Captain Cook  —  Alan York — 2nd February 2015

James Cook, RN, FRS never took part in an great battles but is famous for three voy­ages that solved three major prob­lems of the age.

  1. He was able to accur­ately fix lon­git­ude using lunar sight­ings. (At that time they did not have clocks that were reli­able at sea.)
  2. There was a strong belief among sci­ent­ists that there was a vast Southern con­tin­ent that bal­anced the Northern land mass. This ‘con­tin­ent’ was marked on all maps!
    James Cook proved that the south­ern Pacific was mainly empty of dry land.
  3. Cook proved that he could keep his crews healthy by elim­in­at­ing scurvy. Using the method devised by Lindt, that included high levels of Vitamin C in the diet. Cook’s ship  spent seven months at sea without one sailor dying of scurvy.

James Cook was an unlikely can­did­ate for a ship’s cap­tain.  He came from the bottom of the class struc­ture.  His father was a farm labourer and James worked with him from the age of eight.   His father was an able man and became bailiff at a nearby manor.
The lord of the manor saw that James was an intel­li­gent boy and sent him to school.

At 16 James went to Staithes to work in a grocer’s shop. At 18 he decided that he wanted to go to sea.  He became a crew member on a Whitby col­lier owned by the Walkers.  He worked for 9 years sail­ing around the coasts, rivers and ports of England and learned ship-handling, seaman­ship and nav­ig­a­tion.  John Walker  offered him the job of cap­tain of a new col­lier but instead Cook joined the Royal Navy.

He signed on as an ordin­ary seaman but in five weeks had become ship’s master’s mate. (The ship’s master was second only to the cap­tain in rank.)  He learned more about nav­ig­a­tion and the math­em­at­ics involved in it and became well respec­ted and valued.
In 1757 he qual­i­fied to become a ship’s master at the age of 27 and became master of the  ‘Pembroke’.

At Cape Breton Island he noticed a man called Holland sur­vey­ing and his cap­tain per­mit­ted him to work with Holland, learn­ing the skills of sur­vey­ing and chart-drawing.
Cook took a lead­ing part in get­ting a fleet up the St. Lawrence river to Quebec in the war with the French and was made master of the Admiral’s flag­ship.
He came back to England in 1762 and got mar­ried, although from then until his death in 1779 he spent only four years at home with his wife.

In 1763 he was given com­mand of a naval schooner and ordered to survey Newfoundland.
His very accur­ate charts were still in use 100 years later.  He sent a report on a lunar eclipse to the Admiralty that came to the notice of the Royal Society.
He also had an acci­dent with a powder horn and lost a finger and scarred his hand.

Royal Society astro­nomers knew that in 1769 Venus would transit across the Sun.
The Navy bought a Whitby col­lier to take an obser­va­tion party to Tahiti.  The col­lier cost  £2800 and was renamed HM Bark Endeavour.  Colliers were broad-beamed with an almost flat bottom because they often had to be beached when load­ing and unload­ing.  This qual­ity could be essen­tial when making land­fall on Pacific island beaches.  James Cook was chosen  as cap­tain because of his exper­i­ence with col­li­ers and his impress­ive lunar eclipse report to the Admiralty.  The Royal Society’s astro­nomer, Dalrymple, said he should be in com­mand but the Navy said that, as he was a civil­ian, that was not pos­sible.
The ship had a crew of 94.  There was also the tech­nical party from the RS and a bot­an­ist, called Banks, who had paid the Admiralty £15,000 to allow him and his entour­age sail on the voyage.

Cook and his crew were guinea pigs in a vital exper­i­ment to test the Vitamin C diet for the pre­ven­tion of scurvy.  They were to include citrus fruits or juices and greens (even pickled greens like sauerkraut) in their diet.

He was ordered to Tahiti for the transit of Venus, then to sail south to con­firm the exist­ence of the Great Southern Continent.  His instruc­tions were to cul­tiv­ate friendly rela­tions with the inhab­it­ants of the Pacific islands.  All other naval ves­sels were to give help to the exped­i­tion and even the Dutch, French and Spanish were told that this was a peace­ful, non-military, import­ant exped­i­tion and should be given safe pas­sage.

The Endeavour sailed from Portsmouth, stopped at Madeira to pick up 3000 gal­lons of Madeira wine, then on towards South America.  They hoped to make land­fall at Rio-de-Janeiro but were regarded with sus­pi­cion and not allowed into port.  Cook ordered the ship to sail south, around Cape Horn and straight across the pacific to Tahiti.  They sailed  7 months without land­fall and arrived in Tahiti more than a week ahead of sched­ule.
This amaz­ing feat showed that James Cook was a master seaman and nav­ig­ator.  It also con­firmed that the anti-scurvy diet (plus the ship’s hygiene routines) worked, because not one crew member had died of scurvy on the voyage.

(Cook had some dif­fi­culty in get­ting the crew to keep to the diet.  They did not like sauerkraut and would not eat it, so he ordered it to be part of the officers’ daily diet but made it avail­able to the crew if they wanted it.  Once the crew thought that it was “officer food”  that they were miss­ing out on, they began to eat it even if they didn’t like it.  Cook’s exper­i­ence as an ordin­ary seaman had paid off!)

Cook landed the tech­nical party  and Bank’s group on Tahiti.  A small crew of Marines was landed to build a stock­ade.  This was not because the Tahitians were unfriendly – in fact they were too friendly!  The women were beau­ti­ful, only half dressed and their cul­ture regarded sexual activ­it­ies as recre­ational.  Cook did not want his crew to be on land for too long as he was very con­cerned about VD because a sick crew member cannot stand his watch.
The ship lost almost all its stock of iron nails because metals were non-existent on Tahiti
and metals became valu­able trad­ing mater­i­als among the islanders, and could be used by the crew to buy sexual favours.  Also, there was no concept of per­sonal prop­erty among the islanders so any­thing left unguarded tended to dis­ap­pear.

The tech­nical party made good sight­ings of the transit of Venus, but Cook was not pleased with his own.
On 13th April 1769  the Endeavour left Tahiti and sailed south into very cold con­di­tions but did not find the ‘Southern Continent’, so they sailed west to New Zealand.  The Maoris were viol­ent and chal­lenged, killed and ate anyone who landed.  They landed away from danger and the bot­an­ists col­lec­ted many spe­ci­mens that were very valu­able when they got home.  Cook sur­veyed the coasts of New Zealand then went west to Australia and sur­veyed the coast from the south to the north (but did not find Sydney Harbour!!)
Endeavour ran aground on the Barrier Reef and the crew had to throw over­board 50 tons of cargo to keep afloat.  They strapped a sail under the keel and limped into Endeavour River for repairs.  They made it to Jakarta where the Dutch refit­ted the ship.
Cook sent copies of his charts of New Zealand and Australia to the Admiralty from Batavia.
His reports on the voyage and the botan­ical spe­ci­mens were abso­lutely invalu­able to the RS, the Natural History Museum, Kew Gardens etc.