James Cook: The Navigator Who Explored More Uncharted Waters Than Anyone In History

Published November 16, 2019
Updated November 18, 2019

Captain James Cook sailed for the benefit of science and to expand the British Empire. He is arguably history's most accomplished navigator but he left behind a complicated legacy.

James Cook

Wikimedia CommonsCaptain James Cook

Born the son of a farm laborer, James Cook did not seem destined for adventure, much less fame. However, a fateful voyage to Tahiti to measure an extremely-rare celestial event known as the Transit of Venus led him to become one of history’s greatest explorers and navigators.

He sailed farther than any man of his time, discovered New Zealand, and cemented his place history — before dying in macabre fashion on the unconquered island that would become Hawaii.

James Cook, The Ambitious Farmer’s Son


Wikimedia CommonsThe seaside village of Staithes, where a young James Cook was apprenticed to be a shopkeeper, introduced him to the sea. Within two years, Cook had joined the merchant marines and was on his way to a legendary career in the British navy.

James Cook was born on October 27, 1728, in the Yorkshire countryside of England. His father was a farm laborer who later managed to obtain a position as a farm overseer, and in the 18th century, there was little reason to think that the son would rise much farther beyond his father.

The younger Cook was born at a time when social class was both highly unequal and extremely fossilized in British society: farm laborers’ sons were all but destined to become laborers themselves. Cook was fortunate enough, though, to receive a primary education.

Showing an aptitude for mathematics, this gave him the chance to apprentice himself to a shop owner in the seaside village of Staithes. Cook still felt discontented, however, and Staithes introduced him to the comings and goings of ships at the docks with a promise of a wider world beyond.

So it’s no surprise that 18 months later, he left to join the merchant marines. There his aptitude for numbers paid off and he was able to learn navigation, higher mathematics, and astronomy. His natural ability and dogged determination enabled him to become a mate in 1752.

He could have remained on this new track he was cutting for himself — as he was well on his way to becoming a master of a ship in his own right — but Cook’s ambitions aimed even higher still.

The Early Naval Career Of James Cook

In 1755, at age 26, James Cook joined the Royal Navy as an enlisted seaman. This was highly unorthodox for the era, and it would have looked strange for Cook to do this, as it would put him lower in rank than boys as young as 14. It was also odd since life in the Royal Navy was highly disciplined and was in many ways harder than serving in the merchant fleet.

Map Of The Siege Of Quebec 1759

Historic Maps Collection/Princeton UniversityA map of the siege of Quebec, where James Cook distinguished himself early on in his naval career by diligently surveying the waterways that allowed the British navy to safely sail through in force, setting the stage for the French defeat in the French and Indian War.

But Cook persisted, believing that it was through the Royal Navy that he could achieve more recognition and status. It didn’t take long before he started rising through the ranks. Within a year, the navy promoted Cook to boatswain; within two, he became the master of his own ship.

Perhaps the greatest demonstration of his skill at this time was during the French and Indian War. In 1759, Cook surveyed the French-controlled St. Lawrence Seaway for several weeks — under the cover of darkness and within range of French artillery — in preparation for a British attack on Quebec. His maps were of such quality that they enabled the British to sail a fleet of 200 ships up the seaway without incident and launch the successful attack that eventually led to British control of French Canada.

Cook’s Navy career had been brilliant up to this point, but his personal life is less well-documented. In 1762, he married Elizabeth Batts but history does not say much about their marriage, other than their having six children together; none of whom lived past early adulthood. The couple rarely saw each other as Cook was almost always at sea.

The 1761 And 1769 Transits of Venus

John Montagu

Wikimedia Commons John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who nominated James Cook to lead the expedition to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus in 1769.

In 1766, Hugh Palliser and John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, nominated Captain James Cook for a special assignment, one that would forever put his mark on history.

The Royal Society in Britain was seeking a captain who could lead a voyage to Tahiti, an island in the South Pacific, to observe the transit of Venus. This event, where an observer on Earth can see the planet Venus passing in front of the Sun, is an exceptionally rare phenomenon — since the invention of the telescope more than 400-years-ago, the transit of Venus has occurred just seven times.

While an interesting phenomenon in itself, what made this particular transit of Venus special was that in 1716, the famed British scientist Edmond Halley published a paper that showed how data collected during this event from several observers around the world could be used to calculate the parallax of the Sun [PDF]. That, in turn, was the most accurate way to determine the mean distance between the Sun and the Earth, a number that would finally reveal the true scale of the solar system in astronomical models.

Halley called for scientists around the world to make observing the next two transits of Venus — predicted to occur in 1761 and again in 1769 — an international priority. Halley would not live to see it himself, he died in 1742, but the scientific community took the challenge seriously.

Transit Of Venus

Ed Shipul/FlickrThe planet Venus is seen passing in front of the Sun in 2012. The next transit that we can see from Earth will be in 2117.

An attempt to observe the 1761 transit, however, produced insufficient data to make the necessary calculations of the parallax, which meant that the 1769 transit was critical. The next chance to observe the phenomenon wouldn’t come for over a century.

Unfortunately, the Royal Society in Britain did not have the funding to mount such an ambitious enterprise, so they appealed to the Britsh government for help. The government quickly agreed to do so — though mostly for their own reasons, as would soon become apparent.

Captain Cook took command of the HMS Endeavour, a 106-foot collier converted for the long voyage. It had a crew of 94 men, including a team of scientists, chief of whom was Joseph Banks, a 25-year old botanist who was quickly becoming a preeminent figure in scientific circles.

Just before Cook set out, the Admiralty gave him a sealed set of secret instructions that he was to open after the observation of the transit of Venus was complete.

The Endeavour set sail on August 26, 1768, passing around Cape Horn in South America and entered into the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Altogether, it would take the Endeavour about eight months to reach Tahiti.

How Captain Cook Helped The British Conquer Scurvy

Having begun his career as an enlisted seaman himself, James Cook was particularly concerned with the health of the crew during the voyage.

One of the great afflictions of mariners at that time was scurvy, a disease that caused sore joints, poor appetite, bleeding gums, lassitude, and loose teeth. Ultimately, it led to death through infection and bleeding.

The cause of scurvy, then unknown, was a lack of vitamin C in the diet. While a sailor’s diet of salted meat, salted fish, cheese, butter, rancid oil, biscuits, and dried vegetables had adequate calories of up to 3,000 per day, it was vitamin deficient.

The most notorious example of the scurvy menace was Commodore George Anson’s 1740-1744 circumnavigation of the globe. Beginning with 1,854 men [PDF], he returned with only 188 and of those who died, the vast majority died from scurvy.

Sir Joseph Banks Portrait

Wikimedia CommonsPortrait of Sir Joseph Banks by Benjamin West. Banks accompanied Cook on his first voyage and his knowledge of botany helped Cook protect the crew of the Endeavour against scurvy.

Cook tested different anti-scorbutic — or anti-scurvy — drinks and foods on the crew coupled with regular exercise. Despite grumblings, he forced them to eat quantities of onions and sauerkraut, which were thought to be beneficial.

More importantly, he ordered the harvesting of fresh, local greens that Joseph Banks had identified as helpful from the various ports and places that they landed on the journey. It would be the fresh greens that Cook diligently provisioned throughout his three voyages that kept his crews almost completely scurvy free.

It was a remarkable achievement, although it took some time for the Admiralty to develop a more efficient treatment for scurvy than fresh produce, which couldn’t be stored aboard a ship for weeks at a time. Eventually, a daily ration of lime juice proved an effective solution leading to British sailors to be called limeys — but scurvy-free limeys all the same.

Captain Cook And Joseph Banks Observe The Transit

James Cook's Drawing Of The Transit Of Venus

NASACaptain James Cook’s drawing of the transit of Venus on June 3, 1769.

The Endeavour reached Tahiti on April 13, 1769. From then until the June 3 transit, the British enjoyed good relations with the Tahitians, despite occasional instances of theft since metal was a greatly desired commodity in the Pacific islands.

A quadrant meant to take the observations of the transit of Venus was stolen at one point, and a search party found the thieves who had dismantled the equipment. Fortunately, Joseph Banks was able to reassemble the quadrant in time for the transit.

Banks and Cook recorded the times and positions of Venus as it ingressed and egressed the solar disk on June 3, 1769, which would be used later by scientists along with the data from other observers to determine the solar parallax. Cook recorded the moment of the transit in his journal:

“This day prov’d as favourable to our purpose as we could wish, not a Clowd was to be seen … and the Air was perfectly clear, so that we had every advantage we could desire in Observing the whole of the passage of the Planet Venus over the Suns disk: we very distinctly saw an Atmosphere or dusky shade round the body of the Planet which very much disturbed the times of the contacts particularly the two internal ones.”

The atmosphere of Venus did affect the measurements to a degree, leading to a less precise result. Still, when scientists finally calculated the distance to the Sun in 1771, it was within two to three percentage points of the current figure of about 93 million miles.

With the transit complete, it was then that Cook opened his sealed secret orders [PDF] and learned why the Admiralty had agreed to finance the voyage — they wanted him to find the Terra Australis Incognita.

Captain Cook’s Search for the Lost Continent

Terra Australis

Wikimedia CommonsA map of the world from 1570, showing the hypothetical Terra Australis that was thought to exist in the southern hemisphere. The British government financed James Cook’s first and second voyages in the hope that he could verify its existence.

Terra Australis Incognita, Latin for the “Unknown South Land,” was a massive hypothetical southern continent postulated by Aristotle and the Greek mathematician Ptolemy as the southern landmass that counterbalanced the northern hemisphere.

This idea of a vast, unknown continent was still believed by many in the 18th century; and with European colonization of the world ramping up, the British government was very interested in being the first to reach this undiscovered land if it existed.

The European powers were in fierce competition with each other to claim territory for their expanding global empires, so wanting to keep their plan secret from rivals, the British saw the transit of Venus as the perfect cover for an imperial expedition.

James Cook directed the Endeavour to 40 degrees south latitude and sailed to the west until he reached New Zealand, which was of special interest since it was taken to be an extension of the larger Terra Australis. Cook carefully charted the coastlines of New Zealand, often making contact with the native Maori with whom there were several violent episodes.

Maori War Canoe

WikipediaMāori war canoe drawn by Herman Spöring during Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand in 1769.

These encounters were just the first of many such encounters to come, and it created a mixed legacy of Cook’s first voyage — so much so that in 2019 the British government expressed regret over the Maori who were killed.

James Cook's Chart Of South Pacific

Wikimedia CommonsOne of the charts drawn by Captain James Cook as he explored the South Pacific in search of the Terra Australis.

Sailing around the entirety of New Zealand, Cook proved that New Zealand was not part of some larger continent, and since other oceans of the same latitude had been extensively explored, Cook wrote:

“…[It] must be allowed to have set aside the most, if not all, the Arguments and proofs that have been advanced by different Authors to prove that there must be a Southern Continent; I mean to the Northward of 40 degrees South, for what may lie to the Southward of that Latitude I know not.”

Near Disaster On The Great Barrier Reef

On this voyage, James Cook also explored the unknown coast of eastern Australia (not to be confused with Terra Australis), then called New Holland. The Endeavour landed at Botany Bay, so-called because of numerous new species of plants that Joseph Banks discovered there, and the crew faced sporadic Aborigine attacks while they explored the area.

The Endeavour began the return to England and met with near disaster on the Great Barrier Reef. While sailing through the reef at high tide, the Endeavour became lodged on the corals, which badly holed the ship’s hull.

Remarkably, Cook was able to haul the ship off the reef and managed to get the leak under control. Landing at a beach near current-day Cooktown, Australia, they fixed the damage as best they could, but these repairs were insufficient for the long journey home.

Cook At Botany Bay

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770 by E. Phillips Fox.

Cook set a course for Dutch Batavia, current-day Jakarta, Indonesia. There, they found the colony was rife with malaria and dysentery, so while Cook had managed to beat scurvy, he could not beat these diseases. About a third of the crew became ill or died before the Endeavour arrived in Kent on July 13, 1771, having been at sea for over two years.

Captain Cook’s Second Voyage In Search Of Terra Australis Incognita

James Cook Portrait

Portrait of James Cook by William Hodges, who accompanied Cook on his second voyage

In the public imagination, Joseph Banks was the hero of the expedition for the numerous new species he cataloged, but Captain James Cook was recognized as well, and the Admiralty promoted him from Lieutenant to Commander. Almost immediately, another voyage was planned but this time Cook was to travel as far south as possible — in latitudes no ship had ever ventured — to prove or disprove the existence of Terra Australis once and for all.

Mindful of the near-disaster at the Great Barrier Reef, Cook requested two ships for the voyage. The Admiralty agreed and outfitted him with two colliers, the HMB Resolution and the HMS Adventure. He was to command the Resolution and Tobias Furneaux the Adventure.

Joseph Banks was to join Cook for this second trip, but his elaborate alterations to the Resolution to handle his retinue of fifteen people made the ship too top-heavy. Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, informed Banks that this would create an impossible burden on the ship, and Banks withdrew his participation in outrage.

The First Mariner To Sail The Antarctic Seas

James Cook Near Antarctica

WikipediaCook in the Polar Seas drawn by William Hodges.

The two vessels left Plymouth, England, on July 13, 1772. Passing the Cape of Good Hope and continuing south, Cook spotted icebergs beginning in early December 1772, and within a week or two, Cook records seeing an “immense field of Ice” as he pushed as far as 55 degrees south latitude.

As the southern summer took hold, the pack ice receded, allowing Cook to pass the Antarctic circle for the first time on January 17, 1773, becoming the first mariner known to have done so. The men were awed by the dramatic polar seas with their towering icebergs as they inched their way through the Antarctic waters — but still, there was no sign of Terra Australis. Cook wrote:

“…[the ice] extended east and west far beyond the reach of our sight, while the southern half of the horizon was illuminated by rays of light which were reflected from the ice to a considerable height. … It was indeed my opinion that this ice extends quite to the Pole, or perhaps joins to some land to which it has been fixed since creation.”

The ships continued exploring until a storm separated the Adventure and the Resolution on their way back to New Zealand and Tahiti that October. Furneaux, at this point, opted to take the Adventure back to Britain, disheartened after a Maori attack on some of his crew left at least ten dead.

Farther Than Any Man

Resolution And Discovery Ships In Tahiti

WikipediaThe Resolution and Discovery in Tahiti.

The mission was ostensibly complete, and Captain James Cook concluded that there was no Terra Australis, incognita or otherwise. Writing at one point: “Cook decided to carry on with more exploration since there were still islands to discover and those areas that had been explored were done so imperfectly.”

“For me at this time to have quitted this ocean with a good ship expressly sent out on discoveries, a healthy crew and not in want of either stores or provisions,” Cook said, “would have been betraying not only a want of perseverance but judgement in supposing the South Pacific Ocean to have been so well explored that nothing remained to be done in it.”

European Explorers On Easter Island

Wikimedia CommonsOn his second voyage, James Cook became one of the first Europeans to set foot on Eater Island and see the totemic stone statues for which the island is famous.

He swept through the tropics again, landing at the crew’s favorite port in Tahiti as well as voyaging to remote spots such as Easter Island whose mysterious statues awed the men of the Resolution. He also discovered numerous islands such as South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

What benefited Cook on this voyage was a secondary objective: the testing of a new invention called a chronometer, which was designed to solve one of the most significant challenges in navigation — how to fix longitude.

Marine Chronometer In British Museum

Wikimedia CommonsA Marine chronometer made by Thomas Earnshaw Sr. that was used on board the HMS Beagle. James Cook was the first explorer who used the chronometer to establish his longitudinal position during his second voyage..

The device was a reliable sea clock that was used to measure local time against Greenwich Mean Time, and by it, a mariner could calculate his position with a great deal of accuracy. Cook was probably the first explorer who could accurately know where he was at any given time.

Combined with his exceptional skill at surveying and cartography, Cook’s charts of his second voyage were so accurate that they were used into the 20th century.

Cook Attempts To Find The Fabled Northwest Passage Over North America

James Cook returned to England in July 1775 and was honored for his feats of exploration. He was promoted to post-captain and given a position at Greenwich Hospital that would have ensured him a lifetime income.

However, the exploration bug possessed Cook, and when a Tahitian who had been brought to England by Furneaux in the Adventure wanted to return home, the Admiralty thought this a perfect opportunity to try to settle another puzzle of the Pacific Ocean — the location of the Northwest Passage.

For centuries, European explorers had been seeking a way to Pacific over North America but had long been stumped, with many explorers probing from the Atlantic side dying in the attempt. Failing to find a passage from the northeastern side of the continent, the Admiralty thought that perhaps Cook could discover it by searching along the unknown northwest coast of North America.

Cook left with the Resolution and the Discovery in July 1776, but Cook — who was then 47 — seemed to be a different man. Perhaps it was the strain of all those long strenuous years of being in command at sea, but his patience had given way to short bursts of anger and acted in bouts of violence against native peoples.

Some have supposed that Cook needed rest after becoming ill during the second voyage and even veterans from his prior two voyages were shocked at the change of Cook’s behavior. Cook was still a supreme explorer, though, and charted thousands of miles of coast along North America’s Pacific Northwest, making contact with hitherto unknown peoples.

After extensive exploration, he established that there was no northwest passage — as ice blocked the only feasible way, through the Bering Strait.

The Death Of Captain James Cook

Kealakekua Bay And The Village Kowroaa

Wikimedia CommonsA painting of Kealakekua Bay by John Webber, an artist aboard James Cook’s ship. In 1779, Cook stopped in Kealakekua Bay to repair a broken foremast and fighting broke out between Cook’s crew and the native Hawaiians. Cook supposedly made an ill-advised attempt to kidnap the Hawaiian Chief Kalei’opu’u for ransom, leading to a skirmish during which Cook was killed.

During this voyage, James Cook encountered a group of islands in the Pacific, which he named the Sandwich Islands — now modern-day Hawaii — in January 1778. There, Cook stopped to trade and resupply before departing to explore the Pacific Northwest, but he returned a year later to provision and explore the islands more thoroughly.

What happened next is the subject of intense debate as historians, Cook partisans, and anti-Cook critics dispute each others’ accounts of Cook’s going ashore on February 14, 1779.

The most well-known account says that after anchoring in Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island in late January, Cook found that he came during a festival for the Hawaiian god Lono. In the religious processions, the Hawaiians carried crosspieces wrapped with a white cloth that bore a resemblance to a ship’s sails.

The Hawaiians considered Kealakekua Bay sacred to Lono, a fertility god. So, when the Hawaiians saw the white sails of Cook’s ships anchored in the bay during the festival to the god in question, they treated Cook and his crew as messengers of Lono, if not as living gods themselves.

This reverence didn’t last long, though, as Cook and his crew quickly took advantage of the Hawaiians’ hospitality for more than two weeks. On their earlier visit the year before, Cook’s crew traded common iron nails for sex with Hawaiian women, so it’s highly likely the “honors” the crew received were of a similar and exploitive nature.

Soon, resources were noticeably dwindling and after one of Cook’s crew died, the Hawaiians saw that these “gods” were as mortal as the Hawaiians were themselves. No doubt angered by the deception, the mood quickly turned against the British.

Death Of James Cook

Wikimedia CommonsA depiction of the death of Captain James Cook

After having worn out their welcome, Cook and the crew set sail on February 4, 1779, hoping to carry on with more explorations. However, gales soon broke Cook’s foremast which required repair, so Cook was forced to return to Kealakekua Bay.

The situation was tense as the British returned, with the Hawaiians throwing stones at the British and one group managed to steal a cutter — or a small boat — from the Discovery.

Reports become very contradictory here, as Cook either went ashore planning to kidnap the Hawaiian Chief Kalei’opu’u to hold as a hostage until the Hawaiians return the boat, or he went ashore to try to calm the situation down and negotiate for the return of the cutter.

In either case, once ashore, Cook and the marines found themselves greatly outnumbered by the angry Hawaiians, and by some accounts, one or more of Cook’s party shot and killed a lower-ranking Hawaiian chief. Soon, the marines were shooting indiscriminately at the approaching mob of Hawaiians, and Cook was struck on the head and stabbed him in the surf. He died face down in the water, along with four other sailors.

The remaining marines managed to escape back to the ships and the British retaliated with skirmishes and cannons — for days by some accounts — while they collected enough provisions and conducted sufficient repairs to depart safely.

Meanwhile, the Hawaiians took Cook’s body and — depending on the perspective of the Hawaiians or the British — treated it with high funerary honors reserved for one of their chiefs, or they horribly mutilated it and hacked it to pieces. This may or may not have involved baking the flesh from the bones so that the bones could be cleaned and polished for ceremonial use, but there is evidence of at least some ritual dismemberment of Cook’s body.

Cook’s lieutenant, Charles Clerke, had taken command of the Resolution and demanded that the Hawaiians return Cook’s body so they could properly bury him. He was able to negotiate for the return of a portion of Cook’s remains, which included a severed hand with a recognizable scar and a severed head that was unrecognizable. The crew then took these and other parts returned by the Hawaiians buried them at sea.

Clerke and John Gore, who had taken command of the Discovery, led the expedition back to Britain, with Cook’s third voyage ending at the beginning of October 1780 without him.

Cook’s Legacy As Explorer, Scientific Pioneer, And Global Imperialist

James Cook Statue

Wikimedia CommonsStatue of Captain James Cook at the Admiralty Arch in London.

Captain James Cook was one of history’s most accomplished explorers who did more to fill in the blanks of a more substantial portion of the globe than any other explorer before or since. Aside from bringing numerous peoples into contact with Europe for the first time — for good and for ill — Cook also demonstrated the practical application of science through his use of the chronometer and demonstrating how to defeat scurvy.

His voyages were an altogether different affair than other explorers of the era. “The Endeavor was not only on a voyage of discovery,” said Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Tony Horwitz, in his book Blue Latitudes, “it was also a laboratory for testing the latest theories and technologies, much as spaceships are today.”

More controversially, Cook also increased the scope of Britain’s global empire, for which he was hailed as a hero by many ever since. To others, though, he was just one more colonial villain “discovering” land that human civilizations had been inhabiting for tens of thousands of years before he showed up on a boat and planted a British flag on the beach.

Like many figures in history, the reality is not either-or, but both-at-once and Captain James Cook’s legacy in part is the reminder that legacies are never the simple affairs we’d like them to be.

Now that you’ve read about the voyages of Captain James Cook, learn about Alexander Selkirk, the marooned British sailor who may have been the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, or read the extraordinary tale of how Ada Blackjack outlived her all-male crew after being stranded in the Arctic for two years.

Joseph Williams
Joseph A. Williams is a professional librarian and author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep and The Sunken Gold.