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Captain James Cook (1728-79)
The greatest explorer of his age

Known for

Captain James Cook.
View full size imageCaptain James Cook. © NMM

He led three great voyages of scientific exploration to the Pacific Ocean.  By sailing around the world further south than anyone had done before, he disproved the long-established theory that there was a southern continent. 

He was the first to chart Australia’s east coast and sail around New Zealand.  His voyages to the Pacific had a tremendous impact on European society, for whom the area was very little known.

Chart showing the tracks of the ships on Cook's three voyages.
View full size imageChart showing the tracks of the ships on Cook's three voyages. © NMM

He was born the son of a farm worker in Yorkshire and worked on colliers (ships made to carry coal) before joining the Royal Navy as an able seaman at the age of 26.  He rose through the ranks making a reputation as an excellent seaman and a talented chartmaker. 

He was chosen to lead the first voyage to the Pacific after he made a detailed survey of parts of Nova Scotia.  He became famous through his Pacific voyages and met Geroge III and other leading figures of his time.  He was also given the honour of being elected a fellow of the Royal Society, the pre-eminent scientific society of its day.

Cook was killed on 14 February 1779 on a beach on Hawaii halfway through his third voyage.  His death was a great shock back in Europe – the queen of France, Marie Antoinette is said to have wept at the news.  He is rightly regarded as one of the greatest maritime explorers whose charts gave an accurate picture of the huge Pacific Ocean for the first time.

Port Connection

Cook’s work in the coal trade regularly took him to London and in 1762 he married Elizabeth Batts from Barking, Essex, whose brother was a shipping agent of the Custom House. They bought a house in Assembly Row, Mile End Road, which is now no longer standing. It was here that Cook would return from his surveys of Nova Scotia each winter to prepare his charts for publication. Elizabeth survived her husband by 56 years, dying in 1835 aged 72. 

Interesting Facts

Cook was seen as a humanitarian commander, despite flogging more men on his ship than William Bligh (the short-tempered Captain of the Bounty who was set adrift in a small boat by his mutinous crew).

Cook prescribed carrot marmalade and sauerkraut to his crew as a cure for scurvy, however this had no real effect on the disease and possibly set back the discovery of a real cure by two decades.

Life Story

1728James Cook born in Marton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire
1755Joins the Royal Navy at Wapping as able seaman
1757Appointed sailing master of HMS 'Solebay'
1759Prepares charts to help General Wolfe’s attack on Quebec
1768Promoted to lieutenant and given command of HM 'Bark Endeavour'
1768-71Voyage of 'Endeavour'
1772-75Voyage of 'Resolution' and 'Adventure'
1776-80Voyage of 'Resolution' and 'Discovery'
1779Cook killed on Hawaii