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In Australia, James Cook (27 October 1728 – 14 February 1779) is a household name. While the name, the man and his actions can be polarising, his voyage on the HMB Endeavour 250 years ago is a significant part of Australia’s history and has had a lasting impact on all Australians.

Much is known of Cook and his Endeavour voyage—but what was it about this man that made him stand out among his peers? Three particular aspects of his story may provide the answer.

Star student

James Cook never stopped learning. His dedication to his profession, desire to always do better and drive to learn more paved his way to captaining voyages and charting distant lands.

Cook was born in Marton, North Yorkshire, England on 27 October 1728. He was a farmhand’s son and, unlike many other labourers’ children at the time, received schooling until he was 12.

Cook’s love of the ocean and ships began during his time working in a general store in the coastal town of Whitby. He started a sailing apprenticeship in the merchant navy at the age of 18 and decided to volunteer as an able seaman in the Royal Navy in 1755.

Cook soon became known as a competent sailor and commander. He contributed to Great Britain’s success in the Seven Years’ War against France and commanded the Grenville for five years after the war ended. He was eventually chosen by the Royal Society to captain the HMB Endeavour on his first Pacific voyage from 1768–1771.

Image of a portrait of Captain James Cook.
Captain James Cook. William Ridley. Engraved print on paper, published by J. Gold, 1803. Source: National Library of Australia

Bringing science to the sea

James Cook charted and changed the map of the world. He also brought a scientific approach to sailing and navigation that had never been seen before.

Cook’s innovation was the result of lifelong curiosity. From a young age, he was keen to learn new and complex subjects. As an apprentice, he studied mathematics by night. During the Seven Years War he learnt and mastered the art of surveying. In his spare time he escaped into the world of astronomy, among other disciplines.

This combination of skills meant he brought an added dimension to surveying. Not only did he chart the land but he also charted the sea, helping identify safe passage through previously treacherous waters. People were willing to pay for detailed maps, particularly for trade purposes and this won him the attention of the Royal Society.

No surrender to scurvy

Cook was different to other naval captains and commanders of his time.

He was not born into wealth like many other Royal Navy captains, which meant he understood and interacted with his crew differently. He was dedicated to their wellbeing. Having seen the impact scurvy could have on a ship’s crew, Cook insisted on high standards of cleanliness and ventilation on all his ships and was particular about the crew’s diet.

He made sure the crew ate as much fresh food as possible and was particularly fond of sauerkraut as the best option to keep scurvy at bay—to the point the Endeavour was stocked with nearly three and a half tonnes of it for the voyage.

Cook led by example, and in order to make his seamen crew eat the sauerkraut on the voyage, he had “some of it dress’d every day for the Cabin Table, and permitted all the Officers without exception to make use of it” (Cooks Journal 13 April 1769). This method was so effective that Cook had to put a limit on how much the men could have per day because the moment they saw a value in it, it became the “finest stuff in the World”.

Owing to Cook’s insistence on cleanliness and diet, not one man on the Endeavour died of scurvy over the four year voyage.

Did you know?

  • Cook wore a glove on his right hand to conceal scars he obtained after an accident in 1764 when a gun powder horn he was holding exploded.
  • Cook married Elizabeth Batts in 1762. Although he was at sea for more than half their marriage, the couple had six children. Elizabeth survived her husband by 56 years. Sadly, she also survived all her children, eventually passing away in 1835.
  • Cook died on 14 February 1779 in Hawaii during his third Pacific voyage, this time as Captain of the Resolution. Cook sailed around the Hawaiian Islands for approximately three months, but had to return to Kealakekua Bay for repairs to the ship. By this time, relationships with the Hawaiians were not very amicable. After one of Cook’s small boats was stolen, he decided to retaliate by attempting to kidnap and ransom the King of Hawai’i, Kalaniōpu’u. This led to an altercation, which saw Cook hit over the head and stabbed by the King’s men. After initially being carried away by the Hawaiians, his remains were returned and formally buried at sea a week later.
  • Cook never actually held the rank of Captain. On the Endeavour he was Lieutenant. On his return to England in 1771 he was promoted to Commander and in 1775 he was promoted to the rank of Post-Captain. Nevertheless, anyone in charge of a ship was referred to as a Captain, so he is known as Captain James Cook.