The Wanderer: James Cook

James Cook (Courtesy Library of Congress)

James Cook (Courtesy Library of Congress)

It is almost certain that James and Grace (Pace) Cook could little guess what the future held for their second born, James Cook II. Born 27 October 1728 in Morton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire, England James II had a knack for wandering and would often go off by himself to explore. A private person by nature, Cook would remain that way for the rest of his life.

In 1745 Cook left home to begin his apprenticeship to grocer William Sanderson. With the shop being so near the ocean, Cook became acquainted with sailors who were always ready to share a tale of the sea. Their stories piqued Cook’s interest and he latched onto nautical books, devouring them. The next year he left Sanderson to find a job at sea. The 17 year old was made an apprentice aboard the Freelove.

Cook deftly climbed the ranks, but he didn’t intend to make the merchant marine his life career. In 1755 just as Cook was given his own command he upped and joined the Royal Navy as an able seaman. Surprisingly, Cook advanced through the ranks quickly thanks in part to officers who recognized his abilities. In two years time he had attained the rank of ship’s master. This would, had circumstances not intervened, be as far as Cook would go in the navy.

In 1762 Cook arrived back in England temporarily without a job but with a stash of money. It was at this time he met Elizabeth Batts. After a whirlwind courtship Cook and Batts were married on 22 December 1762. For the rest of their lives the couple would remain devoted to one another. In all the Cooks would have six children, all of which died in childhood or at a very young age.

In 1764, while mapping the Newfoundland coast, a shipboard accident nearly cost Cook his thumb. Fortunately the thumb was saved although Cook would carry a scar for the rest of his life. Once back home Cook was selected to command a mission to Tahiti, where the transit of Venus was to be observed. At First Lieutenant Cook’s request a Whitby collier was purchased for the expedition. The collier was refitted and renamed the HM Bark Endeavour. On 26 August 1768 Cook set sail aboard the Endeavour on his voyage of discovery.

As the Endeavour neared present day Bow Island, the crew got an idea of what kind of man they were serving under when Cook surprised them by climbing up in the rigging. As an able leader Cook’s crew respected him. He was instrumental in preventing scurvy, he demanded cleanliness whenever possible and he was more lenient than other captains.

Manuscript of James Cook's Journal on the Ende...

Cook’s Journal on the Endeavour (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Eventually the Endeavour arrived in Tahiti. There Cook was troubled with thievery among Tahitians which was a problem he would encounter with other native people. In May a Tahitian stole a quadrant necessary to observing the transit. Angry, Cook took a chief prisoner and confiscated a number of canoes until the quadrant was returned. The quadrant was located but it had been taken apart and scattered about. Cook was informed that their prisoner was innocent. When the chief was released he gave Cook an ultimatum. The Tahitians would stop supplying Cook with food if the chief was not given a shirt and axe. Cook bowed to the chief’s wishes throwing a poncho in the bargain too.

After the Venus transit was observed the Endeavour moved on to search for new lands. In late 1768 New Zealand was sighted. This country would become a favorite of Cook’s as it identified with his native Yorkshire. For half a year Cook charted the coast of New Zealand. One of the bigger problems Cook faced was the cannibalistic Maori who bravely faced the English with little apparent fear. It sometimes became necessary for Cook’s men to protect themselves from threatening war parties, a task Cook didn’t relish. After New Zealand the Endeavour sailed for Australia sighting the southeastern coast on 19 April 1770. On June 11 Cook had just turned in for the night when the Endeavour ran aground. Taking it all in stride Cook calmly issued orders. Eventually the tide floated the ship off of the reef. Later Cook had the Endeavour run aground on a beach so repairs could be made to the damaged vessel. It wasn’t until July 1771 that the Endeavour arrived in England.

Cook was welcomed with all the fanfare due to a hero. In three years Cook had risen from relative obscurity to national fame. By 1773 he had put out to sea once again, this time to discover Terra Australis. Frankly, Cook didn’t think such a place existed. The expedition consisted of two ships, the Resolution and the Adventure. As the two ships neared the Artic they were separated and the Adventure headed for New Zealand, awaiting the Resolution (the Adventure would later head back to England. Two of their numbers were killed and eaten by Maori). Meanwhile Cook with the Resolution pushed through ice, fog and cold waves while enduring frigid temperatures. The Resolution traveled far but was forced to turn back for Tahiti due to dwindling supplies. Cook returned once again but he never did find what is now known as Antartica.

In 1776 Cook, back in England, volunteered to undertake another voyage (this time with the Resolution and Discovery). His services were accepted. By this time Cook was a drastically changed man. He normally had been sympathetic to thieving natives, but now he handed out harsh punishment. The voyage was riddled with problems and his crew, some who had been with Cook for a long time now, were mystified with the new Cook. Their captain began drinking heavily of kava and getting drunk.

Resolution and Discovery (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Hawaii was to prove Cook’s undoing. When the Resolution and Discovery sailed into Kealakekua Bay the Hawaiians thought Cook was their god, Lono. However, it would seem even Lono could outstay his welcome. The expedition left but returned soon after. The Discovery’s mast had broken and needed repairs. While undergoing repairs Hawaiians stole the Discovery’s cutter. Furious Cook went to take King Kalaniʻōpuʻu hostage. Understandably the king refused to go with Cook. Finally Cook gave up and began walking away with some marines who had come ashore with him. But just then word came that other marines had killed a chief. The natives closed in on the small party and one began poking Cook with a spear. Cook fired, killing a person in the crowd. At this turn of events mayhem broke loose. Cook was stabbed multiple times, leading to his death. Powerless to do anything the surviving marines swam for the two ships. The Hawaiians gave Cook a burial fitting for one of their chiefs (a rather disgusting ritual to modern minds) and returned some of Cook’s remains to the ships.

If anyone would like to read a little something on Elizabeth Batts Cook please see this great link: Mrs Cook’s Valentine’s Day

Source: Dugard, Martin. Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook.

30 thoughts on “The Wanderer: James Cook

  1. Loved this post – very fascinating and loved how he stood up to the thieving natives! How do you think Cook and his men were towards the natives though. Do you think they treated them fairly? Was he known to be peaceful or did he just barge right in when he found new land?


    • Up until his third voyage I think Cook was pretty fair towards the natives. At least that is the impression I got from reading “Farther Than Any Man”. But towards the end of his life he got pretty harsh, giving them a whipping for their unending stealing. I guess in a way it’s understandable, as the man in command Cook was under a constant strain, he had to put up with so many thefts and his health was failing with him. It’s a wonder he wasn’t “biting everyone’s head off”.

      As for being peaceful or barging in, Cook was fascinated with the cultures of the native people he met. Again, from what I understand by reading “Farther Than Any Man” Cook tended to play the role of a father-figure towards the natives.

      Thanks for your comment!


  2. I just started a book called Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horowitz, about Horowitz’s time working as a crew member on a replica of the Endeavor, tracing Captain Cook’s voyages. Part history/part travelogue and very good so far.

    From grocer to sea captain — pretty drastic career move.


    • Haha, yes it is. A slightly rocky road to attain his fame, but you’ve got to admit Cook was a determined man.

      That sounds like an interesting title. Will have to see if my library has this book.

      Thanks for your comment.


  3. Where would we Aussies be without Captain Cook? We’d probably would have been a French outpost!
    In the 1930’s the cottage that Cook lived in was bought to Australia and re-built in the Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne. It is a lovely spot and a wonderful bit of our history.
    A pity he had such an unpleasant ending.


    • Hmm…So Cook was inadvertently instrumental in our making each other’s acquaintance! How ’bout that? Yes his death is sad. To think he could have kicked back in retirement as Fourth Captain at the Greenwich Hospital. But I guess that thirst for adventure/exploration was hard to get out of his blood.

      I had heard about Cook’s cottage being moved to Melbourne, but I wasn’t sure if it was Melbourne, Australia or Melbourne, England. I was too lazy to look it up! 😆

      Thanks for your comment.


    • Yes, definitely! He got a lot of traveling in though, I’ll say that much for him. Much more than the ordinary person did in Cook’s day. And to think while we were fighting our War for Independence Cook was on the other side of the US exploring.

      Oh yeah! Now I remember. Duh! 🙂


  4. Being Australian I certainly enjoyed this JG… and it’s very timely considering the Europena settlement/ colonisation of Australia in 1788 is to be celebrated on 26Jan by some, and mourned by others.
    Needless to say Cook, and the Endeavour, are well recognised here because he charted the East Coast of New Holkland, as Australia was known in those days, and claimed it for England. The Dutch had already laid clsidm to trhe west coast. His favourable reports of “Botany Bay” etc., made it the perfect new “dumping ground” for England’s convicts when America refused to accept them any longer… and that’s just the beginning our story of colonisation… 🙂
    Sorry for “rabbiting on” but just couldn’t help myself. Thanks


    • Australia has a fascinating past. In some ways it compares to US history. Much to my regret I don’t have the time I would like to have to fully delve into Aussie history. Thankfully there are blogs out there, such as yours and Metan’s up there, that allow us to read “bite-sized” posts in no time.

      “Rabbiting on”? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one before!

      Thanks for your comment.


  5. What a great story. I wonder if all those years at sea changed him? It was certainly a harsh but adventures life. Did his devoted wife sail with him or stay at their home with the kids? Anyway, great story and I am sadden by the hawai’i event.


    • I’m of opinion it did. When comparing his attitude during the first voyage with the third and final voyage, Cook had changed.

      No Elizabeth stayed at home, caring for the Cook children. When Cook left her a widow she never remarried.

      Thanks for your comment.


  6. What a sad life he had besides traveling. Losing all his children at young ages and then he died of multiple stab wounds. Seems so lonely and sad.


    • Yes, but then Cook was something of a loner anyway. I guess a life at sea rather suited him, although he must’ve missed him family and they him.

      Thanks for your comment!


  7. I am going to be a real pain here!! And totally pedantic.

    Before I go any further, I should add that a) I come from Yorkshire and b) am delighted to see you featuring James Cook. 🙂

    When Cook was born, there was no Marton-in-Cleveland, which is currently a suburb in Middlesborough (dates from mid 20th century). Cook was apparently born in the village of East Marton, which centuries later was subsumed into the new town.

    Although he spent his apprenticeship to the grocer in the small fishing village of Staithes, he is mostly known locally for his connections with the larger town of Whitby which is where he moved to in order to find his first maritime job. One of my childhood memories of Whitby is the huge archway at the top of the north cliff over the harbour made out of jawbones from one of his adventures, I think they are meant to be whalebones.

    Fascinating story though isn’t it? Like any historical biography, summarising such amazing achievements in the C18th in a blog post is pretty tough! Interesting that NE Brits, Aussies and Kiwis know so much about him but I suppose that stands to reason.

    Really enjoy seeing a variety of different posts on your blog with different periods and countries regarding maritime history and this one was a real bonus for me.


    • You’re not a pain! When anyone can add to the post I enjoy it a great deal! In fact’s thanks for doing so. This is all very interesting, that archway bit in particular. I’ve a fascination with Yorkshire for more reason than one, and historic figures like Cook only serve to grow the amount of reasons! 🙂

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. The 18th century is riddled with fascinating bits of history that make for great blog material.

      Thank you for your comment.


  8. This is priceless prose:
    “When the ‘Resolution’ and ‘Discovery’ sailed into Kealakekua Bay the Hawaiians thought Cook was their god, Lono. However, it would seem even Lono could outstay his welcome. ” I in fact did LOL at that one. Also fascinating that the Tahitian chief demanded an axe (useful no matter where you live) and a shirt (Not as handy. Was he allured by European fashion?)
    Dropping by your blog is always a learning experience. All this talk of the Society Islands reminds me of Herman Mellville’s adventures in the South Pacific. Have you read/heard of “Typee”? Melliville abandoned the whaling ship the ‘Acushnet’ after working 18 months and lived on Nuku Hiva, part of the Marquesas Islands. He lived with “noble savages” for three weeks: aka cannibals who treated him nicely. (I know…you make sense out of it, I can’t!) He wrote a book about it “Typee” which was his best-seller when he was alive.
    The novel is considered to have wild inaccuracies. (Cannibals who don’t eat strangers…)


    • That’s how it struck me, outstaying his welcome that is. The Tahitians had a fascination with metals; they were literally stealing the nails from Cook’s ship because of the want of metal. Wouldn’t it have been awful if they had stolen so much nails that when Cook sailed off and the hull fell out? It didn’t happen, but just a thought. As for the shirt, I dunno. Maybe, as a chief, having a European shirt would set him apart from the other Tahitians, giving him an air of importance because he had something many others didn’t.

      No, haven’t heard of this book. And to think if Melville had been eaten by cannibals high school students wouldn’t be griping about “Moby Dick” because it’s required reading. Interesting they didn’t eat him though. May have to read that book one day (you should see how long my to-read list is).

      Thank you for your comment!


  9. Another wonderful post. I remember growing up learning about Captain Cook. Quite an incredible figure. As you have an interest in Yorkshire, you might like to read up on Whitby. It is the most beautiful little seaside town with lots of Cook sites. It is also where Count Dracula landed so maybe best not to walk up those steep steps late at night 🙂


    • Sure thing, will do. It sounds as if there are many sites in general to see in Yorkshire. Do you think it could all be crammed into a week? Cook is fascinating and I’d hate to pass up any sites related to him. Then there’s the homes and haunts of James Moody and Joseph Boxhall.

      Yeah—Dracula—I’ll have to keep that in mind!. 😆


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