Roger M. McCoy
Tales of exploration would be seriously incomplete without adding a bit about James Cook. Although sailing in the 1770’s, after two and a half centuries he still stands as the major figure in the exploration of the Pacific Ocean. Most of his fame stems from three Pacific expeditions that became models of exploration and hydrographic mapping. His ambitious objective was to survey the vast Pacific Ocean; search for a hypothetical, but undiscovered, southern continent; and make another attempt to find a water passage through North America. He met his objectives, making many important discoveries and maps that were unsurpassed for more than 100 years.
In 1745, at the age of seventeen, young James Cook lived in the small village of Staithes on the Yorkshire coast near the whaling port of Whitby. As a young man ready to make his way, Cook became an apprentice on a ship trading in coal sailing around the North Sea. In that role he took an interest in learning navigation and after ten years he was offered command of a ship. By this time Cook had decided his future lay with the Royal Navy and he left coal shipping. He was such an apt learner in the navy that he became a master’s mate within a month. Two years later he became a ship’s master, a job of great responsibility.
Cook prepared himself for exploring uncharted seas by learning surveying and mapmaking. With these skills Cook could sail a ship competently and also expertly map a coast line, a job that most captains left to others.
Cook is renowned for his three exploration expeditions that covered much of the Pacific, including Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii. In his third and final voyage Cook surveyed the North American coast from present day Oregon, Northward along the coast through Bering Strait to Icy Cape on the north coast of Alaska. This traverse closed a great gap in the North American map. His terminal point in the Arctic, Icy Cape, long stood as a point from which other mappers tried to extend maps eastward. Another significant aspect of this voyage was that Cook was carrying, as he had on the second voyage, the K1 (Kendall) replica of the John Harrison H4 clock for calculating longitude. Cook’s endorsement of the new clock opened the way for reluctant mariners to adopt the new method for measuring longitude.
The third voyage, of particular interest for North America, began in 1776. Cook commanding the Resolution, sailed with the Discovery commanded by Captain Charles Clerke around Africa, into the Indian Ocean, continuing into the Pacific, making a stop at the island of Kauai to replenish wood and water. This was the first contact of Europeans with the islands that Cook named the Sandwich Islands in honor of the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty. While there they established friendly contacts with the native Hawaiians.
One officer’s journal from that time describes the first time seeing people surfing. He marveled that boys and girls of nine or ten years of age could be submerged by a tremendous wave and rise on the other side laughing and going on to meet the next wave. He wrote, “These People find one of their Chief amusements in that which to us presented but Horror & Destruction…our hardiest seamen would have trembled to meet such tempestuous Waves…[that] they could look upon as no other than certain death.”
From Kauai the expedition sailed eastward to North America. One objective of their visit to the west coast of North America was to search for the ever elusive Northwest Passage, a navigable water route through the continent. Cook began his traverse up the American coast at Cape Blanco (Oregon), the northernmost point reached by Spanish mariners and by Sir Francis Drake in the sixteenth century.
Continuing north, Cook’s expedition stopped for five weeks in Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. There they set up an astronomical observatory on shore and established friendly relations trading with the local native tribes.
The expedition’s surgeon, Dr. David Samwell, who kept a thorough and interesting journal throughout the voyage, wrote some observations of their stay in Nootka Sound. In one entry Samwell wrote of the young girls brought by their fathers as companions for the seamen. The girls were decorated with body paint and the seamen took great pains to wash paint from the young girls before spending the night.
In Samwell’s journal entry of April 6, 1778 he wrote, “Their Fathers who generally accompanied them made the Bargain & received the price of the Prostitution of their Daughters, which was commonly a pewter plate well scoured for one night. When they found this was a profitable Trade they brought more young women to the Ships, who in compliance with our preposterous Humour spared themselves the trouble of laying on their Paint & us of washing it off again by making themselves tolerable clean before they came to us, by which they found they were more welcome Visitors and thus by falling in with our ridiculous Notions (for such they no doubt deemed them) they found means at last to disburthen our young Gentry of their Kitchen furniture, many of us after leaving this Harbour not being able to muster a plate to eat our Salt beef from.”
Eventually the ships were seriously lacking in hatchets and other iron tools that had been given to the accommodating young girls.
As often happened when Europeans first contacted the North American Indians, they described them as similar to the Chinese even though most Europeans had never seen a Chinese person except in drawings. As the expedition sailed up the northwest coast Dr. Samwell wrote in May 18, 1778, “The Faces of many of these Indians are much like the Chinese,…[a few had] their Hair Cut after the Chinese Fashion with a single Lock hanging down their Backs tho’ it was tucked up under their Caps. …as we conjecture Descendants from some Chinese who may have been cast away here in some distant Age, but now are incorporated with the Natives.”
Another record of the expedition was kept by a young midshipman, officer-in-training George Gilbert, who gave detailed descriptions of the northwest Indians he saw. In most cases he too compared them with natives of other places he had visited. He wrote, “Their hair was matted with a red mixture much like that used by New Zealanders both in color and smell…They wore cloaks made of tied and woven grasses like the New Zealanders…They wore round caps with a point at the top like the Chinese…The women were far unlike the blooming beauties of the tropicks… their broad flat-bottomed canoes were like a Norwegian “yaul” cut from one tree.”
The expedition sighted a very large inlet that at first promised to be the long- sought passage. They traversed the long body now known as Cook Inlet and eventually discovered its dead end. Nevertheless they landed and took possession in the name of the King of England. Gilbert commented that a group of natives watched the little ceremony but showed little interest. Cook may have been unaware that Russia also considered the area to be in their possession and Russian trading posts were already established.
Cook followed the Alaskan coast through the Bering Strait to the north coast, where they met continuous ice locked to the shore and extending out to sea as far as they could see. They had reached their limit at a point Cook named Icy Cape for obvious reasons. It was then August 18, 1778, and time to leave the extreme parts of the Arctic. By October he was out of Alaskan waters and headed on a return course to the island of Hawaii.
The Hawaiians were far less welcoming on this occasion and a serious altercation over a stolen boat led to open conflict resulting in the death of Captain Cook.
The sailors apparently opened fire as they tried to escape in their boats, but were overwhelmed on the beach by sheer numbers of Hawaiians. According to Gilbert, Cook was stabbed, held under water and carried away as the sailors escaped. Captain Clerke, now commander of the expedition, later retrieved parts of Cook’s body and held a burial ceremony on the shore of Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii.
The expedition continued home to England, where Cook’s discoveries and maps were made known to the world. He had mapped a major piece of North American coastline and dispelled hope for a Northwest Passage. His surveys and claims allowed England to assume title to many lands and opened the Pacific to British immigration.
Beaglehole, J. C. (ed.) The Journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (for the Hakluyt Society.) 1974.
Gilbert, George, and Holmes, Christine (ed.) Captain Cook’s final voyage: The journal of midshipman George Gilbert. Horsham, England: Caliban Books. 1982.
McCoy, Roger M. On the Edge: Mapping North America’s coasts. New York: Oxford University Press. 2012.
McLynn, Frank. Captain Cook: Master of the seas. New Haven: Yale University Press.2011.