In This Article Captain James Cook

  • Introduction
  • Life and Voyages
  • Cook’s Journals
  • Other Accounts from Cook’s Voyages
  • Cook and the Peoples of the Pacific
  • The Georgian Navy
  • The Art and Science of Pacific Exploration in the Age of Cook
  • Medicine and Disease
  • The Death of Cook
  • Empire and Exploration in the Pacific
  • Cook’s European Competitors
  • Pacific Worlds

Atlantic History Captain James Cook
by
Edward G. Gray
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0061

Introduction

Captain James Cook was probably the greatest explorer in British history. From 1768 until his death in 1779, he led three exploratory voyages to the Pacific. These travels disproved the existence of a great southern continent, Terra Australis, long thought to fill the apparent cartographic void of the South Seas; they identified and charted what is now known as New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia; they produced detailed charts of the northwestern coast of North America—charts the British navy continued to use well into the 20th century; and they made the first known European contact with the Hawaiian Islands and their peoples. But none of these achievements match what was surely Cook’s greatest triumph: only six of the several hundred common seafarers, naval officers, marines, and supernumeraries who sailed with him fell to shipboard disease. The record would have been remarkable for any career in the age of sail. But for one spent traversing the Pacific Basin, it was truly astonishing. Since the days of Magellan, Europeans struggled to conquer the vast Pacific, always with catastrophic results. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, hundreds of European seafarers fell victim to nutritional ailments, particularly complications from scurvy. The British commodore George Anson, who sailed for the Pacific in 1740 with a squadron of eight ships and nearly two thousand men, lost nearly 1,300 to scurvy and related ailments.

Life and Voyages

Cook’s admirers are diverse and numerous. Sailors celebrate his astounding prowess as a navigator. Students of naval warfare admire his leadership abilities. Historians of the South Pacific and its islands point to his comparatively enlightened dealings with native peoples. Historians of science and medicine emphasize his contributions in those areas. His many biographies demonstrate the breadth of his appeal in their widely differing emphases. It is also noteworthy that, unlike, say Christopher Columbus, none of Cook’s biographers see him or his actions as particularly villainous. This is not to say that Cook is without his critics, but for the most part, critical works such as McLynn 2011 have focused on specific moments in Cook’s career—his bloody encounter with the Maori in New Zealand and his erratic behavior in the weeks before his death—rather than any overall or fundamental failing of Cook’s. The books described here, offer a range of perspectives on Cook and his voyages. The more recent studies, particularly Salmond 2003 and Thomas 2004, show much greater sensitivity to the non-European or ethnohistorical side of Cook’s voyages.

  • Beaglehole, J. C. The Life of Captain James Cook. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974.

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    The definitive biography by the indefatigable editor of Cook’s journals.

  • Captain Cook Society.

    E-mail Citation »

    The society, devoted to preserving the memory of Cook and his many achievements, maintains an exceptionally useful site. Among its valuable resources is a list of 670 online resources related to the study of Cook.

  • Gascoigne, John. Captain Cook: Voyager between Worlds. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007.

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    Less a biography of Cook than a study of the English and Pacific worlds in which he lived and traveled.

  • Horowitz, Tony. Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before. New York: Henry Holt, 2002.

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    Part travelogue, part biography, Horowitz’s book contains what is surely the most effecting modern portrait of Cook.

  • Hough, Richard. Captain James Cook: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

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    A noted naval historian’s life of Cook.

  • McLynn, Frank. Captain Cook: Master of the Seas. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

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    An often critical recent portrait of Cook.

  • Robson, John. Captain Cook’s War and Peace: The Royal Navy Years, 1755–1768. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009.

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    The only substantial study of Cook during the Seven Years’ War, the period during which he began his naval career.

  • Salmond, Anne. The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas. London: Allen Lane/Penguin, 2003.

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    One of several relatively recent studies emphasizing the cross-cultural context of Cook’s voyages.

  • Thomas, Nicholas. Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook. New York: Walker, 2004.

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    An anthropologist’s sympathetic depiction of Cook and his voyages. Thomas is particularly sensitive to the complexities of Cook’s interactions with native peoples.

  • Withey, Lynne. Voyages of Discovery: Captain Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific. New York: William Morrow, 1987.

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    A thorough and engaging narrative of Cook’s voyages and their historical background.

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