Captain James Cook and Scientific Discoveries in the Age of Sail

By Joshua Chase Thomas, Public History Center Fellow, Christopher Newport University, Class of 2015
Editor: Dr. Sheri Shuck-Hall, Associate Professor of History, Director of the Public History Center, Christopher Newport University

The Age of Sail led to centuries of scientific findings and geographic exploration. This period in maritime history was continually driven by a combination of technological advances, human curiosity, and daring adventurers. While innovation provided the means for safer exploration and more accurate scientific measurements, the allure of the unknown beyond Europe provided motivation for those like James Cook to acquire knowledge of world. However, the success of voyages depended on their leaders. In an age of exploration, some captains found themselves sailing into and beyond uncharted territories, tasked with goals that stretched the bounds of possibility. It is on the shoulders of these select few that lives would be lost or discoveries were made.

James Cook was born on October 27, 1728 to a farm laborer in a Yorkshire village called Marton—far from noble origins. Reputed to be intelligent and hard-working, James’ parents arranged an apprenticeship under a Mr. William Sanderson in the sea-side village of Staithes. As if lured to the sea, young Cook was granted exit out of this apprenticeship and was provided a new one under John Walker, a mariner from the port of Whitby. After some years transporting coal with Walker, James had acquired both experience and knowledge in life at sea, navigation, and aspects of leadership. Despite being offered command of his own vessel by Walker, Cook took his ambition to the Royal Navy.

Cook’s early naval history demonstrates his determination. Volunteering at the age of twenty eight in 1755, Cook began his naval career later than most. However, this late start did not prevent him from demonstrating his natural and learned talents. Serving in Canada during the Seven Years’ War, Cook was involved in the capture of a French fort in Louisburg in 1758. The next year, he took part in the capture of Quebec. Over the course of his service on the Canadian front, Cook found himself involved with surveying work. Between his proficiency in and passion for surveying, Cook was soon tasked with charting the coast of Newfoundland in 1763. Granted permission to publish his charts in 1767, Cook had begun to make a name for himself as a self-taught, respectable man of the Royal Navy. His hard work and perseverance paid off; in 1768, James Cook was promoted to Lieutenant and set sail on the first of his three famous voyages. With his professional training and amateur passion, he was a perfect fit for the expedition. More importantly, this was the first of three voyages that make Captain James Cook an almost mythical figure.

Retelling the tales of Captain Cook’s famous voyages in their entirety is not necessary to understand the profound effects he had as an explorer. Countless works already exist to tell the stories of Captain Cook. Highlighting the major accomplishments of his voyages and understanding the performance of Cook’s many roles will demonstrate why he is a distinguished historical figure. Over the course of the three journeys, Captain Cook found himself playing a wide variety of roles: ethnographer of new peoples, astronomer, geographical myth buster, surveyor of new lands, and explorer.

One of Cook’s first passions was surveying, the detailed mapping of an area. Cook built up a majority of his early career around successfully surveying different parts of North America, such as the coast of Newfoundland, the Saint Lawrence River, and other various locations. Cook’s surveys of coasts and waterways were instrumental in making navigation of these areas safer for future generations. In fact, his early maps were so well done that they effectively launched his career. With such accurate maps on his official resume, the Cook’s potential for the Admiralty and the Royal Navy increased astronomically.

Cook’s early performance as a cartographer is indicative of his achievements over the course of his three famous voyages. Often, Cook found himself mapping and charting areas that were either new to European knowledge or making necessary corrections and alterations to pre-existing charts. Every accurate chart Cook produced meant safer and more reliable navigation to further reaches of the world, allowing the arms of European (mostly British) exploration to extend ever further. To understand Cook’s contributions to history, it cannot be forgotten that his career was largely begun by his cartography, and the maps and surveys he produced mark some of his greatest accomplishments.

Cook’s history at sea honed his skills and talents so effectively that the Royal Navy saw a lot of promise in the mariner. With the imminent transit of Venus across the surface of the sun, a very rare opportunity was available to the world. If the transit was observed and accurately measured, the resulting calculations could provide a wealth of information for science. In order for the accurate measurements, the observation needed to be done simultaneously at vastly different longitudes. If the measurements were done too close together geographically, the slightest error in measurement could mean bigger mistakes. With this in mind, the Admiralty appointed James Cook as captain of the Endeavour to observe the transit of Venus from the Pacific.

Cook’s first voyage was commissioned in order to observe the transit of Venus across the surface of the Sun. This rare astronomic occurrence could further scientific knowledge greatly, but needed an observation from the Pacific for the best results. With heavy emphasis on the success of Cook’s first voyage, Cook not only had to navigate his way through the Pacific in a timely manner, but also had to oversee the observations that could help push astronomical knowledge forward. Although Charles Green was the official astronomer on the voyage, Cook was inevitably attached the mission as a result of his personal passion for learning.

In addition to the observations of Venus traversing the surface of the Sun, Cook was involved in the navigation of the ship itself. Navigating a ship required a good deal of knowledge about astronomy. Mariners used the sun, the stars, the moon, and occasionally planets to determine latitudes and, when possible, longitudes. This also helped when exploring new areas, as knowing precise locations made it easier to create accurate maps and graphs more effectively aiding future exploration and the pool of knowledge of the unmapped world. With his mission to observe the transit of Venus, the surveying and mapping of different places, and his daily navigation during his three voyages, Cook easily mastered astronomy. Cook was ultimately part astronomer, navigator and cartographer.

Cook also searched for the continent of Terra Australis. This undiscovered southern continent (at least by Europeans) was a goal of explorers for some time. In his initial search for Terra Australis, Cook found himself exploring and mapping much of the New Zealand coast along with parts of Australia. As one of the earlier Europeans to find himself on New Zealand, his maps and charts were crucial in helping future navigators and explorers in the area.

In addition to all of his other discoveries, Cook was the first person to stumble onto the Great Barrier Reef and tell the tale. In 1770, Cook’s first voyage almost came to an abrupt end when the Endeavour came into contact with the Great Barrier Reef. This deadly discovery almost brought about the end of Cook and his men, though his calm and collected reaction allowed him to save the ship and his voyage by carefully navigating away from the danger. After carrying out necessary repairs on his Endeavour, Cook continued his journey. More importantly, his exploration of the area and skillful recovery meant Cook was able to bring light to the dangerous waters that lurked off the coast of Australia.

One of Cook’s most famous explorations was the Hawaiian Islands. These islands, resting comfortably in the middle of the Pacific, were previously unknown to the European world. Upon stumbling upon these fortunately placed islands, they were called the “Sandwich Islands” in honor of a member of the British Admiralty. As time went on these “Sandwich Islands” would eventually become a common stopping point for many travelers across the Pacific due to its favorable location, leading to a new connection between native and European populations. At the very minimum, Cook’s exploration of these islands in 1778 was the first step in a long complicated history with the people of Hawaii and the outside world.

Among the crucial accomplishments of Cook’s voyages were the volumes scientific records made and information recorded. On all of his voyages, scientists and artists were present to document new plants, animals, locations, and cultures. Live specimens were often captured and returned to England when possible. When this was not an option, detailed drawings and descriptions of new scientific discoveries were carefully made. The sheer amount of knowledge acquired about other species of plants and animals outside of Europe made on these voyages is alone a commendable accomplishment. Many times, Cook was not only the captain of the voyages for these discoveries, but an eager participant who found himself fueling the searches that would add to the wealth of knowledge gained in his lifetime.

Another important role fulfilled by Cook over the course of his three voyages was as an ethnographer. As an early explorer he made contact with many foreign cultures and peoples. Cook often was the first to report previously unknown civilizations and cultures to the European world. In this regard, he was the looking glass through which England and other European countries would see or be exposed to these unfamiliar cultures. Especially in his earlier two voyages, Cook had a habit of creating peaceful relations when possible. In fact, his orders were to create a positive relationship to receptive indigenous peoples that he encountered. After all, every place Cook discovered could later be a valuable safe haven, trading opportunity, or ally in distant waters. Going beyond these fundamental principles, Cook was careful to document the cultures, customs, and behaviors of new groups. Relatively more objective than his counterparts, Cook’s depiction of foreign people, along with his knowledge of them, would have an important influence on English relations in the Pacific moving forward.

On his voyages, James Cook acted as a “myth buster” to longstanding speculative beliefs held by many at the time. One of the early hypotheses Cook was expected to test was the existence of a great southern continent called Terra Australis. Many suspected that a great southern continent must have existed, or else the world would have been off-balance due to there being more landmass in the northern hemisphere. This continent would eventually be identified as Antarctica. However, throughout Cook’s voyages, he traced along the southern icy coasts, determined to find this legendary continent. The more diligently he explored, the less great this continent became, as expectations were slowly tempered by the reality of Cook’s exploration. Though the continent did exist in some form, Cook proved that the continent could not exist in the way many speculated.

Cook even helped dispel the myth of the elusive Northwest Passage. The Northwest Passage was a rumored waterway that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through a series of waterways either across or around the higher latitudes of North America. Many other explorers before and after Captain Cook dedicated their lifelong work to the discovery and transit through this passage. While this Northwest Passage existed, albeit not in the ways explorers had hoped, Cook was a momentous force in discovering what this passage was and was not. Much of Cook’s time poking and prodding around the inlets of North American coasts proved that if the Northwest Passage existed, it would not be found in the convenient latitudes that many thought. Although the myth was not busted in its entirety, Cook again demonstrated that the constraints for these geological myths were much tighter than previously realized, which led to huge leaps of knowledge on globes and maps.

Another myth debunked on the three famous voyages was that a sailor’s health would naturally deteriorate at sea. Diseases like scurvy were not understood properly at the time; many believed that it was a direct result of long trips at sea and constant exposure to the harsh and unfavorable conditions of an 18th century ship. In Cook’s first voyage, as an experiment Cook kept a strict diet for his crew, with several foods that were thought to curb the onset of scurvy. However, Cook also implemented a stricter regiment beyond just diet. He made sure his crew’s hygiene was up to his standards, with punishment imminent for those that did not regularly air out linens, bathe, or follow their diet. The combination of good hygiene and a balanced diet supplemented by frequent stops to islands for fresh vegetables had unprecedented results. Cook had no losses due to scurvy on his first voyages; future explorers followed his practices and consequently saw a decline in the onset of scurvy at sea.

Finally, Cook’s voyages were often a test of technological innovation. Between odometers, sextants, barometers, and other instruments, the voyages were tests of new technologies. The tools on these voyages served a variety of purposes. They could be used to determine latitude, help calculate longitude, or take and record precise measurements. In any case, each voyage was an effective test of the instruments on board. Chronometers, for example were often tested against one another, with Cook taking several on some of his journeys, and after returning home, checking to see which ones had held time best.  In these ways, Cook determined which new technologies and designs could withstand the difficult journeys across the world.

Unfortunately, Cook was unable to conclude his third circumnavigation around the world. He was struck down in a violent encounter with the inhabitants and the journey was finished under another’s command. In spite of his death, Cook’s legacy as one of the most prominent explorers of the eighteenth century goes largely undisputed. Fulfilling all the aforementioned roles as Captain meant that his contributions were more than just new names on a map. Captain James Cook earned the admiration of future generations. His contributions to our globes were only the beginning of the list; he carefully tested many speculative theories about the world. Where some suspected immense continents and mysteriously convenient waterways, James Cook was testing their very existence. When encountered with new indigenous peoples, Cook was careful in his relations with them, recording their behavior and culture, and, especially in his first two voyages, trying to foster positive relationships where there were none. When confronted with unfamiliar areas, he was careful to document dangerous reefs, shores, and islands to make future maps and navigation more favorable. Trying to measure the influence of Captain James Cook is difficult, as the lists of his achievement are long enough to warrant numerous biographies, books, and discussions on the three famous circumnavigations of the world. If nothing else, it is clear that Captain James Cook’s accomplishments earn him the admiration and respect as one of history’s greatest explorers.

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