Sometimes I ask myself: Why is English now spoken by hundreds of millions of people in virtually every country of the world? Why do most people of English ancestry live anywhere but England? Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, South Africa, etc. Perhaps it is because as seagoing islanders, the British were insatiable searchers for that which was beyond. From the ranks of such inexhaustible seekers emerged the greatest of the 18th century nautical explorers –Captain James Cook. James Cook had an unbounded curiosity and a deep interest in everybody and everything with which he came into contact.
Born on October 27th, 1728 in Yorkshire, Cook’s father was an impoverished Scottish farm labourer and his mother a simple Yorkshire village woman. Cook began his sea life by lugging coal off the treacherous east coast of England. There he learned how to survive the storms, fogs, hidden shoals, and tricky tides.
In 1758, Cook was master of the Pembroke, a 1,250 ton, 64-gun man-of-war. In early 1759, the Pembroke joined a blockade of the Saint Lawrence River designed to prevent French ships from carrying supplies to the fortress colony of Quebec. Cook led patrols up and down the river, charting every hazard, and marking a channel for the warships to follow. During the British assault on Quebec City, Cook successfully navigated the massive Pembroke up the narrow, twisting, and frequently shallow waterway. Without the help of Ship’s Master James Cook, it is doubtful whether the British troops could have taken the fortress by surprise. With only a few years of elementary school education, no one ever expected that a ‘nobody’ like James Cook would one day be chosen as a navy sea captain. Since the upper class were virtually the only officers, there was little chance of promotion by merit in that caste-bound naval world. By sure grit and determination, he taught himself mathematics and astronomy, and at age 40, was chosen as captain, an age when most naval officers had passed their peak.
After being appointed captain, Cook went on to complete three global voyages from 1768 to 1779, exploring and accurately mapping more of the earth’s surface than anyone else before or since. He became the first European to set foot in Australia, the first to fix the position of remote places accurately, the first to establish longitude (one’s position east and west), and the first to have extensive contact with all the various peoples of the Pacific.
It can safely be said that in his time no man knew the world as well as Captain Cook, and no other explorer had such an impact on the global map. As a result, the name of James Cook is commemorated across the length and breadth of the vast Pacific: Cook Strait and Mount Cook in New Zealand; Cooktown and Cook’s Passage in Australia; The Cook Islands in Polynesia, and Cook Inlet in Alaska. With Cook’s discoveries and surveys, the geography of the world was nearly complete. Only Antarctica remained to be discovered.
Upon reaching Hawaii, the islanders worshipped Captain Cook as the god Lono. Curiously, Lono was envisioned as a white god fated to arrive on a magical floating island during the holiday of Mahahiki. Cook’s ships’ huge sails therefore were construed to be long staffs bearing Lono’s divine white banners. When Cook returned to Hawaii from having explored British Columbia, he upset the Hawaiians who had then turned to the season for worshipping the god of war Ku. Things went from bad to worse, and when Cook attempted to hold the king hostage for the return of a stolen cutter, hundreds of Hawaiians converged on him with deadly effect. To many of his crew such as the future Captain George Vancouver, losing Captain Cook was like losing their own father.
Captain James Cook as a World Explorer was not afraid to check out uncharted waters. My prayer for those reading this article is that we too as world explorers may be willing to ‘walk in the spiritual feet’ of Captain James Cook.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier
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