Captain James Cook FRS

Captain James Cook was one of the mappers of the global village. His voyages into the Pacific and the charting of his travels helped create a picture that showed people the extent of the world they lived in.

Here in New Zealand, he has become identified in our history as the European who really put the country on the world map. He and his fellow voyagers were the first Europeans to have and record substantial encounters with the people here. And during that first visit he cast on the land a layer of names that exists to this day. The English names of two of our notable geographical features, Mount Cook (Aoraki) and Cook Strait (Raukawa Moana), are a special mark of his relationship with New Zealand.

James Cook was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1728. By upbringing, he was a country lad. His father was a farm worker, so he grew up on farms and in farming villages, and he got a basic education in a village school. He left home when he was seventeen to work in a shop in Staithes, a fishing town on the coast. Eighteen months later, he went to sea - as a seaman apprentice to a ship owner in the port of Whitby.

He learnt the basics of seamanship as a crewman on coal carriers. He must have learnt well, because within nine years the ship owner offered him the command of a ship. Instead, in 1755 he volunteered to join the British Navy as an able seaman. This was unusual for the time - at twenty-seven, he was quite old to be joining the Navy, and probably took a considerable drop in pay. However, he was soon showing his new employers his abilities. In 1757, he qualified as a master, the person responsible for the ship's navigation, and for the management of its sailing gear and stores.

Over the next ten years, he served on ships stationed on the east coast of Canada. Here he learnt how to survey by using a theodolite and trigonometry. He applied his skills to making precise charts of the St Lawrence River and its vast estuary, and was given a special assignment to survey the coast of Newfoundland.

His reputation as a seaman, navigator, and skilled mapmaker grew. This led to his employers, the Admiralty, appointing him in 1768 as commander of the Endeavour to take an expedition of scientific exploration to the Pacific Ocean.

This was the first voyage (1768-71) in what was to be a series of three. His charting of New Zealand and of the east coast of Australia was his significant achievement from this voyage. The success of this voyage led to a second voyage (1772-75), looking for the great southern continent. He sailed into the extremities of the Southern Ocean, to the icy fringes of Antarctica. He also travelled extensively throughout the central Pacific Ocean, mapping many of the islands there for the first time.

Wherever these expeditions went, Cook, members of his crew, scientists, and expedition artists recorded their observations, collected samples of the local plants and animals, and acquired curios and artefacts to illustrate the marvels of life among Pacific people. The publications of the accounts and pictures from these voyages fed the imagination of Europeans for decades about these exotic parts of the world.

After the second voyage, Cook's reputation as a navigator and explorer was vast. He was to add to it by becoming an author as well, though he never saw the publication of his work. Having given such notable service to his country, he was offered an easy shore job. He'd been away from home for almost all of the previous eight years. He could perhaps spend more time with his family. Some fourteen years before, in 1762, Cook had married Elizabeth Batts. They'd set up house in Mile End near London, and over the years had had five children. Of those, two sons still survived, both of whom were aiming for a career at sea.

In the meantime, a third voyage into the Pacific was planned to find 'the north-west passage', a sea route that would link the Pacific Ocean to Europe around the top of North America. Cook was asked for his advice on who should command the expedition. He left his masters in no doubt that he'd like the job himself.

Cook set off from England in July 1776. During the voyage, in February 1779, he was killed in a fight between his crew and the local people in Hawai'i.

Among Cook's many achievements was his contribution to the health of western seafarers, in successfully preventing scurvy on his long voyages. He took a keen interest in the quality of shipboard diet, insisting on fresh food wherever possible, including greens and fruit. He was also strict about cleanliness on board. As a consequence, his voyages were notable for the general good health of the ship's company.

Cook was one of the world's great executives. His masters gave him a mission and he fulfilled it, with intelligence and initiative. He was a highly skilled technician - as seaman, navigator, and mapmaker. His journals give a picture of a humane person, observant and dispassionate - a remarkable man of his, or any, time.

More information

Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa Collection items may be ordered from Images, on Level 4.

  • Beaglehole, J C. editor. (1955). The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery: the voyage of the Endeavour 1768- 1771. Vol 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and the Hakluyt Society.
  • Beaglehole, J C. editor. (1961). The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery. the voyage of the Resolution and Adventure 1772-1775. Vol 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and the Hakluyt Society.
  • Beaglehole, J C. (1974). The Life of Captain James Cook. London: A & C Black.
  • Cobbe, Hugh. Editor. (1979). Cook's Voyages and Peoples of the Pacific. London: British Museum.
  • Mackay, David. (1990). James Cook 1728-1779 in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Vol. 1. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs.
Personal memorabilia associated with Captain Cook in Te Papa's collection


Captain James Cook FRS
about 1784
artist unknown, engraving after Webber
Neg No: B.037889 © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
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