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O Captain, My Captain!

Well, this was around the time when Britain and France were engaged in a war for seven long years in the US in the third quarter (1756-1763) of the 18th Century. Finally, Britain was able to capture territories occupied by France. James Cook (November 7, 1728 – February 14, 1779) was the Captain of the British naval ship HMS Pembroke during that war. He launched an attack on the French in the Miami region of North America in 1758, and defeated the latter. During the war, Cook prepared a map of the seabed and coastal areas by measuring the depth of the ocean. As a result, British Royal Navy vessels were able to launch attacks on the French quite easily from the sea. In the post-war period, Cook undertook three long-distance sea expeditions, and became the first person to cross the Antarctic Circle (during his second expedition) on January 17, 1773, showing the world the direction of the snow-covered continent in the Southern Hemisphere, 250 years ago.

The British explorer, navigator, cartographer and captain of the Royal Navy was born on November 7, 1728 in the village of Marton in the North Riding of Yorkshire. In spite of not having a formal education, Cook became proficient in arithmetic, astronomy, and reading and preparing maps. He started working in a grocery store at the age of 16. He often looked at the sea through the window of that store. One day, Cook visited the local port at Whitby, where he met John and Henry Walker, the two prominent ship-owners in the coal trade. Cook was taken on as a merchant navy apprentice in their small fleet of vessels, plying coal along the English coast. While doing this job, he studied algebra, geometry, trigonometry, navigation and astronomy.

After a three-year apprenticeship, Cook joined a merchant ship in the Baltic Sea. By that time, he made up his mind to join the British Royal Navy. As Britain was making preparations for launching the seven-year-long war against France, it became easier for Cook to join the services of the Royal Navy. He served as the assistant of a captain in initial days, before becoming a War Commander and a Ship Master.

Cook formally cleared his Master’s examinations at Trinity House, Deptford, in June 1757, qualifying for navigating and handling a ship of the King’s fleet. Later, he joined the frigate HMS Solebay as a Master under Captain Robert Craig. His success in the Seven-Year War and ability to map the seabed and coastline earned him fame. The Royal Society honoured Cook on August 5, 1766 for calculating the longitude on the basis of the solar eclipse, and other astronomical observations.

In the early years, the Egyptians used to cross the Atlantic Ocean as per orders by the Pharaohs, to reach the European islands in the north, and then, to arrive at East Africa via the Indian Ocean, along the southwest African coast. The Arabs, too, used the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and China Sea as trade routes. When Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (1460s – December 24, 1524) reached the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in April 1498, Ahmad Ibn Majid, an Omani Arab, guided the former from the African coast to the Malabar coast, opening up the gates of European explorations towards the East (especially India). Italian explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus (August 25/October 31, 1451 – May 20, 1506) reached America while sailing for India in 1492. For hundreds of years, people have been sailing the seas to satisfy their thirst for knowledge, and for exploring maritime trade routes. Sailors gathered a lot of information during their voyages; however, those pieces of information were all scattered. The British Government planned three maritime expeditions to record that information in a systematic manner, and to conduct scientific research. The Government asked Cook to lead those expeditions in 1768.

The first expedition was aimed at discovering Australia. On his way to Australia aboard HMS Endeavour in 1768, Cook prepared the map of the entire coastline of New Zealand in the South Pacific. From there, he reached the south-west coast of Australia. While going further north, his ship collided with a coral reef and suffered significant damage. Cook returned to England via Indonesia, after repairing the HMS Endeavour.

On his return, Cook was promoted to the rank of Naval Commander, and asked by the Royal Society to prepare for the second expedition. The purpose of this expedition was to circumnavigate the globe in order to confirm the existence of the large land mass near the South Pole. Cook commanded HMS Resolution on this voyage, while Tobias Furneaux commanded its companion ship, HMS Adventure. Cook’s expedition circumnavigated the globe at an extreme southern latitude, becoming one of the first to cross the Antarctic Circle on January 17, 1773. In the Antarctic fog, HMS Resolution and HMS Adventure got separated. Furneaux made his way to New Zealand, where he lost some of his crew members during an encounter with Māori, and eventually sailed back to Britain. Meanwhile, Cook continued to explore Antarctica, reaching 71 Degree 10 Second southern axis on January 31, 1774.

Beyond the Antarctic Circle, Cook continued further south, in search of Antarctica, the southernmost and least-populated continent of the Earth. He managed to move another 15 minutes axis towards south till snowdrifts blocked his vessel. He tried to reach Antarctica, once again, after voyaging about 2,000 miles. Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle thrice during this voyage. However, HMS Resolution stopped in the Latitude of 71 degree 10 minutes South and in the Longitude of 106 degree 54 minutes West on January 30, 1774, as there was no technology to break the huge and thick wall of ice. Cook was forced to return from a distance of approximately 240km from Antarctica. Later, he wrote: “I whose ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption, as it in some measure relieved us from the dangers and hardships, inseparable with the Navigation of the Southern Polar regions.” Cook’s ship carried a lot of food items, water purifiers, knives, axes, guns, etc., in this expedition. He was promoted to the rank of Captain upon his arrival in England.

On January 27, 1820, a Russian expedition, led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, officially discovered the land of the continent of Antarctica. However, Captain Cook secured his place in the History of Oceanography by going on an expedition without any map.

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