The Impact Captain James Cook Made on Maritime History

James Cook plays an important role in the history of the Great geographical discoveries, which can be comparable with that of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan. Being the son of a farm laborer, time-worker, Cook was a person who, by his own words, “dragged himself” through all types of the sea service. Nobody thought that a little boy would turn into a well-known seafarer in the future. James Cook appeared to be a “tough nut.” It is possible to call him a self-made man. He gained the world popularity not only for his outstanding discoveries of many new lands. James Cook’s importance in maritime history is not only in finding out the structure and location of Australia and many islands in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans but also in making a breakthrough in the research of the southern seas and giving their first systematic and authentic cartographical description.

James Cook’s First Maritime Experience

The sea life of the maritime hero began when he was eighteen years old. Young James Cook only had to run away from the house and start working as a ship’s boy on the brig “Freelove”, transporting coal along the route Newcastle – London. Working aboard the ship, James Cook also devoted himself to self-education and spent almost all his small salary on books. To defend his opinion and freedom, young James quite often had to use his fists in fights. Cook devoted his off-duty time to studying geography, navigation, mathematics, astronomy as well as descriptions of sea expeditions. Obviously, he supposed that the English authorities greatly appreciated educated people at that time. His thoughts appeared to be true. Three years later, the crew of the ship “Friendship” suggested James joining them, however, Cook refused. Instead of this, on the 17th of June, 1755 Cook registered himself as a sailor in the Royal Navy, and eight days later they gave him an assignment to the 60-gun ship “Eagle.” He did not lose again as he became a boatswain on the warship a month after his service aboard the ship.

Cook received his first experience in military operations between England and France within Seven years’ war, which started soon. The ship “Eagle”, where James Cook was working, received an order to take part in the blockade of the coast of France. In May 1757, the ship “Eagle” took part in the struggle with the French ship “Duke of Aquitaine” near the French island Ushant. During the prosecution and fight, the “Duke of Aquitaine” had a failure, however, the “Eagle” had many damages, and sailors had to take the ship to repairs in England.

On reaching a two-year experience in sailing, James Cook passed examinations on the Sailing Master successfully. He was given an assignment to the ship “Solebay” and then to the ship “Pembroke”, on board of which he took part in the blockade of the Bay of Biscay. Then, in February 1758, James Cook went to the service on the eastern coast of Canada. There his knowledge gained from the textbooks in his pre-war life was very useful to him.

Participating in the war in Canada, James Cook was not content only with military operations. Once, he submitted the map of the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, which he made by himself, to the authorities. Even among the officers, good cartographers were so difficult to find. So, the authorities offered Cook to start working at the special vessel intended for the mapping photography of the Labrador coast. After a while, holding in hand a surprisingly detailed map of the island Newfoundland, the captain of the first rank who was heading a cartographical service of the English Admiralty, asked Cook who made the map.

The major task was set for James Cook — to arrange a waterway of the site of the Saint Lawrence River so that the British ships could sail along with it to Quebec. This task included not only drawing the waterway on the chart but also marking navigable sites of the river with buoys. On the one hand, owing to the extreme complexity of the waterway, the work content was very great; on the other hand, it was necessary to work at nights, being attacked by the French artillery, beating off night counterattacks, restoring the buoys which the French managed to destroy. Successfully performed work enriched Cook with the cartographical experience; it was also one of the main reasons why the Admiralty finally stopped the historical choice exactly on him. James Cook did not take part in military operations. After the capture of Quebec, they offered him to become the captain of the Northumberland flagship, which could be regarded as a professional encouragement. By the order of the admiral Colville, Cook continued the mapping of the Saint Lawrence River till 1762. The admiral Colville even recommended Cook’s charts for a publication. They were published in the North American sailing directions of 1765, and Cook received an officer rank of the lieutenant. From that time on all English authorities, including ministers and kings, had to address the son of the poor farm laborer as Sir. The iron will of the lieutenant Cook won the next victory. He returned to England in November 1762, proudly holding a new rank.

Cook’s First Round-the-World Expedition

Besides making charts, James Cook had some more merits in maritime history. Thus, he headed three expeditions on the research of the World Ocean, all of which were round-the-world. James Cook did not finish the third round-the-world expedition. The reason for that is that he passed away. During these three expeditions, he made a number of geographical discoveries. More than 20 geographical objects, including three gulfs, two groups of the islands and two passages were called by his name.

James Cook brought up the whole group of the well-known English seafarers. At different times many famous people served under his command. They include the future president of the Royal society Joseph Banks; the future governor of New South Wales and the tireless fighter against corruption William Bligh, better known in history under the name of the captain “Bounty” Bligh; the future researcher of the Pacific coast of the North America George Vancouver; the botanist, ornithologist, zoologist Johann Reingold Forster and his son George Forster, the future Polish-German political figure. In his team, there were seafarers whom the Russian Empire, who were greatly appreciated on service then. Thus, a sailor from his ship Joseph Billings headed the Russian expedition to the Arctic and Pacific oceans in 1785 — 1792 as a captain, and another sailor James Trevenen, being then in the Russian service, distinguished himself during the war with Sweden.

From the middle of the 18th century the fight between the great powers of the world of that time for joining the territory of new lands inflamed with a new force. All great powers were grouped in Europe at that time. Portugal and Spain, in fact, left this geopolitical game then, being content with what they had won earlier. There were England and France left. They also competed against each other for new lands in the Pacific Ocean. Respectively, James Cook had both official purposes and secret orders of the English Admiralty in all his three round-the-world voyages.

The official purpose of the first round-the-world expedition, which took place in 1768 – 1771, was the research of Venus passing through the Sun disk. However, in the confidential orders, the authorities recommended Cook to move off immediately in search of the “Southern continent” after the completion of astronomical supervision in the southern latitudes. Another purpose of the expedition was to establish the coast of Australia, especially its eastern coast. The three-mast ship “Indeavour” was at Cook’s disposal. Cook stopped on the island of Tahiti for astronomical supervision over Venus. Then, after the discovery of four islands, he passed more than 2.5 thousand km across the “empty” ocean, and on October 8th, 1769 he reached an unknown land with high mountains covered with snow. It was in New Zealand. Cook convinced that these were two large islands divided by the passage that later received his name. In summer Cook approached the eastern coast of Australia for the first time. He declared this land as the British possession. He discovered the Great Barrier Reef. The Europeans learned the words “kangaroo” and “taboo” for the first time from Cook’s magazines.

On June 11th, 1770 Cook made one more discovery, which happened quite accidentally. Cook’s vessel ran aground, which caused a serious hole in the bottom of the ship, and Cook began to look for a convenient bay for repairs. The master found and fixed the hole. The crew also clarified that they got to a trap – the Great Barrier Reef passed along all the coast of the continent in that place. The reef was bypassed, but it was necessary to depart from the coast and watch it from a distance. Moving along the eastern coast for more than 400 kilometers, the expedition found the passage between New Guinea and Australia. Before that fact, everybody considered that New Guinea and Australia was one continent.

At the beginning of January 1771, “Indeavour” came into Batavia (Jakarta). In Indonesia, the crew first suffered from malaria and then from dysentery. Lots of people died, as a result. James Cook made a decision to go back home. When “Indeavour” came to Cape Town, only 12 people were alive from the whole crew – the epidemic killed almost everybody. In Cape Town the crew was understaffed, and on June 12th, 1771 the first round-the-world expedition of Cook ended in the native Plymouth.

The Second Round-the-World Expedition

The time break was very small between the first and the second expeditions. The second round-the-world expedition took place in 1772 – 1775, and it was more often called the Antarctic one. The Admiralty set specific purposes, which remained unknown before the second expedition. It was only known that this time Cook strenuously looked for the notorious Southern continent with the purpose to be ahead of the French. The French admiralty sent their expeditions in the 1760s in search of the Southern continent. The reasons for the search of the Southern continent by the French as well as by the British were not only scientific but also geopolitical ones.

This time Cook had two three-mast ships in his disposal – the “Resolution” and the “Adventure”. In January 1773 Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle – 40° east longitude and came across 66° southern latitude for the first time in the history of the navigation. In summer of that year, he still tried unsuccessfully to look for the Southern continent twice, having reached 71° 10′ southern latitude. Despite the conviction in the existence of land near the pole, he refused the subsequent attempts to reach it, considering it impossible to sail to the South because of congestion of ices. On the way back he found islands New Caledonia, Norfolk and a number of atolls, South Georgia and the “Earth of the Sandwich” in the Pacific Ocean. During his voyage in the Antarctic waters, Cook buried a legend of the huge Southern continent.

After the second round-the-world expedition James Cook received the next military rank of the post-captain. He became a member of the Royal geographical society and was awarded a gold medal. He received a good place in the naval hospital with an annual salary of 230 pounds, which was an honorable sinecure. However, James Cook considered that he had not sailed enough yet, and refused a sinecure. At this time the third round-the-world expedition was available. Cook decided to head it. The decision turned out to be fatal.

Cook’s Third Round-the-World Expedition

The third round-the-world expedition took place in 1776 – 1779. At this time in the English Admiralty watched uneasily how the Russian Empire was successfully exploring the north-west of the Pacific Ocean. After Vitus Bering in 1728 discovered the passage between Asia and America, Russia successfully explored the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and islands of the Kuril ridge. The British had no base in this part of the world. The heads of the English Admiralty argued, and while the purpose to prove that their country was great and powerful, they organized one more expedition. It was necessary to show it to the Russians. So, James Cook received the order of the Admiralty to find another North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, i.e. to check whether it was possible to get to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic Ocean, sailing near the Canadian coast and Alaska.

This time the captain James Cook was also in command of two ships. The same ship “Resolution”, which proved itself as the best one on the second round-the-world travel, was a flagman. The second ship, headed by Charles Clark, was called “Discovery”. The expedition sailed away from the English coast in the middle of July 1776, and in December went towards Australia through the Cape of Good Hope. At the beginning of December 1777, the expedition started carrying out its task. The ships floated to the north. Cook discovered the biggest atoll island in the world right after crossing the equator. As it happened on December 24th, the land received the name Christmas Island. Three weeks later Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands. After that, a small squadron floated to the north-east to the lands of North America. Then cold waters began to appear. The expedition passed through the Bering Strait and got to the Chukchi Sea. The expedition met drifting ices and cold winds. Fragile vessels with an unreliable covering could not move in such conditions. Even small ices could crush ships very easily. Cook gave a command to turn back. He decided to winter on the Hawaiian Islands, discovered by them. The small squadron sailed to the islands at the end of November 1778. The ships dropped anchors near an unknown coast. The main task consisted of repairing ships as they got many damages in northern waters. There were also problems with provisions. The British decided to buy food from the local population, so the contacts with natives were inevitable.

James Cook’s Death

James Cook was usually characterized as a tolerant and friendly colonialist towards aborigines of the territories he visited. In other words, Cook wanted to be a kind colonialist, and political correctness was his main feature. However, it did not help him. At the beginning of their acquaintance, the natives took him for God. Then they started thinking: “Why is he so polite to us? He does not beat us; he does not punish us but only pats. He is not God at all.” Having thought like this, polite natives started to snap, be rude and steal. Aborigines were children of nature, and fight for existence but not political correctness reigned in their nature. The members of the crew warned the captain: “Why do you, sir, pay compliments to the savages. They have to be treated our way, maritime one.” Cook took offense at such advice and ordered the crew to translate the sea dictionary into the civil English type: “a radish – a badman, etc.

The situation got considerably worse when the natives stole pincers from a ship-repair workshop; then they did the same with the boat from the ship “Resolution”. The furious Cook, headed by the armed group, decided to deal with the thieves. The aggressive-minded crowd gathered ashore. When the group landed on the coast, the aborigines started throwing stones at them. One stone hit Cook, who shot with a gun and killed one of the natives. The crowd grew furious. One more stone got to Cook’s head; he fell. The natives killed him and four more sailors with their knives. Their companions cowardly left the coast and sailed back home.

The captain Charles Clark, who became the head of the expedition, ordered to carry out a military operation during which the crew landed the island with a great number of guns, captured and fired the coastal settlements to ashes, and chased the Hawaiians to the mountains. Then Clark started negotiations with the leader of the natives on the delivery of Captain Cook’s remains. The natives perfectly understood such a language and gave out the remains. The Hawaiians delivered to “Resolution” a basket with ten pounds of meat and a human head without a lower jaw – everything that remained from James Cook. On February 22nd, 1779 the remains were buried in the sea.

More than two hundred years ago, in 1779, the Hawaiians murdered Cook on the island of Hawaii. They murdered him tragically, not giving him a chance to finish his third and the last round-the-world voyage; they murdered him, not allowing him to finish his works on the materials of the expeditions. The case was unprecedented, but Cook’s glory as a seaman, whom his many contemporaries compared to Columbus and Magellan, was unprecedented, too. The Englishman James Cook was an example of the traveler of a new generation. On the one hand, he promoted the implementation of traditional colonizer plans — solidifying of military and trade power of the country. On the other hand, he was not only a military person, but also a scientist who was conducting scientific researches, wrote a number of serious books, and enjoyed the authority and respect of his colleagues.

James Cook’s Impact on the Maritime History

Cook’s contribution to the development of science about the Earth was huge. In the century of education, during the era of great discoveries, he made a revolution in the geographical science, in which metaphysical concepts of the old past kept by inertia. The theorists of the “pre-Cook” geography especially jealously defended a purely speculative hypothesis of the balance of continental areas. It was considered as if the continents of the northern hemisphere corresponded to the equal massif of land in the southern hemisphere, which was not connected with real continents of this hemisphere – Australia, South America and the southern part of Africa. Cook disproved this hypothesis of the balance of the continental areas during his first two voyages. Having chosen savage and not visited ways in the southern seas, he proved that the uniform ocean stretches between the equator and the Antarctic Circle, in which the mythical Southern continent, equal on the area to all the land of the northern hemisphere, does not “float” anywhere.

Cook’s merits in science were huge. Neither blind belief in authorities, nor good luck, but exact calculations, steel will, and boundless persistence allowed Cook to erase those white spots, which could not reduce seven generations of the European seafarers from the world chart. Objectively estimating his activity, it must be also kept in mind that the role he played in the history of the British colonial expansion was enormous. Soldiers and merchants, officials and missionaries got into Australia, New Zealand, into the islands of Oceania after Cook. James Cook made a peculiar revolution in navigation, having learned to struggle successfully with such an illness as scurvy, dangerous and widespread at that time. Mortality from this illness practically vanished during his voyages.


James Cook’s impact on maritime history lies in the discovery of Australia and a lot of islands of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans, in his research of the southern seas and their first systematic and authentic cartographical description. Cook also disproved the hypothesis of the balance of the continental areas of South America, the southern part of Africa and Australia. He proved that there is no land, but only water of the ocean between the equator and the Antarctic Circle. James Cook was the first sailor in the maritime history who penetrated the waters of the Antarctic, the first who discovered the east coast of Australia, the first who put on the chart both islands of New Zealand, and the first who passed along the west coast of North America.