Sea Captains during the 1800s

Master Mariner

Captain James Cook

Born: October 27, 1728, Yorkshire, England
Died: Hawaiian Islands

February 1, 1790, Historical Magazine, , London, United Kingdom



Compiled from Dr. Kippis's late Publication.

During the present period, the pursuit of foreign discovery and enterprize has exceeded that of any other age or country: mariners have dauntlessly and repeatedly braved the dangers of rocks and shoals, in pursuit of islands hitherto unknown, and of passages never before explored; travellers, of rank and fortune, have with equal courage traversed desarts and woods, in momentary danger of meeting wild and ferocious natives, or more destructive beasts of prey, for the purpose of aiding geographical precision. Portrait of Captain Cook. Their adventures are read with avidity; and are generally honoured with approbation: but no traveller, or author, has risen so high in the estimation of Europe, as the subject of the following memoirs, captain James Cook; whose success must excite the applause even of dullness, and whose fate will often perhaps in ages to come bedew the cheeks of sensibility.

Captain James Cook, the eminent British navigator, was born the 27th of October 1728, at Marton, a small village in the North Riding of Yorkshire, about six miles from Stockton upon Tees. His father, whose christian name was also James, from his dialect was supposed to be a Northumbrian, and lived in the humble station of a farmer's servant. He married a woman in the inferior rank of life; they were both, however, noted for a more than moderate portion of honesty, sobriety, and industry.

Young Cook received the first rudiments of his education at his native place, from the school-mistress of the village: but his father, from the goodness of his character, having been appointed bailiff on Airy Holme, a farm belonging to the late Thomas Scottow, esq. he removed thither with his family; and his son James, being then about eight years old, was, by Mr.-Scottow, put to a day-school in Ayton; where he learned writing, and the principles of arithmetic.

He was bound apprentice to a shopkeeper at Staiths, a fishing town ten miles north of Whitby, before he had attained the age of thirteen; but having a strong inclination for a seafaring life, his passion for which was probably strengthened by the opportunities he had of frequenting the company of mariners, on a violent quarrel with his master, he procured his discharge and, soon after, bound himself, for seven years, to Messrs. J. and H. Walker, of Whitby, both Quakers, and principal owners of two ships employed constantly in the coal trade. He continued to serve, after the expiration of his apprenticeship, in the coal and other branches of trade, as a common sailor; but at length he was promoted to be mate of one of his master's vessels.

To this period, nothing strikingly portentous appeared either in his character or conduct: he did not exhibit any marks of those superior abilities which have done distinguished honour to his country, which rank him amongst the most celebrated navigators, and which render his name immortal.

Master Mariner, Captain James Cook.

In the spring of 1755, a war commenced between Great Britain and France. An order having been issued from the Admiralty for impressing seamen, Mr. Cook, then in the river with his ship, to avoid being pressed, entered voluntarily into his majesty's service, to try his fortune in another capacity. He repaired to a house of rendezvous at Wapping, and entered with an officer belonging to the Eagle, a ship of fifty guns, commanded by captain Hamer. Captain, now Sir Hugh Palltier, was appointed, in the month of October 1755, to this ship; and Cook's diligence, and attention to the duties of his profession, did not escape this commander's notice, who soon distinguished him to be an able and active seaman.

James Cook, Master's Warrant

On the 10th of May 1759, he obtained a master's warrant for the Grampus sloop, at the instance of the member for Scarborough; but this, appointment did not take place, as the proper mailer of that vessel unexpectedly returned. However, four days after, he was made master of the Garland: but upon enquiry, it was found that the ship had sailed some days before. As a recompense for this accident, on the 15th of May he was appointed to the Mercury, which was destined for North America, to join the fleet under the command of Sir Charles Saunders; who, in conjunction with general Wolfe, was then engaged before Quebec.

Captain Cook's Ship. Illustration.

During that memorable siege, it was found necessary to take soundings in the channel of the river St. Lawrence, directly opposite the French camp at Montmorency and Beauport, that the admiral might be enabled to lay his ships before the enemies batteries, and cover the British army, in an attack which the general intended to make on the French camp. This being a dangerous service, and as Cook's sagacity and resolution were now well known, Captain Pallifer recommended him as a proper person to undertake it, and he was not disappointed; for Cook performed it in the most effectual manner, and to the full satisfaction of his employers. He did not, however, effect his purpose without great hazard; having been engaged in this business for several nights successively, he was at length discovered by the enemy, who sent a number of canoes filled with Indians, to surround him, and he had no other alternative but to make for shore on the island of Orleans, near the guard of the English hospital; to which he was so closely pursued, that he had scarcely leaped from the bow of the boat, which belonged to one of the ships of war, when the Indians entered it by the stern, and carried it off in triumph.

Before this period, there is reason to believe, that Cook had scarcely used a pencil, and was entirely unacquainted with drawing; but such were the powers of his mind, and his aptitude for acquiring knowledge, that he soon made himself master of every object to which he applied; and, notwithstanding the disadvantages under which he laboured, he furnished the admiral with a complete draught of the channel and soundings.

Captain Cook's Voyages. John Tallis,
Mapmaker. 1851.

Our navigator also performed another important service while on the American station, which does no less honour to his memory, and equally deserves mention. The navigation of the river St. Lawrence is both difficult and dangerous, and was particularly so then to the English, who were scarcely acquainted with that part of North America, and who had no chart, on the correctness of which they could depend. The admiral, therefore, having received so favourable a specimen of Mr. Cook's abilities, appointed him to survey those parts of the river below Quebec which navigators accounted to be most dangerous. This business he executed with the same diligence, activity and skill, as he had displayed on the former occasion.

Captain Cook Landing in Tasmania.

When he had completed this chart, it was published, with soundings and directions for sailing in it; and so great was its accuracy, that it hath never since been found necessary to publish another. Mr, Cook, after the expedition to Quebec, was appointed master of the Northumberland, on the 22d of September 1759, by a warrant from lord Colvill. In this ship his lordship staid at Halifax the following winter, as commodore; and Cook's behaviour in his new station gained him the friendship and esteem of his commander.

In the beginning of 1764, our navigator accompanied his friend and patron sir Hugh Palliser, then appointed commodore and governor of Labrador and Newfoundland, in the same station in which he had been under captain Greaves. Mr. Cook was well qualified for this employment; the charts of his surveys, which he afterwards published, reflected the highest credit on his abilities. He explored the inland part of the island of Newfoundland, in a much more accurate manner than had ever been done before and by penetrating into the heart of the country, discovered several large lakes, the position of which is distinctly marked out in th general chart.

The Endeavour.

Mr. Cook was occasionally engaged in this service, returning to England for the winter seasons, till the year 1767, which was the latest period of his being employed as marine surveyor of Newfoundland. It is evident that he had now obtained a considerable knowledge in practical astronomy, from a short paper written by him, and inserted in the fifty-seventh volume of the Philosophical Transactions entitled "An observation of an eclipse of the sun at the island of Newfoundland, August the 5th, 1766, with the longitude of the place of observation deduced from it . . .

Soon after the peace in 1763, two voyages round the world were projected under the patronage of the king, which were performed by captains Byron, Wallis, and Carteret; and before the two latter returned, another was resolved on, for the purpose of improving the science of astronomy.

1768 HMB Endeavor departs from Plymouth for Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia.

Cook’s career as an explorer began in August 1768, when he left England on HM Bark Endeavour with nearly 100 crewmen. Their journey was ostensibly a scientific expedition — they were charged with sailing to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun — but it also had a hidden military agenda. Cook carried sealed orders instructing him to seek out the “Great Southern Continent,” an undiscovered landmass that was believed to lurk somewhere near the bottom of the globe.

Fitting Out the Endeavour

It having been calculated, that the planet Venus would pass over the sun's face in 1769, it was judged that the best place for observing this phenomenon would be either the Marquesas, or at one of those islands which Talman called Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Middleburg, and which are now better known by the appellation of the Friendly Isles.

The Royal Society, considering this matter as an object of great importance to astronomy, petitioned his majesty to appoint proper persons to observe the transit of Venus at either of those places. It is almost needless to say, that the king cheerfully complied with the object of this petition.

1769-1770: Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia

Human Sacrifice, O'Taheite

On April 29, 1770, the British HM Bark Endeavor became the first European vessel to reach the east coast of Australia after it landed at Botany Bay. At the helm was James Cook, who would go on to circumnavigate the globe twice and explore everything from the Bering Strait and the islands of the South Pacific to the treacherous ice floes surrounding Antarctica.

After landing in Australia during his first voyage, Cook pointed his ship north and headed for the Dutch seaport of Batavia. Because he was in unmapped territory, he had no idea he was sailing directly into the razor-sharp coral formations of the Great Barrier Reef. On June 11, 1770, his ship Endeavour slammed into a coral reef and began taking on water, endangering both his crew and his priceless charts of his Pacific discoveries.

Tree Planed. Captain Cook. Venus Point, Tahiti. 1876.

In July 1772, a squadron of Spanish vessels briefly detained his ships, only to release them after they realized Cook in command. Likewise, when Cook’s third voyage set sail during the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin wrote a memo to colonial ship captains instructing them to treat the British vessels as “common friends to mankind” if they encountered them at sea.

Cook’s three voyages of discovery helped fill in many of the blank spots on Europeans’ world maps, but his mistreatment of natives in Hawaii eventually led to his death.

1776: Cook's third Pacific voyage begins from Plymouth, England.

HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery search for Northwest passage.

In 1776, Cook sailed from England, again as commander of the HMS Resolution and Discovery, searching for a Northwest passage in northern Pacific waters. In January 1778 he made his first visit to the Hawaiian Islands. He may have been the first European to visit the island group, which he named the Sandwich Islands in honor of one of his patrons, John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich.

It seems that the Hawaiians attached religious significance to the first stay of the Europeans on their islands. In Cook’s second visit, there was no question of this phenomenon. Kealakekua Bay was considered the sacred harbor of Lono, the fertility god of the Hawaiians, and at the time of Cook’s arrival the locals were engaged in a festival dedicated to Lono. Cook and his compatriots were welcomed as gods and for the next month exploited the Hawaiians’ good will.

After one of the crewmen died, exposing the Europeans as mere mortals, relations became strained. On February 4, 1779, the British ships sailed from Kealakekua Bay, but rough seas damaged the foremast of the Resolution, and after only a week at sea the expedition was forced to return to Hawaii.

The Hawaiians hurled rocks at Cook and his men; they then stole a small cutter vessel from the Discovery. Negotiations with King Kalaniopuu for the return of the cutter collapsed after a lesser Hawaiian chief was shot to death and a mob of Hawaiians descended on Cook’s party. The captain and his men fired on the angry Hawaiians, but they were soon overwhelmed, and only a few managed to escape to the safety of the Resolution. Captain Cook himself was killed by the mob.

November 25, 1906, Sacramento Union, Sacramento, California, U.S.A.

Skull Believed to be that of Captain Cook

Honolulu, November 24. A skull believed to be that of Captain Cook, the discoverer of Hawaii, has been found In a cave near Kealakokua bay. Kealakokua bay is on the west coast of the island of Haw’ail. At Kealakokua village, a port on the west side of Kanw’aldo cove, is a monument to Captain Cook, who was killed at Kealakokua bay.

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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