Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cook, James (1728-1779)
COOK, JAMES (1728–1779), circumnavigator, the son of an agricultural labourer, was born at Marton in Cleveland in November 1728, and having, in the intervals of crow-tending, received some little education in the village school, was at the age of twelve bound apprentice to the shopkeeper in Staithes, a fishing village about ten miles north of Whitby. After some disagreement with his master his indentures were cancelled and he was bound anew to Messrs. Walker, shipowners of Whitby, with whom he served for several years in the Newcastle, Norway, and Baltic trades. In 1755, at the beginning of the war with France, he was mate of a vessel lying in the Thames, and resolved to forestall the active press by volunteering for the king's service. He was accordingly entered as able seaman on board the Eagle of 60 guns, to the command of which ship Captain Hugh Pallisser [q. v.] was appointed in October. Pallisser, himself a Yorkshireman, took notice of his young countryman, who is said to have been also recommended to him by Mr. Osbaldeston, member for Scarborough, and four years later obtained for him a warrant as master. On 15 May 1759 Cook was appointed master of the Mercury, in which he sailed for North America, where he was employed during the operations in the St. Lawrence in surveying the channel of the river and in piloting the vessels and boats of the fleet. It is said that he furnished the admiral with an exact chart of the soundings, although it was his first essay in work of that kind. This is probably an exaggeration; but it appears certain that Cook did attract the notice of Sir Charles Saunders, and that, when Sir Charles returned to England, the senior officer, Lord Colville, appointed Cook as master of his own ship, the Northumberland. While laid up for the following winter at Halifax, Cook applied himself to the study of mathematics, with, it is said, singularly good results, and certainly attained a sound practical knowledge of astronomical navigation. In the summer of 1762, being still master of the Northumberland, he was present at the operations in Newfoundland (Beatson, Memoirs, ii. 577–81, iii. 409), and carried out a survey of the harbour of Placentia, which, on the appointment of Captain Pallisser in the following year to be governor of Newfoundland, led to Cook's being appointed ‘marine surveyor of the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.’ For the prosecution of this service he was entrusted with the command of the Grenville schooner, which he continued to hold till 1767, returning occasionally to England for the winter months, with a view to forwarding the publication of his results. These were brought out as volumes of sailing directions (4to, 1766–8), which have maintained, even to the present day, a singular reputation for exact accuracy, and give fair grounds for the belief that he might, under other circumstances, have proved himself as eminent as a surveyor as he actually did as an explorer.
Shortly after his return home the admiralty, at the instance of the Royal Society, determined to despatch an expedition to the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus, and on the refusal of Sir Edward Hawke to appoint Alexander Dalrymple [q. v.], the nominee of the Royal Society, to a naval command, Stephens, the secretary of the admiralty, brought forward Cook's name, and suggested that Pallisser should be consulted. This led to Cook's receiving a commission as lieutenant, 25 May 1768, and his being appointed to command the Endeavour for the purposes of the expedition. The Endeavour sailed from Plymouth on 25 Aug. 1768, having on board, besides the officers and ship's company, Mr. (afterwards Sir Joseph) Banks [q. v.], Dr. Solander, the botanist, Mr. Buchan, a landscape artist, who died on the voyage, and Mr. Sydney Parkinson, a painter of natural history. Cook himself was also a qualified observer.
Having touched at Madeira and Rio Janeiro and doubled Cape Horn, the Endeavour arrived on 13 April 1769 at Tahiti, where the transit was successfully observed on 3 June. On the homeward voyage six months were spent on the coast of New Zealand, which was for the first time sailed round, examined, and charted with some approach to accuracy. Further west, the whole east coast of Australia was examined in a similar way. New South Wales was so called by Cook from a fancied resemblance to the northern shores of the Bristol Channel; Botany Bay still bears the name which the naturalists of the expedition conferred on it; and further north the name of Endeavour Straits is still in evidence of the circumstances under which it was first established ‘beyond all controversy’ that New Guinea was not an outlying part of New Holland (Hawkesworth, Voyages, iii. 660; Bougainville, Voyage autour du Monde, 4to, 1771, p. 259. In the copy in the British Museum (c. 28, 1. 10) the map at p. 19 shows the Endeavour's track, drawn in by Cook himself). After a stay of more than two months at Batavia, the Endeavour pursued her voyage to the Cape of Good Hope and England, and anchored in the Downs on 12 June 1771. In her voyage of nearly three years she had lost thirty men out of a complement of eighty-five; and though such a mortality was not at that time considered excessive or even great, it must have given rise, in Cook's mind, to very serious reflections, which afterwards bore most noble fruit.
The success of the voyage and the importance of the discoveries were, however, universally recognised. Cook was promoted to commander's rank, 19 Aug. 1771, and was appointed to the command of a new expedition for the exploration of the Pacific, which sailed from Plymouth on 13 July 1772. This expedition consisted of two ships—the Resolution of 460 tons, of which Cook had the immediate command, and the Adventure of 330 tons, commanded by Captain Tobias Furneaux [q. v.] —and carried a competent staff of astronomers, naturalists, and artists, including Dr. Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg. Reversing the order of all previous circumnavigations, it touched, in the outward voyage, at the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed thence eastwards on 22 Nov. The primary object of the expedition was to verify the reports of a great southern continent, and with this view the ships were kept along the edge of the ice, passing the Antarctic circle for the first time on 16 Jan. 1773. In the fogs of the high latitudes the two ships were separated (8 Feb.), and the Resolution arrived alone at New Zealand, having traversed nearly four thousand leagues without seeing land. After resting and refreshing his ship's company in Dusky Bay, Cook proceeded to Queen Charlotte's Sound, where on 18 May he fortunately fell in with the Adventure; but after a cruise to Tahiti, in the course of which the position of numerous islands was noted or rectified, on returning to New Zealand the ships were again and finally separated (30 Oct.) Sailing, then, alone once more to the south, the Resolution fell in with the ice in lat. 62° 10′ S., passed the Antarctic circle for the second time in long. 147° 46′ W., and on 27 Jan. 1774 attained her highest southern latitude, 71° 10′ in long. 106° 54′ W. All attempts to penetrate further to the south were vain, and as the season advanced, Cook, turning north, reached Easter Island, having been 104 days out of sight of land. The months of the southern winter were spent in intertropical cruising, in the course of which the New Hebrides were explored and New Caledonia was discovered. In October the Resolution arrived again at New Zealand, and Cook determined, as the last chance of finding a southern continent, to examine the high latitudes south of Cape Horn and the Atlantic Ocean. In the course of this cruise he discovered or rediscovered the large island which he named Southern Georgia, on 14 Jan. 1775, and some days later he sighted Sandwich Land. On 21 March the Resolution anchored in Table Bay, and arrived at Plymouth on 29 July. The Adventure had preceded her by more than a year.
The geographical discoveries made by Cook in this voyage were both numerous and important; and by proving the non-existence of the great southern continent, which had for so long been a favoured myth, he established our knowledge of the Southern Pacific on a sound basis. In fact the maps of that part of the world still remain essentially as he left them, though, of course, much has been done in perfecting the details. But the most important discovery of all was the possibility of keeping a ship's company at sea without serious loss from sickness and death. When we read the accounts of the older voyages, those of Anson, of Carteret, or even of Cook himself, and notice that in this second voyage only one man died of disease out of a complement of 118, and that notwithstanding the great length, duration, and hardships of the several cruises, we shall the more fully realise the value of Cook's discovery. The men throughout the voyage were remarkably free from scurvy, and the dreaded fever was unknown. Of the measures and precautions adopted to attain this result a detailed account was read before the Royal Society (7 March 1776), which acknowledged the addition thus made to hygienic science, as well as the important service to the maritime world and humanity, by the award of the Copley gold medal. The paper is printed in ‘Phil. Trans.’ (vol. lxvi. appendix, p. 39).
Within a few days of his return (9 Aug. 1775) Cook was promoted to the rank of captain, and received an appointment to Greenwich Hospital. But it being shortly afterwards determined to send an expedition into the North Pacific to search for a passage round the north of America, he at once offered himself to go in command of it. The offer was gladly accepted, and Cook, again in the Resolution, sailed from Plymouth on 12 July 1776, followed on 1 Aug. by the Discovery, under the command of Captain Charles Clerke [q. v.], which joined the Resolution at the Cape of Good Hope on 10 Nov. The two ships sailed together from the Cape on 30 Nov., touched at Van Diemen's Land and New Zealand, and spent the following year among the islands of the South Pacific. On 22 Dec. 1777 they crossed the line, and, discovering the Sandwich Islands on their way, made the west coast of America, in lat. 44° 55′ N., on 7 March 1778. They then turned to the north, along the coast, making a nearly continuous running survey as far north as Icy Cape, from which, unable to penetrate further,they turned back on 29 Aug.; and, after examining the islands and shores of these advanced regions, went to the Sandwich Islands, which Cook proposed to survey in greater detail during the winter months. The ships anchored in Karakakoa Bay, in Hawaii, on 17 Jan. 1779, and remained there for upwards of a fortnight, during which time their people were well received by the natives, Cook himself being treated with an extreme respect that has been described as worship and adoration. On 4 Feb. the ships put to sea, but getting into bad weather, the Resolution sprung her foremast, and they returned to their former anchorage on the 11th. The demeanour of the natives seemed changed; thievish they had been all along; they were now surly and insolent, and their robberies were bolder and more persistent. On the 13th one of them was flogged on board the Discovery for stealing the armourer's tongs; but the same afternoon another again stole the tongs, jumped overboard with them, and swam towards the shore. A boat was sent in pursuit, but the thief was picked up by a canoe and landed. The officer in command of the boat insisted that the thief should be given up, and attempted to seize the canoe as a guarantee, a step which brought on a severe skirmish, out of which the English escaped with difficulty. The same night the Discovery's cutter, lying at her anchor buoy, was taken away, and so quietly that nothing was known of the loss till the following morning. On its being reported to Cook he went on shore with an escort of marines, intending to bring the native king off as a friendly hostage. The king readily consented to go on board, but his family and the islanders generally prevented him; they began to arm; they assembled in great numbers; and Cook, wishing to avoid a conflict, retreated to the boats. At the waterside the boats and the marines fired on the crowd; Cook called out to cease firing, and to the boats to close in. One only obeyed the order; the marines having discharged their muskets were driven into the sea before they could reload, and four of them were killed. Cook, left alone on the shore, attempted also to make for the boat. As his back was turned a native stunned him by a blow on the head; he sank on his knees, and another stabbed him with a dagger. He fell into the water, where he was held down by the seething crowd; but having struggled to land, was again beaten over the head with clubs and stabbed repeatedly, the islanders ‘snatching the daggers out of each other's hands to have the horrid satisfaction of piercing the fallen victim of their barbarous rage.’ The inshore boat was, meantime, so crowded with the fugitives and in such a state of confusion that it was unable to offer any assistance; the other, commanded by Lieutenant John Williamson, lay off, a passive spectator, and finally returned on board, leaving Cook's dead body in the hands of the savages. ‘The complaints and censures that fell on the conduct of the lieutenant were so loud as to oblige Captain Clerke publicly to notice them, and to take the depositions of his accusers down in writing. It is supposed that Clerke's bad state of health and approaching dissolution induced him to destroy these papers a short time before his death’ (Samwell, Narrative, &c.) Justice, however, though tardy, eventually overtook the miserable man, and nineteen years later he was cashiered for cowardice and misconduct in the battle of Camperdown—a sentence which Nelson thought ought rather to have been capital (Nelson Despatches, iii. 2). Cook's body was partly burnt by the savages, but the most of it was given up a day or two afterwards and duly buried. In November 1874 an obelisk to his memory was erected in the immediate neighbourhood of the spot where he fell, but the truest and best memorial is the map of the Pacific.
There is no reason to suppose that Cook's death was anything more than a sudden outburst of savage fury, following on the ill-will caused by the sharp punishment inflicted on the thieves. But the mere fact that this case was one of the first on record was sufficient to call more particular attention to it; and the exceptional character of the principal victim seemed to distinguish the tragedy from all others. Hence divers stories have been invented and circulated, which are at variance with the well-established facts and with the testimony of those who were either eye-witnesses of the murder, or received their knowledge from eye-witnesses. As compared with these, we cannot accept the story said to be current among the natives, that Cook was put to death for breaking the tapù, or giving orders to pull down a temple (Athenæum, 16 Aug. 1884). Another idea is that he had passed himself off as a god, accepting and requiring divine honours (Athenæum, in loc. cit.; Cowper, Letters, 9 Oct. 1784 (Bohn's edit.), iii. 136). But the allegation seems quite unfounded, and in any case had nothing to do with the attack and the massacre.
On 21 Dec. 1762 Cook married Miss Batts at Barking, and had by her six children, three of whom died in infancy. Of the others, Nathaniel, aged sixteen, was lost in the Thunderer in the West Indies 3 Oct. 1780; Hugh died at Cambridge, aged seventeen; James, the eldest, commander of the Spitfire sloop, was drowned in attempting to go off to his ship in a heavy gale 25 Jan. 1794. The widow long survived her family, and died on 13 May 1835 at the age of ninety-three. She was buried by the side of her sons, Hugh and James, in the church of St. Andrew-the-Great, Cambridge. As, according to her recorded age, she was only fourteen years younger than her husband, and as Cook at the age of fourteen was either in the village shop or on board a North-Sea collier, the story that he was his future wife's godfather may be dismissed as an idle yarn. His portrait, by Nathaniel Dance, is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, to which it was presented by the executors of Sir Joseph Banks.
[Life, by Kippis, in Biog. Brit. The bibliography of Cook's voyages is very extensive; the following are the principal works which may be considered as original: An Account of a Voyage round the World in the years 1768–71, by Lieutenant James Cook, commander of his Majesty's bark Endeavour (vols. ii. and iii. of Hawkesworth's Voyages, 4to, 1773); A Voyage towards the South Pole and round the World, performed in his Majesty's ships Resolution and Adventure in the years 1772–5, written by James Cook, commander of the Resolution (with maps, charts, portraits, and views, 2 vols. 4to, 1777; A Voyage round the World in H.B.M. sloop Resolution, commanded by Captain Cook, during the years 1772–5, by George Forster, F.R.S., 2 vols. 4to, 1777; Remarks on Mr. Forster's Account of Captain Cook's last Voyage round the World, by William Wales, F.R.S., 8vo, 1778; A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, undertaken by the command of his Majesty for making discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere to determine the position and extent of the west side of North America, its distance from Asia, and the practicability of a northern passage to Europe, performed under the direction of Captains Cook, Clerke, and Gore in his Majesty's ships Resolution and Discovery in the years 1776–80, vols. i. and ii. written by Captain James Cook, F.R.S., vol. iii. by Captain James King, LL.D. and F.R.S., 3 vols. 4to, and atlas in fol., 1784; The Original Astronomical Observations made in the course of a Voyage towards the South Pole and round the World in his Majesty's ships Resolution and Adventure in the years 1772–5, by William Wales and William Bayly, published by order of the Board of Longitude, 4to, 1777; The Original Astronomical Observations made in the course of a voyage to the Northern Pacific Ocean for the discovery of a North-East or North-West passage … in the years 1776–80, by Captain James Cook, commander of the Resolution, and Lieutenant James King and Mr. William Bayly, late assistant at the Royal Observatory, published by order of the Commissioners of Longitude, 4to, 1782; A Narrative of the Death of Captain James Cook, to which are added some particulars concerning his Life and Character, … by David Samwell, surgeon of the Discovery, 4to, 1786. Many of Cook's original manuscripts are in the British Museum; among others, the holograph journal of his last voyage, posted up to 6 Jan. 1779, is Egerton MS. 2177 A.]