James Cook

The man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.” – James Cook

Captain James Cook, unlike Peter Pan’s Captain Hook, was not a pirate, but an explorer, map maker, and captain for the British navy. His most famous achievements were exploring New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii.

He was the first European to explore the eastern Australian coast and claimed the land for England, naming it New Wales. Cook was a highly skilled mapmaker. His maps were so detailed and accurate that they were used through the early 20th century.


Fun Facts

  • Cook was born in Yorkshire in 1728. He was the second of eight children. His father was a farm worker. As a youth, James helped his father, who had become farm manager, on the farm.
  • When Cook was 16, he moved to a nearby sea village to apprentice with William Sanderson, a shop keeper and haberdasher (a clothing maker or seller).
  • It soon became apparent that Cook wasn’t cut out to be a shopkeeper; he had gained a love for the sea though during his time with Sanderson.
  • Sanderson introduced Cook to Quaker friends who owned a fleet of merchant ships. Cook began working as a sailor on the merchant ships and quickly rose through the ranks. He studied algebra, astronomy, trigonometry, geometry, and astronomy – all useful topics for a boatman.
  • Eventually he became captain of a trading vessel. In 1755, he left commercial shipping and volunteered for the Royal Navy. He had to start at the bottom, but he knew that his career would progress more quickly in the military.
  • He fought against the French during the Seven Years War. His excellent work in mapping the St. Lawrence River, Newfoundland and Quebec brought him to the attention of the Royal Society and Admiralty.
  • In 1766, Cook commanded a scientific voyage to the Pacific Ocean. His first assignment was to view the passing of the transit of Venus across the Sun – a rare astronomical happening that could only be seen in the southern skies.
  • From there, Cook sailed on to Tahiti, New Zealand, and the eastern coastline of Australia. Here, he first met native aboriginal tribes. His botanist discovered new and unusual plants. Upon their return, he and botanist Joseph Banks became heroes in England after they published their journals.
  • From 1772 to 1775, Cook made his second voyage to the south Pacific. At this time, scientists believed a huge continent lay beneath Australia and New Zealand. Cook’s voyage proved that no such continent existed. He sailed the Antarctic Circle during this expedition – a first.
  • During his last voyage from 1776 to 1779, Cook visited Hawaii, naming it the Sandwich Islands after the fourth Earl of Sandwich, the acting First Lord of the Admiralty. He went on to sail up the western coast of North America all the way to Alaska and the Bering Strait. He was looking for a northwest passage – a river that would allow ships to travel across North America. He didn’t find such a passage, but he made the first detailed maps of the area.
  • On his return trip home, Cook once again landed in Hawaii during a sacred harvest festival. The native people thought he was a god and gave him high honors. However, relations soured during his stay, especially after one of his boats was stolen. He attempted to kidnap the king as a way to get the boat back. A fight ensued. He was hit with a club by tribe members and then stabbed to death.


Questions and Answers

Question: Did Cook have a wife and family?

Answer: Although he didn’t see them much, Cook did have a wife and six children. His wife, Elizabeth, endured much tragedy. Her husband was gone for most of their marriage before he was eventually killed. All of her children died in childhood or early adulthood. None of them had children.


Learn More

Watch a video about James Cook.