Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook "... the ablest and most renowned navigator this or any country hath produced. He possessed all the qualifications requisite for his profession and great undertakings ..."

- Lord Palliser, Cook's superior in the Navy.

On April 3, 1768, the Earl of Pembroke, an ungainly-looking North Sea coal carrier, was put into dry dock in a choice slip at the English Naval shipyard of Deptford, on the Thames River near London. Stout and heavy-timbered, with a bluff bow and a narrow stern, the new arrival appeared distinctly out of place amid the rows of sleek frigates and towering ships of the line being repaired and refitted for duty. A few Deptford officers brusquely questioned whether the bark-rigged vessel was even mustered in the Royal Navy. For what conceivable purpose could the Admiralty require the services of a grimy workboat?

In fact, the humble collier was intended for a singularly adventurous role. She would carry a hand-picked group of naval officers and scientists to the farthest reaches of the Pacific to conduct vital astronomical studies and to make yet another search for the continent identified on the maps as Terra Australis Incognita. A collier had been selected because it could hold the large quantities of supplies and scientific equipment the voyagers would require, and also because it was flat-bottomed and was able to take the punishment of an accidental grounding.

On April 5 the Admiralty renamed the vessel Endeavour and ordered the Deptford carpenters to prepare her for the journey with the greatest dispatch. Within four weeks her hull had been sheathed with a second layer of planking to protect against tropical sea worms. Her masts and yards were scrapped for fresh-cut spars, and all her rigging was replaced with new hempen lines. On May 18 the ship was refloated and moored in the great Deptford Basin, alongside the mighty warships of the British Empire, to await the arrival of her commander.

To some Londoners the selection of Lieutenant James Cook as leader of the expedition to the Pacific was even more surprising than the Admiralty's choice of the Endeavour. At the age of 39, Cook was virtually unknown to his countrymen. In marked contrast to Commodore John Byron and Captain Samuel Wallis, the aristocratic leaders of England's earlier voyages of Pacific exploration, Cook sprang from the lower ranks of society, was haphazardly educated and had not even spent his whole career in the Royal Navy: His training had been in the merchant marine.

But, like the Endeavour, James Cook possessed exactly those qualities deemed crucial by the Admiralty for the success of the job at hand. For four years, beginning in 1763, Cook had sailed the rugged coast of Newfoundland, charting its bays and inlets with painstaking precision. More than once he had earned praise from the highest levels of the Navy for his surveying work and superb seamanship, and the Lords of the Admiralty reasoned that the talents that had been so valuable in the Newfoundland enterprise would be equally useful in the uncharted waters of the South Pacific. As it turned out, Cook would become the greatest explorer of his time - and the greatest Pacific explorer of all time.

As captain of the Endeavour, he would sight and survey hundreds of landfalls that no Westerner had ever laid eyes on. And though the Endeavour would never fire her guns at another ship in battle, Cook's epochal voyage aboard the converted collier was destined to bring under George III's sovereignty more land and wealth than any single naval victory of the powerful British fleet. But the most important prize of this and the two subsequent voyages that Cook would make was measured not in territory but in knowledge. Patient and methodical where his predecessors had been hasty and disorganized, he would sweep away myths and illusions on a prodigious scale, and in the end would give to the world a long-sought treasure: a comprehensive map of the Pacific.



The Earl of Pembroke



After three voyages in the 'Freelove', Cook took part in rigging and fitting out a new ship of Walker's called the 'Three Brothers'. Signing on after his apprenticeship had expired, he remained in the ship until 1752, apart from a voyage to the Baltic in the 'Mary', when he sailed as far as St. Petersburg. In 1752 he passed the examinations to become mate and joined Walker's latest ship, the Friendship, sailing in her for three years. By 1755 Cook was an experienced and trustworthy seaman, and John Walker offered him the command of the ship.

But Cook had other plans. In June 1755, he left Whitby and volunteered as an ordinary seaman in the Royal Navy. The only explanation he gave was that: "I had a mind to try my fortune that way." Walker was surprised and disappointed, but nonetheless continued to assist Cook and remained his life-long friend. Cook signed on and for two years served in HMS Eagle. Within a month he was promoted to master's mate, the same rank he had held in Walker's ships

In 1762 he married Miss Elizabeth Batts of Shadwell, who had close links with the Quaker community in London with which Walker did much business. Cook was thirteen years older than his wife. They spent only four months together before Cook went back to sea. This was to be the pattern for much of their married life.

Cook's naval experience included service on the North American station, where he saw action against the French during the Seven Years War. He learnt the techniques of surveying and charting coastal waters and had the good fortune to observe and record an eclipse of the sun, which he reported to the Royal Society in London.

This was no doubt remembered at the Admiralty in 1768 when their Lordships decided to dispatch a ship with members of the Royal Society to observe from Tahiti the transit of Venus across the sun. Cook was chosen in preference to others who had served longer in the Navy. He was offered the command of the Endeavour and given the rank of lieutenant.


He was also very familiar with the type of vessel chosen by the Admiralty. The Endeavour was a Whitby-built collier, solidly built, able to withstand being run aground, capacious and able to carry many provisions. The ship could also be managed by a small crew if necessary. According to Cook, "a better ship for such service I never could wish for."

So Cook and a Whitby ship came together again in the Endeavour to lay the foundation for one of the most significant voyages in the history of exploration.




Stone portrait



Captain James Cook possibly the most renowned mariner in history, sailed from Plymouth in 1776 in the HMS “Discovery” and HMS “Resolution” to search for a northeast or northwest passage. Aboard the “Discovery” was Charles Clerke as captain and a young midshipman named George Vancouver. Cook was captain of the “resolution”, while a brilliant seaman, William Bligh was master.

Cook headed for the west coast of the American continent of “New Albion” on 2 February 1778. Five days later, land was sighted. Weather drove the ships out to sea and a week passed before land was seen again. With both vessels in need of repair, Cook entered into Nootka Sound on the western side of Vancouver Island (later named by Vancouver himself).

They were met by Haida Indians in forty-foot long dug-out canoes immediately seeking trade. Anything of iron was traded for furs and fish. Cook believed a profitable market could be established. Carpenters and Blacksmiths went ashore and set to work repairing the “Resolution”.

Captain James Cook was the foremost explorer of his age. It is nearly impossible to overstate his contribution to geographical knowledge. On this voyage, the French discoveries southeast of the Cape of Good Hope were verified, Hawaii was discovered with other islands on the Sandwich Group in the North Pacific, and much of the northern coast of the Pacific Ocean was explored and charted.




Cook's coat of arms


The coat of arms is that of Captain James Cook, the Navigator. It was awarded posthumously by the King of England and is the only one ever to include a globe (centered on the Pacific Ocean) and Polar stars. The motto reads: "He left nothing unattempted". I am personally linked to him through my mother's side of the family, as one of her ancestor's married his sister Margaret. This union caused him to become my Great, Great, Great, Great Uncle.

For those not familiar with the Captain, he first came to the attention of the British Admiralty during the conflicts with France for the possession of Canada. His Highly detailed charts of Canadian rivers and coastlines helped the British Fleet to launch successful Attacks on several French Strongholds and ultimately win the war there.

Later, he was selected to command several long expeditions to search for the rumored "Northwest Passage", observe the transition of Venus (from Tahiti) and to search for the "Great Southern Continent", which scientists in those days believed must exist in order to "Balance the Earth"! Along the way, he added a large number of new places to the World Map, including the Islands of Hawaii, which he was the first European to discover.

His remarkable voyages of exploration came to an abrupt end when, due to an unfortunate misunderstanding with his former Hosts, he was killed trying to prevent his men from firing at an angry crowd of Hawaiians. Later on, when tempers cooled, his remains were returned to his crew and he was buried at sea. A Naval Warship from Great Britain stops by each year to take care of his memorial near Kona on the 'Big Island' of Hawaii. The small white obelisk stands on one of the only two pieces of Sovereign Territory left in America¹.

Cook didn't find the fabled "Great Southland", but he discovered - in Australia - a country equally deserving of such a title!  It is worth mentioning here that a piece of his original ship "The Endeavour", a converted coal-carrier, was taken into orbit aboard the Space-Shuttle of the same name.
















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