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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition. We recognise there is missing history here and the Australian Museum is continually reviewing its content to ensure it conveys truth-telling, is scientifically and historically accurate as well as respectful to First Nations cultures.

James Cook, one of the greatest navigators, explorers and cartographers of the Age of Enlightenment, had humble beginnings as a farm boy. Born on 27 October 1728 to a local Yorkshire lass and a Scottish immigrant labourer, Cook was a bright, hardworking student. He left school at 16, became an apprentice sailor at 18 and joined the navy nine years later.

In 1768 Cook was chosen to lead an expedition on Endeavour Bark to the South Seas to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. Naturalist Joseph Banks was on board.

V0001221 James Cook.

Portrait of Captain James Cook, engraving by John Kayse Sherwin, 1779, after Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, 1776.

Image: Wellcome Library, London
© Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

In Tahiti, with observations complete, Cook opened secret orders to continue south in search of the fabled ‘Unknown Southern Land’. After charting parts of New Zealand, he reached New Holland (Australia), where he landed, made contact with Aboriginal people, mapped parts of the east coast and claimed it for England. Briefly shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, he sailed north and west to complete the first of his two global circumnavigations.

A year later he again set off in search of the Unknown Southern Land. He spent much of 1772–75 sailing the high southern latitudes fighting pack ice and storms. He came within 150 miles of Antarctica and, though he never saw it, continued to believe in its existence.

James Cook from Cook's Voyages, 1784

Frontispiece to folio edition of the Whole of Captain Cook's Voyages

Image: Emma Gray
© Australian Museum

Cook visited Adventure Bay on Tasmania’s Bruny Island during his third voyage, sailing first to the South Seas, then north to the Pacific coasts of North America and Siberia. While returning to England via Cape Horn, he stopped in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), where he was killed on 14 February 1779 during a confrontation between his crew and the locals. In an honour ritual believed to express how highly regarded he was by the Hawaiians, his heart was eaten by the four most powerful chiefs.

James Cook was a confident, disciplined leader. He introduced strict rules of hygiene and diet that for the first time conquered the scourge of scurvy on the high seas. His mapping was of the highest standard and his legacy of scientific and geographic discoveries helped expand the British Empire across the globe.

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