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.
- He was able to accurately fix longitude using lunar sightings. (At that time they did not have clocks that were reliable at sea.)
- 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.
- 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.