A Blupete Biography Page

James Cook

Captain James Cook, of England's Royal Navy, of course, is best known for his exploits in the Pacific between the years 1776, and the year of his death in the Hawaiian Islands, in 1779. But what must be remembered, in considering the history of Nova Scotia, is that James Cook played a significant role in it as he cruised the coasts of Nova Scotia as a junior naval officer during the final years of that period when the French were to lose possession of Acadia, and, for that matter, all Canada: 1756 - 1763.

The son of a Scottish agriculture labourer and a Yorkshire woman, Cook was unquestionably taught some important and valuable lessons, early in life. As a young man he quickly gained much valuable experience as a ship handler: he made his early living as a deck hand on various Whitby colliers which plied the waters on the east coast of England between the coalfields of Yorkshire and the London market.

In 1757, with The Seven Years War coming on, the 29 year old Cook, joined the Royal Navy as an able seaman. By June of 1757 Cook had "passed his Master's examinations and became qualified for that most responsible of naval posts, the navigation and handling of a royal ship." (DCB.)

It will be seen by my history that powerful British forces were gathering, once again, off the coast of Nova Scotia during the spring of 1758. Among the warships of the fleet was the 60 gun H.M.S. Pembroke; her master was James Cook.1 The invasion fleets of the years 1757 (aborted) and 1758 (successful against Louisbourg) consisted of war ships, siege supplies and multitudes of military men: all contained in hundreds of sailing vessels (must have been a marvelous sight as they gathered in Halifax harbour). At least part of the English fleet wintered over at Halifax during these last decisive years of the sea war.2

Cook's industriousness and his inventiveness is what we see when we read the history of British exploration in the Pacific. What might be said of his industriousness and his inventiveness is that it was bred into him in Yorkshire, practised at Halifax during the winters of 1757 and 1758, and displayed in full blossom as Cook opened up the Pacific to the British navy, likely years before its time.

One need only look at the record and see what Sir Charles Hardy had to say when he and his fleet of 10 warships came back into Halifax harbour on March 19th, 1758. He finds the squadron that had "wintered at Halifax in a great state of forwardness." The point here, is, that it is no easy trick to see a large wooden sailing vessel, much less a group of them, through to the end of a cold Acadian winter - one usually sailed them into tropic waters for semi-refit, or back to England (or France) for a full-refit. Further, it is no small task, even in the best of circumstances (experienced men, facilities, tools, and, of course the weather in which to work), to get a British war ship ready for the next season; especially when she had a hard run through the previous season.3

But the feat that earned the most respect for James Cook by those in charge, was the work that Cook and Holland completed, which enabled Admiral Saunders to bring all of his invasion fleet through to Quebec in the spring of 1759, without major mishap: this feat being the compilation of all known charts of the area (mostly they were French).4

In September, 1759, Cook was put in charge of the H.M.S. Northumberland and was with her until she was discharged in England, November, 1762. In April of 1763, the admiralty, thinking him to be "a Person well skilled in making Surveys" instructed him to chart the coasts of Newfoundland; and this he did, and which resulted in charts that sea captains yet use today. The resulting charts came about as a result of "five seasons of painstaking and conscientious survey work" (he spent the winters back in England with his family). It was this work that led to him being appointed to go to the Pacific and his multiple explorations in that area of the world. From this point on his life is relatively easy to follow, as there have been many books written on the exploits of James Cook in the Pacific.5


[1] The captain of the Pembroke was Captain John Simcoe (the father of the governor).

[2] Cook and an army surveyor, Major Samuel Holland spent the winters at Halifax compiling all the French maps they could lay their hands on, so that when the English fleet under Admiral Saunders proceeded under sail for Quebec in the spring of 1759, it would arrive safely at Quebec after negotiating the treacherous waters of the St. Lawrence. (See Marine Surveys of James Cook in North America, 1758-1768; (London: Map Collectors' Circle, 1967) at p. 13.)

[3] Much was needed to do a proper job when dealing with the intricate workings of a square rigged sailing vessel of the British navy: being as it was, multi-spared and carrying heavy inventories of sails and rigging, such as it took as many men as 500 to run her. That Cook and his fellow British officers got the fleet (partial as it was) ready for sea at the first sign of spring with the facilities and supplies then to be found at Halifax - which, 10 years before, was a wilderness situated in a wilderness - and to do so for at least two years running; well, it indeed is a marvel. Cook, as we see, in the 1770s, was to do the same thing in the Pacific, time after time. Here is an age of discovery when men, with the only encouragement coming from their captain, were thrown back on just themselves and those few ship supplies as can be fitted into and carried by a sea going, wooden sailing vessel, of the times.

[4] One can only imagine that any trading vessels in the waters off of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia were stopped and searched for charts during the first years, 1757 and 1758.

[5] The Voyages of James Cook ..., extracts from Cook's Journals, selected and edited by Christopher Lloyd (nice 13 p. intro.) (London: Cresset, 1949); Heart of Oak by Don Hillson (Edinburgh: Schofield & Sims, nd); and James Cook by Thea Stanley Hughes (Movement, 1981): for just a few.


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Peter Landry
2012 (2020)