James Cook

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James Cook : biography

27 October 1728 (O.S.) – 14 February 1779

On 23 April he made his first recorded direct observation of indigenous Australians at Brush Island near Bawley Point, noting in his journal: "…and were so near the Shore as to distinguish several people upon the Sea beach they appear’d to be of a very dark or black Colour but whether this was the real colour of their skins or the C[l]othes they might have on I know not." On 29 April Cook and crew made their first landfall on the mainland of the continent at a place now known as the Kurnell Peninsula. Cook originally christened the area as "Stingray Bay", but he later crossed it out and named it Botany Bay after the unique specimens retrieved by the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. It is here that James Cook made first contact with an Aboriginal tribe known as the Gweagal.

After his departure from Botany Bay he continued northwards, and a mishap occurred, on 11 June, when the Endeavour ran aground on a shoal of the Great Barrier Reef, and then "nursed into a river mouth on 18 June 1770". The ship was badly damaged and his voyage was delayed almost seven weeks while repairs were carried out on the beach (near the docks of modern Cooktown, Queensland, at the mouth of the Endeavour River). Once repairs were complete the voyage continued, sailing through Torres Strait and on 22 August he landed on Possession Island, where he claimed the entire coastline he had just explored as British territory. He returned to England via Batavia (modern Jakarta, Indonesia, where many in his crew succumbed to malaria), the Cape of Good Hope and the island of Saint Helena, arriving on 12 July 1771.

Interlude

Cook’s journals were published upon his return, and he became something of a hero among the scientific community. Among the general public, however, the aristocratic botanist Joseph Banks was a bigger hero. Banks even attempted to take command of Cook’s second voyage, but removed himself from the voyage before it began, and Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg Forster were taken on as scientists for the voyage. Cook’s son George was born five days before he left for his second voyage.

Second voyage (1772–75)

Shortly after his return from the first voyage, Cook was promoted in August 1771, to the rank of commander. Then, in 1772, he was commissioned by the Royal Society to search for the hypothetical Terra Australis. On his first voyage, Cook had demonstrated by circumnavigating New Zealand that it was not attached to a larger landmass to the south. Although he charted almost the entire eastern coastline of Australia, showing it to be continental in size, the Terra Australis was believed to lie further south. Despite this evidence to the contrary, Alexander Dalrymple and others of the Royal Society still believed that this massive southern continent should exist.

Cook commanded HMS Resolution on this voyage, while Tobias Furneaux commanded its companion ship, HMS Adventure. Cook’s expedition circumnavigated the globe at a very high southern latitude, becoming one of the first to cross the Antarctic Circle on 17 January 1773. In the Antarctic fog, Resolution and Adventure became separated. Furneaux made his way to New Zealand, where he lost some of his men during an encounter with Māori, and eventually sailed back to Britain, while Cook continued to explore the Antarctic, reaching 71°10’S on 31 January 1774. Cook almost encountered the mainland of Antarctica, but turned back north towards Tahiti to resupply his ship. He then resumed his southward course in a second fruitless attempt to find the supposed continent. On this leg of the voyage he brought with him a young Tahitian named Omai, who proved to be somewhat less knowledgeable about the Pacific than Tupaia had been on the first voyage. On his return voyage to New Zealand in 1774, he landed at the Friendly Islands, Easter Island, Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu.

Before returning to England, he took a final sweep across the South Atlantic from Cape Horn and surveyed, mapped and took possession for Britain of South Georgia, explored by Anthony de la Roché in 1675, discovered and named Clerke Rocks and the South Sandwich Islands ("Sandwich Land"). He then turned north to South Africa, and from there continued back to England. His reports upon his return home put to rest the popular myth of Terra Australis.