Captain Cook – Life, Career & Death

Captain James Cook is a famous 18th Century explorer. Over three voyages, he discovered and mapped parts of the world which had never been seen by Europeans before. These were most notably Australia, New Zealand, and North America.

Cook’s discoveries gave the whole of Europe a better knowledge of the planet’s geography and the people from parts of the world that were once thought as unreachable. Discover the beginning of his life, his career, death, and lasting legacy.

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Growing Up

James Cook was born in 1728 in the village of Marton, located in North Yorkshire. When he was just a child, he discovered his first taste of adventure by climbing the nearby Roseberry Topping which was a local landmark known for its peace and quiet.

Aged 16, James got a job in a grocery at the nearby village of Staithes. However, he soon realised that his calling wasn’t selling cabbages for locals, but instead sailing on the sea which James could see from the shop window.

Eventually, James was introduced to the Walker family. They were coal merchants based in nearby Whitby who took him on as a merchant navy apprentice. His first voyage involved transporting coal down to London aboard the “Freelove”.


During Cook’s apprenticeship with the Walkers, he was able to study other sea-fearing skills. These included astronomy, trigonometry, algebra, and navigation which would prove to be useful later on in his life.

After completing his three year apprenticeship and passing his exams in 1752, Cook rose through the merchant navy ranks. Cook continued to work for the Walker family in Whitby being promoted to “mate” and working in the Baltic sea.

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

Joining the Royal Navy

In 1755, Cook decided to join the Royal Navy. During this time he saw action throughout the seven year war with France and other nations in Canada. His experience in war led him to learn more nautical skills such as coastline mapping.

Cook’s 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 famous jagged coastline of Newfoundland and Northern Canada and so his career in this field began. 

Captain Cook’s First Mission

His skills came to the attention of The Royal Society, a specialist scientific group founded in 1660, who had a special mission with him in mind. In 1768, a great astronomical event took place. It was discovered that the planet Venus would be crossing the face of the sun.

After further research, scientists found that this would only be seen from the Southern Hemisphere. The Royal Society gave Cook the job to track the planet’s path across the solar surface.

First Part of the Mission

Now a Captain, Cook and his crew set sail in 1768 on the “Endeavour”. Eventually they reached Tahiti where it was planned that they were to observe the phenomenon of Venus crossing the sun the following year.

On the ship that they sailed in, there was an envelope waiting to be opened by Captain Cook. He was given strict instructions that he was not to open it until they safely arrived at the Pacific Island. When Cook did open it, he found a further set of instructions.

Second Part of the Mission

The second part of Captain Cook’s mission was finally revealed. Once Venus was safely past the sun, the crew were to sail West to try and discover a new continent called “Terra Australis”, also called “South Land.”

The existence of this undiscovered territory was based only on a theory. It was believed that the polar lands in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by similar lands in the Southern half of Planet Earth.

Captain Cook sailed and mapped the coast of New Zealand. However, this had already been discovered a century earlier by a Dutch explorer called Abel Tasman. Unlike his predecessor, Cook and his crew eventually established a good relationship with the native Maori people.

The Maori people let Captain Cook and his crew onshore to not only draw maps of the islands but also to take samples of plants and animals back with him. More importantly, they let him use New Zealand as a base in which to find the “Southland”.

Eastern Coast of Australia

After establishing that the two islands of New Zealand were probably too small to be this vast continent which was supposed to exist, he decided to travel North West. Captain Cook and his crew landed on the Eastern coast of Australia in 1770.

Captain Cook decided to name the new area “New South Wales”. He made his first observations of the native Aborigines. Cook also encountered the Great Barrier Reef which damaged his ship and took around seven weeks to repair.

Travelling Back to Britain

On arrival back to Britain, Captain Cook and his crew were treated as heroes by the scientific community. Cook’s journals that he wrote while out at sea were published.

Captain Cook’s Second Mission

A second voyage was commissioned in 1772, this was to discover the Southern Continent. Once again, Captain Cook and his crew set sail this time on the “HMS Resolution.”

On his first voyage, Captain Cook had managed to discover the East Coast of Australia. However, the “Continent” was believed to lie much further South than originally thought.

After stopping on several Pacific Islands along the way, Captain Cook encountered some islands which lay to the South within the Antarctic circle. These included South Georgia, and The South Sandwich Islands for Britain all of which lay 75 miles off of the coast of Antarctica. 

Due to bad weather and ice, Captain Cook and his crew headed North towards South Africa. The vast continent which lay below would not be reached and fully explored until the 19th Century.

Captain Cook’s Third Mission

A third mission was later commissioned. This time, Captain Cook and his crew would travel 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.

Captain Cook dropped one of his navigators and guides, called Omai, back to his native home of Tahiti. After this, Cook sailed North in 1778 and became the first European to land on the island of Hawaii.

While he was there, he managed to map most of America’s Northwest coast including Alaska for the first time. However, Captain Cook hit a stumbling block when he reached the Bering Strait, a narrow passage of sea which separated Alaska from Russia.

Captain Cook and his crew were hit with bad weather in the area. This meant that Cook’s crew had to sail south to the calmer waters of Hawaii.

Captain Cook’s Death

Initially, Cook and his crew were treated as gods by the islanders. However, things turned sour when the mast off of their ship broke which led them 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 island natives. The angry explorer decided that he would take his revenge.

As part of his plan, Captain Cook attempted to take the King of Hawaii hostage. However, instead, he was killed by an angry crowd when it became clear what he was attempting to do. Captain Cook’s life ended on the 14th February 1779.

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.

Captain Cook’s Legacy

Despite his death because of a fit of bad temper, Cook’s legacy continues to live on. Many of the maps that he made during his three voyages were still used up until the mid-20th Century. Statues and tributes on several of the islands he discovered and explored, including Hawaii, are still standing today.

In Australia, artefacts of his voyage are on display in their national museum in New South Wales. In Britain, Cook is commemorated as being one of the greatest explorers that ever lived and none more so than in his native Yorkshire.

Two museums have been 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.

Captain Cook is a truly impressive Yorkshireman. His bravery, skills, dedication, and leadership have enabled mankind to understand the world in which we live in.