James Cook – Making of a Mariner

The Pacific In The Wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill
Starts Monday August 27 at 7.30pm AEST


The Making of a Mariner

James was born in the northern town of Marton, Yorkshire on 7 November 1728. At the ripe old age of sixteen, a little over the age that he could have joined the Royal Navy, young James moved to the nearby fishing village of Staithes, to be apprenticed as a shop boy at Sanderson’s Grocery and Haberdashery.

The life and work of a shop boy was not suited to this erudite young man and some historians have fondly speculated that this is where James first felt the lure of the sea whilst gazing out of the shop window and dreaming of the deep blue.

The Sandersons knew after a short time that James’ heart was not in retail, so they introduced the young man to friends of theirs, John and Henry Walker of Whitby.

The Walkers were prominent local ship-owners in the coal trade. Interestingly, their house is now the Captain Cook Memorial Museum. Cook was taken on as a merchant navy apprentice in their small fleet of vessels, plying coal down the English coast. James spent several years on the colliers and various other coasters, as part of his apprenticeship.

He applied himself to the study of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, navigation and astronomy – all skills he would need one day to command his own ship and ultimately fill in the map that covers a third of our planet’s surface.

With his three-year apprenticeship completed, James began working on trading ships in the Baltic and after passing his examinations in 1752, he quickly progressed through the merchant navy ranks.  In 1755, within a month of being offered command of his own vessel, he volunteered for service in the Royal Navy.

Image: Arguably, the most recognised image of the man, Nathaniel Dance-Holland’s famous portrait of James Cook. c. 1775, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

During Britain’s ongoing tensions with France and the troublesome colonies of North America, James distinguished himself as a highly skilled navigator and cartographer.

These very important skills dis not go unnoticed by his superiors.

In 1766 Admiralty engaged James to command a scientific voyage to the Pacific Ocean. The purpose of the voyage was to observe and record the transit of Venus across the Sun for the benefit of a Royal Society inquiry into a means of determining the then elusive longitude. At the relatively senior age of thirty-nine, James was promoted to lieutenant, granting him sufficient status to take the command. For its part, the Royal Society agreed that Lieutenant Cook would receive a one hundred guinea gratuity in addition to his Naval pay.

It was on this mission, that has become known as The First Voyage of James Cook, that Lieutenant Cook began his tumultuous but enduring friendship with dashing playboy botanist and all-round renaissance man, Joseph Banks.

Banks was rich, very rich.

This insatiably curious, gregarious and very well-educated man with very deep pockets paid for his passage and seven others; Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, a Finnish naturalist Herman Spöring, two artists, a scientific secretary, and two servants from the Banks’ estate.


By: R. J. Hawksworth