James Cook


James Cook : biography

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

Another accomplishment of the second voyage was the successful employment of the Larcum Kendall’s K1 copy of John Harrison’s H4 marine chronometer, which enabled Cook to calculate his longitudinal position with much greater accuracy. Cook’s log was full of praise for this time-piece which he used to make charts of the southern Pacific Ocean that were so remarkably accurate that copies of them were still in use in the mid-20th century.

Upon his return, Cook was promoted to the rank of post-captain and given an honorary retirement from the Royal Navy, as an officer in the Greenwich Hospital. His acceptance was reluctant, insisting that he be allowed to quit the post if the opportunity for active duty presented itself. His fame now extended beyond the Admiralty and he was also made a Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the Copley Gold Medal, painted by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, dined with James Boswell and described in the House of Lords as "the first navigator in Europe". But he could not be kept away from the sea. A third voyage was planned and Cook volunteered to find the Northwest Passage. Cook travelled to the Pacific and hoped to travel east to the Atlantic, while a simultaneous voyage travelled the opposite way.

Third voyage (1776–79)

On his last voyage, Cook once again commanded HMS Resolution, while Captain Charles Clerke commanded HMS Discovery. Ostensibly, the voyage was planned to return Omai to Tahiti; this is what the general public believed, as he had become a favourite curiosity in London. Principally the purpose of the voyage was an attempt to discover the famed Northwest Passage. After returning Omai, Cook travelled north and in 1778 became the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands. In passing and after initial landfall in January 1778 at Waimea harbour, Kauai, Cook named the archipelago the "Sandwich Islands" after the fourth Earl of Sandwich—the acting First Lord of the Admiralty.

From the South Pacific, he went northeast to explore the west coast of North America north of the Spanish settlements in Alta California. He made landfall at approximately 44°30′ north latitude, near Cape Foulweather on the Oregon coast, which he named. Bad weather forced his ships south to about 43° north before they could begin their exploration of the coast northward. He unknowingly sailed past the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and soon after entered Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. He anchored near the First Nations village of Yuquot. Cook’s two ships spent about a month in Nootka Sound, from 29 March to 26 April 1778, in what Cook called Ship Cove, now Resolution Cove, at the south end of Bligh Island, about east across Nootka Sound from Yuquot, a Nuu-chah-nulth village (whose chief Cook did not identify but may have been Maquinna). Relations between Cook’s crew and the people of Yuquot were cordial if sometimes strained. In trading, the people of Yuquot demanded much more valuable items than the usual trinkets that had worked for Cook’s crew in Hawaii. Metal objects were much desired, but the lead, pewter, and tin traded at first soon fell into disrepute. The most valuable items the British received in trade were sea otter pelts. Over the month-long stay the Yuquot "hosts" essentially controlled the trade with the British vessels, instead of vice versa. Generally the natives visited the British vessels at Resolution Cove instead of the British visiting the village of Yuquot at Friendly Cove.

After leaving Nootka Sound, Cook explored and mapped the coast all the way to the Bering Strait, on the way identifying what came to be known as Cook Inlet in Alaska. It has been said that, in a single visit, Cook charted the majority of the North American northwest coastline on world maps for the first time, determined the extent of Alaska and closed the gaps in Russian (from the West) and Spanish (from the South) exploratory probes of the Northern limits of the Pacific.

The Bering Strait proved to be impassable, although he made several attempts to sail through it. He became increasingly frustrated on this voyage, and perhaps began to suffer from a stomach ailment; it has been speculated that this led to irrational behaviour towards his crew, such as forcing them to eat walrus meat, which they found inedible.