1. Cook joined the Royal Navy relatively late in life.
Cook worked on a Yorkshire farm in his youth before winning an apprenticeship with a merchant sailing company at age 17. He cut his teeth as a mariner on shipping voyages in the choppy waters of North and Baltic Seas, and spent the next decade rising through the ranks and mastering the art of navigation. He was being groomed to become a captain, but in 1755, he shocked his superiors by quitting his merchant sailing career and enlisting in the British Royal Navy as a common seaman. Cook was 26—far older than most new recruits—yet it didn’t take long for the Navy to recognize his talent. He was promoted to ship’s master in only two years, and later became one of the first men in British naval history to rise through the enlisted ranks and take command of his own vessel.
2. He was an expert mapmaker.
Cook first rose to prominence as a cartographer during the Seven Years’ War, when his detailed charts of the Saint Lawrence River helped the British pull off a surprise attack against French-held Quebec. In the early 1760s, he was given a ship and tasked with charting the island of Newfoundland off the coast of Canada. The map he produced was so accurate that it was still in use in the 20th century. Cook’s skill at charting the seas would later become a crucial tool in his explorer’s arsenal. He won command of his first round-the-world voyage in part because he could be trusted to navigate in uncharted territory and bring home precise maps of the lands he discovered.
3. Cook’s first voyage included a secret mission from the British government.
Cook’s career as an explorer began in August 1768, when he left England on HM Bark Endeavour with nearly 100 crewmen in tow. Their journey was ostensibly a scientific expedition—they were charged with sailing to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun—but it also had a hidden military agenda. Cook carried sealed orders instructing him to seek out the “Great Southern Continent,” an undiscovered landmass that was believed to lurk somewhere near the bottom of the globe. The explorer followed orders and sailed south to the 40th parallel, but found no evidence of the fabled continent. He then turned west and circled New Zealand, proving it was a pair of islands and not connected to a larger landmass. Cook would later resume his search for the Southern Continent during his second circumnavigation of the globe in the early 1770s, and came tantalizingly close to sighting Antarctica before pack ice forced him to turn back.
4. His ship Endeavour nearly sank on the Great Barrier Reef.
After landing in Australia during his first voyage, Cook pointed his ship north and headed for the Dutch seaport of Batavia. Because he was in unmapped territory, he had no idea he was sailing directly into the razor-sharp coral formations of the Great Barrier Reef. On June 11, 1770, his ship Endeavour slammed into a coral reef and began taking on water, endangering both his crew and his priceless charts of his Pacific discoveries. Cook’s men frantically pumped water out of the holds and threw cannons and other equipment overboard to lighten the ship’s weight. They even used an old sail to try and plug a hole in their hull. After more than 20 desperate hours, they finally stopped the leak and limped toward the Australian coast. It would take Cook nearly two months of repairs to make his ship seaworthy again.
5. Cook helped pioneer new methods for warding off scurvy.
In the 18th century, the specter of scurvy—a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C—loomed over every long distance sea voyage. Cook, however, managed to keep all three of his expeditions nearly scurvy-free. This was partially because of his obsession with procuring fresh food at each of his stops, but many have also credited his good fortune to an unlikely source: sauerkraut. While Cook didn’t know the cure or cause of scurvy, he did know that the nutrient-rich pickled cabbage seemed to keep the disease at bay, so he brought several tons of it on his voyages. His only problem was getting his crew to eat it. To trick them, Cook simply had sauerkraut “dressed every day” for the officers’ table. When the enlisted men saw their superiors eating it, they assumed it was a delicacy and requested some for themselves.
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6. Even Britain’s enemies respected Cook.
While Cook’s journeys took place during a time when Britain was variously at war with the United States, Spain and France, his reputation as a pioneering explorer allowed him to travel the seas with relative impunity. In July 1772, a squadron of Spanish vessels briefly detained his ships, only to release them after they realized Cook in command. Likewise, when Cook’s third voyage set sail during the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin wrote a memo to colonial ship captains instructing them to treat the British vessels as “common friends to mankind” if they encountered them at sea.
7. He searched for the Northwest Passage.
In 1776, a 47-year-old Cook set sail on his third voyage of discovery—this time a search for the elusive Northwest Passage in the Arctic. After traveling halfway around the world, he led the ships HMS Resolution and Discovery on a perilous survey of the upper coasts of western Canada and Alaska. Cook came within 50 miles of the western entrance to the passage, but his attempts to locate it were ultimately thwarted by freezing weather, violent currents and heavy ice floes in the Bering Sea. When the extreme conditions drove his crew to the brink of mutiny, Cook reluctantly turned south for the summer. He would die before he had a chance to resume his search.
8. Natives mistook him for a god when he landed in the Hawaiian Islands.
During Cook’s third voyage, he became the first European to set foot on Hawaii, which he called the “Sandwich Islands” after his patron the Earl of Sandwich. Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay celebrated Cook’s January 1779 landing with joyous celebrations, and for good reason: by some strange coincidence, the explorer’s arrival coincided with an annual festival honoring the Hawaiian fertility god Lono. Since the natives had never seen white men or massive sailing ships like Cook’s, they assumed he was their deity and lavished him with feasts and gifts. The Europeans responded by greedily stripping Kealakekua of food and supplies, but when one of Cook’s sailors died from a stroke, the natives realized the strangely dressed Europeans weren’t immortals after all. From then on, Cook’s relationship with the Hawaiians became increasingly strained.
9. He suffered a grisly death.
While docked for repairs in Hawaii in February 1779, Cook became enraged after a group of natives stole a cutter ship from one of his boats. He went ashore and tried to take King Kalani‘ōpu‘u hostage, but the Hawaiians feared their leader would be killed and swarmed to his aid. When Cook’s ship Discovery fired its cannons at another group of Hawaiians, the explorer panicked and discharged a rifle before fleeing to a waiting boat. He didn’t get far before he was pelted by stones and struck by a club. A Hawaiian warrior then brandished a knife—a gift from Cook—and plunged it into his back. Cook fell into the surf and was repeatedly stabbed and bashed with rocks. After he perished, the Hawaiians ritualistically prepared his corpse as they would that of a king. They preserved his hands in sea salt, then roasted the rest of his body in a pit before cleaning his bones.
10. NASA named spacecraft after his ships.
Cook explored and mapped more territory than any navigator of his era, and his achievements later saw him honored by NASA. Cook’s HMS Discovery was one of several historical vessels that inspired the name of the third space shuttle, and NASA later named their final shuttle “Endeavour” after the ship he commanded on his first circumnavigation of the globe. When the shuttle Discovery made its final space flight in 2011, its crew carried a special medallion made by the Royal Society in honor of Cook.