Captain James Cook (1728-1779) was Britain’s preeminent explorer, as well as an accomplished navigator and cartographer.
He honed his navigation and cartography skills during the Seven Years War when, among other things, he completed the first detailed chart of the rugged coast of Newfoundland.
In 1766, the Royal Society retained Cook, then a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, to lead an expedition on the HMS Endeavour
to Tahiti to observe and record the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun.
From there, he sailed to New Zealand.
Circumnavigating and charting the islands, he proved that they were not connected to the fabled Terra Australis.
He then charted the east coast of Australia, first landing at Botany Bay, named for the variety of plants found there previously unknown to Europeans.
He finished his circumnavigation of the globe in 1771.
His journal of the voyage became a best seller and he became a national hero.
Cook was promoted to Commander and departed on his second voyage, in the HMS Resolution
, in 1772.
The major focus of this voyage was to look for the Southern Continent.
Although he did not find it, he proved that it must lie at a much higher latitude than previously believed.
The remainder of the voyage was devoted to exploring and charting islands of the South Pacific, including Tonga, Easter Island, Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu.
Upon his return, the journals, with their depictions of tropical islands and peoples, heightened his fame.
Cook was promoted to the rank of Captain in the Royal Navy.
He departed on his third voyage of discovery, again in the Resolution
, in 1776.
In this voyage, he made the European discovery of the Hawaiian Islands (which he named the Sandwich Islands in honor of the Earl of Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty).
He then explored the coast of North America from Oregon to the Bering Strait.
He missed the Columbia River and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the heavy fog, but otherwise produced accurate and detailed charts of the area, including what is now Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet in Alaska.
Returning to the Sandwich Islands to refit his vessel, the crew got into an altercation with the natives, during which Captain Cook was killed on February 14, 1779.
His three expeditions had discovered new lands, but more importantly had produced the first accurate charts of the South Pacific and the west coast of North America.