James Cook was born in Marton, Yorkshire, in 1728, the son of an agricultural labourer. Apprenticed to a Whitby shipowner, he joined the Navy in 1755, becoming master in 1757. Cook led three expeditions to the Pacific Ocean, the first from 1768 to 1771, as Lieutenant in the Endeavour; the second, from 1772 to 1775, as Commander in the Resolution, accompanied by the Adventure; and the last, from 1776 until his death in 1779 as Captain in the Resolution accompanied by the Discovery.
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On his last voyage, Captain Cook did more than any other navigator to add to our knowledge of the Pacific and Southern Oceans, circumnavigating and charting New Zealand, surveying and claiming the east coast of Australia, exploring the extent of Antarctica, visiting Tahiti and discovering island groups like New Caledonia and Hawaii.
He died on 14th February 1779 in Hawaii, after being forced to turn back during his attempt to find a passage around the north coast of America from the Pacific. The inhabitants of the island, while friendly to begin with killed Cook when he landed to recover a stolen boat.
On this his final voyage, Cook sailed in the Resolution and he was accompanied in the Discovery by Tobias Furneaux, a competent sailor who had first been in the Pacific with Byron. On January 17th 1776, the ships crossed the Arctic circle a little to the west of what is now called Enderby Land. Here the ice was heavy and menacing. Cook therefore directed the expedition to move northwards and eastwards until the ships were between the islands of Kerguelen and Marion, but neither group could be found. At this point, the ships parted after appointing a rendezvous in New Zealand.
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After refreshing his men for seven weeks at Dusky Sound on the Southwest coast of South Island, he moved on to meet with Furneaux at the top of the island. On June 7th the ships went to sea again and headed for Tahiti which was reached on August 16th; the ships remaining there for about a month. They then turned west and a little south, picked up but did not visit what today are called the Cook Islands and then rediscovered in turn Eua and Tongatapu in the Tonga group (Tonga - Recollections of an Early Visitor). Sailing from there after a very pleasant visit, the ships returned to New Zealand, off the coast of which they parted in a storm never again to be reunited on the voyage. Cook prepared to return to the Antarctic region.
Early in his new trip to the south Cook made an extraordinary southward penetration at a point where the continental coast of Antarctica bends far to the south. He was actually considerably further south than Palmer Peninsula, where he was stopped by solid ice, an achievement not be matched for fifty years. Cook turned north and east to try and locate the alleged continent of Juan Fernandez. It proved to be mythical like so much else by the way of land that Cook had to seek, and, after a visit to Easter Island, the ship sailed once more to Tahiti. By pursuing a course around to the north of the island, Cook came upon the Marquesas, unseen since Mendana discovered them on his second voyage, and finally reached Tahiti on April 22nd.
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Sailing on June 4th, Cook set out to find Quiros's Austrialia del Espiritu Santo. Along the way, he saw several small islands and revisited Tongatapu. He came on the island he was seeking on July 16th and set about making a survey of the group, which he named the New Hebrides. Hitherto, his South Sea contacts had been with Polynesians; here he first met Melanesians, and his prejudice, like that of most subsequent visitors was in favour of the former. On August 25th he found the harbour at which Quiros had played out his strange drama of settlement and abandonment of settlement. Turning back to New Zealand, Cook came on New Caledonia from the north, but had to go on without making a complete survey and still, New Zealand bound, discovered Norfolk Island on October 10th. He reached Queen Charlotte's Sound in New Zealand eight days later.
Cook then became concerned at the possibility of a northwest passage around the Arctic coast to Bering Strait and thence into the North Pacific. On July 12th 1776, Cook sailed in the Resolution. The companionship the Discovery left on August 1st. A rendezvous was made at the Cape of Good Hope. The ships sailed from the Cape on November 30th and by mid-February were in New Zealand. After a fortnight there, the ships moved on to the Tongan Islands among which two months were spent, after which they went to Tahiti, where they arrived on August 12th. They finally left for the North Pacific on December 7th.
On his northward journey, Cook chanced upon Christmas Island, first seen earlier by a Spanish voyager, on December 25th 1777 and then on January 18th 1778 discovered the Hawaiian Islands.
By March 7th, he was off to North American coast along the shore of what is now the state of Oregon. As the ship moved further north, Cook observed that the principal articles offered in trade were furs, and Cook's report of this advertised the economic potential of the area. In late May and through June, the ships were among the Aleutian Islands. During July, Cook followed the coast northwards towards Bering Strait and on August 9th he reached Cape Prince of Wales, the westernmost point of North America. The next day he landed across the way in Asia. Turning south, he coasted along the shore of Asia a while, shifted over to North America, and for three weeks occupied an anchorage at Unalaska in the Alutians. Here he was visited by the chief Russian trader of the district, and Cook's men visited the Russian settlement.
On October 16th the ships left for Hawaii to recruit, and after some adventures they came to anchor in Kealakekua Bay. Here Cook was taken for and treated like the god Lono by the natives, but when local food supplies ran low, there was some anxiety about how long he was going to stay. Aware of the situation Cook took his departure on February 4th 1779, but he had not gone far when it was realised that his ship was in urgent need of serious repairs. Cook decided to return to Kealakekua Bay in spite of the obvious undesirability of the move. The spirit of the place was very different on his return.
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When the ship's cutter was stolen, Cook resolved to take hostages against its return, his long standing practice in recovering article he felt he simply had to have back. He therefore went ashore accompanied by marines to take his hostages and found the natives in an angry mood, inclined to resist. Cook posted the marines at the water's edge and went forward accompanied by their Lieutenant. As Cook turned to rejoin the marines and retire to the ship, an assault was made on them. The marines fired on the natives killing some, and in return some marines were killed. Cook had reached the water's edge safely and had turned to face the natives when he was simultaneously stabbed in the back and struck on the head. He fell face down in the water. The natives dragged his body on shore in triumph while the surviving marines hastened to get back to the ship, and a shocked hush settled over the scene.
Captain James Cook, the god Lono was dead, February 14th, 1779. With his passing, a great and marvellous era in the history of exploration had been closed. All that happened after in Pacific exploration was like an epilogue.
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