 and it is believed that this was where his fascination with the sea began as he would look out the window and gaze at the big blue sea.
Subsequently, he began working as a merchant navy apprentice, plying coal along the English coast. During his free time, he studied the fundamentals of mathematics, navigation and astronomy; all of which would prove to be useful in his later life. He completed his three-year apprenticeship and began working on trading ships in the Baltic Sea.
After he passed his exams in 1752, he was promoted through the merchant navy ranks and within three years, he volunteered to be a part of the Royal Navy; a time during which Britain was preparing itself for a war that would later be known as the ‘Seven Years’ War’.
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His first position in the Royal Navy was with the ‘HMS Eagle’, where he took part in the capture of one French warship and the sinking of another. He was promoted to the position of ‘boatswain’.
In 1757, he was allowed to handle and traverse a ship of the King’s armada. He was then posted to the ‘HMS Solebay’, as the master, where he worked under Captain Robert Craig.
During the period of the ‘Seven Years’ War’, he captured the Fortress of Louisburg and showed his flair for cartography and surveillance. During the 1760s, he surveyed the coast of Newfoundland and produced large-scale accurate maps of its position, outlines and coasts.
In 1766, he was asked to travel to the Pacific Ocean to record the transit of planet Venus across the Sun by the Royal Society. It was after he agreed to the excursion that he was promoted to lieutenant and ordained as the commander of the expedition, which set sail two years later.
The ship arrived in Tahiti on April 13, 1769, where Cook and his crew recorded their observations of Venus’ transit across the sun. However, the observations were later deemed as inaccurate.
He then sailed to New Zealand and mapped the country’s coastline, reaching the coast of Australia on April 19, 1770. He became the first European to have encountered the eastern coastline and penned down his first experiences with the indigenous, aboriginal folk of Australia.
He is responsible for having discovered modern-day Kurnell Peninsula and ‘Sting Ray Harbor’ or Botany Bay. During one leg of the expedition, his ship, the ‘HMS Endeavor’ was badly damaged and his voyage was delayed by 7 weeks. He then set sail on August 22 and sailed across Possession Island, Torres Strait, Indonesia, the Cape of Good Hope and finally, the Saint Helena island, in 1771.
Following this expedition, he was promoted to the rank of commander. In 1772, he was sent to look out for the fabled continent, the ‘Terra Australis’, for which he set sail aboard the ‘HMS Resolution’.
He orbited the globe in the southern hemisphere and on January 17, 1773, he became the first man to cross the Antarctic Circle.
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He almost stumbled upon mainland Antarctica and then on his return to New Zealand, he discovered the Friendly Islands, Easter Island, Norfolk Island, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and also mapped South Georgia.
Before returning to England, he made a trip to South Africa and from then-on continued on his journey back to his homeland. His reports finally put an end to the myth of Terra Australis.
He was promoted to the rank of post-captain and was offered a nominal retirement from the Navy. However, he could not be kept away from the sea for too long. He volunteered to discover the Northwest Passage on the ‘HMS Resolution’.
He travelled north and in 1778 became the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands and then went on to explore the west coast of North America. He was responsible in naming ‘Cape Foulweather’, due to the bad weather conditions at the time. He discovered and mapped Cook Inlet and returned to Hawaii in 1779.
Personal Life & Legacy
James Cook married Elizabeth Batts, on December 21, 1762. They had six children together; James, Nathaniel, Elizabeth, Joseph, George and Hugh.
When he was not exploring and out at sea, he would spend time with his family in the East End of London.
On February 14, 1779, when he was in Hawaii, he was struck on the head and stabbed to death by Hawaiian villagers. His body was dragged away, parched, eviscerated and the bones were scrubbed. Some of his other remains were buried at sea, after an appeal by his crew.
Following his death, the author abbreviation ‘Cook’ is used when citing a botanical name. The ‘Cook Collection’ in the Australian museum holds all of James Cooks’ artifacts that he collected over his three voyages.
His 12 years of sailing around the Pacific Ocean, his journals, the artifacts and his mapping has proved to be useful for professional cartographers or voyagers. Several of the islands he chanced upon were named by him including the ‘Sandwich Islands’.
A US coin, the 1928 half dollar, endures an image of the voyager. The site where he was found dead in Hawaii is marked by a white obelisk. There are also a number of institutes that are named after him including ‘James Cook University’. Other places such as Cook Islands, Cook Strait, Cook Inlet and the cook crater on the moon are also named after him and his achievements.