A new biography of Cook, James appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
James Cook was born on 27 October 1728 at the Yorkshire village of Marton, a few miles south of Middlesbrough, in the valley of the Tees. His father, James Cook, a native of Ednam, Roxburghshire, Scotland, was a farm labourer in the employ of one Scottowe; his mother Grace, née Pace, was a Yorkshirewoman. Cook was the second child and there were other children. When Cook was about two years old Scottowe appointed his father manager of Airy Holme Farm, Great Ayton, a Yorkshire village a few miles south-east of Marton. Here the son grew up as a farm boy. He was taught to read by a Miss Mary Walker, and Scottowe paid for some schooling for him at the village school.
At the age of 17 Cook was apprenticed to William Sanderson, a general storekeeper of Staithes, a small Yorkshire seaport about a dozen miles from Great Ayton. After 18 months Sanderson released Cook from his apprenticeship so that he might be apprenticed to Walker Brothers, shipowners of the Yorkshire port of Whitby, at the mouth of the Esk. Cook's apprenticeship for three years commenced in July 1746. Walker Brothers were engaged mainly in the coastal coal trade from Newcastle and other northern ports as far south as London, and it was in the Freelove, a coal ship of 450 tons, that Cook's first seagoing experience, when he was aged 17–19, was gained. During the winter off-season he lived with his master, John Walker, who taught him navigation and became his lifelong friend. In 1748 Cook was transferred to a new Walker ship, the Three Brothers. In 1749 he had served his time with the Walkers and for two years sailed before the mast in the Baltic trade in the Mary and in a ship of Stockton. In 1752 he returned to the employ of the Walkers as mate of a new ship, the Friendship. Three years later the Walkers offered him the command of the Friendship, but he declined the offer in order to join the Navy, there being some possibility that he anticipated being pressed into naval service. He enrolled as an able seaman at Wapping on 17 June 1755. At that time England was engaged in hostilities with France, although war was not formally declared until 1756 (Seven Years' War).
Cook's seagoing naval service commenced in the Eagle, of 60 guns, which he boarded at Portsmouth on 25 June 1755, under command of Captain Hamer. A month later Cook was given the substantive position of master's mate. The Eagle was assigned with other ships to blockade the French shipping, but suffered damage in a storm and returned to refit. Hamer was replaced by Captain Hugh Palliser, who was destined for a distinguished naval career and proved a benefactor and friend of Cook. Early in 1756 Cook was appointed boatswain and, for a short time, was in command of a cutter off the French coast. After rejoining the Eagle Cook took a captured French ship to London. In May 1757 he saw brisk action when the Eagle engaged an armed French ship, capturing it. Cook received warrant rank as master, was transferred to the Solebay, and, a month later, to the Pembroke, of 64 guns.
Early in 1758 Cook sailed in the Pembroke to Halifax with Boscawen's fleet, and in July was present at the capture of the French fortress of Louisburg, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence. In 1759 Cook was engaged in surveying the tortuous channels of the St. Lawrence in preparation for the traverse of the British naval vessels as a prelude to Wolfe's attack on Quebec. At one stage Wolfe consulted Cook concerning the possibility of putting vessels close to the French batteries at the mouth of the Montmorenci River, a tribute to Cook's authority as a naval surveyor. During Wolfe's storming of Quebec, Cook, as master, remained on the Pembroke. In September, after the fall of Quebec, Cook was transferred to the Northumberland, flagship of Admiral Lord Colville, Commander-in-Chief of the North American Station.
During Cook's three years as master on the Northumberland he performed outstanding work as a naval surveyor in the St. Lawrence and on the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, with further experience of action against the French. Hostilities came to an end in 1762 – peace was finally made the following year – and on 11 November 1762 Cook was discharged from the Northumberland in England.
On 21 December 1762 Cook married Elizabeth Batts and settled for a few months at Shadwell, London. In March 1763 Commodore Thomas Graves, Governor of Newfoundland, asked the Admiralty for Cook's services as coastal surveyor, and in June of that year Cook arrived with Graves in Newfoundland, where he was engaged in surveying during the summer and autumn months, returning for the winter to his wife and first-born child. After establishing a permanent home in Mile End Row he went again in May to Newfoundland, where he assumed command of a survey vessel, the Grenville. By this time Palliser, his former commander in the Eagle, was Governor of Newfoundland. For four more years Cook spent the working months in the Grenville in the Newfoundland survey, and his winters at home. In 1766 he made observations of an eclipse of the sun, which formed the basis of a precise calculation of the longitude of Newfoundland, and brought his work to the notice of the Royal Society. In the latter months of 1767 he sailed back to England for the last time in the Grenville.
Cook's hour of destiny was now at hand. In 1642–43 Tasman had discovered the southern parts of Tasmania, part of the western littoral of New Zealand, and some of the islands of Tonga and Fiji, proving that there was an eastern limit to the parts of the Australian continent already discovered by the Dutch, though where this lay was left for Cook to discover in 1770. What was to the east between New Zealand's western littoral and the tip of South America still remained a subject of speculation when the British naval officers John Byron, Samuel Wallis, and Philip Carteret crossed the Pacific from the east in the years 1765 and 1767. The view of a number of geographers was that undiscovered land or islands of considerable extent lay in that area. Wallis sailed far enough west to discover Tahiti and a few other islands before striking to the north-west out of the South Pacific, and reported to the Admiralty that he had seen other land to the south of Tahiti. The Frenchman Louis Antoine de Bougainville crossed the Pacific in 1768, rediscovering Tahiti. Meanwhile, in London the Royal Society had concerted with the Admiralty a plan to make observations of the transit of Venus in the South Pacific. In April-May 1768 Cook, following on the refusal of Alexander Dalrymple to accompany the expedition except as commander of the intended vessel, was appointed to the command of the Endeavour, with the rank of first lieutenant, and was made one of the Royal Society's observers of the forthcoming transit of Venus. At this juncture Wallis reached England with news of his discovery of Tahiti and of the supposed continental peaks seen to the south of it. Tahiti, therefore, became the destination of the Endeavour for the proposed observations of Venus, and in secret official instructions Cook was bidden to investigate thereafter whether there was land to the south within the fortieth parallel and, if the occasion called for it, to turn west toward Tasman's discovery, the west of New Zealand.
With Cook in the Endeavour sailed Joseph Banks, a wealthy man devoted to botanical and other scientific observations, a Fellow of the Royal Society, whose journal of the voyage is an outstanding record. Another noteworthy associate was D. C. Solander, also a Fellow of the Royal Society. Lieutenant Zachary Hicks was second in command under Cook. Sydney Parkinson, an artist, should also be mentioned, since he made some notable sketches of New Zealand scenes.
In August 1768 the Endeavour sailed from Plymouth. Built at Whitby, she was a “cat-built” bark, that is, a bluff-bowed, sturdy craft, like those in which Cook had sailed in his collier days. Observations of the transit of Venus were made at Tahiti and Cook then set about the second part of his task, to explore the waters to the south of Tahiti. With him, as a protég of Banks, went Tupaea, a Tahitian chief whose aid as an interpreter in New Zealand proved to be of the greatest value, and a Tahitian boy named Taiata.
Having sailed south to latitude 40° 22' S without seeing a continent or extensive islands, Cook came in sight of the North Island of New Zealand in latitude 38° 51' S on 7 October 1769. (Cook's dates are in nautical time from noon to noon without adjustment for westing.) On the ninth, having anchored in Poverty Bay near the site of Gisborne, Cook led a party ashore. On that day and the next the visitors were involved in skirmishes with the local Maoris, some of whom were killed. After three young Maoris, who had been kindly treated, were put ashore the Endeavour left Poverty Bay and followed the coast to the south.
Between Poverty Bay and Table Cape the Europeans had friendly encounters with the occupants of several canoes. Cook followed the coast of Hawke's Bay, passing close to the site of Napier, where the ship was approached by several canoes. Cape Kidnappers was so called because the occupants of one of a number of craft which came near the ship seized Taiata and tried to make off with him, desisting only when some of their number were shot. On reaching Cape Turnagain Cook decided to come north along the coast again. At intervals along the coast between Poverty Bay and Cape Turnagain villages and fires were observed. While passing Mahia Peninsula the ship was visited by two chiefs and three followers, who stayed overnight.
On 20 October the Endeavour passed Poverty Bay and anchored in Anaura Bay. Here the visitors were received in friendly fashion by the local Maoris, who gave them sweet potatoes and told them there were better watering facilities in a bay to the south, which Cook accordingly visited from the twenty-third to the twenty-ninth. This was Tolaga Bay. Here the inhabitants were again very friendly, trading fish and other commodities for beads and Tahitian cloth. The only four-footed animals were dogs and rats, the flesh of the former being used for food and the skins for clothing. The Maoris cultivated sweet potatoes and yams.
From Tolaga Bay Cook continued on to the north, rounding East Cape and seeing many villages and much cultivated land on the Bay of Plenty coast. Two lots of canoes, the occupants of which proved troublesome, were driven off by shots from the ship. As the Endeavour passed Motuhora it was followed for a time by a large double canoe. Numbers of palisaded villages and defensive works were observed. The ship entered Mercury Bay, where other canoes, whose inhabitants were regarded with suspicion by the Europeans, came near, but friendly relations were established with the local Maoris. Here Cook remained from 4 November to 15 November 1769. The transit of Mercury was observed on the ninth. Cook inspected the local pa and native weapons, giving descriptions of them; the Maoris confirmed that they ate their enemies. Before leaving Mercury Bay Cook took possession of the neighbourhood in the name of the King.
Leaving Mercury Bay Cook came round Cape Colville to the head of the Firth of Thames, having contacts both hostile and friendly with the occupants of canoes which came out to the ship. Cook and some companions visited a village near the mouth of the Waihou and went some way up the river, admiring the lofty trees which lined its banks, and seeing poles stuck up with nets for catching fish.
From the Firth of Thames Cook came north without penetrating the screens of islands fronting the Tamaki and Waitemata, or seeing Whangarei Harbour. In the neighbourhood of Cape Brett there were more contacts, some friendly and some less so, with the occupants of visiting canoes. Encountering head winds to the north of Cape Brett Cook took the ship into the Bay of Islands. Here, near Tapeka Point, the ship remained from 29 November until 5 December 1769. After initial skirmishes, which again provoked the use of muskets and guns, the Maoris of the bay became quite friendly and traded food for Tahitian cloth. Cook observed that the tree from which this type of cloth was made was present at the bay, but that local cloth appeared to be scarce. Sweet potatoes and yams were cultivated and fish were plentiful. Cook made visits to various parts of the bay. The inhabitants were numerous, both on the islands and on the mainland, and numbers of pas were observed.
From the Bay of Islands Cook resumed his northward coasting. After passing between the Cavalli Islands and the mainland coast the ship was visited by several canoes. Cook noted Doubtless Bay while passing it. Beyond Doubtless Bay some fish was bought from the occupants of visiting canoes. Cook struck variable winds off North Cape, during which time, without his knowing it, he passed the Saint Jean Baptiste, commanded by Jean de Surville, who stayed for a time at Doubtless Bay before resuming his voyage to the east. Having recognised the Three Kings from Tasman's discovery of them, Cook ran to the south along the west coast of the North Island and sighted Mount Egmont, which had not been seen by Tasman. No landing was made, nor canoes seen, until the ship reached Queen Charlotte Sound.
The Endeavour was at Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound from 16 January to 6 February 1770, during which time it was careened. Friendly relations were established with the inhabitants. Cook ascended some high points in the sound and saw what he thought was fairly certainly a passage to the east to the open sea. This was confirmed by a Maori informant. On 31 January Cook took possession of the sound and adjacent lands in the name of the King.
After completing his traverse of Cook Strait Cook proved that the North Island was in fact an island by sailing north until Cape Turnagain was sighted. He then sailed south along the east coast of the South Island. Off Kaikoura Peninsula some canoes came off to the ship. Cook rounded Banks Peninsula and saw the entrance to Akaroa Harbour, but thought the Peninsula itself was an island. He stood off the coast for a time in order to dispose of a fancied sighting of land to the east by one of his officers, and then came west to the coast again. He saw Cape Saunders and Saddle Hill on Otago Peninsula, but did not enter Otago Harbour, although he might have seen the approaches to it. After passing the Traps, Cook coasted Stewart Island on the south side without establishing its insularity, although Hicks, his second in command, concluded that it was divided by a strait from the mainland. Cook tried to get into Dusky Sound, but gave up. He saw the entrance to Doubtful Sound, but did not enter it. On or about 19 March Cook came to the area of Tasman's landfall near the site of Hokitika. Having rounded Farewell Spit Cook watered in Admiralty Bay.
On 1 April 1770 Cook quitted New Zealand on his way to his discovery of the east coast of the Australian continent. In his Journal he gave a summary of his ethnological observations of the Maoris – their animals, ornaments, appearance, tattooing, clothing, warfare and weapons, cannibalism, foods and fishing, canoes, houses, tools, musical instruments, dances, mourning, and language.
On his second voyage to the Pacific Cook, now a captain, came in the Resolution from the west to Dusky Sound, which he entered on 26 March 1773. Here he made friends with the local Maoris and made notes of their ways of life and natural environment. On 11 May Cook regained the open sea and, on the nineteenth, reached Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound, where he found his second ship, the Adventure, commanded by Tobias Furneaux, who had been separated from him earlier in the voyage.
After renewing his acquaintance with the Maoris of the Sound, Cook, on 7 June 1773, sailed with Furneaux for the Society Islands. Here two Tahitians, Hitihiti and Mae (better known as Omai), joined the expedition. While coming west from the Society Islands Cook discovered, on 23 September 1773, another piece of New Zealand territory, the Hervey Islands (Manuae and Te Au o Tu), in the Southern Cooks. After visiting Tonga the Resolution and Adventure sailed south. On 21 October 1773 Cook came once again in sight of New Zealand near Table Cape. On 30 October Furneaux in the Adventure became separated from the Resolution and returned eventually to England without rejoining Cook, taking Omai with him. On 3 November 1773 Cook tried to get into the entrance to Wellington Harbour, but gave up when the tide turned. After revisiting Queen Charlotte Sound from 3 November to 25 November he sailed to the east, proving finally that there was no continent or extensive islands to the east of New Zealand. Later in the voyage Cook made two more contributions to the discovery of New Zealand when, on 16 and 17 June 1774, he passed close to Palmerston Island in the Southern Cooks and, on 21 June, saw Niue, where he landed at two places, but found his advances resisted by the islanders. On 17 October 1774 Cook once again saw New Zealand near Cape Egmont and, on 18 October, anchored in Queen Charlotte Sound, sailing thence on 10 November 1774. Notable associates of Cook on this voyage are John Reinhold Forster and George Forster, natural historians, and William (James) Hodges, official artist.
Cook's third voyage to the Pacific was made with the Resolution and Discovery. William Anderson was natural historian and John Webber official artist. With Cook was Omai, who was returned later in the voyage to the Society Islands. Coming from the west Cook reached Queen Charlotte Sound on 12 February 1777, where he remained until 25 February. In his Journal Cook included Anderson's notes on Queen Charlotte Sound and its inhabitants. Proceeding for Tahiti the expedition saw Mangaia in the Southern Cooks on 29 March 1777. Here observations of the inhabitants were made, although there was no landing. On 31 March Cook discovered Atiu, where Anderson and Omai, with two of Cook's officers, on going ashore, met with a friendly reception from the islanders, of whom they recorded valuable ethnological data. A landing party visited Takutea, which had been previously seen close to Atiu. On 6 April Cook passed close to the Hervey Islands – seen on the previous voyage – where some canoes came out to the ship. Cook then ran west for Tonga. On 14 April a landing party inspected Palmerston Island, discovered on the previous voyage. This was Cook's last sight of New Zealand territory. Later in the voyage, on 14 February 1779, Cook was killed by the inhabitants of Kealakakua Bay, Hawaii.
James Cook is a figure of paramount importance in the history of New Zealand, not only because of his discovery of most of the coasts of its main islands and of most of the Southern Cooks and Niue, but also because his discovery of New South Wales opened up the way to the British settlement both of New South Wales and of the main islands of New Zealand. His character and training and the great occasions that presented themselves for the display of his practical genius as navigator and shrewd observer combined to make him the foremost figure in the exploration of the Pacific and, in particular, of the New Zealand area. His ethnological observations of the inhabitants of that area provide records of their material culture and customs at the time of European contact.
by Charles Andrew Sharp, B.A.(OXON.), M.A.(N.Z.), Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Life of Captain Cook, Carrington, H. (1939)
- The Journals of Captain James Cook, Beaglehole, J. C. (ed. 2 vols., 1955–61)
- A Voyage Towards the South Pole, Cook, J. (1777)
- A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, Cook, J. (2 vols., 1784).