Story of Captain Cook - John Lang

Cook's Birth and Boyhood—He Goes to Sea

Towards the close of the year 1728, when George the Second was King of England, there was born in the village of Marton, Yorkshire, a boy whose after life was full of strange adventures and of wonderful discoveries.

This, boy was named James Cook, and he grew up to be one of the most famous men that ever lived. He explored more of the world than any one before him had ever done, and he discovered many islands that are beautiful as fairlyland.

Cook was the son of a Scotch farm labourer who had gone to live and work in Yorkshire. It is not worth calling a journey nowadays, to go from Roxburghshire to Yorkshire, but it was a long, weary way then. There were no railways at that time, nor for many, many, years after, The roads even were so bad that sometimes the coaches could scarcely travel, and at the best they took days to go a distance that now can be covered in a few hours.

Cook's father was very poor. Wages in those days for farm labourers were only a few shillings a week, and he could not afford to go by coach. So he must have walked, over the hills and over the moors, 'till he came to the Cleveland district in Yorkshire, where wages, probably, were much higher than in Scotland.

Here he married, and had a large family, but most of the children died whilst they were very young. James was the second son.

In those days, boys were not troubled much with schools, nor with books. When he was quite a little child; James was set to work on the farm of a Mr. Walker, near Marton. The farmer's wife took an interest in the little boy, and perhaps taught him his letters, but he did not go to any school till later.

When eight years of age, Cook's family moved to Great Ayton, a village about five miles from Marton; where his father, had got work as "hind," or bailiff, to a Mr. Skottowe.

At Great Ayton the boy got what education was possible from the village school—at the best it cannot have been much—and for a time he helped his father in the work of the farm.

When the lad had come to his seventeenth year, he was bound apprentice to a grocer and draper, named Sanderson, in the little fishing village of Staithes.

Where the great cliffs, push out into the ocean, along that part of the Yorkshire coast which stretches north from Flamborough Head, there are many deep glens, down which rivulets make their way to the sea. In such a glen lies Staithes, hidden away from the inland world, nestling on the shore of its little bay.

Here James Cook first heard the "call of the sea"—the call that echoes in the hearts of so many boys, and draws them away to be sailors—the call that sets boys wandering all over the world.

Staithes was full of fishermen and of sailors. Of the other people who lived there, some were shipbuilders, and nearly all made their living in some way connected with the sea. What wonder that in a little time Cook wished with all his heart that he had never been bound to a trade! He did not want to be a grocer or a draper. With his whole soul he longed to be a sailor.

Going to sea in those days was a very different thing from going to sea now. There were then no training ships where a boy might partly learn his business, where he might find out if the life of a sailor was likely to be what he had expected, and, if he did not like it, change to something else while there was yet time.

Then, he began at the very beginning, perhaps as ship's boy on a dirty collier, where he was kicked about and rope's-ended by everybody, from skipper to ordinary seaman. His food was bad, and there was not too much of it. He slept where and when he could, and probably got not much of that. He was everybody's servant; everybody might cuff him.

And, some dark winter's night, when a bitter north-east gale was blowing, and the clumsy vessel was beating up against a heavy sea, her decks every few minutes smothered under tons of ice-cold water, if the boy failed to hold on when some wave bigger than common broke on board,—well, what then? "There was no one to blame but himself," probably they might say. No one would trouble very much over it, and in such a sea no boat could be lowered to try to save him. On shore there would be little fuss made. He was only a ship's boy! And his father and his mother would wait long, and would weary, for him who came home never again.

But if a boy lived to grow up, and to become first an "ordinary seaman," and later an "able seaman," even then his life was a poor one.

The food of sailors in those days, even in the King's Navy, was very bad. Salt, terribly salt, beef (called "junk ") morning, noon, and night, and not always very much of it. Beef so salt and hard, that even when it was boiled for hours it was as tough as wood, and almost as dry.

The effect of such food, especially if the voyage were a long one, was that sailors fell ill, and many died, of a complaint called scurvy. It was a loathsome disease, and the teeth of men who got it often dropped out. Once it broke out on board ship, nothing could stop it but getting the crew to where they might have fresh vegetables and fresh meat.

The water, too, on board ship was generally bad. It was carried in casks, and the casks were not always very clean, nor were people then very particular about where the water came from. Probably in no long time it had a most evil smell. But the sailors had to drink it; there was nothing else to be got.

For bread they ate biscuit, as hard as stone, and generally full of weevils—a kind of beetle.

The ships were swarming with cockroaches and with rats. Truly a sailor's "lot was not a happy one."

Those, too, were the days of what was called the "press-gang." When in port (and sometimes even when at sea) a merchant sailor always ran the risk of being taken by the press-gang, and forced against his will to serve on board any King's ship that might happen to be short of men.

The press-gang was formed of some of the crew of a ship of the Royal Navy, led by an officer. These men were sent on shore at night to search the public-houses, and all men found there, whether sailors or landsmen, were at once taken prisoners and carried on board the King's ship. Often there were bloody fights before the merchant sailors could be taken; but the man-o'-war's men generally had the best of it. And the law was on their side; the pressed man was wise to make the best of it. The more cheerfully he turned to, and did his work on board, the less likely he was to be flogged.

The "cat o' nine tails" was at work on some ships almost from morning to night. For the smallest fault, perhaps for no fault at all, a brutal captain might order a man to be savagely flogged. "Five dozen" was no great punishment in those bad old days.

But in spite of all, boys ran away to sea. It was in their blood; they could not step on shore.

And James Cook could not stop on shore. Before he had been a year at Staithes he made up his mind that nothing should keep him from being a sailor.

About this time it chanced that he had words with his master. A girl had come into the shop to buy some article, and she had paid for it with a very bright new coin,—what was then called a "South Sea; shilling." Cook was so struck by its beauty; that he wanted to have this shilling for himself and he took it, putting into the till in its place a shilling of his own.

But it happened that his master had also noticed this bright coin, and when he found that Cook had got it, he was very angry, almost as angry as if the boy had stolen it.

There was a great dispute. Cook thought that he had done no wrong, because he had put in the till another shilling in place of the new one. His master was so angry that he went to Cook's father about it. The end was that James was taken away from Mr. Sanderson's shop, and apprenticed at Whitby to a Mr. John Walker, a ship-owner. He did not—as has often been supposed—run away to sea. And so began his life as a sailor.

The first vessel in which he sailed was a little collier, named the Freelove; the next, the Three Brothers, a ship of about 600 tons. On board of the Three Brothers  he would learn a great deal of his profession, for he helped to rig her, and to fit her out.

From the beginning all went well with James Cook. He was a born seaman.

When his apprenticeship was out, he served as "able seaman" on the Friendship, another vessel belonging to Mr. Walker, and of her he soon rose to be mate.

But during all the time of his apprenticeship, and afterwards, whenever he was stopping ashore at Whitby, he constantly read books and studied navigation, never losing a chance of teaching himself anything that might push him on in his profession.

For nine years Cook sailed in these Whitby ships, sometimes going as far, as Norway, or to Holland; but for the most part he traded up and down the coast, to and from London.

And then, when he was twenty-seven, there came a change.