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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Captain James Cook Dies, February 14, 1779

Today in 1779, Royal Navy Captain James Cook died while visiting the Hawaiian Islands. Cook's exceptional skills made him an expert in three areas: exploration, navigation and cartography. Much of what Europeans learned during the 18th century about the lands bordering the Pacific Ocean is due to Cook's diligence, intelligence and superior leadership.

James Cook was born on October 27, 1728 at Marton in North Yorkshire, England as one of five children. His father was a farm laborer, so young James knew from an early age that a long formal education was not in his future. He began to work with his father at the age of 13, but was soon working as an apprentice in a nearby fishing village. This is where Cook fell in love with the sea. Before long, he began a three year apprenticeship in the merchant navy. He studied math and astronomy on his own with the awareness that these skills were needed if he was to become anything more than a deckhand. In 1755, at the age of 27, Cook was offered a command of his own, but he turned it down to join the Royal Navy as an able seaman.

Cook entered the Royal Navy as the Seven Year's War (called the French and Indian War in North America) was heating up and the nation was readying for an extended conflict. While he certainly loved his country, Cook's decision to join the Navy was not entirely based on patriotism. He realized that advancement came more quickly in the military, and he was correct; within two years he became qualified as a navigator and ship's handler, or master.

Cook found himself off the coast of North America during the war, first participating in the siege of Quebec City. While there, he mapped the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River, a feat that brought him to the attention of his superiors. He went on to map the coast of Newfoundland over the course of the next four years.

Cook's first voyage to the Pacific set sail in 1768 on the HM Bark Endeavour. While it was a Royal Navy ship and crew, the main mission was created by the Royal Society: the Endeavour was to record the transit of Venus across the Sun from Tahiti. An astronomer joined the crew for the purpose and the mission was successful. With that completed, Cook opened his sealed orders for the second phase of his journey: he and his crew were to search the southern reaches of the Pacific in hope of finding the fabled southern continent, Terra Australis. This was a fabled land at the bottom of the world and if it contained anything of value, the Admiralty and the King wanted to make sure that England claimed it first.

Cook doubted the existence of the continent, but he followed orders and began a search. What he found was the continent of Australia. While Cook and his crew were probably not the first Europeans to see the continent, they were the first to make contact. 18 years later, a penal colony would be established at Sydney Cove, not far from where Cook came ashore. That colony is today known as the city of Sydney.

The Endeavour later ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, delaying the voyage for seven weeks while repairs were made. This allowed the botanists on board to collect a large number of plant specimens. They also met Aboriginal people for the first time, who taught the white men a new term for the strange jumping creatures they saw: kangaroo. The Endeavour returned to England via the Cape of Good Hope, thus completing a circumnavigation of the globe.

Cook's second voyage took place between 1772 and 1775 and saw him in command of HMS Resolution and joined by HMS Adventure. The crews became one of the first to cross the Antarctic Circle, which they did during their continued search for the fabled southern continent. The two ships became separated in a thick fog, after which the Adventure made her way back to New Zealand and then home. Although he did not know it at the time, Cook came very close to discovering the Antarctic mainland. He did discover the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands and proved that neither New Zealand or Australia were connected to a larger land mass at the bottom of the world. The myth of Terra Australis was put to rest forever.

Cook set out again in command of the Resolution in 1776. This third voyage explored the northwest of the North American continent in hope of finding the fabled Northwest Passage. In the process, Cook mapped the coast of California all the way to Alaska and the Bering Strait. The strait proved impassable, which frustrated Cook. It is now believed that he was beginning to suffer from a stomach ailment about this time, for his behavior towards the crew turned harsh and bizarre. Previously, Cook had been known as a fair leader who did such unheard of things as feeding his men the same food his officers ate. Now, a more irrational man began to emerge.

The Resolution put into Hawaii in 1779. The ship had been there the year before, at which time Cook named the island chain the Sandwich Islands after the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich. Although not known for certain, it is believed by some historians that Cook and his crew arrived during a season of worship, which helped to explain why they were treated with near god-like respect. They stayed a month and then set sail for the North Pacific and another go at the Bering Strait. Not long into the voyage, Resolution's foremast broke, requiring her to return to Hawaii. This caused tension among the island's natives. One of the ship's boats was stolen, which caused a chain of events leading to a confrontation between Cook and his landing party and a large crowd of Hawaiians. The natives began to attack the men, who opened fire on the crowd. They retreated to the beach and were making for their boats when Cook was struck in the back of head and then stabbed to death. He died face down in the surf. It was February 14, 1779; Captain James Cook was 51 years old.

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