James Cook rose from nearly the lowest ranks. The second son of James Cook, a Yorkshire labourer, and Grace his wife, he was born on the edge of the Cleveland Hills on February 27th, 1728, in the little village of Marton, which lies about four miles south-south-east of Middlesborough, and five miles west of the well-known hill and landmark, Roseberry Topping. Eight years later his father removed to Great Ayton, which lies close under Roseberry Topping.
At the age of thirteen Cook, who, it is recorded, had had some elementary schooling both at Marton and Great Ayton, was apprenticed to one Sanderson, a draper and grocer of Staithes, a fishing village on the coast, about fourteen miles from Ayton and nine north-west of Whitby.
A year later Cook went, or ran away, to sea, shipping at Whitby on board the Freelove, a collier belonging to the brothers Walker.
In this hard school Cook learnt his sailor duties. No better training could have been found for his future responsibilities. Here he learnt to endure the utmost rigours of the sea. Constant fighting with North Sea gales, bad food, and cramped accommodation, taught him to regard with the indifference that afterwards distinguished him, all the hardships that he had to encounter, and led him to endure and persevere where others, less determined or more easily daunted by difficulties, would have hurried on, and left their work incomplete.
All details of Cook\\\’s life during his thirteen years in the merchant service are lost: what voyages he made, how he fared, whether he advanced in general knowledge, all is gone. The only fact known is that in May 1755, when Cook was twenty-seven years of age, and mate of a vessel of Messrs. Walker, then in the Thames, he, to avoid the press, then active on account of the outbreak of the war with France, volunteered on board H.M.S. Eagle, of 60 guns, as an able seaman.
Captain Hugh Palliser, who succeeded to the command of this ship in October, was certainly Cook\\\’s warmest patron, and it would appear that Cook did work superior to that of an able seaman in the Eagle. Be that as it may, all that is absolutely known is that that ship took her share of the fighting at the taking of Louisbourg and elsewhere on the North American and West Indian Station, and returned to England in 1759.
By Palliser\\\’s interest Cook was now appointed master of the Mercury. It is therefore evident that his qualifications as a navigator recommended themselves to Palliser.
The Mercury went to North America, and here Cook did his first good service recorded, namely, taking soundings in the St. Lawrence, to enable the fleet then attacking Quebec to take up safe positions in covering the army under Wolfe. This he accomplished with great skill, under many difficulties, in the face of the enemy, much of it being done at night. He was immediately employed in making a survey of the intricate channels of the river below Quebec, and for many years his chart was the guide for navigation. Cook was indeed a born surveyor. Before his day charts were of the crudest description, and he must have somehow acquired a considerable knowledge of trigonometry, and possessed an intuitive faculty for practically applying it, to enable him to originate, as it may truly be said he did, the art of modern marine surveying.
The expedition to Quebec concluded, Cook was appointed master of the Northumberland, bearing Admiral Lord Colville\\\’s flag, and during that ship\\\’s winter at Halifax he applied himself to further study of mathematics and astronomy.
In 1762, the Northumberland being at Newfoundland during the capture of that island from the French, Cook again was employed in surveys. This attracted the attention of Captain Graves, the Governor, who conceived a high opinion of his abilities in this respect.
In the latter part of 1762 Cook returned to England and married Elizabeth Batts, daughter of a man in business at Wapping; but a few months afterwards he was called upon by Captain Graves to go again to Newfoundland to make marine surveys.
In this important work he was engaged until 1767, Captain Palliser, who succeeded Captain Graves as Governor, being only too glad to avail himself of Cook\\\’s services.
The charts he made during these years in the schooner Grenville were admirable. The best proof of their excellence is that they are not yet wholly superseded by the more detailed surveys of modern times. Like all first surveys of a practically unknown shore, and especially when that shore abounds in rocks and shoals, and is much indented with bays and creeks, they are imperfect, in the sense of having many omissions; but when the amount of the ground covered, and the impediments of fogs and bad weather on that coast is considered, and that Cook had at the most only one assistant, their accuracy is truly astonishing. The originals of these surveys form part of the most precious possessions of the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty.
We now approach the crowning achievements of Cook\\\’s life.
After many years\\\’ neglect the exploration of the Pacific was awaking interest. This great ocean, which very few, even to this day, realise occupies nearly one half of the surface of the globe, had been, since the first voyage of Magellan, crossed by many a vessel.
Notwithstanding, very little was known of the islands occupying its central portion.
For this there were two reasons. First, the comparatively small area covered by islands; secondly, the fact that nearly all who traversed it had followed Magellan\\\’s track, or, if they started, as many did, from Central America, they made straight for Magellan\\\’s discovery, the Ladrone Islands. For this, again, there was a reason.
Few sailed for the purpose of exploration pure and simple; and even those who started with that view found, when embarked on that vast expanse, that prudence dictated that they should have a moderate certainty of, by a certain time, falling in with a place of sure refreshment. The provisions they carried were bad at starting, and by the time they had fought their way through the Straits of Magellan were already worse; water was limited, and would not hold out more than a given number of days. Every voyage that is pursued tells the same story–short of water, and eagerly looking out for an opportunity of replenishing it. The winds were found to blow in fixed directions, and each voyager was fearful of deviating from the track on which it was known they would be fair, for fear of delays. And ever present in each captain\\\’s mind was the dread of the terrible scourge, scurvy. Every expedition suffered from it. Each hoped they would be exempt, and each in turn was reduced to impotence from its effects.
It was the great consideration for every leader of a protracted expedition, How can I obviate this paralyzing influence? And one after another had to confess his failure.
It is yearly becoming more difficult for us to realise these obstacles.
The prevailing winds and currents in each part of the ocean are well known to us: the exact distance and bearing from one point to another are laid down in the chart; steam bridges over calm areas, and in many cases conducts us on our entire journey at a speed but little inferior to that of land travelling by railroad; modern science preserves fresh and palatable food for an indefinite period; and, in a word, all the difficulties and most of the dangers of long voyages have disappeared.
Take one element alone in long voyages–the time required. The average progress of a ship in the eighteenth century was not more than fifty miles a day. Nowadays we may expect as much as four hundred miles in a full powered steamer, and not less than one hundred and fifty in a well-fitted sailing ship.
But navigation, and more especially the navigation of the unknown Pacific, was very different in Cook\\\’s days, when all the obstacles above mentioned impeded the explorers, and impelled them to follow a common track.
There were a few who had deviated from the common track.