Captain James Cook (1728 - 1779) is a good candidate for the title of greatest explorer in history. He was impressive both for the scope of his travels and the meticulous detail with which he noted his discoveries. Besides being a great explorer, he was very enlightened for his time, showing a high degree of regard for both his own crew and for the various peoples and cultures he encountered.
He was a native of Yorkshire, England. After being apprenticed to a shipping family aged 17 he learnt his trade of sailing and navigation. Later, joining the Royal Navy, he was sent to North America where he was put to work surveying and mapping the St Lawrence River, and he quickly became well-known in the navy for the accuracy and detail of his work.
The First Voyage
It was in 1768 that James Cook was given his first command, The Endeavour. The expedition was to go to the South Pacific and take observations of the upcoming transit of Venus across the sun's face. Astronomers in the Royal Observatory wanted readings from different places on the Earth's surface, and they would then be able to calculate the exact distance of the earth from the sun. Also on board was Sir Joseph Banks, a scientist from the Royal Geographical Society who was to take specimens of the exotic animal and plant life they were to encounter. After leaving Plymouth, UK, The Endeavour sailed around Cape Horn, and up to Tahiti, where the observations were performed. After that, Cook turned his attentions to the second task, his sealed instructions. These were to search for, and either prove or disprove the existence of the presumed Terra Australis Incognita1, which geographers had speculated might exist in the southern hemisphere in order to 'balance' the great northern land masses.
He sailed south, and in October 1769 reached the eastern shores of the land that Abel Tasman had found in 1642 - New Zealand. His lookout boy first caught sight of the land from the crow's nest, and this point near Gisborne is known still as Young Nick's Head. The hostile reception he received from the local Maori tribe led him to name the nearby bay Poverty Bay, and he sailed around East Cape to a better reception in the Bay of Plenty. He moved on to the Coromandel Peninsula and observed the transit of the planet Mercury across the face of the sun while anchored at Mercury Bay. He continued around the North Island and through Cook Strait, which divides it from the South Island, and all around the South Island, mapping the land and thus demonstrating that these were two islands, and not part of any 'Great Southern Land'.
After spending about six months in New Zealand, Cook headed home. On the way he visited the shores of Australia. After landing around the present site of Sydney, he continued north along the coast over the next four months, narrowly avoiding being shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef along the way. Whilst doing so he collected specimens of the unique flora and fauna he encountered. They found so many specimens in one bay they named it Botany Bay (which later became a prison colony). Continuing through Indonesia and the Indian Ocean, after many difficulties and trials he finally arrived home in England in July 1771.
Another notable thing from this voyage was that Cook insisted that his men ate sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) and fresh fruit. He was the first captain who had stopped his crew from getting scurvy2, and understood what caused it.
1772 - 1779
One year later in July 1772, Cook was to set off on another circumnavigation of the world, in a ship called The Resolution. The matter of whether or not there was a Terra Australis Incognita had been considered inconclusive from his first voyage. This time he sailed through the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa and to the Antarctic ice pack before reaching New Zealand again in March 1773. He was to continue across the Pacific, discovering many of the Pacific Islands, and discovering a commonality in their language and cultures. He returned to the pack ice again, and, having disproved the existence of any great southern land, he returned to England via Cape Horn in July 1775.
After another year on land, he led a third expedition of discovery, with the object of charting a north-west passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. He again sailed directly from England to New Zealand, and then North to the Cook Islands and on to Hawaii. He charted the coast of the present British Columbia and Alaska, before returning once more to Hawaii. This time he and his men were not made so welcome by the native Hawaiians. During a confused skirmish on the beach in Kealakekua Bay on the 14 February, 1779, James Cook, the greatest explorer of his age, and possibly of all time, was clubbed to death. The crew returned to England without him in August, 1780.
During his life James Cook had made accurate maps of lands which prior to his arrival had been vague suggestions. He discovered and charted countless islands of the Pacific, found hitherto unknown flora and fauna, and made contact with many complex native civilizations. His was the first expedition to cross the Antarctic Circle. He was the original voyager of discovery who boldly went where no man had gone before.