James Cook Great British Explorers

Great British Explorers: James Cook

Great British Explorers: James Cook

20 February 2024

Who was James Cook?

James Cook was a British explorer and navigator, famous for embarking on three expeditions in the Pacific Ocean over a span of 11 years. He was born in Yorkshire almost 300 years ago and worked as a draper’s apprentice in a small fishing harbour in his early life. Later, he moved to the seaside town of Whitby for training at a local shipping firm. In 1752, Cook’s keen seafaring skills were recognised and he was quickly promoted to mate.

After eight years at sea, Cook was offered a barque (a type of ship) to command. However, Cook instead chose to volunteer as an able seaman in the Royal Navy due to its larger pool of opportunities. He immediately drew attention with his inquisitive mind and influence, making him a prime candidate for promotion through the ranks. Barely a year after joining the Navy, at 29 years old, Cook was made master of the HMS Pembroke.

James Cook then fought in the Seven Year War between Great Britain and France and at notable events including the Bay of Biscay and the siege of Louisbourg, Île Royale. It was during this tumultuous period that Cook honed his surveying skills, a talent that would prove pivotal in his future explorations. Following the war's conclusion, he assumed command of the schooner Grenville, employing his newfound surveying expertise to meticulously chart the coasts of Newfoundland.

James Cook’s Voyages

The HMS Endeavour

In 1768, the Royal Society organised the first science-led expedition to the Pacific, on which James Cook was appointed commander. On the former coal-hauling barque, the HMS Endeavour, Cook and the Royal Society set sail to Tahiti to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the Sun. Once complete, Cook and the scientists then sailed intending to find a mysterious southern continent, referred to as Terra Australis.

Terra Australis was believed to exist to balance out the Northern Hemisphere. James Cook knew that this undiscovered continent was not New Holland (now known as Australia) but instead, an entirely separate seventh continent. These theorists were eventually found to be correct when, in 1820, this hypothetical landmass was finally discovered. The continent was named Antarctica in the 1890s.

After sailing south and southwest, Cook came across New Zealand which he spent the next six months charting. Afterwards, Cook decided to continue the journey and head Westward, coming across the southeast coast of New Holland. He then successfully navigated to the Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef. After this adventure, the HMS Endeavour sailed back to Britain triumphant where Cook was presented to King George III.

Fun Fact: James Cook insisted that the barque’s food stores were stocked with cress, sauerkraut and orange extract to avoid scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency.

Great Barrier Reef

The HMS Resolution and The HMS Adventure

James Cook set sail on his second expedition on behalf of the Royal Society in 1771 aboard the HMS Resolution, accompanied by the HMS Adventure commanded by Tobias Ferneaux. The goal was, again, to discover Terra Australis, which was believed to lie further south than New Zealand. The barque headed further south than anyone had dared venture before, becoming the first to cross the Antarctic Circle in 1773. They ventured so far south that they almost encountered the mainland of Antarctica, but veered away towards Tahiti to resupply the ship.

On the final leg of the voyage, Cook sailed from Cape Horn in the South Atlantic, surveying and mapping as he went. He discovered the South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia Island and New Caledonia. James Cook then returned to Britain with the confirmation that Terra Australis could only exist in Australia and New Zealand or whatever frozen land might lie beyond the Antarctic Circle. For this expedition, Cook was finally promoted to Captain and awarded the gold Copley Medal for his work against scurvy.

The HMS Resolution and The HMS Discovery

On James Cook’s last voyage, he again commanded the HMS Resolution alongside Captain Charles Clerke on the HMS Discovery. The trip's goal was to locate a Northwest Passage around the American continent which would enable a trade route to Asia. This search proved unsuccessful even for Cook as no such route for sailing ships existed. In 1779, while on this same expedition, James Cook was killed in Kealakekua, Hawaii over a dispute about a stolen boat.

Captain James Cook’s legacy is a positive and peaceful one. His expertise in surveying led to impressive leaps in our understanding of the world and during this era of discovery, he was certainly the most influential explorer, and still is to this day.

If you’re interested in learning more about great British explorers, check out our article on David Livingstone or if you’d like to dive into an adventure just like Captain James Cook, you can learn expeditionary skills with Army Cadets, and find a detachment to get started.

Image Credit

James Cook: Public domain

Map and compass: Ylanite Koppens, used with permission

Great Barrier Reef: Manny Moreno, used with permission