Custom Search


Captain Cook Biography And Visits


Whitby Harbour

Exploration is a political business which goes hand in hand with deception. There are two typical types of deception related to exploring. First there's the trick of making out that a particular person discovered a place first to support the position of a group of settlers who followed on. Then there's the very different trick of covering up a discovery to protect commercial advantage. The story of Cook shows both of these kinds of deception. Cook was not really the discoverer of anywhere. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch or Polynesian settlers and explorers had been to all the places he went to. Nevertheless until about the 1970s Cook was seen as a founding father in Australia. He was symbolic of the British colonisation of Australia, and celebrated as such. Previous visitors to Australia were quietly forgotten about. Cook also had to put up with the second type of exploring deception, which attempts to keep information from enemies and competitors. There was much deception in Cook's own exploring career, with orders relating to voyages only revealed on a need to know basis. When Cook set off on his first journey into the south seas in 1768 he did not know exactly where he was going. The Admiralty sent sealed and secret orders with Cook, so that even he did not know his ultimate objective until well into the voyage. The irony of all this was that Cook, before gastrointestinal disease, exhaustion and years of stress claimed his sanity, was a man who loved scientific exactness. His achievement was to chart coastlines which previously had been the province of myth, confusion, and commercial secret. From his second voyage Cook had a Harrison sea going clock, which finally allowed the accurate and dependable plotting of longitude. Cook brought a modern regularity to parts of the world which had only existed in the vaguest outline. It was this scientific precision which sat uneasily beside the deception and intrigue of exploration. This contradiction defined Cook's career. He used a revolutionary sea going clock to plot maps of unprecedented accuracy. The same clock charted the passing of history where nothing is ever fixed and certain, where explorers are heroes one minute, and villains the next, depending on society's changing needs.

James Cook was born on 27th October 1728 in the farming village of Marton, in Cleveland. James was the second of eight children, born to Grace and her husband James senior, a labourer who had moved from Scotland in search of work. When James was still an infant his father won a promotion to farm manager for wealthy local landowner Thomas Skottowe. The family moved to the nearby village of Great Ayton, which is little changed today. Young James would play on a hill called Roseberry Topping, his first area of exploration. The school he attended, now the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum, was the village charity school. James left school at age 12 to help his father with farm work. There was then a period working as a shop boy, before William Sanderson helped his young assistant get an apprenticeship in nearby Whitby as a merchant sailor with ship owners John and Henry Walker. Cook moved into the attic of the Walker's house in Grape Lane, where he lived alongside ten other apprentices. The new apprentice did well, learning his trade on Whitby coal ships, known as "cats", on the route between Whitby and London. Working hard there was steady progress up the ladder of promotion, until in 1754 John Walker offered to make twenty six year old Cook a navigation officer, a rank known as master. This offer was declined, in favour of joining the Royal Navy. This might appear a strange decision. Walker's company offered good prospects, while the navy was a tough and unknown environment, "manned by violence and maintained by cruelty" according to Admiral Vernon. But the navy was not confined to England's east coast between Whitby and Wapping; and following reforms led by seventeenth century naval administrator Samuel Pepys the navy was also a relatively meritocratic organisation in which there was at least a chance that a young man of ability could rise to a high level. Cook sailed his coal ship one last time from Whitby to Wapping, arriving 17th June 1755, and then volunteered for naval service. Joining HMS Eagle on 25th June, he made an immediate impression on the poorly organised vessel. Within a month came promotion to master's mate, the rank he had held on Walker's coal ships.



The Prospect of Whitby pub, Wapping, in London's Docklands - named after the coal ships of Whitby which once docked here

Further promotion came in 1757, to the rank of master on HMS Pembroke, a position which gave responsibility for all navigation and on board administration. In February 1757 HMS Pembroke sailed for Louisberg to help in the battle against the French in Canada. Scurvy on Pembroke meant it could not take part in the battle to defeat French forces on the St Lawrence. But landing at Louisberg in the aftermath of battle, Cook happened to see a young army officer named Samuel Holland using advanced surveying techniques in charting the coastline. Holland explained that by taking angles off fixed points it was possible to reproduce a landscape with great precision on paper. Immediately fascinated, Cook asked Holland to teach him surveying. Cook's first chart, The Bay and Harbour of Gaspey, compiled during the freezing Canadian winter of 1757 is now kept at the Hydrographic Office in Taunton. When the summer of 1758 arrived Cook did dangerous surveying work in preparation for General Woolf's landing at the Heights of Abraham, which allowed the eventual conquest of French forces in Quebec. More surveying work followed before Cook sailed back to England in October 1762. He used his break to get married to Elizabeth Betts, daughter of the landlady of the Bell Inn where he would often stay during stopovers on trips between Whitby and Wapping. Then it was back to Canada, now as a "king's surveyor," responsible for surveying coasts and harbours. For four years Cook surveyed Newfoundland coastlines, spending summers on board ship, and winters back in England with his paper work and his growing family.


The next big step came in 1767, when the Admiralty had to appoint someone to command a mission to the south seas to observe a crucial "transit of Venus". This is a rare astronomical event, where Venus passes across the face of the sun. It was important scientifically because observations and timings of the transit at various points across the globe would allow the calculation of parallax, the angle made when two widely spaced observers look at the sun. Once this angle was known, and the distance between two observers calculated, some basic trigonometry could be used to work out the distance between earth and the sun. Many European countries were sending out observers, and Britain had to be among them. Initially there was much debate about where exactly observations would be taken from, Britain having few possessions in the south seas. Then in May 1768 Samuel Wallis returned from a journey around the world and announced that he had discovered an island called Tahiti, which was in the right place for observations. So Tahiti would become the first objective. But Tahiti in a sense was only a cover story for a more vital mission which could potentially win Britain huge commercial advantage. As well as observing the transit, the navy also wanted a search of southern oceans for an undiscovered continent, the resources of which it was hoped would bring huge power. Cook was selected to command the voyage, and told about the transit of Venus observations in Tahiti. He was also given a set of sealed orders regarding the search for a southern continent. These were only to be opened once the transit observations were complete. Fittingly, a Whitby cat boat, of the same type Cook had sailed for the Walkers, was purchased by the Admiralty as the expedition's vessel, naming it the Endeavour. So on Friday 26th August 1768 Cook joined Endeavour at Plymouth and set sail. The historic voyage that followed was a landmark in the establishment of a modern scientific outlook. The transit of Venus was observed from Tahiti on 3rd June 1769, a perfectly clear day, with allowance made for a "penumbra" of haze around Venus as it made its way across the disc of the sun. Then opening his sealed orders Cook sailed to New Zealand, creating the first charts of the entire islands. Endeavour then sailed on to the uncharted eastern coast of "New Holland", or Australia, landing at, and naming Botany Bay, before charting the unknown eastern Australian coast. Before the creation of these charts Australia's eastern coast was a long series of unknown hazards, as illustrated by Endeavour hitting part of the Great Barrier Reef in June 1770. A desperate twenty four hour battle was necessary to save the ship and repair sufficiently to sail onto safe harbour. This "safe" harbour, tragically turned out to be the Dutch port of Batavia in Indonesia, where a third of the crew on Endeavour was to die of disease. Cook had introduced new and successful dietary measures to combat scurvy on board ship. But he had no answer for the malaria and other tropical diseases which were rampant in Batavia. It was a depleted crew that finally made it back to England in July 1771. The great southern continent had not been found, but much valuable work had been done accurately charting New Zealand and eastern Australia. And the British government knew that Cook's visit to eastern Australia could be used to support colonisation there.


Cook's next voyage, being planned within a month of Endeavour's return, set out in July 1772. This time he had two ships, the Resolution and Adventure, and one of Harrison's revolutionary sea clocks which allowed the accurate plotting of longitude. This voyage would be, as historian Daniel Boorstin says, one "of the greatest - as it was undoubtedly the longest - sailing ship discovery voyages in history" (see The Discoverers Daniel Boorstin P285). It was an eminently modern voyage, unprecedented in its focus on enquiry, as opposed seeking Eldorado, or the raw materials of trade. Using his new sea clock Cook could be even more precise with his charts than he was on the first voyage. Cook's second voyage was also modern in the sense that it contributed to a general sense of unease and confusion which accompanied the emerging age of science. There was a characteristic loss of easy categories which had organised life for centuries. Seemingly laid down by the Church, ideas of behaviour and morality were to be turned on their heads by encounters with civilisations in the south seas. Meeting native people in Tahiti and New Zealand, Cook realised that he respected the civilisation of these people even though there were aspects of their traditions that were abhorrent to a European outlook. It was clear, for example, that the New Zealand Maoris had a tradition of cannibalism, eating their defeated enemies. As Vanessa Collingridge says: "Cook ruminated long and hard on how to reconcile the ghoulish events with his deep respect for native New Zealanders" (Captain Cook by Vanessa Collingridge P 293). This dilemma took on an even sharper edge, when the Adventure became separated from Cook's ship Resolution. Cook was to learn later that a party from the Adventure had been killed and eaten by Maoris following a dispute. Similarly Cook greatly admired the Tahitians, but he had to reconcile his admiration with his distaste for their habit of theft - native societies simply did not recognise private property as Europeans did. Cook also disapproved of Tahitian polygamy, and was horrified at routine infanticide. Judgments of right and wrong became more cultural through these encounters, less a sense of firm rules handed down by religion. In some ways descriptions of life in the south seas must have buttressed a smug sense of European civilisation. But there was also an idealisation of the "noble savage" which the south sea islanders came to personify. It was a lot of new confusion to set against the new order which Cook found in the carefully produced charts of his long second voyage. After a journey all across the southern ocean, and down into the Antarctic Circle, Resolution and Adventure returned to England in July 1775.



Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. This image is copyright free

Cook could now have retired on a comfortable pension. His voyages had damaged his health, and he had been away from his family for a long time. But, unable to help himself he volunteered to lead another expedition, in Resolution and a new exploration ship named Discovery. Ostensibly the purpose of this voyage was to return a Tahitian islander, who had come to England with Cook, back to his home. But Cook also had secret orders to head to Alaska, to find the North West Passage, a route north of Canada from the Pacific through to the Atlantic. This third and final voyage began on 12th July 1776, and quickly descended into confusion. By now, whether due to chronic vitamin deficiency caused by intestinal disease, or years of stress, Cook was an increasingly unbalanced man. There were rages and unpredictable behaviour. Punishments for misdemeanours among his crew became brutally severe - sixty lashes were inflicted on occasion, when navy regulations stated that no more than twelve lashes could be applied without a court martial. The voyage fell hopelessly behind schedule as Cook wandered in the southern Pacific, his officers and crew becoming increasingly desperate. The summer of 1777 was spent hanging around in Tonga, far longer than required to re supply the ships. No one dared ask why they weren't sailing on towards Tahiti, and then on to Alaska. By the time the expedition reached Tahiti, Cook was so deranged that the theft of a goat by islanders was met with a trial of violent destruction in which native houses, crops and canoes were destroyed.

Things were to get worse. After finally making an unsuccessful search for the North West Passage in the summer of 1778, Cook decided to winter in Hawaii before trying again the following summer. He had discovered Hawaii the year before, a set of islands so remote that there had been no contact with Europeans. Initially Cook was treated as a god. But in January and February 1779 familiarity was breeding contempt. Realising that their welcome was over, Resolution and Discovery weighed anchor and tried to sail north to continue searching for the North West Passage. But damage to Resolution's mast in a storm meant the ships had to return to Hawaii's Kealakekua Bay to make repairs. By now the local people had no time for their visitors. Serious thieving began, and stones were thrown at landing parties. When Cook heard of the stone throwing he ordered shots to be fired in response. Cook, in his state of mental agitation no longer had any sense of proportion or diplomacy. Tensions quickly got out of hand. The theft of a boat from Discovery led to a blockade of Kealakekua Bay, not allowing Hawaiian boats in or out. Cook went ashore, and told the local chief he must accompany him back to the ship until the stolen boat was returned. The chief agreed, but then became unsure, sitting down on the beach in confusion. An angry crowd began to gather. Out in the bay a canoe tried to break the blockade. Shots were fired, killing a high ranking chief named Kalima. News of this quickly swept through the now huge crowd on the beach. Furious at the shooting, the Hawaiians surged forward, hacking Cook and four of his landing party to death in the surf before they could get back to their boats. After negotiations with the islanders Cook's body was eventually recovered, and was buried at sea on 21st February 1779.

It is difficult now to gauge the legacy of Captain Cook. Like other once celebrated British explorers, such as Livingstone or Captain Scott, he is not quite the hero he once was. The sense of going out and claiming areas of the globe for Britain is no longer fashionable. In 1933 a small house built in Great Ayton by Cook's father was taken down, shipped to Australia and rebuilt in Melbourne - such was Australian veneration for the man. But by the late twentieth century the expert on Cook, Vanessa Collingridge was warned before travelling to Australia not to mention Cook's name in certain academic circles as he was now "persona non grata" ( see Captain Cook P445). Cook no longer suited a country looking for its own identity. He did not suit a modern world which frowned on colonialism in general. The irony of all this was that Cook wasn't much interested in empires. Before his sad decline Cook often reflected that contact with native people was not in their interests. He tried, for example, to limit health risks to islanders by forbidding sailors with venereal disease from going ashore. But he was fighting a losing battle and he knew it. Perhaps this was part of the depression that came over him as his career progressed. Cook was not a colonialist. He was in the last analysis a scientist, who was asked to command voyages of exploration because he was a superb surveyor. He found his greatest professional happiness in producing accurate maps of poorly understood parts of the world. Norman Davies in his book The Isles mentions the intriguing fact that French navy ships were ordered not to attack Cook's vessels, as he was considered to be a scientist whose work was of benefit to everyone. Perhaps the same orders which were given to eighteenth century naval captains should be given to hostile academics.