From humble beginnings: the early life of Captain James Cook
This year, between October and December, a replica of the Endeavour will sail around New Zealand to commemorate a significant event in Aotearoa New Zealand’s history: Captain James Cook’s first visit to New Zealand. While not the first European to visit New Zealand shores, Cook was the first to explore and chart both north and south islands, compiling ‘the first cartographic map’ of the country’s coastline and cataloguing the ‘unique animal and plant life’ he found here.1 Equally significant, Cook was the first person to fully engage with Maori, and his arrival 250 years ago intricately ties Maori and European cultures together.2
There is no disputing the fact Cook was a navigator and ‘one of the great explorers of the 18th century’.3 His voyages led to greater knowledge of places, people and species in the Pacific. Science, geography and botany all benefited significantly from Cook’s findings.4 There is also no disputing the fact Cook’s arrival on New Zealand shores signalled the beginning of our nation’s shared history; a history that now includes many other cultures and ethnicities. As historian Rowan Light points out, ‘Cook represents a European episode wedged between a Maori past and a Pacific future’.5 Cook is more than a figure in a singular British or New Zealand history, he is an historical figure whose presence had an impact on many societies.6
In the past Cook’s voyages to New Zealand have been celebrated as an example of British civilisation and racial progress. While there is no denying the British imperialist story, it also must be viewed within the context of its time, regardless of how we might feel about it. Moreover, Cook’s voyages should not be viewed simply as journeys of exploration or discovery. There is the ‘richer story of cross-cultural encounters between Europeans and tangata whenua’ to consider; a narrative ‘marred by tragedy, but also exchange’.7 Maori voices and histories are equally important to European in the telling of our shared past. However, they have not always been regarded as such and have often remained silent. This is interesting when we see an unwavering continuity in the tangata whenua histories compared to the imperialist stories which are beginning to fade into the background.8
This six-part series about the explorer will outline Cook’s background and what led him to become the master mariner that he was, and why he has been labelled a ‘great explorer’.9 His three journeys to New Zealand will be examined and, while acknowledging the geo-political motives behind the voyages to the Pacific, the articles will focus on each journey’s significance regarding their scientific and botanical discoveries, and cultural exchanges. Over the past 250 years Cook has been heralded as a ‘European hero and Polynesian ancestor’ and ‘reviled as an imperial villain’.10 The final article will explore the cultural contradictions that surround Cook’s life and death, and the positives and negatives of his legacy.
Who was James Cook and where did he come from? This remainder of this article explores the personal background of the man who would make three voyages to New Zealand in the late-eighteenth century, and change the course of this country’s history.
In October 1728, one year after George II was crowned King of England, Grace Cook gave birth to her second child, a son whom she and her husband named James. Little did this agricultural labouring family realise this child would become, what his biographer Richard Hough called, ‘the most famous navigator in the world’.11 At the time of his birth, James’ parents, James Cook snr and Grace Pace were living in ‘a two-roomed cob cottage’ in the small Yorkshire village of Marton-in-Cleveland.12 His father was a border Scot who, after the devastation and suffering caused by the Jacobite uprising of 1715-16, had moved south in the hope of bettering his future. Ten years later, thirty-one-year old James snr found himself in Yorkshire where he had a job and a wife. Within a couple of years, the first of the couple’s eight children was born.13
For the next eight years the family, who now numbered six, continued to live in Marton. James jnr would have spent his childhood running in open fields, well known to the neighbours of the ‘few farm houses and cottages’ scattered ‘irregularly on the summit of a gentle elevation’.14 When he was old enough James and his older brother John would have helped their father with hedging and ditching, or work in the fields. Traditionally this would be the start of the rest of their lives.15 Compulsory schooling was 150 years away and while there were some charity schools offering education to children between the ages of 7 and 11, for most children, like the Cooks, everyday life was their education.16
In 1736 the ‘sober and industrious’ James snr was offered a job as bailiff for Thomas Skottowe, Lord of the Manor, in the larger village of Great Ayton.17 This was the turning point for the Cook family. Not only did James snr secure better employment, Skottowe saw something in James jnr and provided him with an education. For young James, the modest tuition he received at Postgate School in reading, writing, and mathematics encouraged his inquisitiveness and his thirst to succeed.18 It appears that young James did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps and be tied to the land. At the age of seventeen, ‘carrying a few spare clothes and little else’, he made the ‘lonely journey’ to the fishing village of Staithes. This was no mean feat. Staithes was not easily accessible by land and would have been a difficult journey across rough terrain.19 The journey would have tested his strength of character and demonstrates the youth’s tenacity and determination; characteristics that would serve him well during his life’s journey.
James was apprenticed as a shop-boy with William Sanderson, grocer and haberdasher, whose store was right on the harbour front. While apples and bread, cloth and buttons lacked appeal for James, the vast ocean with its endless possibilities for adventure beckoned from outside the shop door. After eighteen months working in the shop during the day and sleeping under the counter at night, James hung up his apron and headed to Whitby where Sanderson assisted in securing him with a three-year apprenticeship with Captain John Walker.20 John and his brother Henry, who were Quakers and prominent businessmen, owned a small fleet of ships that serviced the coal industry mainly along the east coast of England.21
Cook’s apprenticeship was one of hard work, both physically on the colliers, and mentally as he learned all that he could from the men around him. He began his merchant seaman career as a lowly ‘servant’ onboard the coal ship Freelove under the tutelage of its master John Jefferson. Less than two years later, Cook was assisting Jefferson in the fit out of the Walker’s new ship Three Brothers. He then spent eighteen months onboard that ship carrying coal along Britain’s east coast before transporting troops and horses from Flanders to London, Liverpool and Dublin as part of a government contract. After completing his apprenticeship, Cook stayed on in the employ of the Walker brothers as an able seaman honing his skills in the ‘practical arts of ‘Lead, Latitude and Look-out’’,22 while sailing the waters of the wild and unpredictable North Sea to Norway, the Netherlands and the Baltic. In 1752 he was appointed mate on the Walker’s new ship, Friendship, where he continued to expand his maritime knowledge and abilities.23 When not at sea, James lived with John Walker and his family where he learned to abide by Quaker values while furthering his knowledge of mathematics and navigation.24
So impressed was Walker with this young man who, over the past ten years, had matured into a highly competent sailor, that he offered the twenty-seven-year old the position of master of the Friendship. Cook declined. Instead, on 17th June 1755, he joined the Royal Navy as an able seaman. Why take such a backward step? According to Rigby and van der Merwe, Cook later hinted it was his ambition to ‘range further than other men’.25
Article written by Dr Michelle Ann Smith, Historian.
1. Rowan Light, ‘Captain Cook ‘First Encounter’ celebrations’, 11 June 2018, stuff.co.nz/opinion/104561606; ‘Abel Tasman’, nzhistory.govt.nz/people/abel-tasman (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 29 December 2017.
2. Dutchman Abel Tasman had visited New Zealand in 1642 and had brief encounter with Maori. While anchored in what is now known as the Golden Bay area, a few members of Ngati Tumatakokiri paddled out to Tasman’s ships. The intentions of Ngati Tumatakorkiri were misunderstood by the European sailors and the encounter turned violent with four of Tasman’s crew killed. mch.govt.nz/first-encounters-250-commemoration-launched; ‘First known encounter between Maori and Europeans’, nzhistory.govt.nz/page-first-contact-between-maori-and-europeans (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 19-Dec-2017; ‘Abel Tasman’.
3. Light, ‘Captain Cook ‘First Encounter’ celebrations’; Nicholas Thomas, Discoveries: the Voyages of Captain Cook, London, 2003, p. xxxvi.
4. Richard Hough, Captain James Cook: a biography, London, 1994, p. 1.
5. Light, ‘Captain Cook ‘First Encounter’ celebrations’.
6. Thomas, p. xxxvi.
7. Light, ‘Captain Cook ‘First Encounter’ celebrations’. Anne Salmond has called it a ‘swashbuckling period of cross-cultural trial and error’. Between Worlds: Early Exchanges Between Maori and Europeans 1773-1815, Honolulu, 1997, p. 13.
8. Light, ‘Captain Cook ‘First Encounter’ celebrations’.
9. Hough, p. 1.
10. Anne Salmond, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, London, 2003, p. 431. Thomas, pp. xxxiii, xxxiv; Hough, p. 1.
11. Hough, p. 1. James Cook (jnr) was born on 27th October 1728. George II succeeded to the British throne on the death of his father, George I.
12. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 22.
13. Hough, p. 2. Over a period of 18 years Grace gave birth to 3 sons and 5 daughters. Four of the children died in infancy/early childhood. Eldest son John died age 22. Of the three surviving Cook children, all married and had 16 children between them. captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/captain-cooks-family-tree
Some of the details of James Cook’s early life vary depending on the texts or websites you read and the time at which they were written. I have kept to the details that appear to be consistent across all sources.
14. Hough, p. 3; Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 22; Nigel Rigby & Peter van der Merwe, Captain Cook in the Pacific, London, 2002, p. 25; captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/early-life-and-as-a-merchant-seaman-1728-1755
15. Hough, p. 3; Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 22.
16. Charity Schools had religion at its core and believed that children should learn to spell and be able to read the Bible. They were to be taught according to ‘their condition’. In other words, they were not to be educated above their station in life. The upper classes were frightened of the prospect of those beneath them becoming educated. Derek Gillard, Education in England: a history, 2018, online:
17. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 22. The job of bailiff was that of farm foreman.
Great Ayton sits a few miles to the south-east of Marton. While predominantly an agricultural village, the area was also a centre for weaving, tanning, brewing and tile making.
18. Postgate School was a charitable school. Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 25;
19. Hough, p. 3. Staithes is situated on the north-east coast of England, a few miles north of Whitby. Its sheltered harbour is surrounded by high cliffs. Roads, if they existed, were poor. Most routes crossed the moors which were covered in heather and were interspersed with bogs and steep-sided valleys. It is likely James walked from Ayton to Staithes rather than go by sea from a more easily accessible point on the coast. Hough, p. 4; Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 22; jamescook250.org/introduction/staithes-1745-1746/
20. Details about William Sanderson are sparse. It has been suggested he was a prominent member of the wider social and business community, and knew the Walkers. John Walker would not only become Cook’s mentor, but a lifelong friend and patron. Biographer, Hough tells a story that involved a shiny new shilling, an accusation of stealing and a request to leave the apprenticeship as the impetus for James ending up with the Walkers. Hough, pp. 4, 5; jamescook250.org/introduction/staithes-1745-1746/; Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 25; Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 22; captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/early-life-and-as-a-merchant-seaman-1728-1755; ‘James Cook’, nzhistory.govt.nz/people/james-cook (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-Mar-2019.
21. Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 25; Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 22; Hough, p. 7; captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/early-life-and-as-a-merchant-seaman-1728-1755
22. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 22.
23. Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 26; captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/early-life-and-as-a-merchant-seaman-1728-1755; Hough, p. 8.
24. Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog, p. 22; Thomas, p. xxxiv; Hough, p. 7. Quakers promoted purity and peacefulness, plain-speaking and living, and ‘denounced drunkenness, slavery and excesses of state-sanctioned violence’. See: Salmond, p. 22.
25. Rigby & van der Merwe, p. 27; Hough, p. 8; ‘James Cook’.