Capt. James Cook

A great deal has already been written about Captain James Cook, explorer of the South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand. Possibly more than of any other explorer, certainly surveyor, in history. Indeed, is it no coincidence that when creating the science fiction character Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise, Gene Roddenberry chose a similar sounding name to his own (fictional) here that would 'go forth and explore unknown worlds..'. Nowadays, the 'legend' that Cook became since his journeys of discovery and in particular the 250 year old euro-centric identity which has imbedded itself into History, is under attack by indigeonous factions within these countries who argue that local culture and history have for too long been swept aside.

The purpose of Cook's first of three expeditions (1769-71) expedition in 1769 was to observe and record the 1769 transit of Venus across the Sun which, when combined with observations from other places, would help to determine the distance of the Earth from the SunCook. In addition he was tasked by the British Admiralty to search the south Pacific for signs of the postulated rich southern continent of Terra Australis. Lieutenant Cook then sailed to New Zealand where he mapped the complete coastline, making only some minor errors. After circumnavigating New Zealand in HMS Endeavour he voyaged west, reaching the southeastern coast of Australia on 19 April 1770, and in doing so his expedition became the first recorded Europeans to have encountered its eastern coastline. He is accredited with being the first European to communicate with the Māori thanks to his accompaniment by a Tahitian priest named Tupaia who had joined the expedition.  Upon his return to England in 1771 the 'legend' of Cook began with the publication of his journals and surveys. It should be noted that the role that the work of Joseph Banks, the botanist on the voyage, made in supporting the importance of the expedition cannot be underestimated.

(Now) Commander Cook's second expedition (1772-75) for the Royal Society, to search for the hypothetical Terra Australis, on the basis that New Zealand had proved not to be attached to a larger land-mass and was effectively an island. On this expedition Cook's ship was the HMS Resolution. In the course of navigating the southern coast of Australia Cook entered the Antarctic and only feel short of the Antarctic mainland for want of supplies and a return to New Zealand.

Most significantly Cook' successfully employed Larcum Kendall's K1 copy of John Harrison's H4 marine chronometer, which enabled him to calculate his longitudinal position with much greater accuracy. A copy of Harrington's first chronometer was (reportedly) first used by George Gauld, en-route to Jamaica, in 1764.

(Now) Captain Cook's third and final voyage of exploration (1776-79) saw him once again again commanded HMS Resolution. This time his orders were to locate a Northwest Passage around the American continent. After an intial stop at Tahiti he became the first European to make formal contact with the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. In another example of Euro-centric 'discovery', after his initial contact Cook named the archipelago the "Sandwich Islands" after the fourth Earl of Sandwich—the acting First Lord of the Admiralty. Thereafter he made his way up the West coast of America as far as the Berring Straights. En-route, Cook charted most of the Northwestern  American coast for the first time and determined the extent of Alaska.

His long journey home included a stop in Hawaii which proved fatal for Cook and four of his crew when after a number of on-going disagreement Cook was killed by a strike to the back if the head on the 14 February 1779.

The Charts presented here, as part of the Heritage Charts World Collection, are from the time of Cook's first, extraordinary, expeditions, but the following part of this short biography of Cook concentrates on Cook's lesser-known beginnings:

Early Career
Cook's selection to lead this important first expedition was based on his performance and proven abilities in the 5 years before that, serving with the British St. Lawrence survey team during the Seven Years (French/Indian) war in Canada. There he was introduced to the finer points and techniques of surveying by Samuel Holland in particular. Both Holland and Des Barres are on record as claiming responsibility for teaching Cook how to use a Plane table (note 1)

In the second section of The Hydrographic Department (UK) Professional Paper No.13 (note 2) it states that 'After the capitulation of Louisburg in 1758, Cook helped Holland to make a plan of the city and its fortifications, with such success that Captain Simcoe of the "Pembroke" engaged them both to prepare charts of the River and Gulf St Lawrence, with an eye to the eventual attack on Quebec. So in Halifax, in the winter of 1758-9, Cook learned much of mathematics and draughtsmanship from Holland and Simcoe, and probably also from Des Barres, who was there engaged on similar work from captured French plans.' (see note 1)

In summary, the document goes on to state that the following year, as master of the HMS Mercury, Cook completed valuable and hazardous work in making soundings of the river St. Lawrence for use of the fleet that was to cover Wolfe's landings at Quebec. Later in 1759, he became sailing master of the "Northumberland" in the fleet of Admiralty Lord Colville and in 1762 he completed a plan of the harbour and heights of Placentia Bay, in Newfoundland, prior to the occupation of the island. On the strength of this work Captain Graves, the Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, in the following year asked for and obtained Cook's assistance in charting the coasts of his territory. So in 1763 St Pierre and Miquelon were mapped (B5299).

In 1764, Cook became a Naval Engineer to Capt Hugh Palliser, the new Governor of Newfoundland . During the next four years Cook had the use of the Governor's despatch vessel, the schooner "Greenville" and made exact surveys of the west and south coasts of the island, a task which swelled both his reputation and his finances (the charts were privately published).

Cook's methods of Surveying were were both careful and methodical and he was gaining a reputation. We know that the carried a theodolite among his personal equipment.

Over this period Cook was fortunate in having good assistants in particular William Parker and Michael Lane. In 1775 the surveys of both Cook and Lane were incorporated in R Sayers' "North American Pilot" and it is a testimony to their accuracy that they continued in use until Kerr's amendments, a century later.

His methods were both careful and methodical. We know that the carried a theodolite among his equipment and the title of c54/1 shows that the surveys were based on mainland triangulation. No record, however, of his stations has survived.

Over this period Cook was fortunate in having good assistants in particular William Parker and Michael Lane. Some twenty manuscript charts are signed by his adjutants - of the coast of Labrador by Belle Isle Strait and of South Eastern Newfoundland. In 1775 the surveys of both Cook and Michael Lane were incorporated in R Sayers' "North American Pilot" and it is a testimony to their accuracy that they continued in use a century later.

That Cook was chosen by the Admiralty to lead the first expedition across the world in 1769 is no accident or twist of Patronage. As good as the other surveyors working for the British in North America at the time undoubtedly were, none were experienced seamen and Naval officers.

1.  Plane Table: A device used in surveying site mapping, exploration mapping, coastal navigation mapping, and related disciplines to provide a solid and level surface on which to make field drawings, charts and maps. The early use of the name plain table reflected its simplicity and plainness rather than its flatness.

2.  A Summary of Selected Manuscript Documents of Historic Importance Preserved in the Archives of the Department. Section 2: Early Charts of the East Coast of North America. P.3.