Cook reaches New Zealand

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Cook reaches New Zealand

The 6th of October 1769 AD

The story of James Cook is a heartening one of success through ability and hard work in an era when birth was too often the determining factor in advancement and recognition.

Cook was born in 1728 in Marton, near Middlesbrough , into decidedly humble circumstances. His father was a farm labourer who worked his way up the social scale, eventually becoming a farm manager, but even when he had reached this position the family relied on the farm’s owner to pay for James’ education in the local school.

Finishing school at 12, James worked for a short time on the farm in Great Ayton , before his numeracy gained him an apprenticeship at a grocery and general store in Staithes , on the Yorkshire coast. After just 18 months it was clear to the shop owner that James was not cut out for the career of shop-worker, the lad having been entranced by tales of the sea, and mesmerised by the sight of the waves at Staithes.

The shopkeeper introduced young Cook to the Walkers, a Quaker family in Whitby who owned and sailed colliers to London and the Baltic. Apprenticed into the Merchant navy, Cook showed a great determination to study seamanship and navigation, and progressed to Mate, and finally to commander of a ship, but when the Seven Years War loomed in 1755 he decided to enlist in the Royal Navy, seeing greater opportunities for advancement there.

Forced to start from the bottom again as an Able Seaman, cook quickly rose through the ranks, his talents for navigation recognised and harnessed by the Navy. In 1759 his work as the commander of a ship mapping the mouth of the St Lawrence River was significant in the subsequent stealthy landing and daring scaling of the Heights of Abraham by Wolfe and the victory over the French , securing Canada as a British possession.

In the early 1760s Cook spent several years in mapping the coasts of Newfoundland and St Pierre and Miquelon, work of outstanding accuracy in sometimes trying circumstances that brought him again to the notice of his superiors, and when in 1766 the Royal Society needed a cartographer and navigator to lead a 1768 expedition to the South Seas to observe the passage of Venus across the sun, a rare event of great use to astronomers, Cook was put forward.

Commanding the Whitby-built HM Bark Endeavour , Cook set sail on the first of his three great voyages of discovery. Sailing west the Endeavour rounded Cape Horn and continued to Tahiti, where the astronomical observations were to be carried out. Once this task had been completed – not with the level of accuracy or success that had been hoped for, though Cook’s part in the voyage was carried out with outstanding efficiency – Cook continued sailing west, his orders being to verify the existence of the distant and unclaimed land first spotted by Abel Tasman a century previously.

At the end of September the crew began to see seaweed, giving hope that they were approaching the object of their search. Cook promised rewards practical and glorious to the first man to spot the shore, offering a large quantity of rum and the honour of having something in the vicinity named after whoever set eyes on the new land before the rest.

As it was, the honour went to the cabin boy aboard the Endeavour, Nicholas Young. He was the first of the Endeavour’s crew to sight what was New Zealand, on October 6 1769 (October 7 by the ship’s time). The headland at what was subsequently called Poverty Bay was given the appellation Young Nick’s Head in honour of what botanist Joseph Banks described as “the small boy” who cried out ‘land’ first, at 1.30 in the afternoon.

The ship then spent the next six months charting the coastline with Cook’s usual accuracy - though given the speed at which this was done it was not as perfect as his far more painstaking work in Newfoundland - becoming the first to discover that there were two large islands to the land mass. Cook, the farm boy from Yorkshire , had come a long way, and his fame then and in the future was assured, but it is somehow pleasing that he did so in a converted Whitby collier.

internal link Captain Cook Memorial Museum

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