Portrait of Cook (N. Dance)
James Cook was born in the village of Marton-in-Cleveland in the North Riding of Yorkshire on October 27, 1728. At the age of eighteen he took his first voyage as an apprentice aboard the collier Freelove. He learned seamanship and navigation working in the coal trade, the so called "nursery of seamen." In 1755 he enlisted in the Royal Navy as an able seaman aboard the 60-gun ship Eagle and was sent to the American coast. While charting the coast of Newfoundland Cook mastered the skills which would earn him his fame later in life.
Cook's first voyage was primarily a voyage of astronomical inquiry. Edmund Halley, in 1716, suggested that the distance from the Sun to the Earth could be calculated by timing the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. Transits of Venus are rare, and the 1761 transit observations had been disappointing. The next transit was to occur in 1769 (the following one would not happen until 1874) and steps were taken to insure better measurements of the phenomenon. King George III was petitioned and a ship was arranged. The bickering and politicking of who was to be in charge of who began immediately. Surprisingly enough the obscure but capable James Cook was put forward by the Royal Geographic Society and accepted by the Admiralty to command the mission. Cook was given command of the H.M. Barque Endeavour with orders to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun's disk, and also to explore the South Seas (Australia, Antarctica, and the North-West Passage were at this time only legends to European map makers). Also aboard was the young naturalist Joseph Banks, then a 25-year old Fellow of the Royal Society.
The first voyage of Captain Cook met with great success. Joseph Banks became a shaker and mover in the circles of the Royal Geographic Society and elsewhere; Cook rose high in the eyes of the Earl of Sandwich, First Sea Lord. A second voyage was planned, to find or disprove the existence of the Southern Continent, Terra australis incognita, and make whatever other discoveries were to be had South Pacific. Banks (in the newspapers it was Banks' expedition as much or more than Cook's) promised many of his friends a chance to visit St. George's Island (as Tahiti was known) in grand style. Cook, not thinking of style and comfort but of seamanship and good sense, found the Marquis of Grandby and Marquis of Rockingham, north country colliers which were brought into the service under the names Drake and Raleigh. The ships were refitted, renamed Resolution and Adventure (to avoid offending the Spanish). While they were in dry-dock, Banks took it upon himself to supervise the construction of adequate quarters for himself and his entourage. Cook, ever the optimist, hoped that it would all work out in the end but before she could have her first full trial Cook had to have the outrageous upper works of the Resolution cut down. Banks stormed off the ship in a rage and did not return to Tahiti or the South Seas. (Banks and Cook did eventually patched things up.)
The second voyage serves to demonstrate the caliber of seaman that Cook was. He set out accompanied by Tobias Furneaux, commander of the Adventure. Furneaux was considered a good, humane officer, distinguished in his service, but there is no comparison. Cook did more than any other man of his time to promote the health of his crew and through his example, seamen in every vessel afloat. In an age when ships of other nations would lose hundreds to scurvy, Cook reported deaths in the single digits- and most of those due to conditions existing before the beginnings of his voyages. Cook caused his men to wash every day, to air out their hammocks; he used every means at his disposal to force fresh food down their throats: he tried portable soups and spruce beer, he even got his men to eat sauerkraut by serving it to the officer's mess. At one point Furneaux had 20 men down with scurvy (one died), while Cook had a only a couple who had mild symptoms (and were recovering on special diets). An absence of accidental and preventable death mark all of Cook's commands. His second voyage lasted three years and eighteen days- 112 officers and men aboard a 462 ton, 111 foot long, 35 foot wide wooden ship sailing into the stormiest seas on earth; through uncharted, pack-ice filled southern latitudes as high as 71º. Cook lost four men, one to sickness.
Cook returned to England and was "retired" to the Royal Hospital in Greenwich. Eventually a third voyage was planned. Cook was naturally consulted on the details of ships and men to do the job and just as naturally volunteered to do the job that he was most capable of doing. The purpose of the third voyage was to seek out the elusive North-West passage (between the Atlantic and Pacific) from the Pacific side. A 21-year old William Bligh was put into the Resolution as sailing master- an important position for one so young, but Bligh, whatever his other traits, was a first class seaman and able to carry out his duty with distinction. Bligh learned from Captain Cook's example the ways to keep a crew healthy at sea- though he did not learn how to command without tyranny; but that's a different story altogether.
Cook set out from England (with the company of Clerke in Discovery), made for his usual landfalls at New Zealand and Tahiti, then sailed north to find the passage. He encountered some of the smaller Hawaiian islands, then proceeded to the north-west American coast and started charting and exploring. He eventually rounded the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, through the Bering Straight and into the Arctic Ocean where he is impeded at every turn by ice. After spending as much time as he could, Cook turned south to replenish and repair for the next year. Cook found O'why'he and began to circle it looking for a good harbor which he found at Kealakekua Bay. Now it just so happens that this time (November-December) was the beginning of the season of the Hawaiian god Lono makua. To usher in this season, the inhabitants of Hawaii would process clockwise around their island bearing banners of white tapa hung from a cross-piece fixed to a long staff. Cook came at the right time, went the right way, and was propelled by huge, glorious emblems of Lono. Think also of the deference paid to a ship's captain at that time: Cook was taken to be the avatar of Lono. When Cook landed, he was wrapped in a sacred red cloth, led on a tour of Hawaiian religious artifacts, then introduced to the general populace who promptly fell on their faces at his feet.
After completing his stores, Cook again thought to head north. The month was February when Cook set out (when the ascendance of Lono ends- Lono is symbolically sacrificed at this time to make way for the other main Hawaiian god, Ku-nui-akea, to take over) only to have his foremast badly sprung within the week. He came back to Kealakekua Bay to repair it. Upon his out of season return there seems to have been a shift in the behavior of the Hawaiians- incidents of mischief and theft became much worse than before. Matters escalated, items of increasing value were being taken, work parties were being stoned, then the Discovery's large cutter was stolen. Cook decided to take a chief, Kalei'opu'u, hostage for the return of the cutter. This strategy had worked in the past on other islands. Usually the chiefs and Cook were on such good terms that the "hostages" came willingly. At any rate, this plan was ill conceived from the start. Cook landed with one officer and nine marines to attempt to take Kalei'opu'u by force. Kalei'opu'u accompanied Cook to the beach agreeably, then his wife and two other chiefs argued with Kalei'opu'u, after which he balked at going aboard the Resolution. Hawaiians began to arm themselves with spears and rocks, then muskets were fired at the other end of the bay to stop a canoe from escaping and a man was killed. Cook was threatened with a knife and stone while trying to get to his boat. Cook fired one barrel of his pistol (loaded with shot) which did no damage against the Hawaiian's war mat. Things rapidly got worse; the other officer was attacked, Cook killed a man with his other barrel (loaded with ball), Hawaiians rose to attack, marines fired, no time to reload, scramble for the pinnace, Cook on shore clubbed from behind, down. Cook and four marines were dead, February 14, 1779.
The H.M.S. Resolution
More About Captain Cook