Australian History/Captain Cook

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Perhaps the most famous explorer of Australia was Captain James Cook.

Early life[edit | edit source]

James Cook was born in relatively humble circumstances at Marton in North Yorkshire, near what is today recognised as the town of Middlesbrough. Cook was one of five children born to a local woman and a Scottish immigrant farm labourer, Grace and James Sr. As a child, Cook moved with his family to a farm at Great Ayton where he was educated at the local school, his studies financed by his father's employer. At 13 he began work with his father, now as the farm's manager.

In 1745 when he was 16, Cook left home to be apprenticed in a grocer/haberdashery in the fishing village of Staithes. According to tradition, it was there that Cook first felt the lure of the sea, while gazing out the shop window.

After about a year and half in Staithes, the shop owner, a Mr. Anderson, apparently finding the young James unsuited to the trade, took him to the nearby port town of Whitby and introduced him to prominent local shipowners and Quakers, John and Henry Walker. Their business was involved in the coal trade, and Cook was taken on as a merchant navy apprentice in their small fleet of vessels plying coal along the English coast. His first assignment was aboard the collier Freelove, and he spent several years on this and various other coasters sailing between the Tyne and London.

For this new apprenticeship, Cook applied himself to the study of algebra, trigonometry, navigation, and astronomy, skills he would need one day to command his own ship.

His three-year apprenticeship completed, Cook began working on trading ships in the Baltic Sea. He soon progressed through the merchant navy ranks, starting with his 1752 promotion to Mate (officer in charge of navigation) aboard the collier brig Friendship. In 1755 he was offered command of this vessel, but within the month he volunteered for service in the Royal Navy.

The Kingdom of Great Britain was re-arming for what was to become the Seven Years War, and Cook saw his opportunities for career advancement more readily to come from military service. This necessitated however starting over in the naval hierarchy, and on June 17 he began as an able-bodied seaman aboard HMS Eagle under the command of Captain Hugh Palliser. He was very quickly promoted to Master's Mate.

Cook's First Voyage[edit | edit source]

In 1766, the Royal Society hired Cook (then a Lieutenant in the R.N.) to travel to the Pacific Ocean to observe and record a transit of Venus across the Sun. In command of HM Bark Endeavour, he sailed from England in 1768, rounded Cape Horn and continued westward across the Pacific to arrive at Tahiti on April 13, 1769, where the observations were to be made. The transit was scheduled to occur on June 3, and in the meantime he commissioned the building of a small fort and observatory.

The astronomer appointed to the task was Charles Green, assistant to the recently-appointed Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. The primary purpose of the observation was to obtain measurements which could be used to more accurately calculate the distance of Venus from the Sun. If this could be achieved, then the distances of the other known planets could be worked out based on their relative orbits. On the day of the transit observation, Cook recorded:

  • "Saturday 3 rd This day prov'd as favourable to our purpose as we could wish, not a Clowd was to be seen the Whole day and the Air was perfectly clear, so that we had every advantage we could desire in Observing the whole of the passage of the Planet Venus over the Suns disk: we very distinctly saw an Atmosphere or dusky shade round the body of the Planet which very much disturbed the times of the contacts particularly the two internal ones. D r Solander observed as well as M r Green and my self, and we differ'd from one another in observing the times of the Contacts much more than could be expected..."

Disappointingly, the separate measurements of Green, Cook and Solander varied more than the anticipated margin of error. Their instrumentation was adequate by the standards of the time, but the resolution still could not eliminate the errors. When their results were later compared to those of the other observations of the same event made elsewhere for the exercise, the nett result was not as conclusive or accurate as had been hoped.

Once the observations were completed, Cook then departed in order to execute the secondary purpose of his voyage: namely, to search the south Pacific for signs of the postulated southern continent of Terra Australis. The Royal Society, and especially Alexander Dalrymple, believed that it must exist, however Cook had his own personal doubts on the subject. With the help of a Tahitian named Tupaia, who had extensive knowledge of Pacific geography, Cook managed to reach New Zealand, becoming only the second European in history to do so (behind Abel Tasman over a century earlier, in 1642). Cook mapped the complete New Zealand coastline, making only some minor errors (such as calling Banks Peninsula an island, and thinking Stewart Island/Rakiura was part of the South Island). He also discovered Cook Strait, which separates the North Island from the South Island, and which Tasman had not seen.

Cook sets sail for Australia[edit | edit source]

He then set course westwards, intending to strike for Van Diemen's Land (present day Tasmania, earlier sighted by Tasman) in order to establish whether or not it formed part of the fabled southern continent. However, they were forced to maintain a more northerly course owing to prevailing gales, and sailed onwards until one afternoon when land was sighted, which Cook named Point Hicks. Cook calculated that Van Diemen's Land ought to lie due south of their position, but having found the coastline trending to the south west, recorded his doubt that this landmass was connected to it. This point was on the south eastern coast of the Australian continent, and in doing so his expedition became the first recorded Europeans to have encountered its eastern coastline. In his journal, Cook recorded the event thus:

  • "the Southermost Point of land we had in sight which bore from us W1/4S I judged to lay in the Latitude of 38°..0' S° and in the Longitude of 211°..07' W t from the Meridion of Greenwich. I have named it Point Hicks, because Leuit t Hicks was the first who discover'd this land".

The ship's log recorded the date as being Thursday April 19, 1770; however, Cook had not made the necessary adjustments when they had earlier crossed the 180th meridian of Longitude, and the actual calendar date was Friday, April 20. The landmark of this sighting is generally reckoned to be a point lying about half-way between the present-day towns of Orbost and Mallacoota on the south eastern coast of the state of Victoria. A later survey done in 1843 ignored or overlooked Cook's earlier naming of the point, giving it the name Cape Everard. On the 200th anniversary of the sighting, the name was officially changed back to Point Hicks.

The Endeavour continued northwards along the coastline, keeping the land in sight and Cook charting and naming landmarks as he went. A little over a week later, they came across an extensive but shallow inlet, and upon entering it moored off a low headland fronted by sand dunes. It was here, on April 29 that Cook and crew made their first landfall on the continent, at a place now known as Kurnell. At first Cook bestowed the name Stingaree (Stingray) Bay to the inlet after the many such creatures found there; this was later changed to Botanist Bay and finally Botany Bay after the unique specimens retrieved by the botanists Banks, Solander and Spöring.

This first landing site was later to be promoted (particularly by Joseph Banks) as a suitable candidate for situating a settlement and British colonial outpost. However, almost eighteen years after this first landing, when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet arrived in early 1788 to establish an outpost and penal colony, they found that the bay and surrounds did not live up to the promising picture which had been painted. Instead, Phillip shortly thereafter gave orders to relocate to a harbour a few kilometres to the north, which Cook had named Port Jackson but had not further explored. It was in this harbour at a place Phillip named Sydney Cove that the settlement of Sydney was established. The settlement was for some time afterwards still referred to generally as Botany Bay.

At Cook's original landing contact was made with the local Australian Aborigine inhabitants. The expedition's scientific members commenced the first European scientific documentation of Australian fauna and flora.

Cook continued northwards, charting along the coastline. A mishap occurred when the Endeavour ran aground on a shoal of the Great Barrier Reef, on June 11, 1770. The ship was seriously damaged and his voyage was delayed almost seven weeks while repairs were carried out on the beach (near the docks of modern Cooktown, at the mouth of the Endeavour River). While there, Joseph Banks, Herman Spöring and Daniel Solander made their first major collections of Australian flora. The crew's encounters with the local Aboriginal people were mainly peaceable; from the group encountered here the name "kangaroo" was to be entered into the English language, coming from the local Guugu-Yimidhirr name for a Grey Kangaroo, which was gangaroo.

Once repairs were complete the voyage continued, eventually passing by the northern-most point of Cape York Peninsula and then sailing through Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, earlier navigated by Luis Vaez de Torres in 1604.

At that point in the voyage, Cook had lost no men to scurvy, a remarkable and practically unheard-of achievement in 18th century long-distance sea-faring. He forced his men to eat such foods as citrus fruits and sauerkraut — under punishment of flogging if they did not comply — although no one yet understood why these foods prevented scurvy. Unfortunately, he sailed on for Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, to put in for repairs. Batavia was known for its outbreaks of malaria, and, before they returned home in 1771, many in Cook's crew would succumb to the disease and other ailments such as dysentery, including the Tahitian Tupaia, Banks's Finnish secretary and a fellow scientist Herman Spöring, astronomer Charles Green, and the illustrator Sydney Parkinson. Cook had named the Spöring Island on the coast of New Zealand to honour Herman Spöring and his work on the voyage.

Aftermath of the Voyage[edit | edit source]

The Endeavour, his ship on this first voyage, would later lend its name to the Space Shuttle Endeavour, as well as the Endeavour River.

Cook's journals were published upon his return, and he became something of a hero among the scientific community. Among the general public, however, the aristocratic botanist Joseph Banks was a bigger hero. Banks even attempted to take command of Cook's second voyage, but removed himself from the voyage before it began.

Sources[edit | edit source]

  • Aughton, Peter. 2002. Endeavour: The Story of Captain Cook's First Great Epic Voyage. Cassell & Co., London.
  • John Cawte Beaglehole, biographer of Cook and editor of his Journals.
  • Edwards, Philip, ed. 2003. James Cook: The Journals. Prepared from the original manuscripts by J. C. Beaglehole 1955-67. Penguin Books, London.
  • Williams, Glyndwr, ed. 1997. Captain Cook's Voyages: 1768-1779. The Folio Society, London.
  • Sydney Daily Telegraph. 1970. Captain Cook: His Artists - His Voyages. The Sydney Daily Telegraph Portfolio of Original Works by Artists who sailed with Captain Cook. Australian Consolidated Press, Sydney.
  • Thomas, Nicholas. 2003. The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook. Walker & Co., New York. ISBN 0-8027-1412-9
  • Wikipedia Article on James Cook

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