Captain James Cook


            Australia as we know it could be said to have been founded with the first British settlement on 26 January 1788. Settlement was preceded by exploration and the most important explorer in this nation’s history was Captain James Cook who sailed up Australia’s east coast in 1770.

            Cook was born on 27 October 1728, at Marton, a small village in Yorkshire, England. His father, also called James was a Scotsman who worked on a nearby farm. The family’s living standards were pretty minimal and of eight children only four survived to adulthood with one of these dying at age 22.

            Nevertheless the young James did receive some basic education. At the age of 17 he took an apprenticeship with a grocer and haberdasher in the coastal village of Staithes. His intelligence and work ethic resulted in his being recommended for employment with shipowners in the port town of Whitby. He initially worked on a collier taking coal from Newcastle to London, studying mathematics and navigation between voyages. As his career advanced he sailed on a ship to the Baltic and St. Petersburg. On another occasion he sailed on a ship to Ireland. Despite his success in the merchant marine he had wider ambitions and in 1755, at the age of 26, Cook enlisted in the Royal Navy serving in the lower ranks.

            At the time Cook Joined the navy confrontation was building up between France and England although the Seven Years war was not formally declared until May 1756. Cook played a part in the capture of the French ship Duc d’Aquitaine and then crossed the Atlantic to play a part in the taking of Quebec. His cartographical and survey skills contributed to the development of maps and charts.

            On returning to England in 1762, Cook married a young Elizabeth Batts whose parents ran an alehouse.

            Cook’s next voyage was to Newfoundland on the HMS Antelope to do survey work. He spent the winters in England working on his charts and with his family. In 1763 his son James was born and a year later a second son, Nathaniel arrived. In 1766 the Cooks had a daughter Elizabeth but three other children died in infancy.

            Cook had attracted the attention of the Royal Society of London who decided that he would be suitable to make an expedition to Tahiti and observe the transit of the planet Venus across the sun. The navy purchased the Earl of Pembroke, a collier, and fitted her out for naval service, renamed the Endeavour. The ship’s company was to include Joseph Banks of the Royal Society, the naturalist, Dr David Solander, two artists, Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan, and Herman Sporing, a Swede who would act as assistant naturalist and secretary to Banks. The group also included four servants, two whites and two Negroes.

            The Endeavour sailed from Plymouth in August 1768. In addition to the equipment needed to observe Venus, Cook was given secret instructions that were not to be opened until they reached Tahiti.

            By the 13 September the Endeavour reached the Portuguese colony of Madeira where supplies of water, wine and green vegetables were taken aboard. Each man was given 20 pounds of onions to eat. Cook believed that the disease scurvy was due to a lack of fresh foods. For most of the voyage there was a notable lack of disease.

            The ship continued and made a stop on Tierra del Fuego where Banks and others went exploring. Unluckily they were caught in snowstorm during which the two Negro servants froze to death. The bad weather caused the Endeavour to be held up for four days. Nevertheless by the 13 April 1769 the ship reached Matavai Bay in Tahiti.

            The natives of Tahiti appeared friendly and welcoming, at least until the ship’s marines shot a native who attempted to steal a musket. There were other thefts including that of the astronomical quadrant, an item crucial for the observation of Venus. This item was returned after Cook had the native’s canoes impounded and refused to release them until the quadrant was located. The explorers were struck by the Tahitians casual approach to sex and horrified that when free love resulted in pregnancy the babies were smothered in a cruel act of infanticide.

            After three months in Tahiti and having completed his astronomical observations, Cook turned to his secret instructions. These involved sailing south to unknown parts of the Pacific and if possible locate an unknown southern continent. If the mysterious land was not found then Cook was to sail to New Zealand, which had been discovered by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642.

            While not finding any new continent Cook did discover some new islands which he claimed in the name of the king.

            Early in October 1769 the coast of New Zealand was sighted. Cook managed to circumnavigate both the North and South Islands. Unlike the natives of Tahiti, the Maori of New Zealand were often unfriendly. At Poverty bay three approaches by the English were repulsed by the Maori and some were killed. A more friendly people were encountered at Mercury bay although Cook found evidence of cannibalism while visiting a fortified village or “pa”. At the end of March 1770 the Endeavour sailed westwards towards Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania).

            Unfortunately rough seas sent the ship off course and on 19 April when land was sighted it was the mainland of Australia. The ship sailed up the east coast until on 29 April it entered a sheltered bay and encountered some shy but unfriendly people – the first Australian Aborigines they had met. Banks and Solander discovered a fascinating number of new plants and Botany Bay was named. On 6 May they moved north, naming but not entering Port Jackson, the site of modern Sydney.

            Cook favoured a course that was not far from shore to facilitate a survey of the coast. This proved to be a problem when the ship reached the Great Barrier Reef and on the night of 10 June it struck a coral outcrop. Ballast, stores and guns were thrown overboard and finally the ship was hauled off with a broken spur of coral jammed in the hole it had made. The ship made it to a river, subsequently named the Endeavour River, and repairs were made while Bank’s dog chased kangaroos, one of which was shot and eaten. The local Aborigines were not friendly and at on stage started a fire that destroyed a shore camp. On 4 August Cook continued north and on 1 August reached, and named, Cape York, the most northerly point of the Australian continent.

            The next day Cook went ashore on an island 10 miles from Cape York, took possession of New Holland, hereafter called New South Wales. The island was named Possession Island. The ship then sailed to Frederick Hendrick Island near New Guinea but an attempt to explore the island was abandoned when 100 armed warriors arrived.

            The Endeavour made it to Batavia (now called Djakarta Indonesia) where much needed repairs were undertaken. Up until then the voyage was largely free from sickness but at Batavia many of the crew come down with dysentery. At least seven men died from disease including Mr Monkhouse the ship’s surgeon. When the ship sailed it took the disease with it and by 15 March 1771 when it reached Cape Town another 22 men had died. Many sick crewmen were transferred to shore but by the time the ship sailed a month later another three men had died.

            News that relations between England and Spain had deteriorated led Cook to decide on a course to St Helena Island where he joined a convoy for safety. The slowness of the Endeavour proved a problem and it fell behind the rest of the convoy. The ship was given up as lost. Nevertheless, despite serious wear and tear by 10 July 1771 the crew could see the coast of England.

            Unhappily, of the 94 men who sailed on the Endeavour only 54 returned. Two dogs that Banks had taken with him had died but a nanny goat had survived as healthy as when it was taken on board.

            When Cook returned to his home he learnt the bad news that his daughter, Elizabeth, four, had died as had his youngest son Joseph. Two older boys, James and Nathaniel were thriving.

            Cook was to make two more voyages. In July 1772, Cook commanding the Resolution and accompanied by the Adventure under Tobias Furneaux again went in search of the mysterious southern continent. In January 1773 these ships were the first to cross the Antarctic Circle. While the southern continent was not found the ships made more explorations visiting New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga, the New Hebrides and New Caledonia. While in New Zealand some crew from the Adventure were killed by Maori. In July 1775 both ships arrived back in England.

            In July 1776, Cook set out on a new voyage on the Resolution and was followed in August by Captain Charles Clerke on the Discovery. The ships rendezvoused at Cape Town and sailed for Tasmania and then New Zealand. They also visited Tonga, Tahiti and Hawaii. Cook then sailed north to the Bering Strait until stopped by ice. The ships returned to Hawaii, a fatal decision.

            Early in 177 the ships found anchorage at Kealakekua on the western side of the island of Hawaii. The natives, especially the women, were friendly and welcomed the explorers. The English spent three weeks making repairs and Captain Cook seems to have been considered a god. When the ships left early in February the natives showered the crews with gifts. Shortly afterwards they were hit by a storm, suffered damage, and had to return to Kealakekua to make repairs. This time the natives were not so friendly. Things worsened when a native that had stolen the armourer’s tongs was captured and whipped. Shortly afterwards an island chief stole and damaged a small boat and crewmen were pelted with rocks. Another small boat was stolen that night. Cook made an attempt to deal with a local chief but meanwhile men under William Bligh had a conflict with some natives, a few of who were killed.

            Cook attempted to get the chief onto his ship but negotiations broke down and Cook tried to escape. The natives caught up with him and killed him with a blow to the head. This was on 14 February 1779. Four marines fired their muskets at his attackers but before they had time to reload they were speared and stoned. Bligh was sent ashore but his men were attacked with spears and rocks. Bligh’s men fired their muskets and 25 natives were killed. The next day a native priest returned part of Cook’s body to the Resolution but it had already been dismembered, something that aroused hatred among his crew. Taunting from a group on the beach led to cannons blasting from the ships. Many were killed or injured. A watering party went ashore and when confronted by the natives they killed almost everyone in range and razed a village. Later more of Cook’s remains were returned. The remains were placed in a shroud, weighed down with cannonballs, and lowered over the side of the Resolution on 22 February. The next day the ships sailed for home.

            This ended the life of Captain James Cook, a man who played a pivotal role in the foundation of Australia.

Main sources:

Mundle, Rob, “Cook”, ABC Books and Harper Collins Publishers, Sydney, 2013 (ISBN: 978-0-7333-3234-0)

Newman, D. “Captain James Cook”, Murray David Publishing, Belrose West, 2011 (ISBN: 978-1-877009-92-1)

Rigby, Nigel and van der Merwe, Pieter, “Captain Cook in the Pacific”, National Maritime Museum, London, 2002 (ISBN 0 948065 43 5)

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22.04 | 11:28

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