James Cook (1728–1779)
Episode #7 of the course “Europe’s greatest explorers”
Captain James Cook was a British naval officer and the first European to visit New Zealand, the eastern coast of Australia, Antarctica, and the Hawai’ian islands. Cook’s travels encompassed more than 100,000 miles across sea and land, and he answered some of his contemporaries’ most burning questions about the south Pacific Ocean.
Born in Yorkshire, Cook joined the British Navy after being a merchant sailor. In 1768, a rare astronomical event was occurring, so Cook was assigned to transport a group of scientists to the south Pacific to observe Venus. He encountered New Zealand, claiming it for England. He sighted and scouted the entire east coast of Australia, charting it and naming it New South Wales.
Thinking he’d sail north through uncharted waters, Cook slammed his ship into Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, causing massive damage. It took nearly 20 hours of emergency repair to stop the leak, and the ship had constant difficulties on its voyage to South Africa. It took two months of repair to restore the ship.
Cook and his men returned home, welcomed as heroes for adding substantially to the British land holdings in the Pacific. However, no one knew the extent of Australia or what lay further south.
In 1772, Cook again sailed to the south Pacific with a commission from the British admiralty. He and his crew were the first to cross the Antarctic Circle, and they spent over two months scouting in search of a southern passage. When none could be found, they spent the winter in New Zealand. After a second year searching and finding nothing, Cook abandoned the search. They crossed the south Pacific to Tierra del Fuego before returning home in 1775. It is commendable that throughout this three-year journey in extreme conditions, Cook lost few lives on either of his ships.
Cook was promoted after this second voyage. The following year, the admiralty asked him to command an expedition to discover a route through the fabled “northern passage,” supposedly connecting the Atlantic and Pacific on the Arctic side of North America. He was charged with exploring the Pacific coastline. After visiting Tahiti, the Antarctic Circle, and New Zealand again, Cook set sail across the open Pacific, spotting the previously-unknown island chains of Hawai’i.
Cook and his crew spent the following two months tracing the Pacific coastline of North America and exploring the Bering Strait. They made multiple unsuccessful attempts to find a passage but ultimately returned to Hawai’i. The appearance of the British coincided with a fertility festival of the indigenous people, who mistakenly assumed Cook was a god. When the ships landed at Kealakekua Bay, cheering crowds of thousands met them. The British were treated like royalty.
A dispute broke out when Cook discovered that an islander had taken a British boat. He went ashore, demanding King Kalani‘ōpu‘u be taken hostage, and tensions increased. Fighting began, and Cook was stabbed to death by a Hawai’ian warrior. After Cook’s ships departed, it was recorded that the Hawai’ians gave Cook’s body the ceremonial burial rites they reserved for their own kings.
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