Cook, James

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Cook, James (1728-1779): English Explorer.

Arguably the greatest eighteenth-century Pacific explorer, Cook was born on 27 October1728 at Marton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire to agricultural laborer James Cook and his wife Grace. He received a rudimentary education before being apprenticed in 1746 to Whitby shipowner John Walker. He joined the navy in 1755, became master in 1757, sailed to North America in 1758, charted the St. Lawrence River, abetted General James Wolfe’s landing at Quebec in 1759, and continued mapmaking in Newfoundland until 1766. He married Elizabeth Batts in England on 21 December 1762.

Officially Cook’s first Pacific voyage was to observe the transit of Venus for the Royal Society. More important were secret Admiralty instructions to find the mythical southern continent, Terra Australis Incognita, before French explorer Bougainville, Louis Antoine. Promoted to lieutenant on 25 May 1768, Cook embarked from Plymouth on the Endeavour on 25 August with scientist Banks, Joseph, artists Alexander Buchan and Sydney Parkinson, astronomer Charles Green, and botanist Daniel Carl Solander. After doubling Cape Horn, Cook observed the transit from Tahiti on 3 June. Failing to locate the continent, he sailed north and on 7 October sighted New Zealand, which he became the first to circumnavigate before departing on 27 March 1770. He sighted New Holland (Australia) on 19 April, anchored at Botany Bay on 28 April, and then charted the coast of New South Wales. After striking the Great Barrier Reef on 10 June and nearly losing his ship, he arrived on 11 October in Batavia, where many of the crew contracted dysentery. He reached England via the Cape of Good Hope on 13 July 1771.

Promoted to commander on 19 August, Cook departed Plymouth on his second voyage on 13 July 1772 in the Resolution, along with botanist Johann Reinhold Forster, artist William Hodges, and astronomer William Wales, and accompanied by the Adventure under Tobias Furneaux. Sailing eastward around the Cape of Good Hope, he became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle on 17 January 1773. Separated from the Adventure, Cook headed south again in November, reaching latitude 71º 10´ S, within 100 miles of Antarctica, in January 1774. He visited Easter Island, explored the New Hebrides, and discovered New Caledonia before a final Antarctic sweep in January 1775, during which he discovered South Georgia Island. He returned to England, again via the Cape of Good Hope, on 30 July. George III personally commissioned him captain on 9 August.

Cook’s third voyage sought the Northwest Passage, sailing from Plymouth on 12 July 1776 in the Resolution, joined later by the Discovery under Charles Clerke. He discovered Christmas Island in December 1777 and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in January 1778. On 6 March he sighted Oregon and sailed north through the Bering Strait until halted on 17 August by the Arctic ice pack at 70º 44´ N. He turned southward on 29 August, anchoring on 18 January 1779 in Kealakekua Bay, where the Hawaiian natives treated him with great reverence. After putting to sea on 4 February, the Resolution suffered damage to its foremast and returned to Kealakekua, where the natives turned hostile. Following the theft of the Discovery’s cutter, Cook and an escort went ashore on 14 February and attempted to take King Terreeoboo onboard as a hostage. A skirmish ensued in which Cook was killed and mutilated. His crew buried portions of his body in the bay on 22 February, returning to England in October 1780. George III wept at the news of his death. Cook’s widow died on 13 May 1835, having outlived their children—James, Nathaniel, Elizabeth, Joseph, George , and Hugh.

Cook’s journals provide fascinating details to anthropologists, historians, and scientists. John Hawkesworth published those from his first voyage in 1773. Cook wrote his own account of the second, Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World, published in 1777. His maps are accurate, and he furthered precise determination of longitude by testing Lacrum Kendall’s replica of John Harrison’s marine chronometer. He kept his crews free of scurvy by careful attention to diet. Cook’s death is the subject of acrimonious scholarly debate among ethnographers about “how natives think.” The main antagonists are Marshall Sahlins—who argues that Hawaiians regarded Cooks as the god Lono, welcomed him during their Makahiki festival, and greeted his return with hostility because the festival had ended—and Gananath Obeyesekere—who contends that it is a European notion that “natives” regarded such visitors as gods. There are portraits of Cook by Nathaniel Dance, William Hodges, and Reynolds, Sir Joshua.

Further Reading:

Richard Hough, Captain James Cook, 1994.

Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific, 1997.

Marshall Sahlins, How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example,1995.


William B. Robison

Southeastern Louisiana University

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