12 Adventurous Facts About James Cook

James Cook's journeys took him to New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii.
James Cook's journeys took him to New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii. / National Maritime Museum, United Kingdom // Public Domain

James Cook is one of the most prominent figures of the Age of Exploration. The captain explored vast parts of the South Pacific that no European had ever set eyes on in the middle of the 18th century, before succumbing to a violent death in 1779. If you’re looking to dive deeper into the celebrated seaman’s history, check out these 12 adventurous facts about James Cook.

1. Despite joining the Navy later in life, James Cook quickly became a ship's master.

Cook discovered his love for the sea as a teenager, when he began working as a merchant navy apprentice. Though he was on track to become a captain, the young seaman made the surprising decision to leave his merchant days behind and enlist in the British Royal Navy in 1755. He may have entered the Royal Navy at the unusually late age of 26, but Cook was promoted from able seaman to ship’s master in just two years. His years as an apprentice in the merchant navy, as well as his time serving during the Seven Years’ War, allowed him to hone the navigation and cartographic skills that were so crucial to his success as an explorer. Later in his career, he was so well-respected that sailors from hostile countries were instructed to leave him be if they ran into him at sea.

2. James Cook’s first voyage was part of a secret government mission.

Cook never did find the Terra Australis—because it doesn't exist.
Cook never did find the Terra Australis—because it doesn't exist. / Kattigara, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

In August 1768, Cook set sail on the HMS Endeavour. He and his crew were heading for Tahiti, where they were sent to observe Venus’s transit across the Sun. But this celestial event was just part of their mission. Cook had been instructed, via sealed message, to find the legendary “Great Southern Continent,” the Terra Australis, which was a hypothetical continent that was said to reach the equator.

3. James Cook was the first European to circumnavigate New Zealand.

James Cook first set foot on New Zealand soil in October 1769, in what is now Gisborne, and became the first European to sail around the two islands. The skilled cartographer also created accurate maps of the landmasses and recorded detailed accounts of the indigenous Māori.

4. James Cook also reached Australia's east coast before any other European.

Cook wasn’t the first European to spot Australia—Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon landed there in 1606. But he still made history on April 19, 1770, by becoming the first European to reach Australia’s east coast. Just 10 days later, he made landfall at Botany Bay, which would later become the site of Europe’s first Australian settlement.

5. The Endeavour nearly wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef.

It's beautiful to look at, but this reef doesn't make for an easy sail.
It's beautiful to look at, but this reef doesn't make for an easy sail. / Ayanadak123, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Exploring unmapped territories doesn’t always make for smooth sailing. On June 11, 1770, the HMS Endeavour ran aground on what’s now known as Endeavour Reef. Cook and his crew toiled for more than 20 hours, desperately attempting to plug holes in the ship and chucking ballast overboard. Fortunately, they were able to stop the vessel from sinking and save Cook’s invaluable charts and documents. After nearly two months of repairs, the crew were once again out to sea, where they continued to sail the length of the Great Barrier Reef.

6. James Cook came up with creative solutions to beat scurvy.

Scurvy took a heavy toll on sailors attempting long ocean voyages. And though the disease, which is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C, did affect members of Cook’s crew, he is touted as having “conquered” the maritime malady. Some cure-alls that Cook and his surgeon claimed helped ward off the disease included fresh fruit (whenever Cook could get it), malt, soup, vinegar, mustard, and one particularly vitamin-packed, nonperishable food: sauerkraut. Cook convinced his crew to eat the fermented cabbage by having it served at the officer’s table, which led the lower-ranking men to assume it was a delicacy and desire it for themselves. His crew also brewed spruce beer to prevent scurvy, though the boiled beverage likely didn’t contain much vitamin C.

Cook was celebrated for his anti-scurvy skills at the time, with the Royal Society even awarding him the Copley Gold Medal in 1766 for his work toward improving his crew’s health. However, despite the fact that Cook’s surgeon reported no deaths from scurvy during his voyages, it’s now believed at least two of his men died from the disease.

7. James Cook almost discovered Antarctica.

Though Cook may not have found the fabled Great Southern Continent during his first mission, he came close to discovering Antarctica. He crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first recorded time in 1773, and later claimed South Georgia Island for the Crown. Cook and his crew wound up crossing the Antarctic Circle a total of four times. He came close to spotting Antarctica itself during one of his trips, but pack ice forced him to turn back before he could sail closer, the White Continent becoming his white whale.

8. James Cook explored the Arctic as well as the Antarctic.

Cook found polar bears, not polar passages.
Cook found polar bears, not polar passages. / Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

In 1776, Cook turned his attention north. He had hoped to find the Northwest Passage, the ribbon of sea that weaves through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago to connect the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Unfortunately, the Russian map he had been using was bunk, and he and his crew never found their watery portal through the ice. But the journey—which wound up being Cook’s third and final big voyage—did lead to one major discovery for Europeans: the Hawaiian Islands.

9. James Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to visit the Hawaiian Islands.

In 1788, Cook stepped ashore the Hawaiian Islands, which he christened the Sandwich Islands after the Earl of Sandwich. The indigenous Hawaiians welcomed the foreign men as gods—a treatment the Europeans took advantage of—and offered them priceless gifts. The relationship between the two groups soured when Cook and his crew returned in 1779, leading to devastating consequences.

10. James Cook was brutally murdered after a kidnapping plot went awry.

When one of the crew’s long boats went missing during their 1779 return to Hawaii, Cook suspected one of the native Hawaiians had stolen it. To seek revenge, according to most historians, Cook attempted to kidnap Kalaniʻōpuʻu, the chief of Hawaii. The locals crowded the beach to intervene, resulting in a bloody clash. On February 14, 1779, Cook was fatally stabbed in the neck, then repeatedly clobbered with rocks. Despite popular lore, he was not eaten by cannibals.

11. The site where James Cook died is still technically British territory.

The monument stands atop a tiny bit of Britain.
The monument stands atop a tiny bit of Britain. / dronepicr, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

A plaque marks the general area where Cook met his gruesome end, and a white obelisk stands on the shore. The tiny patch of earth the obelisk crowns is the only British territory to still exist within the United States. The monument is a bit hard to get to—you either have to arrive by kayak or boat, or hike a 2-mile trail. The nearby water is now a popular snorkeling spot.

12. You can visit James Cook’s parents’ cottage.

A quaint part of Cook family history stands in Melbourne, Australia’s Fitzroy Gardens. It’s unclear if James Cook ever lived in this cottage, which was once owned by his parents, but it’s believed he likely visited. In the 1930s, the 18th-century home was disassembled and shipped across the globe. Today, the historic house—which is the oldest building in Australia—is filled with period furnishings. The ivory crawling down the exterior walls grew from cuttings that were snipped from the building when it still stood in England.