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James Cook

1728 – 1779
English Navigator and Explorer
Exploration Ranking 10th of 26
Map of the Cook Islands and statue of Cook. Cook Islands stamp, 1949.

James Cook peacefully changed the map of the world more than any other single man in history.(1) In the late 1750s, Cook completed a partial map of Nova Scotia and then over five years (1762-1767) a complete map of Newfoundland. From 1769-1779 Cook charted most of the major island groups in the South Pacific, including New Zealand and parts of Australia. He accurately established their longitudes, thus providing a coherent map of the ocean, in terms of which all previous discoveries made an overarching sense. His exploration of Australia led to its future colonization by European settlers. Finally, Cook’s voyages laid the groundwork for the nineteenth-century British Empire.(2)


Early Training

It was Cook’s mapping of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in the Canadian theatre which made Cook’s name and set him on the path to command an expedition to the South Seas. Most significantly, what Canada provided for Cook was rigorous training as a cartographer. In large measure, this was the result of an accidental meeting with the army engineer Samuel Holland after the British capture of the French citadel of Saint Louisbourg at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in 1758. Cook received the customary basic training in nautical navigating, confirmed by his promotion in 1757 to the position of ship’s master following an examination.


What he learned from Holland, however, was that it was possible to apply to marine mapping some of the increasingly sophisticated techniques employed by land surveyors. Particularly important was the establishment of a reliable baseline and the use of triangulation and trigonometric readings from a series of landmarks to establish accurate coordinates. The use of such techniques was later further promoted by a meeting with another gifted land surveyor, James Des Carres, at Newfoundland in 1762.


Cook’s First Voyage

Cook’s first expedition had four main objectives: 1. observing the transit of Venus on Tahiti; 2. charting and exploring the Polynesian islands west of Cape Horn; 3. exploring the landmasses known to lie between the 30th and 40th parallels--New Zealand (possibly the top of a continent) and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), possibly part of Australia; and 4. collecting botanical and zoological specimens from anywhere in the Southern hemisphere.


At age 40, Cook began his first great voyage (1768-1771) which took his ship Endeavor, with 106 aboard, to Tahiti, to observe the planet Venus as it passed between the Earth and the Sun. The transit of Venus provided an estimate of the distance between the Sun and the Earth that was more accurate than any other up to that time. The Endeavor expedition remained for three months on Tahiti. The transit of Venus was due on the morning of June 3, 1769, and there would be no other transit for the next hundred years (not until 1874). It was a unique chance to establish the solar parallax, and hence the distance of the Sun from the Earth. This calculation depended on observing the exact timing at which the silhouette of Venus first entered, and then exited from, the Sun’s disc. This, when compared with similar observations made simultaneously around the known world, would enable astronomers to calculate the distance of the Earth from the Sun. That, in turn, would make it possible to establish the distance of the Earth from the Moon and the planets, and ultimately, the stars.


            Shipboard Food


The rations given for each of his crew included one pound of biscuit and a gallon of beer a day; four pounds of salt beef per week; two pounds of salt pork, three pints of cereal grains, six ounces of butter and twelve ounces of cheese a week--and amounted to 4,500 calories a day. Cook also carried a year’s supply of sauerkraut as an antiscorbutic (to prevent scurvy), but this was an unpopular item in the diet, frequently refused. To persuade his sailors to eat sauerkraut he directed that only the officers be allowed to have it. This led to protest from the crew and he redacted his order. Amazingly no one died from scurvy on the three-year voyage.


            Finding the Southern Continent


He was also instructed to find the southern continent. Therefore, he sailed towards New Zealand, which he mapped completely in six months, by circling around both the North and the South Islands completely. He proved that New Zealand was not the southern continent. Following the Australian coast north, the ship ran into the treacherous Great Barrier Reef that stretches for thousands of miles. Luckily, he made it through, but only after almost sinking when the ship hit coral in three feet of water.

Cook successfully navigated one of the greatest navigational hazards in the world, though he did not know it at the time. Before reaching home, they stopped at Batavia (modern Jakarta, Indonesia) for mandatory repairs and supplies. Thirty of the crew died from malaria and dysentery caused by the terribly unsanitary conditions in Jakarta. By the end of the voyage, Cook had lost a total of fifty-three or 50 percent of his crew.


            Achievements of Voyage


Despite the great loss of life, the voyage was a significant success in terms of cartographic achievement. Scientifically, the Endeavor was the best-equipped ship ever to set out from Europe up to that time. And it returned with an astonishing quantity of specimens and meticulous records, both written and painted, of where and how they had been collected. There were over a thousand zoological specimens, mostly skins or skeletons. Among them were examples gathered in Australia of strange pouched animals (kangaroos) that had never been seen before in Europe. There were 30,000 pressed and dried botanical specimens, including 1,400 species that were new to science.(3) Also a great range of islanders’ artifacts, “natural curiosities” as they were termed, comprising implements, weapons and costumes. The botanical collection stood as the standard of reference for almost a century. The success of the scientists on board, including Joseph Banks (a rich and able naturalist) and Daniel Solander (a Swedish botanist and protégé of the famous Linneaus), established the useful principle of sending scientists on naval voyages (e.g. T.H. Huxley in the Rattlesnake, J.D. Hooker with Sir James Ross to the Ross Sea in the Antarctic, and the ultimate result was the extraordinary work of Charles Darwin in the Beagle).

The Nightmare of Scurvy

Scurvy is a disease caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C, characterized by swollen, bleeding gums and the opening of previously healed wounds. Some time during the course of evolution, a liver enzyme necessary for the synthesis of vitamin C ceased to be produced in humans and anthropoid apes. Although they still possessed the gene that did this job for other animals, it had mutated to the point that all vitamin C had to be incorporated. This did not result in adverse selection, presumably because their diet was rich in the vitamin they needed. Humans, therefore, depend on food to sustain an adequate level of Vitamin C or ascorbate (roughly 1500 mg in the body of a healthy adult). For maintenance of this pool, it is recommended to ingest between 60 and 120 mg per day, with required intake depending on factors such as body size, gender, pregnancy, smoking, alcohol intake, and certain diseases. At little as 10 mg per day may be enough to ward off the more serious symptoms associated with scurvy, although probably not indefinitely. In fact, it takes higher doses of 200-400 mg to fully saturate the cells in the blood stream.(4) If it falls below 300 mg, signs of scurvy will appear.(5)  The fundamental difference between scurvy and all other epidemic diseases during the age of discovery revolve around the mutant gene that fails to prompt the synthesis of ascorbate in the human body. Scurvy is not owing to the entry of bacteria or viruses into the organism, nor to parasites nestling in a human host; scurvy occurs because the body has not absorbed in sufficient quantity a chemical habitually ingested and crucial to the functioning of the nerves, blood, bone, cartilage, and tissue.


Scurvy particularly affected poorly nourished sailors until the end of the eighteenth century. An estimated two million seaman died of scurvy between the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries.(6) Far more naval personnel died from scurvy than all other diseases combined, including deaths from combat, storms, disasters, and shipwrecks.(7) Vasco da Gama lost two thirds of his crew to the disease while making his way to India in 1499.(8) In 1520 Magellan lost more than 80 percent while crossing the Pacific.(9) These are the centuries where people are first crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. The problem incident to all of those voyages was that you were at sea continuously, probably for more than three months, at some stage in the voyaging. Scurvy would start appearing because everybody on the ship lived on preserved foods. In preserved food there are no vitamins, so a variety of nutritional diseases would be likely: lack of vitamin B1 would cause beriberi; no vitamin B3 would cause pellagra; and vitamin C, of course, scurvy.


            Effects of Scurvy


Scurvy was usually the most obvious manifestation. Sometimes it is clear from the reports that is was mingled with other ailments, like beriberi. People would get large concentrations of fluid in their legs, a sign of beriberi. Beriberi and pellagra also both caused mental instability and personality changes. Now we know that scurvy was a cocktail of vitamin deficiencies, mainly of C and B, sometimes compounded by an overdose of A from eating seals’ livers. Altogether these produced a breakdown in the cellular structure of the body, evident in the putrescence of the flesh and bones of sufferers, together with night blindness and personality disorders associated with pellagra. In the eighteenth century no one knew what caused scurvy, whose symptoms were so various it was sometimes mistaken for asthma, leprosy, syphilis, dysentery and madness.


The main physical symptom of scurvy is the disintegration of the body. The skin begins to break. It starts with little blood blisters and develops into full-scale ulcers. The gums begin to putrefy and become black. Bones that had previously broken rebreak. Old wounds open up. This is because one of the major effects of scurvy is that the body can no longer produce collagen, the glue of the body’s cells. The cartilage, especially around the thorax, begins to disappear. It is why people who had scurvy creaked and rattled.


That was on the outside, in terms of the body’s scaffold. In terms of the insides, the hydraulics, what happened was that the arteries and capillaries began to decay. Blood began to leak into the muscle and coagulated inside arteries, causing terrible cardiovascular damage. The effect of this on the brain was that you could have seizures or aneurisms at any moment.


The psychological facts were caused by the disintegration of the nervous structure of the brain. The function of vitamin C is to scavenge free radicals, which are what you could call the waste matter of neuronal activity in the brain, which causes oxidation. Oxidative stress occurs when there is not enough vitamin C to get rid of the free radicals which are, in effect, blocking the synapses, destroying the effectiveness of the neurotransmitters or causing them to operate in intermittent and explosive ways. The result is when the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine do not function properly, the brain starts producing hallucinations. Ultimately, if not treated, scurvy leads to death.


            Cook and Scurvy


Cook is hailed as the hero who conquers scurvy. But that is not strictly true. He manages scurvy as well as is possible on his circumnavigations. In other words, he will stop whenever he can for fresh greens from the shore or buy fresh meat and fish from natives. He also keeps a very clean, dry, and as much as he can, warm ship. What were called the contributory causes of scurvy—physical misery—Cook reduced to a minimum. But there was scurvy on all of his voyages, particularly on the second one. Amazingly, as mentioned earlier, no one died from scurvy on all three of his voyages.


Cook experimented with a variety of alternatives to combat scurvy. He “eagerly embraced” the Admiralty’s tactics by stocking on board a range of antiscorbutics (something that prevents or cures scurvy) such as sauerkraut, wort of malt, carrot marmalade, and concentrated (robs) of orange and lemon juice, among other treatments. He encouraged naturalists who sailed on voyages to identify edible plants to fight scurvy. Fresh vegetables and fruits were added to the ships’ food supply (e.g., scurvy grass, wild celery, the Kerguelen Cabbage). Not all solutions were popular or understood. After Cook ordered sauerkraut served daily for the officers, the once-reluctant sailors ate it as well and “murmurings” against it ceased. A range of antiscorbutics, some useful and some ineffectual were used, although the efficacy of all treatments was not fully understood at the time. One firm conclusion from Cook’s voyages was the inclusion of specific beneficial foods in sailor’s diets. However, Cook’s own conclusions remained ambiguous. He credited orange and lemon juice as well as wort of malt in treating the disease. Cook had won the battle against scurvy, still no one knew exactly how.


            Discovering the Cure for Scurvy


James Lind (1716-1794), an Edinburgh surgeon, conducted experiments as surgeon on the ship Salisbury over two months in 1747. His controlled trial, perhaps the first in medical science, selected twelve sailors sick with scurvy who received a common diet but were given different remedies. Lind tested six treatments: cider, elixir of vitriol (sulphuric acid), vinegar, purging by sea water, a medicinal paste (garlic, dried mustard seed, dried radish root, balsam of Peru, and gum myrrh) and oranges and lemons.


Consumption of oranges and lemons was the only productive treatment for two fortunate sailors in the control group. Cider caused some abatement of the disease but insufficient for the seamen to return to active duty. Lind published his 400 page Treatise on Scurvy in 1753. His objections of theories and treatment methods by his contemporaries led to strong criticism from those higher placed in the medical and scientific communities. Lind was correct in treating scurvy using oranges and lemons but could not explain why citrus was effective. The reason that Lind was unable to draw the conclusion his clinical trials had justified was that he did not believe there was anything in fresh fruit that prevented scurvy, citric acid acting only as a remedy for the bodily effects of tainted food.(10) It took another forty years before a true understanding emerged of why citrus fruits cured scurvy.


Sir Gilbert Blane (1749-1834) obtained medical education in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. He served as personal physician to Admiral George Rodney in the West Indies, sailing in 1780. Blane’s social standing, as well as connections with Admiral Rodney and others in the higher ranks of society and government, eventually enabled his conclusions to be accepted by a wider scientific audience and the Admiralty, a barrier neither James Lind nor Captain Cook could breach. Blane was familiar with the work by Lind and Cook in treating scurvy and used their work in a manuscript he published and distributed to the Fleet, A Short Account of the Most Effectual Means of Preserving the Health of Seamen.


In 1795, Blane, now a Commissioner on the Sick and Hurt Board, persuaded the Admiralty to issue a daily ration of three quarters of an ounce of lemon juice to all Royal navy sailors. Blane’s work connected the all-important relationship between ascorbic acid in the diet with the concept that ascorbic acid will also cure scurvy. Prevention and cure were joined.


The incidence of scurvy dramatically declined. In addition to the daily dose of ascorbic acid, lemon juice was also often added to daily rations of grog (rum mixed with water). From 1795 to 1815, the Royal Navy purchased over 1.6 million gallons of lemon juice to prevent scurvy.(11) By the 1860s the admiralty of the British navy oversaw the switch from European lemons to the more expensive West Indian limes because they were farmed on British plantations and were assumed to be more effective at beating scurvy. It was this decision that gave birth to the term “Limey” (used derogatively) to refer to sailors in the British navy. Later, during the early twentieth century the term had its heyday where it was used as a shorthand reference for English emigrants arriving in America, South Africa and Australia. By 1925, the usage of limey in American English extended to mean any British person.


The switch to limes from lemons is generally agreed to have been a mistake of ignorance and patriotism. We now know that limes have around 40 percent less ascorbic acid than lemons and that vitamin C loses its potency over time. The lime juice supplied to the British Navy was often left exposed to fresh air, and when combined with the copper vessels used in the bottling process, it had almost no vitamin C left to speak of by the time it was taken on board. Luckily for the British, the time spent traveling at sea had been reduced due to the introduction of steam power, so the mistake went unnoticed until the dawn of polar exploration.


Unluckily for those early polar explorers, the lack of vitamin C in the lime juice lead to a resurgence of scurvy and a new wave of misunderstanding about its causes. It was not until 1932 that vitamin C was categorically identified as the main curative factor in scurvy.


Cook’s Second Voyage

Cook’s second voyage ranks as one of the greatest sailing-ship trips. Cook set sail with two ships from Plymouth, England in July 1772. For this voyage and his third, he took a chronometer made by Larcum Kendall called a K1 which was an exact copy of John Harrison’s H4 chronometers used to measure longitude. (See discussion of chronometers in Harrison biography). He successfully completed the first west-east circumnavigation in high latitudes, charted Tonga and Easter Island, discovered New Caledonia in the Pacific and the South Sandwich Islands and South Georgia Island in the Atlantic. By January 1774, Cook and his crew crossed the Latitude 70°, the farthest south yet reached by Europeans, and they were the first to cross the Antarctic Circle. He showed that a real southern continent or Terra Australis existed only in the landmasses of Australia, New Zealand, and whatever land might remain frozen beyond the ice rim of Antarctica.

Cook’s Third Voyage

For his third and final voyage, the British Admiralty wanted Cook to discover whether there existed a northwest passage around Canada and Alaska or a northeast one around Siberia, between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This proved unsuccessful, for neither a northwest nor a northeast passage usable by sailing ships existed. During Cook’s voyage, he and his crew became the first Europeans to land on the Hawaiian Islands (which Cook named the Sandwich Islands after his sponsor, the Earl of Sandwich). The third voyage ended in 1779 when Cook returned to the Hawaiian Islands. At first, the Hawaiians treated him like a god, but they soon grew tired of their visitors. Cook set sail but returned six days later when his ship suffered storm damage. A fight broke out and Cook was stabbed to death.


Cook set new standards of thoroughness in discovery and seamanship, in navigation, cartography, the sea care of men, and the application of science at sea. Cook’s impact on European opinion and his fellow explorers was enormous. The decision to colonize Australia (by Great Britain) was one consequence of this for, as Glyn Williams has said, “It is doubtful whether the first Fleet (of Great Britain) would have been sent 14,000 miles to Botany Bay (Australia) in 1788 on the report of a single brief visit to the spot eighteen years earlier, had it not been Cook who had made the visit.”(12) Cook brought the word "taboo" back from the South Pacific to England where the word entered the English lexicon.

Cook’s “nursery” of budding seamen also produced some famous apprentices, including William Bligh of the Mutiny on the Bounty fame, who Cook can claim credit for having turned out a master seaman. Also there is George Vancouver, whose Hawaiian and British Columbian ventures in the 1790s are sometimes claimed to be even more important than Cook’s. Cook’s voyages also roused the French, Spanish and Russians from their dogmatic slumbers. They also triggered, in the 1780s, as an immediate response to his explorations, the epic voyages of the second-greatest navigator of the Pacific, Jean-Francois de Galaup de la Perouse.



(1) Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, Volume 3, 1993, 15th Edition, p. 597.

(2) National Geographic History, “On His Majesty’s Secret Service: Cook’s First Endeavor,” Jose Maria Lancho, July-August 2017, p. 76.

(3) Neil Chambers, Endeavouring Banks: Exploring Collections from the Endeavor Voyage, 1768–1771 (Seattle, 2016), p. 7.

(4) Jonathan Lamb, Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery (Princeton, 2017), p. 269.

(5) Ibid, p. 6.

(6) Kenneth Carpenter, The History of Scurvy and Vitamin C (Cambridge, 1986), p. 253.

(7) James C. Hamilton, review of Stephen R. Bown’s Scurvy: How a Surgeon, A Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail, 2003,

(8) Jonathan Lamb, “Captain Cook and the Scourge of Scurvy,” February 2, 2011,

(9) Ibid.

(10) Lamb, Scurvy: The Disease of Discovery, p. 10.

(11) Hamilton.

(12) Frank McLynn, Captain Cook : Master of the Seas (New York, 2011), p. 412.

Key References

1. The Journals of Captain Cook, edited by J.C. Beaglehole, 4 volumes, 1955-67.

2. Captain Cook: Master of the Seas by Frank McLynn, 2011.

3. Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook by Martin Dugard, 2001.

4. Voyages to Paradise: Exploring in the Wake of Captain Cook by William R. Gray and photographed by Gordon W. Gahan, 1981 (two National Geographic senior staffers spent almost a year retracing Cook’s life from England through his three epic voyages of discovery with many color photographs).

5. Endeavouring Banks: Exploring Collections from the Endeavor Voyage, 1768–1771, 2016 (This is an exhibition catalog from 2014 that displays the full range and richness of the Endeavor's collections largely made possible by Joseph Banks. No expedition before had brought back collections of such a size and importance to such a range of the natural sciences.)

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