Captain Cook in Whitby

Captain Cook’s training as a seaman began in Whitby. He was born on 27 October 1728 at Marton-in-Cleveland. His father, originally from Scotland, was also called James and married Grace Pace from Cleveland. They had eight children, though several died young. When James was still a child, his father moved to Great Ayton, a few miles away near the Cleveland Hills, and became the foreman at Aireyholme Farm.

Here the young James received the rudiments of education at the village school and assisted his father on the farm. In 1745, he began work in a grocer’s shop at Staithes, a fishing village only a short distance from the busy port of Whitby.

After eighteen months, he determined to go to sea, and was introduced to the Walker family. John Walker and his brother Henry were Quaker shipowners engaged in the coal trade between the North-East and London. The Quakers, or Society of Friends, were upright, hospitable people known for their simplicity of manners and public spirit.

According to long-standing Whitby tradition, Walker lodged Cook when not at sea in the house in Grape Lane which is now the Museum.

The young Cook could not have come to a better environment. The Walkers’ ships were workaday ‘cats’, trading to London and across the North Sea. Cook began the life of a sailor on the Freelove in February 1747, carrying a cargo of coal to London.

After three voyages in the Freelove, Cook took part in rigging and fitting out a new ship of Walker’s called the Three Brothers. Signing on after his apprenticeship had expired, he remained on that ship until 1752, apart from a voyage to the Baltic and St. Petersburg in the Mary. In 1752 he became mate and joined Walker’s latest ship, the Friendship, sailing in her for three years. By 1755 Cook was an experienced and trusted seaman, and Walker offered him the command of the ship.

But Cook had other plans.

The Great Voyages of Captain Cook

The Transit of Venus

It was known that if the planet Venus could be observed at the same time from different places as it passed across the face of the sun, it should be possible to calculate inter-planetary distances. A ‘transit’ was to take place in 1769.

The Admiralty decided to dispatch a ship with members of the Royal Society to observe the transit from Tahiti. It was also believed that there was a ‘Great Southern Continent’ in the southern hemisphere, which 'balanced' the great land masses of the North. After observing the Transit, the ship was to sail south and search for the Southern Continent.

Cook was chosen to lead the expedition. He was given the command of the Endeavour and promoted lieutenant. He was of course very familiar with the type of vessel chosen by the Admiralty. The Endeavour was a Whitby-built collier, solidly built, flat-bottomed and so easy to beach and repair, capacious and able to carry many provisions. The ship could also be managed by a small crew if necessary. According to Cook, “a better ship for such service I never could wish for.”

So Cook and a Whitby ship came together again in the Endeavour to lay the foundation for some of the most significant voyages in the history of exploration.


The First Voyage

Round the world, east to west. Observation of the transit of Venus from Tahiti. Circumnavigation and charting of New Zealand. Charting of the east coast of Australia.


The Second Voyage

Round the world, west to east. Probed far south towards Antarctica. First crossing of the Antarctic Circle. Cook became the first man to sail round the world in both directions. He effectively put paid to the notion of a Great Southern Continent in a temperate zone of the Southern Hemisphere.


The Third Voyage

Further exploration of the Pacific Ocean, and search for the North West passage from its eastern end through the Bering Strait. Cook died in an affray on Hawaii.

Cook’s voyages led to the founding of two modern nations, Australia and New Zealand.

His work was of huge international interest in his own time.

Captain cook

  Places to visit:

  Captain Cook Museum

    Captain Cook Museum

  The Endeavour Experience

       The Endeavour Experience


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