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Pacific Islander Biography

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Cook, James (1728–1779)

by Kate Fortune

James Cook (27 October 1728–14 February 1779), British navigator and explorer, was born in Yorkshire and began his seafaring career as an industrious 18-year-old apprentice to a shipowner and coal merchant at the port of Whitby. After six years of sailing the North Sea, he was offered the command of a merchant ship but instead volunteered for the Royal Navy at 26. Two years later, during service in the Seven Years War, he earned promotion to ship’s master and went in the Pembroke to Canada where he carried out the meticulous survey work (spending three years as master of the Northumberland) which established his reputation. His precise observations of an eclipse of the sun in 1766 brought him to the attention of the Royal Society.

In 1768 he was sent by the Royal Society and the Admiralty to Tahiti, to observe a transit of Venus, and then to search for the legendary southern continent. His first expedition (1768–71, on the Endeavour, with the rank of lieutenant) carried two experienced and talented botanists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, and the artist Sydney Parkinson. Their detailed reports and drawings, together with Cook’s methodical journal entries, provided a wealth of extraordinarily valuable material which heavily influenced the development of trading and settlement in Oceania. As well as circumnavigating New Zealand (and mapping its coastline), Cook employed the services of his interpreter, the Tahitian priest Tupaia, to communicate with Maori tribes he encountered. He then sailed west to Australia where he named New South Wales, before returning home via Timor and Batavia,where he stopped for repairs.

On his second expedition to the Pacific (1772–75), Cook sailed on the Resolution with the rank of commander, accompanied by Tobias Furneaux on the Adventure. They travelled south to the Cape of Good Hope and to the ice shelf of Antarctica before eventually turning northeast to the Crozet Islands and then on to New Zealand, reaching the west coast of the South Island in March 1773. In June he set out for the Society Islands and Tonga, returning to New Zealand five months later, and continuing his exploration of the southern Pacific for another six months, this time reaching the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti in April 1774. After voyaging through Tonga, Fiji, New Hebrides and New Caledonia, Cook turned back to New Zealand once more, this time visiting and naming Norfolk Island. His detailed account of this expedition provided clear evidence that the long-sought southern continent did not exist.

His final voyage on the Resolution, begun in 1776, was directed at the northern Pacific, in a search for the northwest passage. He joined Charles Clerke in the Discovery at Cape Town and they sailed together to Tasmania and then New Zealand. In February 1777 they went north to Cook Islands and Tonga, and called in at Tahiti before visiting Christmas Island and the Hawaiian group, which he named the Sandwich Islands. He then continued east to the northwest coast of North America in March 1778, sailing to Alaska before turning back to Hawaiÿi. After an extended survey of these islands, he dropped anchor in Kealakekua Bay on 17 January 1779, where he rested for more than two weeks, enjoying the islanders’ hospitality. After departing on 4 February, the two ships ran into a storm and had to return to shelter a week later. After two days in the bay, Cook took a landing party to investigate a stolen cutter. On the beach, there was a sudden eruption of violence: Cook and four marines were killed. The expedition then continued on, visiting China before arriving back in England in October 1780. Cook was survived by his wife, Elizabeth, who died in May 1835.

Original Publication

  • The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia, edited by Brij V. Lal and Kate Fortune, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2000, pp 152-53

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Beaglehole, The Life of Captain Cook, A & C Black, 1974
  • G. Daws, ‘Kealakekua Bay revisited: a note on the death of Captain Cook’, Journal of Pacific History, vol 3, 1968
  • G. Obeyesekere , The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Myth-Making in the Pacific, Bishop Museum Press, 1992
  • M. Sahlins, Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom, University of Michigan Press, 1981
  • M. Sahlins, How ‘Natives’ Think—About Captain Cook for Example, Chicago University Press, 1995

Other Entries for James Cook

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Kate Fortune, 'Cook, James (1728–1779)', Pacific Islander Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 September 2020.

© Copyright Pacific Islander Biography, 2012