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Story: Cook, James

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Cook, James


Naval officer, cartographer, navigator, explorer

This biography, written by David Mackay, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. It was updated in November, 2007.

According to reliable sources James Cook was born on 27 October 1728 at Marton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire, England; he was baptised on 3 November that year. He was the second child of James Cook, a Scottish day labourer, and his wife, Grace Pace. He attended the Postgate School at Great Ayton in Yorkshire and at the age of 17 was apprenticed to William Sanderson, a haberdasher at Staithes, on the North Sea coast. In 1746 he moved to the port of Whitby, where he was apprenticed to the ship owner and coal shipper John Walker. As a sailor in the North Sea coal trade the young Cook was to familiarise himself with the type of vessel which, years later, he would employ on his epic voyages of discovery.

By December 1752 Cook had risen to the position of mate and in 1755 was offered the command of a collier. Instead, on 17 June, he took the unusual step of volunteering into the navy as an able seaman. He enlisted on the 60 gun ship Eagle, on patrol in the English Channel. Within two years he had risen to the position of master and in October 1757 he was shifted to the Pembroke, a 64 gun ship, which was sent to support the war effort against the French in North America. Cook spent the next 10 years in these waters, taking part in the siege of Louisbourg in 1758, and the capture of Quebec the following year. It was on the North American station that he developed the surveying and navigational skills which were to serve him so well in the Pacific. Under the tutelage of Samuel Holland, a military surveyor, he learned the techniques of trigonometrical survey, and developed a capacity for compiling charts and sets of sailing directions, and for taking plans and views, which he applied in the charting of the St Lawrence River.

James Cook married Elizabeth Batts in Barking, Essex, on 21 December 1762; of their six children, three were to die in infancy. In April 1763 James Cook was appointed to a special position as surveyor of Newfoundland, and in May he embarked in the Antelope for St John's. The task was to occupy five summers and the quality of this work was remarkable for its precision, comprehensiveness and consistency. Cook was already displaying those attributes which were to become synonymous with his name, and which were to be revealed to the full in his survey of New Zealand. As his reputation grew he enhanced his standing with the Admiralty, and began to attract useful patrons, such as the governor of Newfoundland, Sir Hugh Palliser, and fellows of the Royal Society of London.

Before Cook could complete the Newfoundland survey he was appointed to a new command. In February 1768 the Royal Society petitioned the government to send observers 'to the Southwards of the Equinoctial Line' to observe the passage of the planet Venus across the disc of the sun. A pattern of accurate observations at points around the globe would help to determine the distance of the earth from the sun, and from the earth to Venus. In April Cook was appointed to command this expedition; Tahiti, recently discovered by Samuel Wallis, provided an ideal location for the observation. This was the primary objective of Cook's first voyage. The secondary one was the search for the great southern continent, supposed to lie below Lat. 40° S.

Cook was promoted to first lieutenant on 25 May 1768 and on 26 August left Plymouth in command of the barque Endeavour, an ex-collier similar to the ones in which he had plied the North Sea. On board was the young scientist Joseph Banks with his retinue of natural historians and artists. This was to be the first of three voyages into the Pacific Ocean during the progress of which the land of New Zealand was to play a vital role as a base for refreshment and refitting.

Sailing by way of Cape Horn, Cook reached Tahiti on 13 April 1769, where he stayed almost four months. During this time the observation of the transit of Venus was made, the islands surveyed and the crew refreshed. Sailing south on 9 August, Cook began the search for the southern continent, sighting on 6 October what Tasman had described as 'a large land, uplifted high' – New Zealand. His landfall was at Poverty Bay, near present day Gisborne. Cook's relationship with the Māori got off to a disastrous start two days later when he went ashore with Banks on the east side of the Tūranganui River. One warrior was killed in a confused encounter and the next day others were wounded and killed. During the Endeavour's stay at Poverty Bay Banks and his assistant, Daniel Solander, began collecting specimens of New Zealand flora. Their collections provided a rich source of material for scientists, although Banks's intention of publishing a full, illustrated account of them was never realised. Under the terms of his will, the collection eventually found its way to the British Museum. The Endeavour voyage initiated a connection with New Zealand and the Pacific which Banks maintained until his death in 1820.

Leaving Poverty Bay, Cook turned south along the east coast as far as Cape Turnagain, before retracing his route north to Poverty Bay, then around East Cape to the Coromandel Peninsula. Putting into Mercury Bay, he observed the transit of Mercury near the beach which now carries his name. On 15 November the Endeavour passed around Cape Colville and into the Hauraki Gulf, before heading north up the coast to the Bay of Islands. Cook spent a week in this bay, which was to become the first site of permanent European settlement. In attempting to round the northernmost tip of New Zealand, he encountered furious gales off Cape Maria Van Diemen which caused him to miss what would have been a historic encounter with the French explorer J. F. M. de Surville, heading in the opposite direction. Surviving the gales, Cook sailed rapidly down the west coast of the North Island to Queen Charlotte Sound.

The anchorage in Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound, was to be a base on all three voyages, but was pivotal in the second. Cook certainly had a firm attachment to the place, providing as it did a safe anchorage, save for the occasional williwaw, bountiful food and refreshment, plentiful timber for spars and a suitable beach on which to haul up the ship. After tense confrontations with the Māori people of the North Island, he also seemed more trustful and relaxed in his dealings with the local tribes.

After refitting in the sound, Cook continued his circumnavigation of New Zealand by passing through the strait which was later to bear his name, coasting down the east coast of the South Island, rounding the southern tip of Rakiura (Stewart Island) and proceeding up the West Coast. This part of the survey was conducted entirely from the ship, as Cook did not land between leaving Ship Cove and putting into Admiralty Bay in the Marlborough Sounds for wood and water on 27 March 1770. On 1 April the Endeavour headed west towards the east coast of Australia, which was sighted at Point Hicks on the 19th. Sailing northwards, Cook charted this coast for the first time, narrowly escaping disaster on the Barrier Reef, before passing through Torres Strait and sailing on to Batavia (Jakarta) where he arrived on 11 October. Here the Endeavour experienced the first serious cases of illness during her voyage, when her complement was depleted by malaria and dysentery. Leaving this unhealthy spot towards the end of December, the Endeavour sailed for England, anchoring in the Downs on 13 July 1771.

Despite the magnificent achievements of the charting of New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia, Cook's secondary objective, the discovery of the southern continent, had not been realised. In September 1771 the government gave orders for the setting up of a further expedition to resolve this question, and Cook was the natural choice as commander. Two colliers were selected for the voyage: the Resolution, commanded by Cook, and the smaller Adventure, commanded by Tobias Furneaux. After Joseph Banks stormed out of the expedition because of what he regarded as the inadequacy of the accommodation on board, the German scientist Johann Reinhold Forster and his young son, Georg, were appointed. Although temperamentally and constitutionally unsuited to shipboard life, Johann Forster was the most professional and systematic of the natural historians appointed to Cook's ships. In the course of the voyage he developed a range of theories on ice formation, vulcanism, island development and ethnology. He was an accurate and detailed observer, and an assiduous collector, particularly of zoological specimens. His lengthy manuscript journal is a rich source of ethnographic as well as natural history detail and formed the basis for his Observations made during a voyage round the world (1778). The ships sailed from Plymouth one year to the day after the Endeavour's return.

Cook himself drafted a blueprint for this expedition, in which Queen Charlotte Sound was to be the operational base for three sweeps low into Antarctic waters. After the first such sweep into the south Indian Ocean, the Adventure anchored in Ship Cove, while Cook in the Resolution took the opportunity to explore Dusky Sound, which he had noted but sailed past in 1770. In the autumn of 1773 more than six weeks were spent in this dramatic fiord, which was thoroughly explored and charted, and captured in some vivid landscapes by the artist William Hodges. In mid May the Resolution sailed north to join the Adventure in Ship Cove.

Before embarking on the Pacific branch of his Antarctic probe, Cook made use of the winter to take the two vessels north to the Tuamotu group, and Tahiti. In Tahiti he took on board Omai, who was to create extraordinary interest after the Resolution's return to England. On their passage back to Ship Cove the two vessels were separated off Cape Palliser and the Adventure was driven north and out to sea. By the time the Adventure eventually made the sound, the Resolution had already departed, and after a disastrous sojourn in Queen Charlotte Sound, during which members of the crew were killed, the Adventure returned to England via Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.

The Antarctic voyage in the summer of 1773–74 took the Resolution to Lat. 71° 10′ S, where on 30 January 1774 further progress was made impossible by pack-ice. No person was to sail further south than this before the voyage of James Weddell, in the ships Jane and Beaufoy, 50 years later. These probes into frigid southern latitudes finally dispelled the myth of a great southern continent espoused by theorists, such as the geographer Alexander Dalrymple.

In the southern winter of 1774 Cook carried out a remarkable survey of the Pacific Ocean, including Easter Island, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Niue, Tonga, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia and Norfolk Island. This voyage filled many of the remaining vacant spaces in maps of that ocean, and some of the charting, such as that of the New Hebrides, matched the superb quality achieved in the survey of New Zealand. The Resolution once again refitted in Ship Cove before exploring the south Atlantic and returning to England via the Cape of Good Hope.

James Cook's final voyage was in pursuit of another geographical myth, a north-west passage linking Europe and the East. Sailing with two vessels, the Resolution and a new sloop, the Discovery, he left Plymouth on 12 July 1776, reaching Ship Cove via the Cape of Good Hope. This was to be his last visit to New Zealand, and the ships were in Queen Charlotte Sound from 12 to 25 February 1777, refitting and refreshing. During this visit Cook endeavoured to unravel the events surrounding the killing of 10 of the Adventure's crew in 1773, and additional precautions were taken against the possibility of a Māori attack. From Ship Cove the vessels headed north to Tahiti and the Hawaiian islands, before surveying the northern Pacific coasts of America and Siberia. Returning to Hawaii to refresh in the northern summer of 1778–79, James Cook was killed in an avoidable incident with the islanders at Kealakekua Bay on 14 February 1779. The voyage was completed initially under the command of Charles Clerke, who himself died of tuberculosis at Kamchatka in 1779, and then under John Gore.

James Cook has left a permanent imprint on the consciousness of New Zealanders. Districts, suburbs, schools, hotels, motels, banknotes and consumer products bear his name and likeness. Of more enduring importance, he named more coastal landmarks than any other person, and his own name is attached to two of the country's most significant geographical features, as well as many minor ones. His voyage in the Endeavour defined the outline of the country for the first time and provided charts which were to serve navigators for many decades after his death. These charts were constructed principally by running survey from the ship, requiring a constant attention to compass bearings and sextant angles. Although there were minor defects – Banks Peninsula was thought to be an island and Rakiura thought to be a peninsula – the charts were, in the words of the French explorer Julien Crozet, 'of an exactitude and of a thoroughness of detail which astonished me beyond all powers of expression, and I doubt much whether the charts of our own French coasts are laid down with greater precision'.

Cook spent a total of 328 days on the coast of New Zealand during his three voyages, considerably longer than at his other regular stopping place at Tahiti. Daily events were meticulously recorded in his logs and journals, and the principal artists on his ships, Sydney Parkinson, William Hodges and John Webber, compiled a striking visual record. All three expeditions were accompanied by natural historians – Joseph Banks and Daniel Charles Solander, the Forsters, father and son, and David Nelson – and their collections with accompanying drawings provided a systematic record of the flora and fauna. Few countries newly discovered by Europeans have been so richly documented and described, and the product is a corpus of knowledge which has kept scientists, historians and anthropologists busy ever since.

Cook's relations with the Māori were frequently taut and ambivalent. He made every effort to avoid bloodshed and yet Māori were killed on all but the third voyage. At least eight were shot during the Endeavour voyage, and two during the voyages of the Resolution and Adventure, although to be fair to Cook the incident of the second voyage involved Furneaux's crew rather than his own, and happened while he was far out to sea. Drawing on his tragic first experience in Poverty Bay, Cook evolved a policy of race relations aimed at facilitating the surveying work and refreshing of the ships, while avoiding friction with the Māori. The principles were to demonstrate early on the power of firearms, so as to establish clear superiority, to be constantly on guard, and then to be scrupulously honest and gentle in dealings with indigenous people. To this end Cook severely punished members of his crew who knowingly stole from the Māori or interfered with their material possessions. This rather paternal policy, developed in New Zealand, was to shape his encounters with other Pacific peoples.

Māori origins, and indeed the enormous oceanic spread of Polynesian peoples, were questions which fascinated but perplexed Cook throughout the voyages. In general he viewed the Māori as a noble, ingenious, artistic, brave, open, but warlike people. He recognised their internal divisions, but nevertheless was tempted into looking for a paramount chief or king to whom all would owe allegiance. His descriptions of the social and cultural differences from one part of New Zealand to another were perceptive, and he sought to account for variations in prosperity between the southern tribes and those of the North Island. Along with all European observers over the next five decades, Cook struggled to come to terms with the fact of cannibalism, which at once fascinated and horrified. He had difficulty reconciling the practice with the general state of Māori civilisation, but concluded philosophically that ancient customs died hard. Few of his crew were able to take such a dispassionate view.

As with the Tahitians and later the Hawaiians, Cook lamented the deleterious effects which contacts with his own crews were having, detecting a decline in Māori morality over the period of the three voyages. He saw this as a universal curse which Europeans imparted to indigenous peoples: 'what is still more to our Shame civilized Christians, we debauch their Morals already too prone to vice and we interduce [sic] among them wants and perhaps diseases which they never before knew and which serves only to disturb that happy tranquillity they and their fore Fathers had injoy'd.'

At Mercury Bay and Queen Charlotte Sound Cook took possession of each site 'and the adjacent lands'. This was a routine procedure which did not necessarily apply to the country as a whole, but Cook does not seem to have sought the consent of the indigenous people, as his instructions required him to do. He regarded New Zealand as ideal for European settlement, singling out the Thames Valley and Bay of Islands as the most suitable spots: 'In short was this Country settled by an Industrus [sic] people they would very soon be supply'd not only with the necessarys but many of the luxuries of life'. He was adept at exploiting New Zealand resources; for example, using wild celery and scurvy-grass for their antiscorbutic qualities, rimu to brew spruce beer and manuka for brooms and brushes.

In his charting of New Zealand and dealings with the Māori, Cook displayed his excellence as a navigator, and his essential humanity. He has been called a genius of the matter of fact; a systematic, professional and thorough explorer, who knew just how far to take his ships and his men. As a navigator he was highly original, accepting little on faith. As a sailing-ship seaman, he was without equal. His shipboard journals provide a remarkable record of his voyages and show him maturing as an individual, reaching a pinnacle in the second voyage, which was arguably the supreme achievement of marine exploration.

His humanity was apparent in his concern for the health of his crews and his efforts to fight off scurvy and other diseases. In his relations with indigenous peoples he was essentially a creature of his time, carrying to the Pacific a compassionate version of British concepts of justice, which he endeavoured to adapt to new circumstances. Viewing the voyages in their totality, this concept served him well, but when in the final voyage he departed from these precepts, the result was his own tragic death.

How to cite this page:

David Mackay. 'Cook, James', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990, updated November, 2007. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1c25/cook-james (accessed 22 July 2024)