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March 13, 2008

The World’s Greatest Navigator

Thirteen Things about CAPTAIN JAMES COOK

There’s a really good documentary playing on our TV at the moment about the life of James Cook. It’s fascinating and these are some of the things I’ve learned during the last two weeks of viewing.

1. 1728: Born at Marton (near modern Middlesbrough), Yorkshire, Britain. He was the son of a farmer.

2. 1736: Family moves a few miles to Great Ayton, Yorkshire. He attends the village school and shows great promise.

3. 1744: He moves several miles to the coastal village of Staithes and is apprenticed to a shop keeper.

4. 1746: He moves south to Whitby, where he works for Captain John Walker on his ships. They’re not allowed to drink, gamble or associate with loose women!

5. 1755: Joins the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman.

6. 1759: Takes part in surveying the St. Lawrence River in Canada. He’s fascinated by a new method of surveying and is excited by the possibilities.

7. 1760-67: Surveys the islands of Newfoundland, St. Pierre and Miquelon off the east coast of Canada. His map was so accurate it was still being used over 200 years later.

8. In 1762, James Cook married Elizabeth Batts at Barking, just to the east of London. They were married for sixteen years and had six children. They spent only four years of their marriage together. Elizabeth Cook died in 1835 while in her nineties, living longer than all her children. Elizabeth burned all James’ papers and letters shortly before she died.

9. 1768-71: First Voyage round the world in the ship Endeavour. 1772-75: Second Voyage round the world in the ships Resolution and Adventure. 1776-80: Third Voyage round the world in the ships Resolution and Discovery, completed without him.

10. As a result of his experiences of astronomical observation and obvious skill in navigation and cartography, Cook was appointed leader of an expedition to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti organised by the Royal Society, in association with the Navy Board and funded by King George III. The Admiralty were less interested in astronomical observation than in the opportunity such a voyage offered for the secret exploration of the south-west of the South Sea (Pacific) for the Great South Land—Terra Australis Incognita. When the expedition returned in July 1771, the transit of Venus had been observed, an unprecedented number of botanical and zoological specimens collected, and though no Great South Land had been found, New Zealand and the east coast of New Holland (Australia) had been charted and claimed for King George III.

11. On 7 March 1776 Cook was admitted to the Royal Society for his success in defeating scurvy amongst his crew during his voyages and his paper on nutrition aboard the Resolution was awarded the prestigious Copley Medal, judged to be the best experimental research of the year. Elizabeth accepted the award however, as Cook had left on a third voyage in 1776 to search for a Pacific entrance to the legendary Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific, believed to lie north of Canada.

12. Following Cook’s death in 1779, the Endeavour journal of James Cook is thought to have been held by his wife Elizabeth. There is no record of the journal’s movements following Elizabeth Cook’s death in 1835 until its appearance in 1923 when it was offered at auction by its owners the Bolckow family of Yorkshire. The family were unable to explain how they came to hold the journal. It had apparently been in the family’s library ‘for upward of fifty years, having been purchased by the late Bolckow’s uncle, but from whom and in what circumstances is unknown’.

On 21 March 1923 the Australian government purchased the Endeavour journal for £5000 for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library.

13. James Cook died in 1779. His last voyage was characterised by violence. Cook meted out increasingly severe punishments to indigenous peoples following the theft of various articles whilst at the Friendly Islands (Tonga), St George’s Island (Tahiti) and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). And on 14 February 1779 Cook and four marines were killed on the beach at Kealakekua Bay while seeking the return of the Discovery’s large cutter.

James Cook was a great leader of men and his skills in navigation led him to rise from ordinary seaman to a position of rank. Many of his charts were in use until recent times and were very close to satellite images of the land masses.


  1. LA Day

    Wow! Very informative.

  2. Jennifer Shirk

    Very interesting. I love documentaries. :smile:

  3. Jennifer McKenzie

    Fascinating!! I wonder why his wife burned all his papers?

  4. Tempest Knight

    Oh, this is awesome! Love it!

  5. Debbie Mumford

    Fascinating information. I love posts that provide my muse with new fodder *lol*

    Happy TT!

  6. Adelle Laudan

    Very kewl list. Thanks for sharing. Happy T13!

  7. Alice Audrey

    This is very informative.

  8. Dana

    What a neat history lesson! Thanks!

  9. Debora Dennis

    Very interesting reading – and I want to know why she burned those papers too…a story in there, I tell ya :wink:

  10. R.G. Alexander

    Yeah-now I’m super curious. Great list!

  11. Kaige

    Sounds like it was an interesting documentary, Shelley. Very cool TT, love trivia and learning things.

    Happy TT!

  12. Heather

    Very cool and interesting post. I also find it intriguing that his wife burned all of his papers prior to her own demise. Makes you wonder what they contained…

  13. Chloe Devlin

    Wow, lots of cool history. What channel was this on?

  14. Tawny Taylor

    How interesting! I learned some stuff too!

  15. Shelley Munro

    I don’t think anyone knows why she burnt all of his letters. Someone said it was at his request, but if that was the case why didn’t she do it after he died? It’s a mystery for sure.

    Chloe – the documentary was on a New Zealand channel called Prime.

  16. pussreboots

    Great list. I need to learn more about Cook. You’ve piqued my interest!

  17. Shelley Munro

    I didn’t know much about Cook until I started watching this documentary. It’s really interesting. He was such an amazing man, coming from a farming family and going on to become elevated to a man of rank.

  18. julia

    ‘Many of his charts were in use until recent times and were very close to satellite images of the land masses.’

    Doesn’t that freak you out? We learn about Cook over here in Canada, as must be obvious – and I always think about Cook and others like him who made such accurate maps without benefit of satellites. And how did anyone suspect there was such a thing as the Northwest Passage? Which there is – but it’s often sailed by icebreakers these days.

  19. Tara Nichols

    Now we need a romantic tale spun about him!

  20. Susan Helene Gottfried

    That is some majorly cool stuff, Shelley. I never knew any of it.

    Imagine being together for only four years of your marriage, though. Wow. Just… incredible.

  21. Shelley Munro

    Susan, yes I found that amazing. She must have been a strong woman.

  22. Gwen Mitchell

    Wow! Thanks for the great history lesson, Shelley! I love educational TT’s. *g*

  23. sabrina

    What a cool list! I love watching documentaries and I’ll have to catch this one for sure.

  24. Amy W.

    What an interesting life to have led. Thanks for that mini history lesson. I’ll catch you when we get back from vaca!

  25. Shelley Munro

    I hope you have fun, Amy.