Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Cook, James (1728-79) from Environmental History and Global Change: A Dictionary of Environmental History

British cartographer, navigator and explorer. His three voyages of exploration to the Pacific and the S Ocean (1768-71, 1772-5, 1776-9) were a remarkable achievement. He established the coastlines of Australia and New Zealand, sailed further S than anyone had previously ventured, disproving in the process the existence of a southern continent, and evaluated the environment, resources and cultures of a wide range of places and peoples. Like Columbus his arrival marked the start of a major epoch of colonization and environmental change (Collingridge 2003).


Summary Article: Cook, James (1728-1779) from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: United Kingdom, England

Subject: biography, earth science

English sea captain who made notable contributions to hydrography.

An agricultural labourer's son born in Marton, Yorkshire, on 27 October 1728. Cook obtained his early experience of the sea by sailing in a Whitby collier before joining the Royal Navy in 1755 as an ordinary seaman. Ambitious and clever, he quickly rose in the service. After much first-rate hydrographical surveying work, undertaken particularly around Newfoundland and the mouth of the St Lawrence River, Cook received in 1768 a commission, via the Royal Society, to take the Endeavour to the newly discovered Tahiti with various scientists, including the naturalist Joseph Banks, to observe the transit of Venus. Observations of transits of the inner planets across the face of the Sun were highly valued amongst astronomers as a means of calculating the distance of the Sun from the Earth. On that voyage, Cook charted the east coast of Australia (exploring Botany Bay) and the entire coastline of New Zealand, clearly demonstrating that it consisted of two main islands. He brought back fascinating descriptions of the exotic civilization of the Tahitians. Cook formed the belief that the long-suspected ‘unknown continent’ of the southern hemisphere could not exist, or at least, could not be of immense dimensions. (He was under Admiralty orders to secure such a continent for the Crown, should it exist - Cook's voyages thus served both political and scientific purposes.) As a result of sailing at higher latitudes south than any previous captain, Cook's second expedition of 1772-75 further shrank the possible extent of a southern continent. In 1776, shortly after being made a fellow of the Royal Society, Cook embarked on his third expedition, which aimed to explore the possibility of a northern route between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The expedition reached a sad climax in his death at the hands of natives in Hawaii - ironically, because Cook was generally scrupulous in his treatment of indigenous peoples. He died in Kealakekua Bay on 14 February 1779.

Cook's own energies and talents, aided by improved sextants and John Harrison's chronometer, ensured that a greater quantity of high-quality survey work and scientific research was accomplished on Cook's three expeditions than on any comparable expeditions. He set new standards of cartography and hydrography, and was the source of modern maps of the Pacific and its coasts.

Cook is also remembered as a sagacious captain, who took great care of his crews. He proved the value of fresh fruit and vegetables, cleanliness, and morale in preventing and treating scurvy, a major problem on long sea voyages at the time.

© RM, 2016. All rights reserved. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.

Related Credo Articles

Full text Article Cook, James 1728-1779
Reader's Guide to British History

Sailer and explorer Fisher Robin and Hugh Johnston (editors), Captain James Cook and His Times , Seattle : University of...

Full text Article Cook, James
Science in the Enlightenment: An Encyclopedia

(1728–1779) James Cook was the most scientifically minded of eighteenth-century sea captains, and his voyages of exploration and discovery in...

Full text Article Cook, James (1728 - 1779)
The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists

The son of an agricultural labourer, Cook joined the Royal Navy in 1755 and was given his own command 2 years later. He is...

See more from Credo