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Who is Captain Cook?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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Captain James Cook was an accomplished British navigator, cartographer, explorer, and captain who sailed the South Pacific extensively during his lifetime. In the course of his journeys, Captain Cook discovered a number of new sites, drew an astounding number of maps, and made interesting observations about the people, plants, and animals of the South Pacific. Cook's enduring legacy is still recognized in many of the places he visited, with statues, commemorative festivals, and other events which honor him.

James Cook was born in 1728 into a family of Scottish laborers. At 16, he was apprenticed to a grocer, and it was quickly realized that this job would not be suitable for him, so he was apprenticed again to a seafaring firm. During his apprenticeship, he learned a number of skills which would be useful later in his career, ultimately joining the Royal Navy in 1755 in the hopes of advancing his career. By 1759, Cook had become a ship's master, commanding the Mercury and taking extensive surveys of Canada and Newfoundland.

When Captain Cook returned to England after his service on the Mercury, he was enlisted by the Royal Society to take a number of scientists to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus. Simultaneous observations around the world of this event were planned, with the goal of using the collected data to figure out the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Captain Cook set sail in 1768, carrying a crew of scientists to the South Pacific.

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On Captain Cook's first voyage, he set the bar for his future voyages. Along the way, he made extensive maps of the places he visited, along with observations about the people he encountered and how he interacted with them. Artists on board painted the plants and animals seen on the voyage, along with various scenes of interest. His thorough documentation continues to be the delight of archaeologists and history students.

Cook also promoted an anti-scurvy diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, keeping his crew healthy and happy. He went on to make two more journeys to the South Pacific, becoming something of a hero in his native England. On his second journey, Captain Cook took along a chronometer, a very precise clock which could be used in longitude calculations.

During the course of his travels, Captain Cook expressed astonishment at how wide-spread the Polynesian peoples were, noting that the English were not the only seafarers. Reports about Cook's interactions with both his crew and the native peoples they encountered are conflicted. Some historians portray Captain Cook as a peaceable, friendly man, while others say that he was hard and cruel. The glorification of Cook in many regions makes it hard to find the truth behind the stories.

In 1779, Captain Cook met an unfortunate end at the hands of native Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay on the big island of Hawaii. Tensions between Captain Cook and the Hawaiians had indicated that it was time to depart in early February of that year, but unfortunately Cook was forced to return because the main mast of his ship broke. Cook was met with hostility, and the Hawaiians stole one of the ship's boats; Cook responded by attempting to kidnap hostages, unfortunately picking a chieftain, and he was clubbed to death by the Hawaiians as he attempted to take his hostage back to the ship.

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