EXPERIENCE CAPTAIN JAMES COOK
The three major voyages of discovery of Captain James Cook provided his European masters with unprecedented information about the Pacific Ocean, and about those who lived on its islands and shores. His achievements were the more remarkable because of his humble origins in an agricultural labouring family, from Marton, North Yorkshire.
Cook first went to sea at the age of 18. He spent ten years working from Whitby in the coal trade of the east coast of England - with its shoreline of treacherous, shifting shoals, uncharted shallows, and difficult harbours. In 1755 he joined the Royal Navy, and within two years passed his master's examination to qualify for the navigation and handling of a royal ship. He gained surveying experience in North American waters during the Seven Years War - as Britain and France fought for supremacy in North America - and spent the first years of peace between 1763 and 1767 charting the fog-shrouded coastline of Newfoundland.
During those years he gained a practical training in mathematics and astronomy, and steadily accumulated the technical skills needed to make an effective explorer. The following years were to show that in addition he possessed those less tangible qualities, of leadership, determination and ambition, which made him the outstanding explorer of the 18th century. As he wrote, he intended to go not only 'farther than any man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go'.
The first Pacific voyage
Cook's first voyage (1768-71) was a collaborative venture under the auspices of the Admiralty and the Royal Society. The original intention was to organise a scientific voyage to observe the transit of the planet Venus from Tahiti, and this was supplemented by instructions to search for the great southern continent, Terra Australis Incognita, whose location had intrigued and baffled European navigators and projectors since the 16th century.
Captain Cook's voyage around New Zealand and the east coast of Australia. With Lieutenant Cook (as he was at that time) sailed the botanist Joseph Banks, the astronomer Charles Green, and a small retinue of scientific assistants and artists. Cook's ship, the Endeavour, was a bluff-bowed Whitby collier chosen for her strength, shallow draught, and storage capacity. Although the ship was to change, the type did not; the Resolution of the second and third voyages was of the same build, and even came from the same shipyard as the Endeavour, to whose qualities, wrote Cook, 'those on board owe their Preservation. Hence I was enabled to prosecute Discoveries in those Seas so much longer than any other Man ever did or could do.'
Cook had put more than 5,000 miles of previously unknown coastline on the map.
The second Pacific voyage
Cook's second voyage (1772-75) was the logical complement to what had been explored, and left unexplored, on his first. Again there were scientists and artists on board, and for the first time chronometers, one of which was Kendall's copy of John Harrison's famous no. 4 marine chronometer. This superb instrument kept accurate time throughout the buffeting it endured on the long voyage, showing that a practical solution to the problem of determining longitude at sea had been found.
In his three years away, the newly-promoted Captain Cook disposed of the imagined southern continent, reached closer to the South Pole than any previous navigator, and touched on many lands - Tahiti and New Zealand again, and for the first time Easter Island, the Marquesas Islands, Tonga and the New Hebrides.
The third Pacific voyage
On his return from his second voyage, Cook found that his fame had spread beyond naval circles. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded its Copley Gold Medal, was painted by Nathaniel Dance, dined with James Boswell, and was described in the House of Lords as 'the first navigator in Europe'. Brief thoughts of retirement were replaced by a determination to return to the Pacific. Cook's third and final voyage (1776-80) had its own logic in that it took him to the North Pacific in an effort to solve a geographical mystery as old as the southern continent - the question of the existence of a navigable north west passage. In a single season Cook put the main outline of the coast of north west America on the maps ...
As he approached the north west coast of America in 1778, Cook made the major discovery of the Hawaiian Islands, the northernmost outliers of Polynesia. He spent that summer in hazardous exploration along the American coast from Vancouver Island to the Bering Strait, searching in vain for the wide strait leading to an ice-free Arctic Ocean, as indicated on the speculative maps of the period.
Although he found no north west passage, in a single season Cook put the main outline of the coast of north west America on the maps, determined the shape of Alaska well beyond the Bering Strait, and closed the gap between the Spanish coastal probes from the south and those of the Russians from Kamchatka. It was to be his last achievement, for the following winter he was killed on his return to the Hawaiian Islands. His death at Kealakekua Bay on 14 February 1779 has remained a source of scholarly controversy. During the weeks after his arrival Cook seems to have been regarded by the Hawaiians as the god Lono, bringer of light, peace and plenty, for he had arrived at the time of makahiki, Lono's festival.
Cook continued to conform to the sacred calendar of the islanders by sailing away from Hawaii as makahiki came to an end. However, the Resolution got damaged at sea, so that Cook was forced to return to the bay to repair his ship out of the correct season, thus making himself a violator of sacred customs.