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Captain James Cook

      As an example of the self-made man without fortune or the prestige of a distinguished family to assist him, perhaps there is none better and more instructive than the career of Captain Cook, the great English navigator and discoverer. At his birth, in 1728, his father was a farm-laborer, and his mother belonged to the same grade of society. They lived in the north of England, and were people of excellent character. On account of his honesty, industry, and skill in farming, his father was promoted to the place of head servant on a farm some distance from where he had been working; but it does not appear that he ever made any further advancement. James learned to read and write, and was instructed in some of the simpler rules of arithmetic, which was the extent of his school learning, a very slender outfit for one of the distinction to which he attained in a lifetime of fifty years.

      At the age of thirteen James was bound as an apprentice to a dry-goods dealer in a small way in a considerable fishing town. The business did not suit the youth at all, for he had before cherished the idea of going to sea, and his surroundings in a seaport doubtless increased his yearnings in that direction. A disagreement between the apprentice and his employer enabled him to procure his discharge, and he engaged his services to the Messrs. Walker, a couple of Quakers, who owned two vessels employed in the coal trade. He passed the greater portion of his term, and a considerable period after its expiration, as a common sailor on board of the ship Free Love, where he obtained a thorough knowledge of seamanship. From this humble sphere he was promoted to be mate of one of the Walker ships. His life in this capacity was uneventful, though he was all the time learning navigation and storing his mind with the information which was to enable him to distinguish himself in later years.

      In 1755, when Cook was twenty-seven years old, war broke out between England and France, and there was a great demand for seamen for the navy of England. At that time the system of impressment was in vogue, and when Britain wanted sailors she took them, wherever and whenever she could find them. Press-gangs were sent out, under one or more officers, by ships of war in port needing more men. They visited the drinking-places and taverns of the town and captured all the seamen they could find, usually more or less intoxicated, and compelled them to go on board of the man-of-war. They were forced to do duty. Sometimes the unlucky tars were taken from the vessels to which they belonged, whether in port or at sea. This impressment was not always confined to British seamen, and this system was one of the causes which led to the war of 1812 between England and the United States. Though the law sanctioning this abuse was never repealed, press-gangs became obsolete half a century ago.

      Cook's ship was in the Thames at this time, and he was liable to impressment, for mates were not exempt, though captains were. Like all British seamen, he had a dread of being forced into the naval service, oftener because they were forced than for any other reason. He concealed himself, and used all the precautions he could to avoid such a calamity, as he then regarded it. But he faithfully reconsidered the subject, and concluded to enter the navy by voluntary enlistment, thus escaping impressment, which would be an outrage upon his manhood. He began his service on board the Eagle, a sixty-gun ship, which was soon after commanded by Captain Palliser. Cook was not only an able and skilful seaman, but he diligently and faithfully performed every duty, so that he soon attracted the attention of his officers.

Death of Captain Cook.

      His friends at home had endeavored to do something for him, and his commander received a letter from a member of Parliament commending the seaman to his favor. The captain acknowledged the merit of Cook in his reply, but stated that he had been in the navy for so brief a period that he could not be made a commissioned officer, but in due time, if he proved worthy, a master's warrant might be obtained for him. Four years after he entered the service a strong interest secured this promotion for him. In this capacity he was assigned to the frigate Mercury, which was ordered to North America, where she became one of the fleet that operated in connection with the army of General Wolfe in the siege of Quebec.

      The navigation of this portion of the St. Lawrence River was difficult and dangerous then to the English; they were comparative strangers there, and the French had removed the channel buoys. It was necessary to make a survey, and Captain Palliser recommended Master Cook for the service. The locality was exposed to the enemy, and for several nights he conducted the work till he had about completed it, when his operations were discovered by the French. A force of Indians was sent to capture the surveyor, and they surrounded him in the darkness in their canoes, and Cook made his escape only by leaping ashore, to which his barge had been directed, near the English hospital, while the Indians were boarding the boat over the stern. But he had performed the duty intrusted to him, and from his measurements constructed a perfect chart of the channel.

      He was a very skilful draughtsman, though he had educated himself in the art, as well as an expert surveyor, and he was employed by the admiral in making surveys of other portions of the river. His charts of the locality were published, with soundings and sailing directions; and they were so correct that no others were needed for at least a hundred years. He piloted the boats of the squadron in the attack upon Montmorency, and superintended the landing of the troops for the assault on the Plains of Abraham, where both Wolfe and Montcalm were mortally wounded.

      For four years Cook had been an acting master, but in 1759 he was fully confirmed in his rank and appointed to the flag-ship of Lord Colvill, passing the following winter at Halifax. This was a season of leisure from active professional occupation, and the master employed it in studying geometry, astronomy, and mathematics generally, fitting himself for the highest positions in the navy. For the next ten years he was largely engaged in surveying in Newfoundland, and was present at its capture from the French. Returning to England he was married, but was soon sent back to the field of his recent labors, as marine surveyor of the coasts, by the influence of his constant friend, now Sir Hugh Palliser. He was busily employed in this capacity, rendering valuable service to his country, and especially to the king's ministers in arranging the terms of peace with France. During his absence he observed an eclipse of the sun, which was so well done that his results were published in the "Philosophical Transactions," adding greatly to his reputation as an astronomer.

      At this period the spirit of discovery was reanimated in England, and an expedition was fitted out, at the instance of the Royal Society, primarily to observe a transit of Venus across the disk of the sun, which could only be done in some parts of the Pacific Ocean. Sir Hugh Palliser was again his friend, and Cook, raised to the rank of lieutenant, was appointed to the command. He selected a ship of three hundred and seventy tons, called the Endeavor, for the purpose, and accompanied by several eminent scientists, he sailed in 1778. In addition to its astronomical task, the expedition was to make discoveries and explorations in the Pacific.

      It would be impossible to follow Lieutenant Cook in the details of his three notable voyages of discovery in anything less than a volume, so full are they of interesting incidents. He proceeded first to Madeira, and then across the Atlantic to Rio Janeiro, where he made a considerable stay to obtain supplies, and improve the condition of his crew. Passing through the Strait of Le Maire, he went around Cape Horn, and in April of 1769 the Endeavor arrived at Otaheite, now called Tahiti, in the Society Islands, where the transit was to be observed. The observations required a considerable stay in Matavia Bay, and as soon as he had made his preparations on shore for the work, the commander established regulations for intercourse between his people and the natives who crowded in multitudes around their strange visitors.

      No man in his day and generation ever had more extensive dealings with the uncivilized tribes of the earth than Captain Cook, and none ever treated them with more enlightened humanity, or with more even-handed justice. His treatment of the aborigines of the vast number of islands and other regions he visited, is in remarkable contrast with that of the early explorers of the Western Continent. By the latter the natives were remorselessly slain, enslaved, and even tortured. They were regarded as pagans, with no natural rights, whose territories, families, and persons were the legitimate spoils of the conquerors. On the contrary, Cook, with the means in his possession to overawe, subdue, and subjugate them, always extended to them the utmost consideration in his power. He could be severe when necessity required, but his forbearance was almost unlimited.

      The first of a series of rules he established and enforced was: "To endeavor, by every fair means, to cultivate a friendship with the natives, and to treat them with all imaginable humanity." He was largely dependent upon the resources of the islands he visited for the sustenance of his people; but nothing, except in dire necessity, was ever taken from the natives by force. Persons were appointed to trade with them, and no others were allowed to barter or exchange goods with them, and a proper equivalent was always to be given. His own men were put under the strictest discipline in order to control their relations with the natives who constantly surrounded them. Generally the most friendly spirit prevailed on both sides. The inhabitants of all the islands seemed to have a natural inclination to steal, and most of the trouble with them grew out of this tendency. Cook judiciously repressed theft from the beginning, and almost invariably compelled the restoration of the property.

      On the other hand, his own men were sometimes tempted to desert; but he hunted them down, secured one or more chiefs as hostages, or by some common-sense method recovered the absentees. At some of the islands Cook was extremely popular with the inhabitants, and was regarded as a superior being, even a demigod, in many of them. When he was compelled to resort to extreme severity, he did not begin with cannon, loaded with grape, but trusted first to the loud report, terrific to the savages, fired over their heads, or had the muskets loaded with small shot which would hurt, but did not kill. No slaughter that could possibly be avoided was permitted. If he erred at all it was on the side of humanity, and if he had been less forbearing he might have added more years to his length of days.

      The astronomical work at Otaheite was successfully accomplished, and in July Captain Cook departed, taking with him Tupia, a native of some distinction, who proved to be valuable to him as an interpreter, and for his general knowledge. During this voyage he visited many of the islands of the Pacific, including New Zealand, where he encountered no little hostility, so that it was often difficult and sometimes impossible to establish friendly relations with the natives. But he obtained what he needed, and proceeded on his voyage. He gave names to islands, bays, straits, and harbors, some of which seem strange at the present day, but most of them were suggested by the circumstances of the visit. Of many of the islands he took possession in the name of his sovereign, leaving memorials of his landing.

      Sailing to the westward, he examined the east coast of New Holland, as it was then called, Australia, at the present time, charted the coast, as he had done throughout the voyage, and took possession of the country in the name of England. The existence of a Southern Continent had long been a mooted question, and in this and subsequent voyages Captain Cook searched unsuccessfully for it. He passed through Torres Strait, and thus proved that New Guinea was not a part of Australia, as some claimed. Continuing his voyage, he went around the Cape of Good Hope, and reached England in the middle of 1771. The results of his cruise of nearly four years were exceedingly important to his country. His reputation was largely increased, and he was promoted to the rank of commander in the navy.

      So well approved was the conduct of Captain Cook on his first voyage around the world, that he was appointed to the command of another similar expedition, consisting of two ships, the Resolution and the Adventure, and after about a year on shore, he sailed again in 1772. He went around the Cape of Good Hope, and cruised in the Southern Pacific, discovering and taking possession of New Caledonia, visiting islands where he had landed before, and exploring and charting the New Hebrides. His instructions particularly required him to circumnavigate the earth in the highest practicable southern latitude in search of the unknown continent still supposed to be there. He used the southern summer for this purpose; but he found no land he was willing to call a continent. Though large bodies of land have since been discovered in that region, the question is still an open one.

      Adapting his operations to the varying climate of the north and the south, Captain Cook continued his explorations, encountering many hardships and perils in unknown seas, from hostile savages, and in the icy realms of the extreme south.

      He returned to England in 1775 after an absence of three years. The commander had always taken excellent care of the health of his men, for in voyages of the description he had undertaken the mortality was always considerable, and sometimes terrible. One of the most noticeable features of his second expedition was that it returned with a record of only one death in both ships; and the details of the means he used to secure a good sanitary condition among his crews are very interesting.

      On his return Cook was immediately raised to the rank of post-captain, and was also appointed a captain in Greenwich Hospital, which secured to him an honorable retirement, and reward for his important labors. He was elected a member of the Royal Society, which also bestowed upon him a gold medal in recognition of his contributions to the science of the period. The passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific by the north coast of America was exciting a great deal of attention at this time, and Captain Cook was sent upon an expedition to continue his explorations in the Pacific, and then to investigate the mystery of a northwest passage. He sailed in the Resolution in 1776, and was followed by Captain Clerke in the Discovery. He proceeded, after his arrival at the Cape of Good Hope, to Tasmania, visited New Zealand again, and passed the following year in explorations in the Pacific.

      In the first month of 1778 he discovered the Sandwich Islands, to which he gave this name in honor of his patron, the Earl of Sandwich, then the first Lord of the Admiralty. Obtaining the supplies he needed, the commander proceeded to explore the northwest coast of America, which he followed inside of Behring Strait, till the ice and cold compelled him to seek a more southern latitude, which he found in the genial airs of the Sandwich Islands.

      During his former visit he had found the natives to be friendly and generally well disposed, though more addicted to thieving than the people of any other islands the explorer had visited. For some unexplained reason they were in a different frame of mind on his second visit. A boat belonging to the expedition had been stolen by the savages, and Captain Cook proceeded, in his usual vigorous manner, to recover it. He sent a boat on shore for this purpose, and then landed himself with another party, intending to capture a certain chief, to be exchanged for the boat. An immense crowd gathered around him, and were hypocritically friendly at first; but it was soon observed that they were arming themselves. The commander asked Kariopoo, the chief he had selected, to go with him, and he made no objection. The captain had ordered the marines to be drawn up on the shore, and leading his prisoner by the hand he approached the boat, the natives opening a passage for him.

      The chief's family and friends interposed to save him, declaring that he would be killed if he went on board of the ship. The captain expostulated with them and the tumult increased. The lieutenant of marines wanted to fire, but Cook refused the pet mission. The tumult soon became a battle, and then he ordered his men to fire. As he was trying to save his party he was struck with a club, which partially stunned him, and then he was stabbed in the back of the neck by an iron dagger. He fell into shallow water, and the savages threw themselves upon him. A struggle ensued, and he was hauled on the beach by his foes, where they stabbed him in turn in their barbarous rage. His body lay on the beach, and it might have been recovered, but it was not. Only a portion of his remains were obtained, and they were buried at sea.

      Thus perished Captain James Cook, and all England mourned him.

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