James Cook was born in Marton in Yorkshire, but as a child moved with his family to Great Ayton. As a teenager he developed a fascination for the sea, and travelled to Whitby to find employment on the coal ships there.
During the Seven Years' War he served in the Royal Navy, participating in the siege of Quebec City before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. He showed a talent for surveying and cartography and was responsible for mapping much of the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River during the siege. His surveying skills were put to good use in the 1760s mapping the jagged coast of Newfoundland, which brought him to the attention of the Royal Society.
In 1766 the Society hired him to travel to the Pacific Ocean to observe and record a transit of Venus across the Sun. Leaving in 1768, he arrived in Tahiti where he built a small fort and observatory to observe the transit; however, due to the lack of precise scientific instruments, there was no way to accurately measure it.
He then explored the South Pacific for the mythical continent of Terra Australis, with the help a Tahitian named Tupaia[?] who had extensive knowledge of Pacific geography. The Royal Society, and especially Alexander Dalrymple[?], insisted Terra Australis must exist, despite Cook's personal doubts. He also reached New Zealand, which until then had been visited by Europeans only once, by Abel Tasman in 1642. Cook mapped its complete coastline, discovering Cook Strait which separates the North Island from the South Island. Next, he went on to Australia, where he discovered its east coast. The site of his first landing, Botany Bay[?], would later be the site of the first British colony in Australia. It was also the site of the first European contact with Australian Aborigines and the first European sightings of Australian flora and fauna. He also discovered the Great Barrier Reef, in which his ship narrowly escaped running aground. He then sailed through Torres Strait[?] between Australia and New Guinea, again becoming only the second European to do so (the first being Luis Vaez de Torres[?], in 1604). His ship on this voyage, HM Bark Endeavour, gave the name to the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
By this point in the voyage Cook had lost no men to scurvy, a remarkable and unheard of achievement in the 18th century. He forced his men to eat such foods as citrus fruits and sauerkraut, under punishment of flogging if they did not comply, although no one yet understood why these foods prevented scurvy. Unfortunately, he sailed for Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, to put in for repairs. Batavia was known for its outbreaks of malaria, and much of Cook's crew would succumb to the disease before they returned home in 1771, including the Tahitian Tupaia.
Cook's journals were published upon his return and he became somewhat of a hero among the scientific community. Among the general public, however, the aristocratic botanist Joseph Banks was a bigger hero. Banks even attempted to take command of the Cook's second voyage, but removed himself from the voyage before it began.
Cook was once again commissioned by the Royal Society to search for the mythical Terra Australis. Despite Cook's evidence to the contrary from the first voyage, Alexander Dalrymple refused to believe a massive southern continent did not exist. Cook commanded the HMS Resolution on this voyage, while Tobias Furneaux[?] commanded the HMS Adventure[?]. Cook circumnavigated the globe at a very high southern latitude, becoming the first European to cross the Antarctic Circle on January 17, 1773, reaching 71°10' south, and discovered South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. In the Antarctic fog, Cook and Furneaux were separated. Furneaux made his way to New Zealand, where he lost some of his men in a skirmish with the Maori, and eventually sailed back to Britain while Cook was still exploring the Antarctic.
Cook almost discovered the mainland of Antarctica, but turned back north towards Tahiti to resupply his ship. He then travelled south again, in a second fruitless attempt to find the supposed continent, bringing with him a young Tahitian named Omai, who proved to be somewhat less knowledgeable about the Pacific than Tupaia had been on the first voyage. On his return voyage, he landed at the Friendly Islands[?] and Easter Island, and returned home having destroyed the myth of Terra Australis.
Upon his return, he was given an honourary retirement from the Royal Navy, but he could not be kept away from the sea. A third voyage was planned to find the Northwest Passage. Cook would travel to the Pacific and hopefully travel east to the Atlantic, while a simultaneous voyage would travel the opposite way.
On his last voyage, Cook once again commanded the Resolution, while Captain Charles Clerke[?] commanded the HMS Discovery[?]. Ostensibly the voyage was planned to return Omai to Tahiti; this is what the general public believed, as he had become a favourite curiosity in London. After returning Omai, Cook travelled north and in 1778 became the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands, which he named the Sandwich Islands. From there he travelled east to explore the west coast of North America, eventually landing at Nootka Sound[?] on Vancouver Island, although he unknowingly sailed past the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He explored and mapped the coast from California all the way to Bering Strait, discovering what came to be known as Cook Inlet[?] in Alaska on the way.
The Bering Strait proved to be impassable, although he made several attempts to sail through it. Cook became increasingly frustrated on this voyage, and probably began to suffer from a stomach ailment; it is speculated that this led to irrational behaviour towards his crew, such as forcing them to eat walrus meat, which they found inedible.
Cook returned to Hawaii in 1779. On February 14, some of the Hawaiians stole one of Cook's small boats; normally, as thefts were quite common in Tahiti and the other islands, he would have taken hostages until whatever was stolen was returned, but his stomach ailment and irrational behaviour this time caused him to shoot at a large crowd of Hawaiians gathered on the beach. In the ensuing skirmish, Cook was stabbed to death.
Clerke took over the expedition and made a final attempt to pass through the Bering Strait. The Resolution and Discovery finally returned home in 1780.