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Captain James Cook

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Cook's early life and career

Cook and the colliers

A Beached Collier Unloading into Carts
View full size imageA beached collier unloading into carts.
Cook began his working life as an apprentice to a haberdasher (someone who sells dressmaking and sewing goods) in Yorkshire.

At the age of 16 he left the clothing trade and signed on as an apprentice seaman with the Whitby ship owner and coal trader, John Walker. The east coast coal traders took cargoes of coal from north-east England and Yorkshire down the coast to London in ships called colliers.

Cook sailed this route regularly and by the age of 26 he had risen to the position of mate (second-in-command) and John Walker was about to offer Cook the command of his own ship.

Cook joins the Navy

Captain Hugh Palliser.
View full size imageCaptain Hugh Palliser.
But in 1755 Cook left his secure job in the east coast coal trade and enlisted in London as an able seaman in the Royal Navy. Although he got a bonus of £2 for enlisting and then received the able seaman's wage of £1 4 shillings (£1.20) a month, he probably did not join the Royal Navy for money.

Cook was appointed to HMS Eagle under her new captain, Hugh Palliser. He was quickly promoted to master's mate – one of the people who assisted the sailing master, the man responsible for matters concerned with navigating and sailing the ship.

Cook at war

The Death of General Wolfe
View full size imageThe death of General Wolfe at Quebec in 1759.
Cook made his name in the Royal Navy in Canada during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763). He helped to create charts of the St Lawrence seaway, a difficult job that led to the British attack on the important French colonial city of Quebec. General Wolfe was famously killed during the attack.

When the war was over, Cook was employed by the Admiralty to make charts of Newfoundland. He spent each summer surveying the coasts and each winter he returned to his home in London to work on the charts for publication.

At that time, the Admiralty did not publish their own charts, but relied on commercial publishers. London was the centre of Britain's publishing trade.

Married life

Elizabeth Cook's Teapot.
View full size image Elizabeth Cook's teapot.
After Cook joined the Royal Navy in 1755 he married a young London woman called Elizabeth Batts. James had met her much earlier, since the family Elizabeth worked for had business connections with John Walker, his old employer.

After they married, they bought a house on London's Mile End Road, on Assembly Row. The house is no longer standing. Although Cook later became a celebrity, he always had to survive on his naval pay and never moved to a larger or more stylish house.

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