Captain James Cook, RN 1728-1779
When we imagine the history of Great Britain we think of the separate classes of people -- peerage, gentry, the middling sort and the servants -- as being very static. To a large degree that was the case. Yet unlike many nations, in England some degree of upward mobility was possible (at least historically!)
James Cook, one of five children born to the wife of a Scottish farm laborer in Marston, Yorkshire, was not born a gentleman with title or income but he made the most of his talents and the most of his opportunities in life. Young James went to sea as a teenager, working aboard a collier out of Whitby, hauling coal from Newcastle. When the Seven Years War began Cook joined the Royal Navy where he rose to the rank of captain on his merit.
A self-taught cartographer, Cook's talents were put to use making detailed maps of Newfoundland in battles against France which gained him the recognition of his superiors and also the recognition of the Royal Society. He was given command of the Endeavour, a re-named converted collier sent on a secret mission to look for a lost continent and to observe the transit of Venus, a measurement needed to estimate the distance of the earth from the sun.
Captain Cook would command three scientific voyages of exploration across largely uncharted or poorly charted areas of the planet, making better maps and astronomical observations in great detail. He would not find the mythical continent geographers of the day thought existed -- nor would he find the Northwest Passage, but his explorations and his detailed charts were important to Britain, and the the entire Western World.
In the 18th century scurvy killed more sailors than did battles. Scurvy would not be fully understood until 1932 ascorbic acid was identified. Yet none of Cook's crew died from scurvy, in spite of prolonged voyages. Cook took a shotgun approach to prevention, ordering his crews to drink malt and spruce beer which he believed to have anti scorbutic properties. Although these particular substances are now known to have no real effect in preventing the vitamin deficiency, what probably contributed greatly to the relative good health of his men was Cook's insistence that the crew eat fresh, local foods at every opportunity (he was a "local-vore" way ahead of his time!) For a good scholarly article on 18th-century ideas of scurvy remedies see Brett Stubbs'
Captain Cook's Beer; the anti scorbutic use of malt and beer in late 18th century sea voyages.
For his contribution to the greater body of scientific knowledge Captain James Cook was inducted as a fellow of the Royal Society, a rare honor in those days for the son of a farm laborer to achieve.
By most accounts James Cook was a fair and humane captain, a superb navigator and cartographer, a dedicated explorer and an all-round exemplary naval officer. He was a husband and father of six children, though absent for years at a time.
Elizabeth Batts Cook, wife of James, lived into her nineties.
Cook's ships were not warships and with few exceptions they were welcomed by most of the Island Nations, who were quick to embrace Western friendship and technology. But on his third voyage and circumnavigation a string of misunderstandings and poor decisions led to a skirmish during which the famed navigator was killed by the Hawaiians. The event did NOT lead to war. On the contrary, the Kingdom of Hawaii remained on good terms with the British, incorporating the design of the Union Jack into their own flag.
Kealakekua Bay painting by Hawaiian artist, Herb Kane
Cook left a wealth of knowledge and an example for explorers that was not always followed during the colonial expansion to follow. Numerous memorials around the world have been dedicated to Captain James Cook, RN. Here are two, representing the beginning of his life in Yorkshire, and the end, half a world away in Hawaii.
Commemorating the boyhood of James Cook
Captain Cook Monument in Kealakekua, Hawaii
In October of 1999, Bob and I had the opportunity of a lifetime. We signed on as voyage crew members aboard His Majesty's Bark Endeavour, an Australian-built replica of the famed Whitby converted coal carrier, for a three-week crossing from Vancouver to Hawaii. The Endeavour Replica is a floating museum that circumnavigated the globe twice, stopping at many ports along the way. She is now berthed in Sidney, Australia, where she occasionally circumnavigates the continent that Cook painstakingly charted.
Click here to find out how you can sail about HMB Endeavour Replica.
HMB Endeavour ReplicaMy three weeks living the life of an 18th-century seaman led to a historical novel series and a renewed appreciation for Captain James Cook, a man who was born without title, fortune or influence but made the most of his life and changed the world.
For more information about my experiences aboard HMB Endeavour please visit my website and my author's blog. Three weeks as an 18th-century seaman inspired my first historical fiction novel Star-Crossed, published by Knopf, and my second book Surgeon's Mate, published in 2011 by Fireship Press.