The English navigator James Cook, possibly the greatest explorer of the 18th century, is known for his voyages to the Pacific Ocean and his application of scientific methods to exploration and to cartography. Born on Oct. 27, 1728, he was the son of a poor Scotsman who had settled in Yorkshire as an agricultural labourer. After a short time in a haberdasher's shop at Stainthes, he became a bound apprentice to a Whitby ship owner, and spent several years in coasting and Baltic trade. He joined the Royal Navy in 1755 as an able-bodied seaman, soon became a mate, and within four years became a master. In 1759, during the Seven Years' War, Cook was given command of the Mercury, sailing to Canada and up the St. Lawrence River, where he helped to survey the river channel. He was responsible for the successful piloting of the fleet, which took Quebec.
After the war ended in 1763, Cook, commanding the schooner Grenville, spent four years surveying the coasts of Labrador, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia. He also studied mathematics in order to master the science of navigation. His charts of the coasts, considered both important and accurate, were published. Cook had observed a solar eclipse in 1766 and used it to determine the longitude of Newfoundland; these findings were published in the Transactions of the Royal Society. After his return to England in 1767, Cook was commissioned a lieutenant in the Royal Navy.
In 1768 the Royal Society requested the Admiralty's aid in observing the transit of Venus at Tahiti, to occur in June 1769, and Cook was given command of the expedition. Secret instructions made clear that Cook also was to search for terra australis incognita, the "unknown southern land." Cook and the Endeavour left Plymouth on Aug. 26, 1768. In addition to its crew the Endeavour carried an astronomer, two botanists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, and artists.
The Endeavour travelled by way of the Madeira, Canary, and Cape Verde islands and Rio de Janeiro and rounded Cape Horn into the Pacific. Cook carried good provisions and citrus products and thus avoided the plague of scurvy. The ship reached Tahiti in April 1769. During their three months there the scientists examined the island thoroughly and observed the transit of Venus on June 3. They sailed west with a Tahitian guide through the Society Islands and then southward, finally reaching land on Oct. 7, 1769.
Cook had rediscovered New Zealand, originally discovered by Abel Tasman in 1642. He spent several months circling and surveying North Island and South Island, proving that they were islands and not a continent. The expedition then sailed west, reached the unexplored eastern coast of Australia, which he chartered and claimed for Great Britain. Sailing north, Cook saved the Endeavour after it struck and was grounded on a coral reef. Overall about 3,200 km (2,000 miles) of Australian coast was surveyed. Cook also confirmed the existence of a passage between Australia and New Guinea (the Torres Strait). The expedition sailed on, refitted at Batavia in Java, and returned by way of the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. It reached England on July 13, 1771.
Because the first voyage had not totally disproved old legends of a major southern continent, the Admiralty soon authorised a new expedition. Cook commanded the Resolution, which was accompanied by the Adventure, and again took scientists and artists. They left Plymouth on July 13, 1772, and headed for the Cape of Good Hope. Then they travelled south, crossing the Antarctic Circle in January 1773. Finding no continent, they went on to New Zealand and from there explored the South Pacific.
The Resolution and Adventure lost contact, and the latter returned to England, becoming the first vessel to circumnavigate the world from west to east. The Resolution, however, again crossed the Antarctic Circle, reaching a latitude of 71 degrees 10' S, stopped at Easter Island and Tonga, and explored the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, and Norfolk Island. Finally it crossed the South Pacific again, rounded Cape Horn, crossed the South Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope, and then sailed north to reach England in July 1775. Only one man had been lost to disease on the entire voyage. Cook had proved that no great continent existed in the temperate region of the Pacific, but he had become convinced that there was an Antarctic continent. As a result of his successful expeditions, Cook was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.
Promoted to captain, Cook sailed again on the Resolution on July 12, 1776, this time to search for the Northwest Passage from the Pacific side. At the Cape of Good Hope he was joined by the Discovery. The two ships visited Tahiti. They also discovered Christmas Island and then the Hawaiian Islands, which Cook called the Sandwich Islands, in January 1778. Sailing onward to North America, the expedition landed at Nootka Sound, near Vancouver. It then went through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean but found ice and no passage. The ships returned to Hawaii for repairs, and Cook was killed there in a skirmish with the Polynesian inhabitants on Feb. 14, 1779. The expedition then returned to England.
James Cook had surveyed and charted thousands of kilometres of coast and had solved many mysteries of the Pacific Ocean area. He had also opened the northwest American coast to trade and colonisation. Cook handled ships and crews extraordinarily well, avoided scurvy, hitherto the scourge of long sea voyages, and conducted all of his explorations in a remarkably peaceful fashion.
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