No one before (and few since) rose so far and so fast from a simple rural background to national fame. Cook was marked for greatness from the outset.
What were James Cook's beginnings?
Cook was born in the small Yorkshire village of Marton on the 27 October 1728 to a humble rural family. Marked out early on from his siblings and peers, the young Cook received a good education thanks to the patronage of the local Lord of the Manor.
At 17, he worked for a shopkeeper in Staithes near Whitby. Here he decided that a life at sea was what he wanted and he became apprenticed to a firm of Whitby coal shippers. At the age of 18, he first went to sea. His ship, the Freelove, lugged Tyne coal down to London before the return trip to Whitby.
A promising merchant seaman
He worked hard at mathematics and at astronomy, which was very important for navigators. He was soon offered command of a merchant ship the Friendship. A solid and, for someone of his background, somewhat remarkable career in the merchant navy seemed assured. For reasons debated to this day he turned instead to the Royal Navy, took a demotion from his rank as master and more or less started again.
Paying his dues in His Majesty’s Navy
He now knew his way around a ship and his knowledge of the oftentimes-tricky coasts of Britain was excellent. He could claim experience of the North Sea, the Baltic routes, the Irish Sea and the Channel but this was clearly not enough for the ambitious Cook.
Upon joining the Navy he was not sent far afield at first, instead he found himself patrolling the English Channel as Britain found itself at war with France. His first commander Captain Joseph Hamar was quickly relieved of his command under a cloud. When fellow Yorkshire man Captain Palliser took command. The young Cook found a mentor and a teacher of skills such as charting and navigation. Over the next couple of years, he would see action a number of times and secure promotion to the rank of full master.
His first ship as master was the HMS Pembroke and his first voyage would be as part of a fleet determined to rout the French from modern-day Canada.
The French were dependent on the St Lawrence River to supply their troops and settlements. To this end, two impressive forts were built. It was clear that if Britain could take and hold the river, the French would be forced to abandon Canada if not the whole of North America.
On the voyage to Canada, 26 men would be lost, most to scurvy. As the person in charge of ensuring the Pembroke functioned properly, the human and naval cost of the disease would have impressed Cook and his later attention to diet would have a profound effect on the lives of mariners.
On this militarily successful trip, Cook was to befriend an army lieutenant Samuel Holland and learn the art and science of surveying. He quickly set about surveying the St Lawrence and his efforts were noted back at the Admiralty. His abilities in this regard would be a hallmark of the rest of his career.
Having distinguished himself in a great military victory and having spent additional years in North America, at the age of 33, Cook returned to London and promptly married a young woman of his acquaintance Elizabeth Batts.
Within three months though he would be appointed to survey Newfoundland and on returning from that first survey he would be attending the baptism of his first child, a son. Over the next few years he would continue to chart Britain’s newly acquired lands and head home to transcribe and copy them out each winter.
“Mr. Cook’s Genius and Capacity”
In the summer of 1766, on his own initiative, he carefully observed an eclipse of the Sun and his renown spread to the Royal Society. Here was a naval officer who could handle a telescope as well as a ship. The great age of science and the naval supremacy of the British had met in one man.