Tag Archives: Royal Society

Captain James Cook – Part Two

In the navy, the commander of a ship is always referred to as Captain, regardless of his/her actual rank. Captain Cook, after his first world voyage, was promoted from lieutenant to commander. On his first voyage, Cook had shown that New Zealand was an island and, by charting the east coastline of Australia, he had shown that Australia was continent sized. However, the Royal Society did not believe that Australia was the fabled Terra Australis. The scientists at the time believed that the landmasses in the northern hemisphere were countered by landmasses of equal mass in the south. This was the Royal Society’s basis for believing that Terra Australis existed. Finding this fabled continent was the reason for Cook’s first voyage, and the reason the Royal Society and His Majesty’s Navy sent Cook on his second voyage (1772-1775).

Cook set sail in command of the HMS Resolution, with Tobias Furneaux commanding the HMS Adventure. This voyage he circumnavigated the world at a higher southern latitude. Cook also became the first man to sail below the Antarctic Circle, reaching 71 degrees and 10 minutes South. Cook turned back before reaching the Antarctic mainland, and became separated in fog from the HMS Adventure. Furneaux then sailed the HMS Adventure back to England.

Before leaving the Pacific, Cook visited Easter Island, Norfolk Island, and several other islands. Then he sailed round Cape Horn and across the South Atlantic, claiming islands (for Britain) while exploring, surveying, and mapping; before turning north for South Africa and England.

Cook’s reports in England put to rest the belief in the fabled Terra Australis, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society, promoted to post-captain and retired. Once again, Cook was honored and praised upon his return, painted by noted portrait artist Nathaniel Dance-Holland, awarded medals, and praised by Parliament. Cook resisted retirement, but had little choice.

Cook’s greatest accomplishment, for the seafaring community at least, was his use of Larcum Kendall’s copy of a John Harrison marine chronometer. In Cook’s day, finding a ship’s latitude, north or south, was a simple act of taking a sighting on the sun (daytime) or star (at night) and performing the mathematical calculations to arrive at your ship’s north or south position. East and west longitude was not so easy to calculate. The common way mariners navigated was to steer a course for an island with a known longitude and latitude, upon sighting the island they would sail for another known island. This way the navigator could do a fair job of plotting his ship’s progress. This method caused ship’s captains to sail much longer routes. What navigators needed was an extremely accurate timepiece, a chronometer. Many kingdoms around the world were offering prizes for the first person to create just such a marine chronometer, one that was portable and would stand up to the rigors of life at sea.

The way a marine chronometer is used to find the ship’s longitude is a simple matter. The chronometer is set to the time at a known place, on English ships this was Greenwich, England (known as Greenwich Mean Time or GMT). The ship would sight the sun with a sextant at the local noontime for the position they were in, this is the time when the sun is at its highest peak in the sky. The time for local noon would be noted, and the ships clocks would be reset to local noon, all clocks except the marine chronometer that is. Then the difference between local noon and Greenwich noon would be noted and the difference would be the difference in longitude.

If the local noon happened when it was 1 PM in Greenwich, then the ship was 60 minutes west of Greenwich, which is also 1 degree west of Greenwich or at a longitude of 179⁰ W. Latitude and longitude are divided into degrees, 180⁰ of west and 180⁰ of east longitude. Latitude is divided into 90⁰ north and south latitude. Time on a clock and position in latitude and longitude is directly proportional. One hour in time equals one degree in distance, minute for minute, and second for second. Each degree is divided into 60 minutes, and each minute is divided into 60 seconds; so that 23⁰ 45’ 8” N 119⁰ 17’ 11” W is read, “23 degrees 45 minutes 8 seconds north 119 degrees 17 minutes 11 seconds west.” What the marine chronometer did was to free ships to sail the most direct route from any point on the earth to any point on the earth, in some cases shortening sea voyages by months. This was a huge savings in supplies a ship would have to carry, and for the merchant marine, less travel time meant more voyages and more income. This also meant that ships could now sail anywhere in the world, and know precisely where they were, something never possible before.

A year later, a voyage was planned to find the fabled Northwest Passage. Cook, chafing in retirement, volunteered to lead the expedition. This was Cook’s third and last expedition, one from which he would never return. But, oh what an expedition it was. For now though, we will leave Cook in his unwanted retirement.

Have a great week and take care of yourself,

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Let’s Cast-Off for the Great Pacific Ocean … Who’s With Me?

Portrait of Captain Cook

Portrait of Captain Cook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the ocean. I like being on the beach, but for me being on the beach just does not quite get the job done … I have to be at sea. Walking on the beach almost gets it done. But it is still second best to having my feet firmly planted on a heaving deck with a salt spray in my face. Today I am going to share with you one of my maritime heroes. This man inspired me to go to sea; he was the last great nautical explorer. I admire men like John Paul Jones and Sir Francis Drake, both great tacticians who frequently started and won battles others would have avoided. These two men never thought about odds, and never withdrew from a fight.

Some people would think that Sir Francis Drake (a relative of mine) would be the one who inspired me to go to sea. As our family’s genealogist, I have found a few inspiring people in our family tree. But, each and every one of us create our own life story based on the decisions we make in life. Our relationship to the famous or infamous has no influence on our successes or failures. A relationship to someone of note does not make us any better or worse than anyone else. One last point I want to make in this distasteful paragraph is that each and every one of us have black-sheep and heroes in our family tree if we go back far enough. It does not change who we are. We decide who we are by the choices we make in life.

It was the life choices of James Cook that made him into one of England’s greatest mariners and explorers. Captain James Cook was born on 27 October 1728. This was a time when the circumstances of your birth determined how far in life you were allowed to go. This was an age when commanding officers of His Majesty’s Royal Naval ships were gentlemen, by class and birth if not always by manners. The second son of a common laborer, born far from the ocean, could be an able seaman, but never a ship’s captain. However, that is exactly what James Cook became.

Official portrait of Captain James Cook

Official portrait of Captain James Cook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a teenager, James Cook first went to sea in merchant ships. From the beginning, he vigorously dedicated himself to the study of mathematics, navigation, and astronomy. He slowly rose through the ranks, and was within a month of becoming a commander of his own merchant ship when the Seven Year War broke out with France. James Cook quickly left the merchant marine for the Royal Navy. He had to start over again from the bottom, but he believed he would have the opportunity for more rapid advancement in the Royal Navy during wartime.

Cook saw action and handled himself well, but there was nothing to make him standout against his fellow officers. It was during the siege of Quebec that James Cook surveyed and mapped the mouth of the St. Lawrence in 1758. General Wolfe used Cook’s maps for his famous surprise attack on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. His work during the siege of Quebec revealed Cook as a talented surveyor and cartographer.

After the siege of Quebec, Cook was sent to survey and map Newfoundland. Cook’s work in Newfoundland in the 1760’s was the first large scale, scientific hydrographic survey of Newfoundland’s coasts. His charts of Newfoundland’s coast were so accurate they were still being used 200 years later, well into the 20th century. Cook’s achievements as a surveyor and cartographer were duly noted by the Admiralty and the Royal Society.

In 1766, the Royal Society ordered Cook to the Pacific Ocean to observe and record Venus transiting across the sun. He left England on 26 August 1768 and rounded Cape Horn; arriving at Tahiti on 13 April 1769. It was in Tahiti that Cook made his Venus observations. After this was completed, Cook opened his sealed and secret orders from the Admiralty for the second part of this his first great voyage to the Pacific. Cook was to search for the fabled continent of Terra Australis.

Statue of Captain James Cook at Admiralty Arch...

Statue of Captain James Cook at Admiralty Arch, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cook left Tahiti and mapped the entire coastline of New Zealand. He also became the first European to discover the eastern coastline of Australia, and the first European to meet indigenous Australians, Aboriginals of the Gweagal tribe. Making landfall in Australia at Kurnell Peninsula, he named the area Stingray Bay, because of the numerous stingrays. After the many unique plant specimens discovered by his botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander he renamed Stingray Bay, Botany Bay.

Captain Cook returned to England by the Cape of Good Hope and the isle of St. Helena, arriving 12 July 1771. It would be five years before his second voyage to the Pacific. During this time, his journals were published, Cook became a hero in the scientific community. His charts of the east coast of Australia clearly showed Australia was a continent, but it was believed Terra Australis was further to the south.

It is impossible for me to do justice to Captain Cook’s voyages in the context of my blog. Any one of the accomplishments of this first voyage (that have unfortunately been left out due to time and space) is worthy of a book length treatment in its own. If you are interested in finding out more about Captain Cook and his voyages, I highly recommend downloading his journals from your favorite e-book store (they can be found as a free download on Amazon.com) or your local library.

Map showing the first voyage of Captain James ...

Map showing the first voyage of Captain James Cook. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In future articles on Captain Cook I will discuss his next two voyages to the Pacific, his exploration of the northwest coast of North America (the area that is today Washington State, Oregon, and the west coast of Canada), and his death. The death of Captain Cook and his relationship with the Hawaiian people has been somewhat misunderstood and misrepresented in our modern times; I hope to give you a greater insight to this incident so you may come to your own conclusions.

As always, take care of yourself,

Love those dear to you,

And have a good week.


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