Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

Captain Cook's Story

"We know the merry world is round,

And we may sail for evermore."


W HILE England was struggling with her colonies across the Atlantic, an Englishman, Captain Cook, was sailing away across the Pacific to claim fresh lands for the British crown in New Zealand and Australia. Captain Cook, one of the greatest navigators of his age, had played his part in the American war. To him had been intrusted the difficult task of surveying the intricate channels of the river St Lawrence when Wolfe was making his arrangements to take Quebec from the French.

Born in the year 1728, James Cook had been apprenticed, at the age of thirteen, to a shopkeeper near Whitby, in the north of England. But the life was very distasteful to the boy. Though he knew well enough the roughness of a sailor's life in those days,—of the salt junk they had to eat, of the foul water to drink, of the brutality of the old sea-captain, of disease and death,—yet he longed to go to sea. And one day he tied up his few belongings in his only handkerchief, stole out of the shop at daybreak, passed quietly down the village street, and walked the nine miles to Whitby, where he was taken on board a collier as ship's boy. It was not long before he entered the king's service and went through the Quebec campaign, from which he returned a marked man. He found a keen interest awakening in England with regard to the Pacific Ocean, about which so little was known. Men full of courage had started forth, but limited water, contrary winds, difficulties of getting fresh food, and outbreaks of scurvy, had put an end to each expedition in turn.

Now a new expedition was planned and the command given to Captain Cook. With a crew of ninety-four men, and food for ten months, he sailed from England in a stoutly-built collier, the Endeavour, to explore the Pacific Ocean.

It seems strange to think that at this time Australia and New Zealand were practically unknown in Europe. Not a single white man lived there.

Cook now sailed round Cape Horn, and crossed the Pacific Ocean till he fell in with the east coast of New Zealand, which he found to consist of two islands as large as his own Great Britain. For six months he examined their shores, discovered by Tasman 130 years before. Then leaving the coast at a point he named Cape Farewell, he sailed to the north-west, over a thousand miles of sea, till he touched at last the coast of the great "southern land"—Australia. The country so resembled that which he had left at home that he gave it the name of New South Wales, while to the bay in which they first anchored he gave the name of Botany Bay. The discovery of Botany Bay solved a great problem for England: she was no longer able to send her convicts to Virginia as she had done hitherto, so she sent them to New South Wales instead, and the first settlement of English people in Australia was made at Botany Bay, five miles south of Sydney.

Cook followed the coast of Australia northward for 2000 miles, and after an absence of three years he reached home. But disease and death had overtaken his crew, and the Endeavour was little better than a hospital when she staggered into port at last. Cook had mastered the art of navigation in unknown seas, but he had not solved the problem of how to prevent scurvy killing off his crew after some time at sea.

So, when he was appointed to command the Resolution the following year, with orders to complete the discovery of the southern hemisphere, he gave his whole attention to the subject. This second voyage of Captain Cook marks an epoch in the history of navigation.

He left England with a hundred men on board, and sailed to the Cape of Good Hope, where the Dutch settlement was still prospering. Here he stopped awhile to give his sailors fresh food. "Fresh beef and mutton, new-baked bread, and as much greens as they could eat," he ordered. While at the Cape a Dutch ship came in reporting the death of 150 sailors from scurvy in four months, and Cook took the lesson to heart.

Leaving the Cape he sailed southwards, but a great gale sprang up and blew the ship out of her course, right among some ice-islands of enormous height.

"When we reflected on the danger," said Cook, "our minds were filled with horror. For if our ship ran against the side of one of these islands when the sea was running high, she must have been dashed to pieces in a moment."

Nevertheless he sailed among the ice-islands for many weeks, till he had assured himself there was no land to be found there. The ropes and rigging of the ship were frozen, the decks were sheathed in ice. One bitter morning nine little pigs were born on board the Resolution, but despite every care bestowed on them, they were all frozen to death in a few hours.

At last Cook sailed for New Zealand, for he had now been one hundred days at sea without ever seeing land, while he had sailed 11,000 miles. After so long at sea, under such trying circumstances, it would have been natural to suppose that there must be illness among the sailors. But, thanks to the Captain's precautions, they were all in excellent health.

He now discovered some new islands in the Pacific Ocean, taking possession of them for England—the Friendly Islands, Society Islands, and the Sandwich Islands.

Having completely circumnavigated the globe near the Antarctic circle, Cook returned home with the Resolution. Not only had he left the British flag flying over distant islands in the Pacific Ocean, but he had done what no navigator before him had done,—he had returned, after cruising for three years amid untold dangers, with a clean bill of health. He had lost only one sailor from illness all that time. He had made their health his first care. He had set them an example of eating what was wholesome, however distasteful it might be, and so he had avoided that sailor's scourge—the scurvy.

The account he published of his voyages awoke the interest of Europe in these far-off lands. Englishmen read of coral reefs and palm-trees, of the bread-fruit of Tahiti, the tattooed warriors of New Zealand, of gum-trees and kangaroos, till they felt that this new world of wonders was really their own, and that "a new earth was open in the Pacific for the expansion of the English race."

One last word of Cook himself, by whose steady perseverance and resolution these objects were attained. He was killed in one of the Pacific islands he had discovered; but we like best to think of the stern old sailor, his face set southwards, steering on through the ice-bound seas, thinking not of hunger and cold and monotony, but of how "soon he can break through that wall of ice and learn what is beyond."

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