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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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James Cook (1728 - 1779)

When he was born on October 27, 1728, at Marton-in-Cleveland, England, the son of a farm labourer, no one could have foreseen the destiny of James Cook, great navigator, hydrographer and explorer. At 18, the course of his life changed when he was hired as an apprentice by a ships' owner in Whitby. For three years, he learned all ships' manoeuvres, which allowed him, in June 1755, to enter the Royal Navy as an able-bodied seaman . Two years later, he became a "master " and spent most of the Seven Years' War on the coast of the Atlantic provinces and the St. Lawrence River. In 1758, Cook drafted a first map, of the Bay of Gaspé and of the port, and collaborated on the "New Chart of the River St. Lawrence", published in London in 1760, which served the army invading New France. Cook's work drew attention.

Portrait: James Cook

Cook was discharged from the navy in November 1762. The following month, he married Elizabeth Batts, with whom he would have six children. Domestic life was short-lived however, as, five months later, the British Admiralty hired him to do a detailed survey of the shores of Newfoundland identifying territories specified under the Treaty of Paris of 1763 . From 1766 to 1768, Cook developed a new model of hydrographic surveys combining trigonometric surveys made on land using a small craft taking many soundings, information on aquatic fauna, coastal profiles and navigational notes.

Then came the two circumnavigations that would overturn what Europe knew of the South Pacific by detailing information which, before 1775, was only fragmented and jumbled. Equipped with the first marine chronometer, used to determine longitude, in August 1768, Cook left for the first voyage around the world and returned in 1771. During this first voyage, New Zealand, the east coast of Australia and the Strait of Torres emerged from the fog of rumour and myth.

He conducted a second circumnavigation from 1772 to 1775. On this tour, he navigated further south than any of his predecessors, dashing the idea, which geographers of the time entertained, of a vast and fertile southern continent. On Cook's return to England, the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, described him in November 1775, as "the first navigator in Europe".

Cook's second voyage was a very important one for humanity: not a single life was lost to scurvy. Cook had understood that a proper diet was essential for fighting this "sailor's illness". This achievement was so remarkable that it would have surpassed the importance of the geographic results of the voyage, if these had been less significant.

Empowered by this success, Cook wanted to take up another challenge -- that of finding the Northwest Passage. He knew that Samuel Hearne had got as far as the Arctic in 1771 and the map of Vitus Jonassen Bering's voyage had been published in London in 1774. He had also heard of the explorations of the Spaniard Bartholomew de Fonte on the west coast of the American continent. Moreover, in 1775, the English Parliament was offering a £ 20 000 reward to whoever discovered the Northwest Passage.

The new expeditions searching for this passage were being conducted both from the east and west of the American continent. An expedition led by Richard Pickersgill, and another, in 1777, by Walter Young, went to Baffin Bay whereas Cook headed for Bering Strait. Cook's mandate was to sail to 65º N, and then to search for the passage of the North Sea, "taking care not to lose any time in exploring Rivers or Inlets, or upon any other account, until [he got] into the beforementioned latitude." These orders explain the haste he took in getting north of British Columbia.

Image: Cook's ships moored in Resolution Cove

Cook left England in July of 1776, reached the Cape of Good Hope and went through New Zealand, Tahiti and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) before reaching the west coast of America. On March 7, 1778, he arrived on the shore of present-day Oregon. He was mistaken on the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait and denied its existence. Violent winds pushed him northwest to Nootka Bay on Vancouver Island, which he believed to be the mainland. He met Nootka people, who had objects of European origin. Having taken on wood and fresh water, Cook left for the north on April 26, 1778. Bad weather forced him to stay at sea, so much so that he saw no shore before reaching Alaska. He skirted the coast, went around the peninsula, attained the strait that Bering had reached in 1728 and headed northeast, but a wall of ice forced him to turn back. He returned to the Sandwich Islands and settled his crew there for the winter. On February 14, 1779, James Cook was assassinated by a Native person in Kealakekua Bay.

Cook had taken hydrographic readings of the coast from Mount St. Elias (on the Alaska-Canada border) to Bering Strait and beyond. The extent of the North American continent was now known even though the viability of a northern passage to Europe from the west could not be confirmed.

In Europe, Cook was primarily acknowledged for his explorations in the Pacific. In Canada, his renown came primarily from the description he made of the coast of Vancouver Island.

Image: Title page of Cook's account of his voyage to the Pacific Ocean Image: Page from Cook's account of his voyage to the Pacific Ocean

"I have frequently had occasion to mention, from the time of our arrival in Prince William's Sound, how remarkably the natives, on this North West side of America, resemble the Greenlanders and Esquimaux in various particulars of person, dress, weapons, canoes, and the like. However, I was much less struck with this, than with the affinity which we found subsisting between the dialects of the Greenlanders and Esquimaux, and those of Norton's Sound and Oonalashka. [...] But still, enough is certain, to warrant this judgment, [...] that all these nations are of the same extraction; and if so, there can be little doubt of there being a Northern communication of some sort, by sea, between this West side of America and the East side, through Baffin's Bay; which communication, however, may be effectually shut up against ships, by ice, and other impediments. Such, at least, was my opinion at this time."

(Cook 1784, II: 522)

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