James Cook (1728
) was one of the greatest in a long line of English
explorers. Cook led three famous expeditions to the Pacific Ocean
) during which he made many important discoveries. Among his major achievements were the charting of New Zealand
), the disproving of the theory that there was a massive southern continent
, and the discovery of the Hawaii
Cook was born to humble family in a Yorkshire village in 1728. Apprenticed as a teenager to a shopkeeper in the town of Staithes, Cook quickly grew bored. One day he got up and left, walking thirteen miles over the cliff to the port of Whitby, where he found a collier and offered his services as a mate.
Cook found the life of a seaman to his liking, and when Seven Years War broke out, he volunteered for the Navy and was sent to fight the French in the Americas. Cook distinguished himself as a leader and found himself in command of his first ship, the Mercury. Cook became known in the navy for his mapping and surveying skills, so when the government was looking for a man to command a voyage to the Pacific to observe the course of Venus, Cook was chosen. His new ship, the Endeavour, set sail from Plymouth with a company of 85 in 1768.
On this first voyage Cook discovered and named the Society Islands, made the first accurate maps of New Zealand, and charted the east coast of Australia before an attack of malaria killed a third of the crew and forced the ship back to England.
The voyage was considered a great success, and in 1772 Cook received a new commission, "to complete the discovery of the Southern Hemisphere." Given command of two ships, the Resolution and the Adventure, Cook explored Antarctica, circumnavigating it to show that it was vastly smaller than cartographers had believed. When Cook returned to England in 1775, his his voyage had covered a longer distance than any previous sea voyage.
By now Cook was a national celebrity. He stayed in Britain briefly to give talks and receive numerous awards and medals, but less than a year later he was back at sea, again in command of the Resolution. On this voyage he brought with him an outstanding young navigator named William Bligh, who was to later face mutiny as captain of the Bounty. Sailing across the Pacific, Cook discovered Hawaii, which he named the Sandwich Islands, and reached the coast of North America in the spring of 1778. That summer Cook explored the coast up from Oregon, through the Bering Strait to the Icy Cape but never found the non-existent ice-free passage he sought. Cook turned back for Hawaii.
The Hawiian natives were celebrating a great victory when they arrived, and allegedly mistook the Englishmen for their god Lono and his immortal company. Scholars have debated this, but what is known is that a great feast was offered to Cook and his company. According to the story, the islanders became suspicious when one of Cook's supposedly "immortal" men died and was buried on the island. A quarrel broke out and Cook decided to sail away.
Fatefully, the Resolution sprung her foremast, a week out of Hawaii, and Cook had to turn back to make repairs. Trouble began immediately when the islanders stole a small boat. Cook came ashore with a small force to retrieve the boat, but as he was landing the natives rushed down onto the beach hurling stones and spears while Cook's men began firing. Cook was struck in the spine by a spear and fell dead into the water.