There are conflicting views on Captain Cook. Seen from the English perspective, he was one of the greatest and most intrepid of the brilliant English naval officers of the eighteenth century. He is credited with assisting the science of astronomy, with charting New Zealand and the Australian east coast, with rediscovering the Torres strait, with mapping the South Pacific, with discovering the Hawaiian islands, with mapping the north-western American coast, and perhaps most famously with discovering the cure for Scurvy.
From the perspective of the natives whose lands he 'discovered', he laid them vulnerable to western imperialism and exploitation, racial discrimination, and the consequences of firearms, alcohol, and venereal disease. Many of these native communities are still trying hard to recover from the after-effects of colonialism.
Born in the small village of Marton in North Yorkshire, near Middlesborough, Cook came from an impoverished family of agricultural workers. This fact, given the class-ridden social structure of contemporary England, makes his achievements all the more remarkable.
It was the English practice then of sending boys in their early teens to sea, expecting them to learn on the job and work their way up the hierarchy if they had the talent and determination. Naval pay was excellent, so there was a lot of incentive to go to the sea. The work was extremely hard though, and few of the youngsters made it a lifetime career. After a few years usually, they found a job onshore.
Cook, not in keeping with this tradition, went to sea later at the age of eighteen and found it so congenial that he probably never gave a thought to switching careers.
For the first ten years, Cook worked on the small coal trading ships known as 'cats' around the east English coast from Tyne to the Thames. This was a highly risky occupation, given the treacherous nature of the coastline and the rather unsafe harbors. It of course provided him with much valuable experience for the Royal Navy, which he joined in 1755.
By 1758, he had passed the Master's Exam in navigation that was required to be able to handle a Royal ship. He participated in the Seven Years' War fought between England and France in North America and gained important surveying experience. In the years after the war, he charted the Newfoundland coastline, trained himself in mathematics, astronomy, and other technical skills needed on-board. He was an instant success in the Royal Navy, showing distinctive qualities of leadership and determined ambition. His ship was always efficiently-managed and clean, the crew was well-organized, well-drilled, and had good quarters and food. Cook banished the scrounge of Scurvy by introducing compulsory rations of fresh vegetables and citrus juice.
In 1768 Lieutenant Cook was appointed as the Commander of the Whitby-built HM 'Endeavor'. This was a matter of prestige as the 'Endeavor' was about to sail to Tahiti in the Pacific on an important scientific expedition for the Royal Scientific Society that would revolutionize the science of astronomy and improve the navigational methods of the Royal Navy.
The purpose of the 'Endeavor' was to record a rare event in which the planet Venus was to pass before the Sun, famously known as the Transit of Venus of 1769. This phenomenon could be seen clearly from certain places on Earth and could be used to measure the distance of the Sun from Earth.
The crew included Charles Green, the official astronomer of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, the British naturalist and explorer, Daniel Solander, who had studied under the famous Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, the artists Sydney Parkinson, Alexander Buchan, Herman Sporing, and many other scientists and artists.
On 3 June 1769, the Endeavor successfully recorded the transit from Tahiti, with Cook writing later that 'not a cloud was to be seen the whole day. We had every advantage we could desire in observing the whole of the passage of planet Venus over the Sun's disk. 'But as their observations did not match those made by other observers around the world, the experiment turned out to be a failure eventually.
Aside from recording the transit, Cook was also under orders to sail to 40ºS latitude where 'there is reason to imagine that a continent or land of great extent, may be found. Accordingly, on 13 July 1769, the Endeavor sailed in this direction. But not finding the expected land-mass, they continued to New Zealand and Australia and charted the coastlines between April and May 1770. They also discovered many new species of plants and animals, and collected these along with new minerals and whatever other natural things they found that they thought might advance scientific study. In June 1770, however, the ship nearly wrecked herself on the Great Barrier Reef and it became necessary to sail to Jakarta for repairing the damage. The climate of Jakarta did no good to either the ship or her crew, many of whom, including the astronomer Green, died from either dysentery or malaria.
After returning home, Cook was promoted to Captain and remained home only for a brief time before setting sail next in 1772 on a new ship, the 'Resolution', to chart the Atlantic. This voyage too had an assortment of artists and scientists, and moreover, for the very first time, included chronometers. One of these was Kendall's copy of John Harrison's famous no.4 marine chronometer. These amazing instruments kept accurate time throughout the long voyage, and solved the problem of correct longitude determination on the high seas. The Atlantic area kept Cook occupied until 1775, and in these three years the 'Endeavor' visited Tahiti, New Zealand, Easter Island, Tonga, the New Hebrides, and the Marquesas Islands.
This second voyage made Cook a very famous man. High recognition came from all quarters in England, including a Fellowship to the Royal Society and its Copley Gold Medal, the chance to have his portrait painted by the fashionable Society painter Nathaniel Dance, an invitation to dine at James Boswell's, and the experience of being dubbed 'the First Navigator in Europe' in the House of Lords.
This no doubt spurred him to undertake a third voyage, which, unfortunately, was also to be his last.
The 'Resolution' left England in 1776 for the North Pacific. The main quest this time was to hopefully find a navigable north-west passage to the Arctic Sea. No such passage was found, but what Cook achieved instead was the charting of the North-Western American Coastline from Vancouver Island to the Bering Strait to Alaska, and, of course, en route discovered the Hawaiian Islands.
Cook arrived in Hawaii, just as the natives were celebrating Makahiki, the festival of Lono, their God of light and prosperity. He was warmly received and, after a few weeks stay, as the festival ended, everyone parted on the best terms. However, not long back at sea, the 'Resolution' suffered some damage that necessitated a return to Hawaii for repairs. This time, however, the reception was not enthusiastic. The Hawaiians didn't want the visitors back and Cook's short temper didn't help the situation. Things soon escalated out of control and in the fight that followed, Cook was clubbed to death by the Hawaiian warriors. The achievements of Captain Cook were spoken about all over Europe and also the rest of the world, and he has been known amongst the best men to have taken to the seas.