From Yorkshire to the South Seas – Captain Cook and the Making of a Hero

WhereGreat Broughton Village HallType of EventTalk
WhenMon 20th October 2014 at 7.30 pm TutorDr Sophie Forgan

Dr Sophie Forgan, chair of Trustees of the Captain Cook Museum in Whitby, gave a talk about our local hero, Captain James Cook (1728-1779). She particularly focused on his early life and training and showed how it contributed to building his character and influencing his very successful career.

Captain Cook’s father was a Scottish farmer who had moved south for work and found it initially in Marton, where he married a local girl and eventually produced eight children, of whom James Cook was second. His father was literate and valued education highly, so his children were encouraged to learn and be industrious. The father soon progressed from farm worker in a lowly cottage in Marton to becoming farm manager at Aireyholme Farm, Great Ayton, where he built a substantial farmhouse. James Cook then went to school in Great Ayton. In 1745, he left the family home and after a brief stint in a grocer’s shop in Staithes he became an apprentice to Captain John Walker, ship owner, in Whitby. Sophie painted a vivid picture of 18th century Whitby as a busy, prosperous town with a large number of naval apprentices (1200 in a population of 7000 at one point) and with thriving trades in coal and shipbuilding. It was the 6th biggest shipbuilding port in the country, specializing in CATs, strong capacious ships built to a Norwegian model which were sturdy and could be beached safely i.e. did not have to be moored to a quay. There were no grammar schools in Whitby, so prosperous business men tended to send their sons to be apprentice mariners, which gave them a good education and included navigational instruction which helped their maths skills. Capt. Walker was a Quaker, one of many in Whitby, which meant he looked after his apprentices well, giving them a comfortable but not ostentatious home and wholesome food. Cook would have learned many practical skills relevant to looking after his men on the voyages of exploration. Apprentices were encouraged to aspire to “comfortable prosperity”. Cook stayed in Whitby for 9 years living with and working for Walker and becoming a proficient seaman. He then joined the Royal Navy, but kept on good terms with Walker and continued to correspond with him throughout his life.

In the Royal Navy, Cook rapidly progressed to Master and successfully fought the French in North America, where he proved his bravery and his chart making skills on the St Lawrence River and in Newfoundland. The Royal Navy was more meritocratic than the Army and Cook passed the exam for Lieutenant which qualified him for starting his life of exploration, the first one being on the ship Endeavour, an ex-collier from Whitby.

In summary, there were 4 main reasons why Captain Cook was so successful:

1.  He developed an early respect for learning from his family and from Captain Walker, who also encouraged thoroughness. Cook in turn gave good instruction to his junior seamen.

2.  He knew about diet and the importance of fresh food and was good at management of a ship’s company of men. He led by example and ate the same unusual native foods that he wanted his men to eat.

3.  He knew how to look after animals from his farming childhood, which was important as he took live-stock on long voyages. He also tried to establish European farming in Australasia and the Pacific Islands.

4.  He was open-minded, unpretentious and disliked violence – traits developed with his Quaker master although he did not become a Quaker himself. He was principled and did not believe in exploiting the native people he discovered. He thought of himself as a “plain man, zealously trying to do his best in the service of the King”.

The talk was excellent and clearly demonstrated how Captain James Cook’s early life in Yorkshire influenced his strength of character and helped make him such an admirable hero.      

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