Captain James Cook, FRS, RN (1728–1779) was a Captain in the Royal Navy, an explorer, navigator, trader, and cartographer.
Cook joined the British merchant navy as a teenager, then the Royal Navy in 1755. He saw action in the Seven Years’ War while surveying and mapping much of the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River during the siege of Quebec. His work brought him to the attention of the Admiralty and the Royal Society at a crucial moment in both the direction of British overseas exploration and Cook’s career. In 1766 he was commissioned for the first of what would become three Pacific voyages.
The principal goal of his third voyage was to locate a Northwest Passage above the North American continent. En route in 1778, in command of HMS Resolution, with Captain Charles Clerke in company aboard HMS Discovery, he became the first European to establish formal contact with the Hawaiian Islands. Cook named the archipelago the “Sandwich Islands” after the fourth Earl of Sandwich – acting First Lord of the Admiralty.
From the Sandwich Islands Cook sailed north, then northeast, exploring the west coast of North America above of the Spanish Alta California settlements. After making landfall on the Oregon coast at Cape Foulweather, bad weather forced his ships south to about 43 degrees north before they could press their coastal exploration northward. Unknowingly he sailed past the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on his way to Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound. He arrived three years after Hecate. He and his crew traded with the Nuu-chah-nulth for sea otter pelts. With trading completed Cook then embarked to map the continental coastline north to the Bering Strait. In that single voyage, Cook charted the majority of the North American north-west coastline for the first time, determined the extent of Alaska, and provided the Admiralty with strategic knowledge of Russian (from the West) and Spanish (from the South) exploratory probes in the northern limits of the Pacific.
On the way back to Britain, Cook traded the Nuu-chah-nulth sea otter pelts in Macau for enormous profits. The quality of those pelts led to an influx of traders to the British Columbian coast, and ongoing economic contact with its aboriginal peoples.
Upon returning to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands on his voyage home, Cook was killed in 1779 during a fight with Hawaiians.
Captain Cook left a legacy of scientific and geographical knowledge, which was to influence his successors well into the 20th century, and numerous memorials worldwide