The Voyages of Captain James Cook

cook_portrait.jpg (3562 bytes)Captain James Cook may well be the founder of modern oceanography. His list of accomplishments are staggering, the range of his voyages, most impressive. Not only was he a master seaman, skilled navigator, accomplished cartographer, eloquent writer, fine artist, respected diplomat and clever dietician (another example of oceanography's far-reaching subject areas), he was a brave leader and careful scientist. (I wouldn't mind those credits..!)  Perhaps more than any other explorer or oceanographer in history, Cook laid the foundations for our scientific understanding of the seas.

Only a little is known of Cook's developmental years. He was born in the Yorkshire Village of Marton on October 27, 1728, to parents of modest means. They soon moved to Ayton and, as was common in those days, James was apprenticed (i.e. indentured) to a store-keeper, for whom he worked for about year and a half. But ever an ambitious lad, and undoubtedly influenced by the salty pub-side tales of sailors from a nearby harbor, he soon ran away to Whitby, a small port some thirteen miles from Ayton, and offered his services to the mate of a coal fleet. Charmed by his enthusiasm, he was hired aboard and thus began his career as a man of the sea, a sailor.

Cook worked his way up the ranks and apparently studied astronomy, mathematics and map-making on his own. During the Seven Years war between England and France, Cook was sent to the St. Lawrence Seaway aboard the king's ship, Mercury, where he endeavored to map the waterway in between battles with the French in Quebec and the occasional Indian. Having already earned his Master's (Captain's) Certificate and having demonstrated his skills at cartography, he was the Captain of choice for the Queen's mission to show the British flag on a voyage to Tahiti with members of the Royal Society, who were to observe the transit of Venus across the sun (as good a reason for a voyage as any, I guess!).

endeavor.jpg (5901 bytes)Between 1766 and 1771, Cook commanded his first voyage aboard the Endeavour. During this voyage, he insisted on strict health and dietary regimens, especially the eating of Vitamin C-rich foods, which prevented scurvy, a terrifying problem on long voyages of that time. Cook found and charted previously unknown territories, including New Zealand and Australia, landing in and naming Botany Bay, in honor of the plants found there. He mapped the Great Barrier Reef and numerous islands, made careful observations of plants and animals and developed friendly relations with the indigenous peoples. And his efforts must have pleased the members of the Royal Society, as their observations confirmed Edmund Halley's calculations of planetary orbits. Cook returned home (an around-the-world journey) to great honors in 1771 and was soon rewarded command of two other ships, the Resolution and the Admiralty.

On his second voyage, carried out between 1772 and 1775, Cook continued his mapping of the South Pacific, adding Tonga, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Fiji, the New Hebrides and New Caledonia, among others. He also came close to Antarctica, sailing as far south as 71 in the Antarctic Ocean. The simple and unassuming detail of his scientific observations are exemplified in his descriptions of icebergs, which he refers to as "ice mountains." Here's an excerpt from his log, taken from the highly informative and personal web account of Cook's voyages provided by Michael Dickinson, a relative of Cook's, living in Sydney, Australia:

On the 30th, at four o'clock in the morning, we perceived the clouds over the horizon to the south to be of an unusual snow-white brightness, which we knew announced our approach to field ice. Soon after it was seen from the topmast-head, and at eight o'clock we were close to its edge. It extended east and west far beyond the reach of our sight. Ninety-seven ice hills were distinctly seen within the field, besides those on the outside - many of them very large, and looking like a ridge of mountains rising one above another till they were lost in the clouds; the outer or northern edge of this immense field was composed of loose or broken ice close packed together so that it was not possible for anything to enter it. This was about a mile broad, within which was solid ice in one continued compact body. It was rather low and flat (except the hills) but seemed to increase in height as you traced it to the south, in which direction it extended beyond our sight. Such mountains of ice as these, I think, were never seen in the Greenland seas, at least not that I ever heard or read of, so that we cannot draw a comparison between the ice here and there.

Having circumnavigated Antarctica (but never landing on the continent), Cook returned home in 1775.

HMResolutiont.jpg (2564 bytes)In 1776, not wanting to let grass grow under his feet, Cook was given command of Resolution and another ship, the Discovery. His mission was to search for a passage from the Atlantic Ocean through North America to the Pacific Ocean, the so-called "Northwest Passage". He spent the first year in the South Pacific (warming up for his voyage to the Arctic!), then headed northwards where he stumbled upon Hawaii in 1778. Though I've seen no record of it, he probably had some idea that Hawaii existed, having spent quite a bit of time among their South Pacific relatives. However it happened, his encounter with the Hawaiians, for all its charm, would be his and their fatal undoing.

After spending some time in Hawaii, Cook ventured north, exploring the coast of Oregon and sailing northwards along the Pacific Northwest to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. While he never found the Northwest Passage (because it doesn't exist!), he succeeded in mapping the region and adding to scientific knowledge of the plants and animals, currents, geological formations and sea floor. After finding it impossible to push any further through the Bering Straight, he returned to Hawaii for the winter. On the morning of February 14, 1779, in the aftermath of a dispute over stolen property, exacerbated by chieftain rivalries, Cook was killed by the Hawaiians.

According to the eyewitness account published on Michael Dickinson's site, Cook ran along the shore when things got out of hand. He had signaled for his boats to retrieve him and his men, but the signal was mistaken as a command to retreat. Ironically, the man who sailed around the globe, charted a good deal of the Pacific and made tremendous contributions to cultural and scientific knowledge, could not swim. He stood in knee-deep water, waiting for a boat to carry him away:

Captain Cook was now the only Man on the Rock, he was seen walking down towards the Pinnace, holding his left hand against the Back of his head to guard it from the Stones & carrying his Musket under the other Arm. An Indian came running behind him, stopping once or twice as he advanced, as if he was afraid that he should turn round, then taking him unaware he sprung to him, knocked him on the back of his head with a large Club taken out of a fence, & instantly fled with the greatest precipitation; the blow made Captain Cook stagger two or three paces, he then fell on his hand & one knee & dropped his Musket, as he was rising another Indian came running to him & before he could recover himself from the Fall drew out an iron Dagger he concealed under his feathered Cloak & stuck it with all his force into the back of his Neck, which made Capt. Cook tumble into the Water in a kind of a bite by the side of the rock where the water is about knee deep; here he was followed by a crowd of people who endeavored to keep him under water, but struggling very strong with them he got his head up & looking towards the Pinnace [a small cutter] which was not above a boat hook's Length from him waved his hands to them for Assistance, which it seems it was not in their Power to give.

The Indians got him under water again but he disengaged himself & got his head up once more & not being able to swim he endeavored to scramble on the Rock, when a fellow gave him a blow on the head with a large Club and he was seen alive no more. They now kept him under water, one man sat on his Shoulders & beat his head with a stone while others beat him with Clubs & Stones, they then hauled him up dead on the Rocks where they stuck him with their Daggers, dashed his head against the rock & beat him with Clubs & Stones, taking a Savage pleasure in using every barbarity to the dead body; as soon as one had stuck him another would take the Instrument out of his Body and give him another Stab.

Cook's body was divided among various chieftains as part of their ritual victory celebration, but after much haggling and negotiation, parts of Cook's body were returned. That they belonged to Cook appears certain:

...we had no doubt concerning the Identity of any of the parts contained in the bundle, every one must be perfectly satisfied as to that of the hands, for we all knew the right by a large Scar on it separating for about an inch the Thumb from the fore-finger...[On Sunday, February 21st]...Between four and five o'clock in the afternoon the Colors of both Ships were hoisted half staff up and the yards crossed, and at ten minutes before six the Remains of Captain Cook were committed to the deep under a discharge of 10 Guns.

Thus ended the life of a man who some consider to be the greatest explorer of all time, for he charted more of our planet than any other human previously or since. A few books deal with Cook's scientific and cultural studies and I have listed them below. I highly recommend the web accounts of his life, especially the first link, Captain James Cook: The Great Oceans Great Explorer. This web page provides many excerpts from his journals and a wonderful timeline of his first voyage, which clearly defines the dangers faced by Cook and his crew on their voyage around the world.

You might also want to check out the HMS Endeavor Foundation web site. This ship, a replica of Cook's first, made a passage through California, Oregon and Washington in Summer 1999.

Finally, while the story of Captain James Cook evokes mystery and excitement, perhaps the most important theme brought home by his voyages is the nature of scientific progress. Cook's voluminous writings and drawings offer a wealth of observational data for oceanographers, astronomers, geologists, botanists, zoologists, cultural anthropologists, historians and many others. This body of knowledge stimulated additional scientific investigations and provided a foundation for subsequent studies.

In the true nature of science, Cook's work represents the first step in gaining an understanding of the oceans and her processes.

Cool Links

Captain Cook Voyages of Discovery - cool interactive maps

Captain James Cook: The Great Oceans Great Explorer
A relative of Cook provides fascinating details of Cook's voyages

An eyewitness account of the events surrounding Cook's death

Michael Winthrop's Page on Captain Cook
Family tree and other interesting assortments

The HMS Endeavor Replica Foundation

Captain Cook Study Unit

Cook's first voyage: Voyage of the Endeavor

Captain Cook in Hawaii

Excerpts from Cook's Log