Hello everyone! I planned to write some more posts this week, but I underestimated how awful the first week back at college would be. Hopefully, from now on, I’ll post more on this blog as I get used to my new daily routine!
About a week ago I ordered some Special Edition Captain Cook stamps, and with it came an information sheet about him. The picture of the information sheet is very poor quality, so I’ve written it all out if you are interested:
‘In 1768, the British Admiralty ordered James Cook to sail to the ‘newly discovered’ South Pacific island of Tahiti to observe an important astronomical event, the transit of Venus. Once this task was complete, he was to turn his ship, the Endeavor, south in search of a mythical Southern Continent. He was then to return home via New Zealand, which had been briefly visited by Abel Tasman but never charted. Shortly before the Endeavour set out, the Admiralty also ordered Cook to take on board a group of artists and scientists led by the wealthy gentleman botanist Sir Joseph Banks.
Cook’s was the first Royal Navy ship to carry an official scientific party. Although the competing needs of seamen and scientists caused occasional friction, the voyage was generally a great success and one that would come to set a new agenda for maritime exploration. It was Banks who persuaded an initially reluctant Cook to take the Tahitian navigator Tupaia with them to Britain. Tupaia died on the way, but his knowledge of the islands’ seas and peoples played a significant part in the expedition’s achievements. Having survived shipwreck and near disaster on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and deadly fever in Batavia, the Endeavour eventually returned to Britain in 1771. Bank’s party brought home tens of thousands of specimens, many new to Europe. The Pacific’s exotic plants, fauna, fish and customs grabbed public attention in Britain as much as Cook’s extraordinarily detailed charts.’
This sheet inspired me to write my next blog about him. I previously knew nothing about one of the world’s most famous explorers, so I thought I would educate myself (and maybe others).
James Cook was born on the 27th October 1728 in Marton, a small rural village in Yorkshire. He first went to sea at the age of 18, where he spent 10 years in the east coast of England working in the coal trade. He joined the Royal Navy in 1755, and found himself patrolling the English Channel during the Seven Years War when Britain was at war with France (again). During these years he was trained in maths and astronomy, steadily accumulating all the skills needed to be an explorer. The next few years of his life were characterised by his ambition and determination which would eventually make him into one of the most renowned explorers that ever lived.
The First Voyage
In total, James Cook had three voyages, all in the Pacific. The information sheet that I received with my stamps has a lot on his first voyage (1768-71). It was a collaborative journey under the auspices of the Royal Society, as well as the Admiralty. As outlined below, the Endeavour sailed off from Plymouth in England, sailed around the south of Chile (Cape Horn), and anchored at Tahiti. After an idyllic stay at this island, the Endeavour sailed to the North Island in New Zealand, then to the South Island, where they found that neither island was joined to a large southern continent.
The crew continued on to Tasmania and the east coast of Australia, which was discovered by Tasman, a Dutch explorer, in 1759. It was here where the botanist Joseph Banks found many new species of plants. As stated in the information sheet above, the journey back was not an easy one, and much of the crew ended up dying from malaria and dysentery. However, once they did get back to Britain, their fascinating discoveries would earn them glory and recognition (although much of this was centred around Joseph Banks at the time).
The Second Voyage
James Cook went on his second voyage in 1772-75, after just having less than a year at home. The public was thrilling at the idea of a ‘southern continent’, which was something of a myth or legend. Although James Cook had already discovered that New Zealand was not connected to any southern continent and that there was unlikely to be anything south, the public’s imagination was relentless.
Cook’s ship entered the Arctic Circle many times between 1773 and 1774. However, because of the intense cold, he had to turn back each time. At one point, Cook was only 121 km away from Antarctica’s coast. Therefore, although he never discovered the southern continent, he did reach closer to the South Pole than any other explorer at the time. He made a final sweep of the oceans in 1775, and found islands such as Easter Island, the Marquesas Islands, Tonga and the New Hebrides (which he named after the Hebrides islands in north-west Scotland). Many of these had already been discovered, but this voyage was not pointless. This voyage, as well as the previous one, laid down the essentials of the modern map in the South Pacific area.
James Cook anchored at Spit Head in Britain in 1775, having debunked the rumours of a southern continent full of opportunity and riches. His service was so significant that he could have easily just accepted a pension and live the rest of his days as a renowned hero, but this was not the case.
The Third Voyage
James Cook’s third and final voyage. It was accepted that Cook would spend the rest of his days in retirement after being promoted to post-captain by King George III. However, the next year he would be on his way to find the North-West Passage.
The North West Passage was believed to link the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. If Britain could somehow enter the Pacific without needing to go around Cape Horn, it could be able to open up trade advantages and the western coast of the Americas.
Cook failed. He found no North West Passage despite his best efforts. The voyage, however, was not in vain: he made the major discovery of the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. In a single season, he mapped the main outline of the coast of northwest America and determined the shape of Alaska, and more. Cook stayed in Hawaii during the winter season, and there, he was treated as a god. He was addressed as ‘Orono’ and met with elaborate greetings, though his departure was likely met with relief after wearing out their welcome.
Just four days later, Cook returned to the islands to make repairs to his ship, the Resolution. Big mistake. The mood had evidently changed, and when Cook tried to take the king hostage after the theft of a ship’s boast one thing led to another and Cook was stabbed during a conflict. He died on the 14th February 1779.
Captain James Cook left behind a huge legacy, changing the way people understood geography through his discoveries and mapping. A contemporary described him as ‘the most able and enlightened navigator that England ever produced’. James Cook truly changed the game in navigation and exploration; not only through his discoveries but also through his humane treatment of his men and insistence on having a good diet which saved many lives.
Thank you for reading!