Captain James Cook

JAMES COOK was born in a mud hut at Marton, in the north riding of Yorkshire, 27th October 1728. His father was an agricultural servant, who, with his wife, bore a most unexceptionable character for honesty and industry. The village school-mistress taught the boy to read; but at eight years of age his father, through his good conduct, was appointed to be bailiff of a farm near Great Ayton, belonging to Thomas Skottowe, Esq., who at his own expense put James to a day-school in that town, where he was taught writing and the first rules in arithmetic. The predilection of the lad inclined him for the sea; but as this stood contrary to the wishes of his parents, he was soon after his twelfth year apprenticed to William Sanderson, a general dealer in haberdashery, grocery, hardware, etc., at Staith, upon the coast, about ten miles north of Whitby. The youth's mind, however, continued more occupied upon maritime affairs than anything else, and though he faithfully discharged his duty to his master, he longed to be at sea. An opportunity occurred to favor his desires. Mr. Sanderson canceled his indentures, and left him to pursue his inclinations. Thus freed, he bound himself to Messrs John and Henry Walker, who owned the Freelove, in which Cook embarked. She was principally engaged in the coal trade, but made a voyage or two to the north; and when his time was out, the youngster still continued to serve as a foremast-man till he was made mate of one of Mr. John Walker's ships.

During this period he evinced no particular marks of genius. His associates, however, were not exactly the class of persons to observe the real bent of his mind; they thought him taciturn, and sometimes sullen; but this doubtless arose from his studious habits, and endeavors to acquire knowledge. As for practical seamanship, there could be no better school than a collier.

When in his twenty-seventh year, war broke out between England and France, and Cook, who was then in the Thames, tried to escape the pressgang, which was sweeping the river of every seaman that could be picked up. This restraint, however, did not meet his views; he looked upon the service of his country as honorable, and at once entered for the Eagle, of 60 guns, commanded by Captain Hamer, who, a few months afterwards, was superseded by Captain (subsequently Sir Hugh) Palliser. The young man's steady conduct and seaman-like qualities soon attracted this officer's attention. His knowledge of the coasts was excellent; and Mr. Skottowe having applied to Mr. Osbaldeston, M. P. for Scarborough, to exert his influence to raise Cook to the quarter-deck, by the joint interest of this gentleman, with Captain Palliser, a warrant as master was obtained on 10th May 1759, James being then in his thirty-first year. He joined the Grampus, but she had a master already; he was then appointed to the Garland, but she was abroad; and eventually he sailed in the Mercury, to join the fleet under Sir Charles Saunders, then engaged in conjunction with General Wolfe in the reduction of Quebec. Here the peculiar talents of Mr. Cook were called into active operation. The buoys in the navigation of the St. Lawrence had all been removed by the French at the first appearance of the English fleet, and it was essentially necessary that a survey should be made of the channels, and correct soundings obtained, to enable the ships to keep clear of the numerous shoals. By the recommendation of his old commander, Captain Palliser, this onerous duty was confided to Mr. Cook, who readily undertook it in a barge belonging to a 74. This could only be executed in many parts during the darkness of the night, on account of the enemy; and he experienced a narrow escape one night when detected, his boat having been boarded by Indians in the Day of the French, and carried off in triumph, he and his companions getting away just in time to save their lives and scalps. Through Mr. Cook's judicious arrangements, the fleet reached the island of Orleans in safety; and he afterwards surveyed and made a chart of the St. Lawrence, which, together with sailing directions for that river, were published in London.

On his return from Quebec, Mr. Cook was appointed master of the Northumberland, under Lord Colville, who was stationed as commodore at Halifax. Here he enjoyed much leisure during the winter, but instead of frittering it away in the frivolous or worse amusements of a seaport, he diligently employed it in studies suitable to his profession. No sailor can possibly advance beyond the rank of an ordinary seaman unless he be acquainted with the theory as well as the practice of navigation; and to gain this knowledge, he must attain a proficiency in mathematics. Aware of this, Cook began by gaining a knowledge of Euclid's Elements of Plane Geometry; and then of the higher branches of mathematical study, including nautical astronomy. By these means he soon learned to take observations, to calculate a ship's progress, and to ascertain the degree of latitude and longitude at any given spot on the trackless ocean. In short, he became an accomplished mariner, ready for any office of trust. Besides improving himself in these useful branches of education, he possessed sufficient tact to cultivate urbanity of manner, and to gain the confidence and esteem of his acquaintance. This was a point of some consequence; for intellectual acquirements, without a polite and high moral bearing, are of small avail in the general intercourse of the world, and, personally, may do more harm than good. It is gratifying to know that Cook aimed at gentlemanly behavior not less than skill in his profession; and to this commendable effort - which the most humble may practice - is perhaps owing not a little of his future success in life.