Early in his naval career, James Cook’s detailed charts of the Saint Lawrence River were crucial to a successful British attack against French-held Quebec during the Seven Years War. He was then given his own ship with the mission of charting the island of Newfoundland and his reputation as a fine cartographer helped him to win command of HM Bark Endeavour for his first ‘voyage of discovery’.
That first voyage enhanced our knowledge of new places, peoples and plants, but Cook was unable to find the fabled Southern Continent. Spurred on by his desire to discover the truth of what lay in the far southern hemisphere, Cook embarked on a second voyage in 1772. His two ships, Resolution and Adventure, crossed the Antarctic Circle and sailed tantalisingly close to the Antarctic coast but were forced to turn back by the cold. Cook was denied once again.
In 1776 a 47-year-old Cook set sail on his third and final voyage, heading north in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, an ice-free route which linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Cook took the helm of Resolution, with Captain Charles Clerke captaining Discovery. They came within 50 miles of the western entrance to the passage but were ultimately thwarted again by the elements, this time the freezing cold and ice floes of the Bering Sea.
Cook then led his two ships south to explore the island of Hawaii. The natives had never seen white men or such massive ships and assumed he was a deity, lavishing him with feasts and gifts. The crew responded by gorging on the island’s food and natural resources, and relations with the natives eventually soured. On 14 February 1779 Cook tried to take the king hostage and the Hawaiians, fearing their leader would be killed, swarmed to his aid. Cook was repeatedly stabbed and fell into the surf, where he died at the age of 50.