Society - People
By: - at October 10, 2013

15 Interesting Facts about Captain James Cook

Captian James Cooks Discovered Many Places

Captain James Cook is someone many have heard of but few know much about. The first thing many people think of when they hear his name is that he was a pirate but he wasn't,  he is one of the most famous explorers to traverse the globe. His voyages were inspired by science, exploration and claiming new lands, not for riches. Captain Cook was born in an era when global exploration was part of how nations proved themselves and his life is inspiring, surprising as well as tragic. In order to understand how amazing his life was, you need to know some of the details about it. Here are 15 of the more interesting facts about Captain James Cook and his legacy.

15)  Transit of Venus
You may have heard some reference to Captain James Cook if you caught wind of the 2012 transit of Venus. That is because the voyage that transformed him into a fascinating historical figure was made in order to observe the same incredibly rare astronomical phenomenon in 1769.

The transit of Venus occurs when Venus passes directly between Earth and the Sun. Transits of Venus occur on a predictable schedule and two transits occur within eight years of each other then a gap of 105.5 or 121.5 years pass till the next. The 2012 transit was the second one in a pair, so the next will be in 2117. The 1769 transit was also the second in a pair, therefore missing it would mean no second chances for Captain Cook.

NASA Science News reported that a total of 76 observations around the globe were made in 1769 of the transit of Venus and among these was Cook during his expedition to Tahiti.

Native Tahitians
Captian James Cook went to Tahiti

Transit of Venus
Transit of Venus

14)  Terra Australis Incognita… or Not
The Admiralty wasn't above killing two birds with one stone; Cook was given secret orders that were to be opened after the transit. These orders were to search for an unknown land somewhere between Tahiti and New Zealand; it was believed to exist by scientists who felt there must be a massive landmass to the south to balance the large continents that span the northern hemisphere. Just in case your southern Pacific geography is a little rusty, there really wasn't anything to be found in the area where Cook was searching. After about two months of fruitless exploration, the Endeavor headed east to New Zealand and spent six months charting the coast. He followed this up with a similar endeavor on the eastern Australian coast, during which he just happened to claim the continent for Britain.

During these explorations, Cook had several encounters with the Maori of New Zealand and the Aborigines of Australia. While these encounters varied widely from benign to violent, the far reaching effects for these native populations were invariably bad.

A second attempt was made to find the suspected southern continent in 1772-1775 and this time Cook captained the Resolution. He almost made it to Antarctica as well but ice prevented him from going far enough south to see the polar continent.

The Maori of New Zealand
James Cook encountered the Maori of New Zealand

The Aborigines of Australia
James Cook met the Aborigines of Australia

13)  He Was the Son of a Farm Foreman
This may not seem terribly shocking now but at the time it was extraordinarily rare for sons, especially sons of working families, to pursue careers that differed from their fathers. For all the fame he eventually gained, James Cook's origins were quite humble. According to "Farther Than Any Man" by Martin Dugard, his father was an immigrant from Scotland that left after the Jacobite rebellion and his mother was a local farm girl. Apparently, the marriage was a matter of necessity and it probably wasn't an unhappy one with eight children.

James Cook senior was a hard worker and eventually became the foreman of the largest farm in the area. This was a position with quite a bit of practical rank and power because the foreman was in charge of the property in the absence of the owner, who was Thomas Skottowe. It would not of been a bad life if Captain James Cook followed in his father's footsteps, just a far more ordinary one.

Jacobite Rebellion
James Cook's Father Came to England After the Jacobite Rebellion

View of a Large Farm
James Cook's Father was a Large Farm Foreman

12)  Paid Tuition
Cook attended the village school starting at age seven and this is one of the starting points for his unique life. There was no public education back then and his tuition was paid by Thomas Skottowe, the owner of the farm where James Cook senior worked. Young James was very bright and also very driven, earning both praise as well as puzzlement from his teachers. He was also a strong leader and easily earned the respect along with admiration of his peers, a trait which stood with him throughout the rest of his life.

Cook remained in school until he was sixteen then left his home entirely. The restlessness that had plagued the entirety of his youth got the better of him and he set out to find his fortune.

James Cook had his Schooling Paid for by the Farm Owner, Thomas Skottowe

11)  Roundabout Way to the Sea
Cook's career as a sailor started out on land, rather than sea. After leaving home, he was apprenticed to a haberdasher in the coastal town of Staithes. He quickly became enamored with the sea thanks to the tales of fishermen and sailors, within two years he had set out once again to pursue his dreams. He signed on as an apprentice sailor at the age of eighteen, which was very old for that time, with the owner of a merchant fleet named John Walker. By 1752, he had reached the rank of first mate and was starting to itch for more than the merchant life.

At the ripe old age of 27 in 1755, it was time for Cook to make another career change and he signed on with the navy as an ordinary seaman.

The coastal town of Staithes
The Coastal Town of Staithes, UK is Where Captain James Cook Lived

The British Royal Navy in the 1700's
James Cook Joined the Royal Brittish Navy in the 1752

10)  Captain in Name Only
Despite a lengthy shared voyage, Joseph Banks didn't know Cook as well as he thought. Cook decided he wanted to be the person in charge of the ship when Banks was putting together his part in the voyages meant to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. The Admiralty wasn’t too keen on having a scientist in charge, particularly after the mutiny against Edmond Halley of the Halley's Comet fame.

In order to get around that, Banks had a plan. He would find a captain that was really of the lowest possible rank who could easily be cowed into going along with whatever Banks wanted. They settled on James Cook, at this point a Master seaman, after consulting with Lord Sandwich and Hugh Palliser. In order to avoid unfortunate precedents, the Admiralty commissioned James Cook as a first lieutenant and that made him the first ordinary seaman in the history of the British Navy to become a commissioned officer.

Cook was no pushover and took charge from the start, overseeing much of the planning as well as retrofitting of the ship. Fortunately, the two men remained on good terms with each other and this was a blessing due to the fact that the voyage would last nearly four years . Cook's competence, inherent leadership and utter professionalism made it impossible for anyone else to be in charge.

Joseph Banks
Joseph Banks

Lord Sandwich
Lord Sandwich

Hugh Palliser
Hugh Palliser

9)  A Man of Passion
James Cook was a private man who was often described as aloof and had no close friends to speak of. Due to this, our knowledge of his home life is limited to what can be gleaned from his journals and secondhand accounts. It is pretty clear that his relationship with Elizabeth Batts was just as passionate and devoted as his relationship with the sea. They married only two weeks after meeting in 1762 and their first child was born nine months to the day after the wedding. Though Cook never gave up his seafaring ways, by all accounts he was unwaveringly faithful to his wife. Even his detractors never targeted his marriage as part of their criticisms and as to passion, there was another child born after every return home he made.

Cook wrote numerous letters to his wife while he was at sea and sent them back to her at every port of call. Elizabeth outlived her husband by 56 years and in that time, she never remarried. Sadly, the contents of those missives will remain a mystery because she buried them before her death.

Elizabeth Batts
Elizabeth Batts

8)  Sandwich Islands
Captain James Cook made an effort to do right by the patrons that led to his command of the Endeavor and named numerous locales after them. Fortunately, most of them didn't stick because Cook wasn't terribly varied in the names he gave. Most notable were the Sandwich Islands, which you know better as the Hawaiian archipelago. These were named after John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich. Montegue Island in Australia was also named after him but that's not all. James Cook named an archipelago in the south Atlantic the South Sandwich Islands and the name still stands. The atoll that is now called Manuae in the Cook Islands was originally named Sandwich Island by Cook and another former Sandwich Island is now Efate Island.

Joseph Banks was immortalized with Banks Island and Cape Banks. Many of the points Cook charted on the eastern Australian shore ended up with names for members of the Admiralty with a fair amount of repetition. For all his other skills, creative naming was clearly not a strength of his.

Australian Expedition with Captain James Cook, Sir Joseph Banks and Lord Sandwich
James Cooks Australian Expedition

Montague Island Map 1888
Montague Island was Named After Lord Sandwich

South Sandwich Islands
South Sandwich Islands Were Named After Lord Sandwich

Manuae and the Cook Islands
Manuae and the Cooks Islands were Originally Called the Sandwich Islands

Efate Island
Efare Island was Originally Sandwich Island

7)  To Boldly Go
Captain James Cook and his voyages have been a source of inspiration for writers as well as artists from the start. Nowhere else in modern media is this more evident than in the original Star Trek series for Captain James T. Kirk clearly shares Cook's purpose, as well as farm boy origins. It is easy to make similar parallels between the name of Kirk's ship, the Enterprise, and Cook's Endeavor. It is likely that both the name of the pilot episode and the famous tag line of the series, "To boldly go where no man has gone before", came from one of Cook's journal entries.

The connection is not simply superficial though, both Cook as well as Kirk captain ships charged with lengthy journeys of exploration and scientific discovery. Over the course of his voyages, Cook encountered many peoples and cultures that had never before had contact with Europeans. Unfortunately, as stated in "Blue Latitudes" by Tony Horwitz, the end result of these encounters was generally the death of about half the local population. The cause was not simply violence but rather diseases carried by the sailors, such as:  smallpox and syphilis. While the unintentional spread of disease is probably not a concern for advanced space faring civilizations, you can easily interpret Star Trek's Prime Directive as meant to prevent the same sort of unintentional damage to less advanced cultures. After all, ideas are by far the most infectious weapon people have at their disposal.

Aboriginals opposing Captain James Cook's arrival
The Aboriginals Opposed James Cooks Arrival

6)  Circumnavigations
You probably already know this but it's still interesting, Captain James Cook circumnavigated the globe twice. The first time was in the Endeavor, with the voyage starting in 1768 and ending in 1771. The second circumnavigation took place on the Resolution and lasted from 1772 to 1775. That voyage was the attempt to find the southern continent and it took him farther south than any man had travelled before; the majority of this circumnavigation was done in dangerous far south latitudes.

After the first voyage of the Resolution, a second was commissioned and this time he needed to find the fabled Northwest Passage. However, this one was completed without Cook. He was killed in 1779 on the way back after a failed attempt to find a passage through the ice in the Bering Strait located in the Arctic Ocean between North America and Asia. The Resolution returned to England following his death and sailed westward on much the same route that it followed east, the vessel arrived back home in 1780.

Captain James Cook's circumnavigation
Captain James Cook's circumnavigation
By Jon Platek, via Wikimedia Commons

5)  Not a Ship
One of the more trivial but still fascinating facts about Cook's life revolves around the Endeavor. You would think that a vessel meant to travel around the globe would have to be called a ship but in this case that isn't true. The Endeavor is more fully known as the HM Bark Endeavor and there are a couple of reasons for this. First, there was already an His or Her Majesty's Ship (HMS) Endeavor in commission at the time. Second, ships captained by a first lieutenant were regularly referred to as "barks". Lastly, the Endeavor was a converted coal ship that was squat, slow and ugly.

Cook was deeply involved in the retrofitting of the ship due to his deep work ethic and passion that the voyage be done right. Part of it was more practical though because corruption was rife through the naval shipyards at the time. It was necessary for Cook to keep a close eye on proceedings to ensure that no corners were cut, since that could have potentially dire consequences down the road.

The Endeavor
The Endeavor is more fully known as the HM Bark Endeavor

4)  Lono
There is some evidence that the Hawaiians may have mistaken Captain Cook for the Hawaiian god of fertility and music, Lono. Both Dugard and the Captain Cook Society cite a series of coincidences that could have led to this surprising connection. When Cook returned to Hawaii in 1779, his arrival supposedly coincided with a harvest festival honoring Lono. The silhouette of the ship vaguely resembled some artifacts associated with this festival and the clockwise approach, which may have mimicked ceremonial processions, add support to this theory. However, it is not certain and much of the evidence comes from crew members' accounts from after Cook's death. These may have been exaggerated or romanticized in order to add to Cook's legend.

Whether or not Cook was actually viewed as a deity by the Hawaiians, they clearly saw him as a powerful figure. He was greatly admired and the Resolution spent about a month on the island before heading north to try once more to find the Northwest Passage.

Hawaiian god of fertility and music, Lono

3)  Death in Hawaii
You may have heard that Captain Cook was killed by cannibals and this is technically right, but creates the wrong image. Cook died on Hawaii, during a confrontation between the ship's crew and a mob of native Hawaiians over the ship cutter's thievery. Until then, the encounters between Cook, his crew and the Hawaiians were very positive; Cook was held in great respect by them. Ironically, the metal knives used to kill him had been gifts from Cook to the native men and boys. A similar confrontation over thefts had happened years earlier on Tahiti prior to this.

After he was killed, Cook's crew retreated to the ship. Cook's body, almost ritualistically mutilated in the fight, was removed from the shore and ceremonially prepared by the natives in order to honor this powerful man. As part of the ceremony, the four most powerful chiefs on the island ate his heart. His body and brain were buried but his bones were preserved as religious icons. The crew of the Resolution was able to regain some of Cook's remains; they were placed in a coffin and buried at sea.

Death of Captain James Cook
The Death of Captain James Cook Happened in Hawaii

2)  In His Footsteps

Mount Cook, New Zealand
New Zealand has Mount Cook and Hiking Trails in Honor of James Cook
By Dramatic, via Wikimedia Commons

Unsurprisingly, there are many who feel the need to follow in Captain Cook's footsteps. From personal journeys to published travel memoirs, like "Blue Latitudes", there have been many attempts both successful and failed. Cook's voyages are well and accurately documented, so it is possible to make a fairly precise copy of the routes he sailed on different voyages. Of course, the places you visit will inevitably have changed. Some locales consider their part in Cook's history a point of pride, others regard it as a tragedy.

Among the most interesting monuments to Captain Cook is the Australian built replica of the Endeavour, it was constructed in 1988 and is the most accurate maritime replica ever built. It has sailed around the world twice, as many times as Cook, himself, and opened at many different ports as a floating museum. She remains in ship shape and continues to make voyages so that the intrepid can experience a little of what it was like to sail with Captain Cook.

Other monuments to Captain James Cook tend to be off the beaten track for most visitors. The one in New Zealand is often overlooked, thanks in part to the negative impact Cook's visit had on the island. On Hawaii there is a simple plaque noting that he died and was buried near the location. The memorial at St. Andrew's Church in Cambridge is more of a list of his wife's sorrows than the deeds of a great man.

In addition to memorials and replicas, there are several hiking trails scattered around the world that follow parts of Cook's journey. You can walk the path he took from Staithes to Whitby, which were his first steps towards the sea. Trails in Hawaii and New Zealand also lead to key points from his voyages.

The Australian replica of the Endeavour
The Australians Built a Replica of Captain James Cook's Endeavour
By colin f m smith, via Wikimedia Commons

St. Andrew's Church
St. Andrew's Church in Cambridge has a memorial for James Cook

Captain Cook Memorial in Whitby, North Yorkshire
Captain Cook Memorial in Whitby,  North Yorkshire

1)  A Controversial Legacy
There is no doubt that Captain Cook and his voyages had a significant impact on the world but that impact remains controversial, especially in some of the areas he visited. While he is widely viewed in the same sort of heroic light that bathes most explorers, the consequences of his voyages as well as European global exploration in general were often disastrous. The native population of Hawaii dropped from a roughly estimated 250,000 prior to 1778 to only 37,500 in 1900. Similarly drastic declines happened among the populations of New Zealand, Australia and in other south Pacific islands Cook visited. Those declines find their source both in the exposure to diseases their immune systems couldn't fight against and through the well documented negative impacts of European colonialism. While Cook's voyages may have been made in the name of science and discovery, it can be argued that the long reaching repercussions of them remain at his feet.

Captain James Cook still stands as an inspirational historic figure and a symbol that dreams can be achieved via hard work, determination, as well as willingness to take risks. The transformation of this not so simple farm boy into one of the greatest explorers of the Age of Exploration is a true testament of his strong mind and ready wit. He clearly embodies many of the ideals that a person can rise far if they are willing to work for it and that, more than anything else, is probably why Captain James Cook remains such a powerful figure.

Captain James Cook had a Controversal Legacy

There's far more to Captain James Cook than these 15 interesting tidbits and a great deal has been written about him. Captain Cook aficionados are always adding more to what is known and suspected. From humble farm boy to bloody end, these 15 facts give you a good grounding in Cook related trivia. Whether or not he was truly considered a god by the Hawaiians is beside the point because there are so many things we know that he did. From the transit of Venus to the mapping of Australia, New Zealand and much of Polynesia, Captain Cook really did change the face of the world. His legacy continues today both in the serious and lingering repercussions of colonialism and in the inspiration that drives some to look out towards the next frontier.





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