James Cook


Age of Discovery

Quick Facts:

He led the first expedition of sailors known to cross the Antarctic Circle and disproved the existence of the legendary “Southern Continent.”

Name: James Cook

Birth/Death: 1728 CE - 1779 CE

Nationality: English

Birthplace: England

Official portrait of Captain James Cook, circa 1775

Portrait of James Cook

The official portrait of Captain James Cook, circa 1775 from the National Maritime Museum in the United Kingdom.

Early Life

  • James Cook was born on October 27, 1728, in Marton-cum-Cleveland. His parents were modest day-laborers, which is why not much is known about his birth.

  • Cook had six siblings.

  • His father eventually became a bailiff at Great Ayton which allowed Cook to gain employment opportunities and pick up a few trades. When his father became bailiff, Cook received a short and simple education from a local village school, the Postgate School.

  • He received some schooling as a child, though most of his time was spent apprenticing under local businessmen. His father secured an apprenticeship for Cook under a local grocer named Saunderson. Some historians argue that Cook’s apprenticeship to Mr. Saunderson sparked the young boy’s interest in sailing due to the coastal location of the grocery.

  • He soon gained another apprenticeship under John and Henry Walker, two Quaker ship owners at Whitby. The Walkers were in charge of coal ships and employed the young Cook to learn the ins and outs of the coal shipping industry. Cook rose in the Walkers’ favor early on and soon received an invitation to command one of the colliers (coal ships). To their surprise, Cook turned down the offer and instead enlisted in the Navy.

The Royal Navy

  • From Cook’s experience in the coal business, he learned many skills necessary to be a successful seaman. Though he already possessed more experience than the average sailor, he could only enlist as an “able seaman” in the Royal Navy. Cook would not remain at this level for long as he demonstrated his capabilities early on and was elevated to “Masters Mate” on the HMS Eagle. Once again, Cook was introduced to concepts that would become important in his future career as an explorer. He added navigational skills to his coal shipping knowledge and became more familiar with the place where his professional career would continue: the sea.

  • The Eagle was instructed to patrol the English Channel. Cook would remain with the ship about two years before his accomplishments would earn him a promotion to a vessel with more responsibility, which happened in October 1757.  Cook, who had now been promoted to Master, was commanded to sail on the Pembroke. His new assignment was very eventful as the Pembroke and other English vessels were sent across the Atlantic to Halifax, Nova Scotia to help England’s efforts in the Seven Years War. The ship participated in a successful blockade of Louisbourg which was Cook’s first major military success. Once again, he picked up useful skills and knowledge, including instruction from Samuel Holland in the art of chart-making.

  • Cook continued to serve on the Pembroke, preparing for an assault on Quebec; the ship would play a key role in the early stages of the battle. The ship was commanded to ferry men from the British fort at Halifax to Quebec. Along the way, the crew was ordered to chart the St. Lawrence River, as well as important landmarks found along the surrounding shoreline. The contributions made by the crew of the Pembroke paid off in the end; Quebec surrendered to British troops in 1759.

  • Because of his success aboard the Pembroke, Cook gained attention from Admiral Saunders who appointed him Master of the Northumberland. Aboard the ship, he continued making the charts that had been praised by his superiors. Cook’s charts of the St. Lawrence River were published in England while he remained in Canada. Cook joined the Northumberland and was asked to document the southeastern coast of Newfoundland as the war continued.

  • Cook’s service in Canada ended in 1762 when he returned to England. He married a wealthy Londoner named Elizabeth Batts on December 21, 1762, in Barking, Essex. During their marriage the couple would have six children, only three of which lived past childhood.

  • The Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris, which allowed some French settlements to stay in Newfoundland. Because of this, the Governor of Newfoundland asked Cook to officially chart the area. The details of Cook’s work give us a good timeline of the project, given below.

    • 1763-1764: Cook surveyed north Newfoundland

    • 1765: Cook surveyed south Newfoundland

    • 1766: Cook surveyed southwest Newfoundland

    • 1767: Cook surveyed west Newfoundland

  • The project was not completed. He was called to return to England in late 1767 to lead another expedition; one that would lead to exploration and fame in the future. While performing his assigned duty, Cook recorded an eclipse in 1766 which he afterward reported to the Royal Society: an English scientific society.

First Voyage

  • Cook was chosen to lead an arm of an expedition to Tahiti. The commission decided to purchase the Earl of Pembroke, a collier from Whitby, which would be renamed the Endeavor. The dimensions and character of the vessel are well known and documented, unlike many of the ships used to explore other parts of the world during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

  • The ship was manned by a crew of 94 men , most of whom were under thirty years of age. They included one exploratory veteran, Lieutenant Gore, who had circumnavigated the globe twice before going aboard the Endeavor. Besides sailors and navy men, there were scientists including Charles Green, Joseph Banks and H. Spöring. There were also two official artists aboard named A. Buchan and S. Parkinson. Cook was promoted to First Lieutenant before the voyage began on May 25, 1768.

  • Cook’s first mission was unique as it included both official and secret instructions. The public reason for the expedition was to observe the planet Venus. Once Cook reached Tahiti, he would open a secret sealed document which instructed him to search for a Southern Continent, rumored to exist below latitude 40º S.

  • Cook and his men set sail on Friday August 26, 1768, from Plymouth. The ship followed a course from Plymouth, England, to Madeira, Portugal, and subsequently to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the river, Cook stopped for supplies before the crew continued on to Terra del Fuego, Argentina, before arriving at Tahiti. In his diary, Cook explains how Banks, one of the scientists, went ashore to collect samples in Terra del Fuego while Cook remained either onboard the ship or nearby recording descriptions of the people that he encountered as well as working on charts of the area. The ship soon moved on from the Terra del Fuego and rounded Cape Horn; a voyage that went unusually smoothly considering the harsh weather typical of the area. They arrived at Tahiti on April 13th. Cook issued an order to his men to treat the natives with respect. He also required that all trade transactions be approved by him before his sailors interacted with the natives. After meeting with the natives, Cook and his crew began to set up their tools to view the movement of Venus.

  • On June 3, the men observed the movement of Venus, and thus completed the official leg of their expedition. When the crew remained on the island, Cook began to have trouble controlling his men, causing the spread of disease disobedience.  Before leaving the island, two natives agreed to sail with Cook: a priest named Tupaia and his servant, Taiata. Cook turned his sails to the Southwest and ventured into uncharted territory in search of a Southern Continent.

  • The ship travelled south until unfavorable weather forced Cook to turn back and make port in New Zealand, landing at Poverty Bay in early October. The people who inhabited New Zealand, the Maoris, were not as kind and accepting as the natives on Tahiti. The Maoris often conflicted with the English troops and there were many scuffles between the two during Cook’s short stay in New Zealand.

  • Cook interacted with the New Zealand natives as he continued to sail around the islands. Part of his secret orders concerning the southern continent instructed him to determine once and for all if New Zealand was an island or part of a larger land mass. Cook thus sailed from bay to bay, naming each as he went along. Cook came to the conclusion that New Zealand was not connected to a larger continent by communicating with the natives and charting the land as he went along. Cook did make one major stop before he continued around the islands at a place he named Queen Charlotte Sound. He made an agreement with the natives to raise the British flag that would not be taken down in exchange for some trinkets and other English items (i.e. silver coins, nails, etc.). Eventually Cook circumnavigated the second island that made up New Zealand, though rough weather conditions and disease affected his ship throughout the journey.

Second Voyage

  • Cook gained much from his first voyage at sea including a promotion to Commander by the King and the approval of a second expedition. This time Cook would lead two ships in pursuit of the Southern Continent: the HMS Resolution and the Adventure, both of which were colliers. Cook would serve as acting commander on the Resolution while Lieutenant Furneaux would lead the Adventure.

  • In mid July 1772, the ships set sail for the Arctic from England. Cook attempted to reach Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand; he thought that the area could be used as a base to make three trips into the Antarctic. He could not make one long, sustained trip through the Antarctic due to the threat of winter, so it was necessary to break up the expedition and make port in areas that were warmer when it was too dangerous to sail toward the southern pole. As Cook attempted to make this plan a reality, the Adventure and Resolution briefly split up to explore the wastes of the Southern Hemisphere.  While the Adventure docked at Ship Cove, the Resolution explored Dusky Sound. This venture lasted over six weeks until Cook’s crew had successfully charted the area. The two ships reunited at Ship Cove afterwards. Unfortunately, the crew of the Adventure was infected with scurvy because Furneaux had not listened to Cook’s instructions. Cook had to take time to heal the men before they could continue.

  • By the time the vessels reunited, winter set in, leading Cook to make the decision to return to Tahiti.

  • When the ships attempted to return to Ship Cove, disaster struck as the vessels were separated by unfavorable weather. The ships lost sight of each other at Cape Palliser and would not reunite again. The crew of the Adventure attempted to locate the Resolution at Ship Cove, but Cook had already set sail for the Antarctic. The Adventure returned to England after an attack by the Maori which killed a group of their men.

  • Cook, aboard the Resolution, led the first known crew to cross the Antarctic Sound in search of the southern continent. The journey would not continue long after, however, as ice prevented the ship from traveling farther south. Once winter set in, Cook turned back towards Tahiti and completed an extensive survey of the Pacific Ocean. According to a timeline posted by the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, Cook documented the following areas:

    • the Marquesas (March)

    • Tahiti (April)

    • Raiatea (June)

    • past the Cook Islands and Niue, or Savage Islands as Cook called them

    • Tonga (June)

    • Vatoa, the only Fijian Island visited by Cook (July)

    • New Hebrides (July-August)

    • New Caledonia (September)

    • Norfolk Island (October)

  • Cook was praised when he returned to England. He had an audience with the King as well as an invitation of membership to the Royal Society, which had benefited from his work. He also received the Copley Medal of Achievement from the Society. These achievements no doubt made it easier for Cook to receive approval for a third expedition.

Third Voyage

  • The third voyage included two vessels, the Resolution and the Discovery. Cook would once again sail on his famous vessel, the Resolution, while the Discovery would be led by Charles Clerke. Once again, Cook planned on making Ship Cove his first major docking point and set sail for the cove on July 12, 1776. Along the way he stopped briefly at Christmas Harbor and Tasmania. Cook only stayed fourteen days at Queen Charlotte Sound, sailing for Tahiti in late February 1777. Along the way, the ships stopped at the Cook and Tongan Islands for a few weeks each, ultimately arriving at Tahiti in August.

  • While in Tahiti, Cook and his men saw the natives participating in human sacrifices and cannibalism.

  • Cook left Tahiti in search of land to the north of the Society Islands. He eventually stumbled upon the Hawaiian Islands (which he named the Sandwich Islands in honor of Lord Sandwich) after following signs of land including turtles, birds, and floating debris. Once the ships docked at the islands, the natives prompted trade with the Englishmen. In return for nails and iron works, Cook’s crew received livestock including pigs and fowls as well foodstuffs like potatoes and plantains. When the crew went ashore, they took note of the land and plants that surrounded them. Cook realized that the islands could be of strategic importance for nations in the Old World, especially Spain, whose ships could resupply on their way to America. In February of 1778, Cook left the islands in pursuit of the North American coast. He traveled up the coast of Oregon and eventually made port at Vancouver Island to refit and repair his ships. While in Vancouver, Cook and his men interacted with locals, trading and building friendly relationships along the way. The ships left the island in April 1778. From this point on, Cook adopted a convoluted route to search for a Northwest passage before they retreated to the Hawaiian Islands to wait out the winter.

  • On January 16, 1779, Cook’s ships landed on the Hawaiian Islands again. The natives were once again kind to the Englishmen, and allowed them to witness religious celebrations. However, their hospitality did not continue when the ships were forced to return to the Hawaiian Islands after a difficult storm struck. Goods from the Discovery were stolen by the Hawaiians, which forced Cook to use a strategy that he had used successfully on his first voyage: take the chief hostage and wait for the natives to return the stolen goods. This time, however, the strategy was not successful. Instead of returning the stolen goods, the natives reacted violently against Cook’s men. Four marines and Cook were killed as a result.  Mr. King, who completed Cook’s journal, described the final moments of Captain Cook. While running to the shore to order his ships to cease firing against the natives, Cook was stabbed to death. He was buried at sea off the coast of Hawaii.

Notable Ships

  • HM Bark Endeavor (a collier;  first voyage)

  • HMS Resolution ( second and third voyages)

  • HMS Discovery (a sloop; third voyage)

  • HMS Adventure (third voyage)


  • Before Cook’s second expedition, no crew had sailed so far south.

  • In the eyes of his English peers, Cook had disproved the existence of the fabled Southern Continent.

  • Cook created numerous charts of unexplored islands in the Pacific that were used by later explorers.

  • Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands as well as other islands on his third voyage.

  • Cook was not able to prove that a southern continent did not exist, although its existence did not seem likely after all of his explorations.

  • The small discoveries that Cook made, along with the charts of New Zealand, proved very valuable in the future of English exploration. His charts would also become essential to the establishment of British colonies in the South-Pacific.

  • The Explorations of Captain James Cook As Told By Selections of his Own Journals 1768-1779. Ed. A. Grenfell Price. (New York: Dover Publications, 1971).