James Cook (October 27, 1728 - February 14, 1779) was a British explorer and astronomer who went on many expeditions to the Pacific Ocean, the Antarctic, the Arctic, and around the world.
Cook’s First Journey
Cook’s initial voyage lasted from August 26, 1768 to July 13, 1771, when he sailed to Tahiti on the Endeavor in order to observe Venus as it passed between the Earth and the Sun (this is called the transit of Venus, when Venus is visible as a small black dot moving across the Sun; the time of transit was used to calculate a more accurate distance between the Earth and the Sun). Cook was also searching for a large, southern continent that was thought to exist (but does not). Many scientists accompanied him on the voyage, including the botanist Joseph Banks.
During this expedition, he sailed from Plymouth, England, to Brazil, around Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America), and to Tahiti (April 11, 1769), where he stayed for months in order to observe the transit of Venus (in order to determine the distance from the Earth to the Sun). He then sailed to and named the Society Islands (named to honor the Royal Society, the organization that sponsored the trip).
Cook sailed to New Zealand on October 6,1769, where he and his crew fought with the Maori (the earliest inhabitants of New Zealand) and mapped much of the two major islands (the strait between these two islands is now named Cook Strait) and showed that is was not part of a larger southern continent.
He then sailed to and mapped eastern Australia (the Endeavor was stuck for a day on the Great Barrier Reef off northeastern Australia; the ship was damaged by coral and almost sank). They repaired the ship in northern Queensland, Australia (the site of Cooktown and the mouth of the Endeavor River), completing the repairs on August 6, 1770. Cook sailed through the strait between Australia and New Guinea, and reached Batavia, Java, in October, 1770, where about 30 members of the crew died from malaria (a disease carried by mosquitos). Cook replaced these crew members in South Africa.
On July 13, 1771, the Endeavor returned to England after a journey of almost three years.
Cook’s second expedition (1772-1775) took him to Antarctica and to Easter Island on a voyage intended to show there was no large southern continent. Cook’s two ships on this voyage were the Resolution and the Adventure. Again, many scientists accompanied him on the trip. A teenaged George Vancouver was a midshipman.
Cook left Plymouth, England, on July 13, 1772, and sailed to Cape Town, South Africa, and on to Bouvet Island, near Antarctica. He was the first person the cross the Antarctic circle. The two ships were separated in February, 1773, and met again in New Zealand in April, 1773. They then explored area north and east of New Zealand, including Tahiti and Tonga. The ships were again separated; Cook sailed south, reaching a record latitude 71 degrees and 10 minutes (roughly 1250 miles from the South Pole); the other ship returned to England (Captian Tobias Furneaux was the first to sail around the world from east to west). Cook then sailed from Cape Horn (the southernmost point of South America) to the Cape of Good Hope (the southernmost point of Africa) and back to England, arriving on July 29, 1775.
Cook’s last expedition (1776-1779) was a search for a Northwest Passage across northern North America to Asia - he searched from the Pacific Ocean side of the continent. Cook sailed from England on July 12, 1776, on the Resolution. Officers on the ship included George Vancouver and William Bligh (who would later be the captain of the Bounty and have his crew mutiny).
Cook arrived at Capetown, South Africa, on October 18, 1776, and sailed to the Indian Ocean and on to New Zealand (in early 1777), the Cook Islands, and Tonga. Heading for Alaska, Cook sailed to and named the Christmas Islands (arriving on December 25, 1777, hence the name). He then sailed to and named the Sandwich Islands (named for the Earl of Sandwich, one of Cook’s patrons). Cook searched for a Northwest Passage in Alaska, but was unsuccessful. He then returned to the Sandwich Islands.
Cook was killed by a mob on Feb. 14, 1779, on the Sandwich Islands (now called Hawaii). At the time, he was trying to take the local chief hostage to get the natives to return a stolen sailboat. The ship returned to England without Cook on October 4, 1780.
Cook was the first ship’s captain to stop the disease scurvy (now known to be caused by a lack of vitamin C) among sailors by providing them with fresh fruits. Before this, scurvy had killed or incapacitated many sailors on long trips.