Follow in the footsteps of the farmer's son who left the land and sailed in to history – becoming one of the world's greatest seafarers. David Orkin trails in his wake


The greatest 18th-century mariner was born plain James Cook 279 years ago this month in the village of Marton – today a suburb of Middlesbrough. The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum (01642 311211; opens 9am-4pm daily except Mondays (10am-5.30pm from March to October), admission free. He was baptised in the local church of St Cuthbert's, where today his name can be seen in the church register. When he was a child, the Cook family moved to a farm at Great Ayton, where he attended the local school – now the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum (01642 724 296;, open April-October only, 1pm-4pm (July-August 11am-4pm); £2.

At 13, Cook began work on the farm with his father. He left home and worked as an apprentice in a grocery-cum-haberdashery store in the fishing village of Staithes, about 25 miles away. It is now home to the Staithes Heritage Centre and Captain Cook Museum (01947 841454; 10am-5pm daily (weekends only January to mid-February), admission £2.75.

After a year-and-a-half of unimpressive performance, the shop's owner took him down the coast to the nearby port of Whitby and introduced him to local ship-owners who were in the coal trade. Cook was taken on as an apprentice in their small fleet of vessels. The award-winning Captain Cook Memorial Museum (01947 601 900; is housed in the 17th-century building in which Cook lodged as an apprentice. It opens 11am-3pm daily in March, and 9.45am-5pm from April to October, admission £4.


Not immediately. His first assignment was aboard the collier Freelove, and he spent three years on this and various other small sturdy vessels sailing between the Tyne and London. Having successfully completed the nautical apprenticeship, Cook began working on trading ships in the Baltic Sea, rapidly progressing through Merchant Navy ranks. In 1755 he was offered command of another collier, Friendship, but chose instead to join the Royal Navy. He started off on HMS Eagle, and in 1757 transferred to HMS Pembroke.

With the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) raging between the English and French, he was ordered to (what is now) Canada to survey the St Lawrence River to help with the navigation of that area by British warships. By now master of the Pembroke, he took part in the siege of Louisburg in Nova Scotia and surveyed and mapped the waters around Québec City. This preparation allowed the British, under General Wolfe, to make a stealth attack on the French on the Plains of Abraham – probably the most significant battle of the war. Cook was then based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in between charting much of the coastline of Newfoundland, first on the Northumberland, and later as Master of the Grenville.

Corner Brook in Newfoundland has the Captain James Cook Monument, displaying copies of the charts of the area mapped by Cook. Route 450 heading west from the town is a scenic drive known as Captain Cook's Trail: both monument and drive offer spectacular views of the Bay of Islands. Across the sea in Nova Scotia, the capital, Halifax, has a monument to Cook at Fort Needham.

Cook married a Wapping girl, Elizabeth Batts, in December 1762 at Barking's St Margaret's Church. The couple lived in Shadwell. Cook worshipped at St Paul's Shadwell, traditionally known as the "Church of Sea Captains", and Betts (sic) Street was named after his wife.


In 1769, Venus was due to make one of its rare transits across the face of the Sun. The Royal Society decided to send some u o astronomers to Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean to record the planet's journey. The idea was that by having scientists positioned on different parts of the globe, the dimensions of the earth could be more accurately assessed.

Partly to assist this mission, but also to search for the reputed Terra Australis (Australia), the Navy provided a ship – the Whitby-built HMS Endeavour – and appointed Cook as First Lieutenant. He sailed from England across the Atlantic in 1768, rounded Cape Horn and continued westward across the Pacific to arrive at Tahiti just in time to watch the planetary transit. Tahiti is the most important part of French Polynesia, and is accessible from the UK on Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; and Air Tahiti via Los Angeles. Travelling next month, a fare of £1,210 is available – but for a similar price you could include Tahiti as a stopover en route to or from Auckland. While in Tahiti, stay in the Radisson Plaza Resort (0800 374411; which offers views of Matavai Bay where the Endeavour anchored and windsurf, kayak, snorkel or sail in the very waters Cook sailed all those years ago.


No. Instead of heading back to Britain, Cook sailed for New Zealand – which had been "discovered" in 1642 by the Dutchman Abel Tasman. Cook mapped its coastline. Perhaps the most important site for both the country and Cook is the Cook Landing Site National Historic Reserve (00 64 6 869 0492; in Gisborne, which is open, free, around the clock. The site of Cook's first New Zealand landfall was also the landing place of the Maori more than 400 years earlier. Cook's arrival was the first recorded meeting between Maori and Europeans.

In the Bay of Islands, exhibits at the Russell Museum (00 64 9 403 7701; include a one-fifth scale model of the Endeavour. Daily 10am-4pm (January to 5pm), admission NZ$5 (£1.80).

On the South Island, Christchurch's Victoria Square is home to a fine statue of Cook. After New Zealand, Cook sailed west, aiming for Tasmania – which Tasman had also found and named Van Diemen's Land. But the Endeavour was blown off-course and reached the southeastern coast of the mainland Australian continent in April 1770.


No. Although Cook's crew became the first recorded Europeans to have encountered Australia's eastern coastline, another Dutchman, Willem Janszoon, had found the great continent's northern coast in 1606. On 29 April, Cook and crew made their first landfall on the continent at a place now known as Kurnell: Cook named it Botany Bay, after the ship's botanists declared much of the flora unique. You can reach Botany Bay very easily from the UK, because Sydney's airport is perched right on the water. Effectively a suburb of Sydney, Kurnell proudly calls itself "The Birthplace of Modern Australia". The site is within the Botany Bay National Park (00 61 2 9668 9111; au) which is also home to a Discovery Centre. Its "Eight Days that Changed the World" exhibition is an interpretation of the first contact between Aboriginal people and the crew of the Endeavour.

Cook sailed northwards. His next Australian landing was on Queensland's Discovery Coast in June 1770, at what is now the small town whose name is a number: 1770.

A section of the Miriam Vale Shire Museum (00 61 7 4974 9511) in nearby Agnes Water is devoted to Cook and the Endeavour: open Wednesday-Monday 1pm-4pm, Sunday 10am-4pm, AU$2 (£1). Further north, there's the James Cook Historical Museum (00 61 7 4069 5386) in Cooktown: the Endeavour was holed on the Great Barrier Reef and was beached at what became Cooktown while repairs were effected. Museum exhibits include an anchor and a cannon from the ship. Try to time your visit to coincide with the annual Cooktown Discovery Weekend held every June since 1960. The focus of the festival is a re-enactment of the landing here with costumed locals landing in whaleboats. The 2008 dates are 8-9 June.

Cooktown's tourism potential received a boost recently when the last stretch of highway connecting it with the more-established tourist areas of Cairns and Port Douglas was finally sealed (most car rental companies do not allow their vehicles to be driven on unsealed roads). Stay at the Sovereign Resort (00 61 7 4043 0500; – activities include hiking, game and reef fishing, diving and snorkelling: to keep the seafaring theme going, boat hire or private charters are also available.


Cook's northward trajectory continued. He sailed through the Torres Strait, and on 22 August landed on Possession Island (near Cape York), where he claimed for the King the entire coastline he had just explored. This is commemorated by a concrete monument on the island, which is now a National Park: Occasional cruises visit the island, or ask Reefwatch Air Tours (00 61 7 4035 9808; to tailor-make a trip for you flying from Cairns.

Cook returned to England via the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena. Cook was not the first to discover the island – that honour went to the Portuguese in 1502. He wrote at length about the island's lovely countryside, industrious citizens, and of the beauty of St Helena's women. Better known as the island to which Napoleon was exiled (and on which he died in 1816), 47-square-mile St Helena has no airport and most people arrive in the island's waters on the RMS St Helena (020-7575 6480; from Cape Town or Ascension Island (though once a year there is a departure from Portland, Dorset). They then transfer to small local boats to be ferried to the wharf. Berths on the St Helena book up a long way in advance. It is said that an airport, capable of taking jets as big as the Boeing 737, will open in the next two to three years.


Hardly. Cook and the Endeavour had departed Plymouth on 26 August 1768 and arrived home on 12 July 1771. Shortly after his return, Cook was promoted to Commander and once again he was commissioned by the Royal Society to search for Terra Australis. Although Cook had shown by circumnavigating New Zealand that it was not attached to a larger landmass to the south; and by charting most of the eastern coastline of Australia that this land had the scale of a continent, many still believed that a Terra Australis lay further to the south. Cook commanded HMS Resolution on this voyage. It was one of the first ships to cross the Antarctic Circle, surveyed and mapped South Georgia and discovered the South Sandwich Islands. You can make a similar journey as part of a 19-day "Antarctic, Falklands & South Georgia" fly/cruise with Exodus (0845 86 9600;, with departures between mid-November and February.

On his return voyage, in 1774 he landed at the Friendly Islands (Tonga), Easter Island, Norfolk Island, New Caledonia and Vanuatu. The Resolution finally moored off Spithead near Portsmouth. Cook's reports upon his return home put to rest the popular myth of Terra Australis: he was then promoted to the rank of Captain. This round-the-world voyage lasted three years and 38 days.


No. Cook's third global voyage was intended to find the famed Northwest Passage. Cook once again commanded HMS Resolution via the Cape of Good Hope to the Pacific, and planned to seek a passage across the north of North America to the Atlantic. A simultaneous voyage (HMS Discovery) travelled in the opposite direction. From Tahiti, Cook travelled north-east to explore the west coast of North America, landing near the First Nations village at Yuquot in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. He explored and mapped the North American coast from California all the way to the Bering Strait. Although he made several attempts to sail through it, the Bering Strait proved to be impassable.

Returning to warmer climes, in 1778 he became the first recorded European to visit the Hawaiian Islands – which he named the Sandwich Islands after the fourth Earl of Sandwich, the acting First Lord of the Admiralty.


Initially, more than welcoming. Cook and the Resolution first landed in Hawaii early in 1778 at Waimea on Kauai. A year later, they returned to Hawaii after exploring the Alaskan coastline. It is thought that Cook, his ship, and to a lesser extent his crew, were initially deified by the Hawaiians. The men on board were welcomed with open arms (and more) by the local women, and were in no hurry to leave. After an extended stay, the Resolution did leave, but damaged a mast and returned before long to moor in Kealakekua Bay, on what is now the "Big Island". This time quarrels broke out and relations soured.

Frictions arose with the British frustrated by the islanders' attempts to make off with Navy property. What the British saw as blatant theft (the islanders may have held different beliefs about the ownership of material goods) was nothing new for ships stopping at Pacific islands, and the usual method of organising the return of the goods was for visiting ships to take hostages.

On 14 February 1779, Cook became incensed when the islanders purloined the biggest of the ship's cutters. He took a party of nine marines ashore with the intention of taking a local chief hostage to force return of the boat. A minor local leader was shot, and a mob of thousands of locals confronted Cook and his men. Fighting broke out and during the bloody skirmish, Cook tried to return to one of the boats but hesitated – one of the world's greatest seamen and navigators was a non-swimmer. He was hit on the head, fell into the surf and was then stabbed to death. Four marines and 17 Hawaiians were also killed.

In keeping with local beliefs, the villagers partially dismembered Cook's body, and burnt much of the remains – it is thought that this was for ritualistic rather than cannibalistic reasons. An obelisk in Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii's Big Island marks the spot where Cook fell: it can be reached on foot by a rough trail, or by kayak. The bay's waters are generally clear, calm and excellent for snorkelling. Fair Wind (001 808 345 0268; operates good half-day snorkel cruises in the bay, US$75 (£37.50). This tiny piece of land was given to the UK by a Hawaiian princess in 1877 for the creation of a monument. When Hawaii was annexed by the US, and then became first a US territory, and then, 50 years later in 1950, a fully fledged state, no rulings were made to change ownership of this little bit of Britain. (A similar situation exists in Runnymede, Surrey, where the US was given over an acre of land on which a monument to John F Kennedy is sited.) The closest international airport to the Hawaiian location is Kona: fly there from Heathrow (via LA) on United Airlines (0845 844 4777; for £550 return next month.


In Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, Tony Horwitz combines history and a travelogue as he goes in search of places Cook visited on his three great voyages (Bloomsbury, 2003). You could also consider joining the Captain Cook Society (

Learn about Cook at the Oceans of Discovery gallery at the National Maritime Museum (020-8312 6565; uk) in Greenwich – there is also a fine sculpture of Cook in the museum's grounds: daily 10am-5pm (6pm in summer), admission free. A Navigators' Memorial was unveiled in Westminster Abbey in 1979, commemorating Sir Francis Drake, Cook and Sir Francis Chichester, three great circumnavigators of the globe all of whom set out from Plymouth.

Cottage industry

In Melbourne, go to Fitzroy Gardens and you can visit Cook's Cottage (00 61 3 9658 9658; In 1933, the owner of the cottage built by Captain Cook's father in Great Ayton, Yorkshire, sold it, and, after being dismantled brick by brick, it was shipped, along with the ivy from the walls, to Melbourne. It is thought that Cook Jr knew the cottage, but may never have stayed in it. Open 9am-5pm, admission A$4.50 (£2.20).

A replica of the Endeavour was built in Fremantle in the late 1980s. After sailing round the world twice,the Endeavour (above) was berthed at the Australian National Maritime Museum, at Darling Harbour, Sydney (00 61 2 9298 3777; www. When in port, the Endeavour can be visited daily 9.30am-5pm, admission A$15 (£7).