People of Yorkshire volume 2 – Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook was an 18th Century explorer who, over three voyages discovered and mapped parts of the word which had never been seen by Europeans before, most notably Australia, New Zealand and North America. His discoveries gave Europe a better knowledge of the planet’s geography and people in parts of the world previously unreachable.

He was born in 1728 in the village of Marton, North Yorkshire. His first taste of adventure came as a child when he would climb the nearby Roseberry Topping, a local landmark for peace and quiet. Aged sixteen he worked in a grocer’s shop at the nearby village of Staithes. His calling though was not selling cabbages to locals, but out to the sea which could be seen out of the shop window. Eventually he was introduced to the Walker family, who were coal merchants based in nearby Whitby. They took him on as a merchant navy apprentice and his first voyage involved transporting coal down to London, aboard the “Freelove.”

Cook’s apprenticeship with the Walkers also enabled him to study other sea-fearing skills, such as astronomy, trigonometry, algebra and navigation, which would come in useful later in life.

After serving his three years and passing his exams in 1752, Captain Cook rose through the merchant navy ranks, continuing to work for the Walker family in Whitby, being promoted to “mate” and working in the Baltic sea.

In 1755 Cook joined the Royal Navy, where he saw action during the seven year war with France and other nations in Canada. His experience in war led him to learn yet more nautical skills, such as coastline mapping. His talent for cartography played a role in several British victories over the French during this war, notably at the St Lawrence River and in the siege of Quebec.

Noted for his excellent mapping skills, Cook outlined the famously jagged coastline of Newfoundland and Northern Canada and so his career in this field began.

His skills came to the attention of The Royal Society, a specialised scientific group, founded in 1660, who had a special mission in mind for him.

A great astronomical event was to take place in 1768, where the planet Venus crossed the face of the sun. This could only be seen from the Southern Hemisphere and Cook’s job was to track the planet’s path across the solar surface. Captain Cook and his crew set sail in 1768 and reached Tahiti, where they were to observe the phenomenon the following year. On their ship, the “Endeavour,” was an envelope sealed with further instructions only to be opened on their safe arrival to the Pacific Island.

When Cook opened the envelope, the second part of his mission was revealed. Once Venus was safely past the sun the crew were to sail West to try and discover the continent, “Terra Australis, or “South Land.” The existence of this yet undiscovered territory was based only by a theory that the polar lands in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by similar lands in the Southern half of Planet Earth. Cook sailed and mapped the coast of New Zealand, which had already been discovered a century earlier by Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman. Unlike his predecessor, Cook and his crew eventually established a good relationship with the native Maori people who let him onshore not only to draw maps of the islands, but also to take samples of plants and animals back with him. Importantly they let him use New Zealand as a base in which to find the “Southland.”

After establishing that the two islands of New Zealand were probably too small to be this vast continent which was supposed to exist he travelled North West, landing on the Eastern coast of Australia in 1770. He named the new area, New South Wales and made his first observations of the native Aborigines. He also encountered the Great Barrier Reef, which damaged his ship and took seven weeks to repair.

On arrival back to Britain, Cook and his crew were treated as heroes by the scientific community and his journals were published.

Captin James Cook
An official portrait of Captain James Cook Picture credit wikipedia creative commons public domain.

A second voyage to discover the Southern Continent was commissioned in 1772 and so once again Cook set sail with his crew on the “HMS Resolution.” Although on his first voyage he had managed to discover the East Coast of Australia the “Continent,” was believed to lie much further South. After stopping on several Pacific Islands along the way he encountered some islands which lay to the South, within the Antarctic circle, such as South Georgia and The South Sandwich Islands for Britain. These lay 75 miles off the coast of Antarctica, before heading North towards South Africa because of bad weather and ice. The vast continent which lay below would not be reached and fully explored until the 19th Century.

However despite Captain James Cook’s failed attempt to discover Antarctica, of which he got to within 75 miles of his second mission was still regarded as a success.

A third mission was commissioned, this time further north in an attempt to find the North-west passage. This was to try and establish a trading route across the top of North America, through the Arctic Ocean to Europe. After dropping one of his navigators and guides, Omai back to his native Tahiti, Cook sailed North in 1778 and became the first European to land on the island of Hawaii. He managed to map most of America’s Northwest coast including Alaska for the first time, but hit a stumbling block when he reached the Beiring Strait, the narrow passage of sea which separates Alaska from Russia. Bad weather in the area meant that Cook’s crew had to sail south to the calmer waters of Hawaii. Cook and his crew were initially treated as gods by the islanders, but things turned sour when the mast off their ship broke and they had to extend their stay on the island in order to carry out repairs. During this time a smaller boat belonging to Cook was stolen by a group of natives and the angry explorer sought revenge. He attempted to take the king of Hawaii hostage but was killed by an angry crowd when it became clear what he was attempting to do. Captain Cook’s life ended on 14th February 1779.

Despite his death because of a fit of bad temper, Cook’s legacy has lived on. Many of the maps in which he made during his three voyages were still used until the mid-20th Century. Statues and tributes to his presence on several of the islands he discovered and explored, including Hawaii are still standing today. In Australia, artefacts of his voyage there are on display in their national museum in New South Wales. In Britain Cook is commemorated as being one of the great explorers that ever lived and none more so than in his native Yorkshire. Two museums are dedicated to him, one in his home village of Marton and the other in Whitby, where he served his apprenticeship. A monument was constructed in 1827 in dedication to the explorer on Easby Moor near Great Ayton on the North Yorkshire Moors.

A commemoration to Captain Cook was built on Easby Moor in 1827 and is on the Cleveland Way. Picture credit: Wikipedia creative commons public domain.
A commemoration to Captain Cook was built on Easby Moor in 1827 and is on the Cleveland Way. Picture credit: Wikipedia creative commons public domain.

Cook is a truly great Yorkshireman, whose bravery, skill, dedication and leadership made mankind understand the world in which they live in.

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