The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

James Cook

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Captain James Cook


Born on October 27, 1728, in Marton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire, England (Craig, 32), James Cook was a naval captain, navigator and explorer whose voyages helped guide centuries of explorers and made history in cartography and exploration. Cook’s status as a leading figure in eighteenth century history is attributed to his expansion of our global geographic knowledge, assisting in further exploration and expansion of trade (Thomas, Introduction), and expanding Great Britain’s colonial empire and status as European superpower. By the time of his death at the end of his first voyage, he had not only achieved a unique reputation as a meticulous explorer: he had laid the foundations of Britain’s Pacific Empire. James Cook’s contributions to solving the ocean problems of the eighteenth century was due in part to his extraordinary skill in mathematics and aptitude for cartography. His skill of charting the unknown coast, as Admiral Wharton stated, “enabled him to originate, as it may be truly said he did, the art of modern marine studying” (Grenfell, 2). Excerpts from his journal also reveal the contributions he made to anthropology, botany, and zoology. 

James Cook’s upbringing and its influence on his journals

            The early life of James Cook and the environment in which he spent his formative years is critical in its influence in his success and career. He was born to parents of humble origins, but who were described as “good, intelligent workers”(Craig, 32). He worked a series of jobs throughout his entire upbringing, with employers who taught him valuable skills and paid for his schooling (Craig, 32). An examination of his early days is a testament to his remarkable potential and likeability. He was blessed with the support of succession of kindly, understanding, and discerning people. It is clear that this was due to James Cook showing exceptional promise in both intelligence and character for them to make the generous effort on his behalf. Perhaps his most significant apprenticeship was working aboard the collier Freelove, a ship of 450 tons engaged in the cole trade (Williams, 23). The winter months were spent with his master, Mr. Walker, and his experience in his household began his association with Quakerism, another point of significance in his formative years.  At the heart of the Quaker way of life and its absolute condemnation of worldly self-indulgence was a belief that work was an end in itself (Williams, 25), which should satisfy individual creative needs and exploit human’s innate talents. Cook’s correspondence and journals reflect his own preference for plainness and modesty impressed on him by his Quaker household. He hoped that the public would remember him as a plain man, “zealously employed in the service of his country” (61).  Analysis of his journals shows that he intended to provide an accurate record of events rather than an embellished text for the amusement of his audience.

James Cook