Story of Captain Cook - John Lang

Cook Becomes a Man-O'-War's Man

War had broken out between England and France. Cook's ship was then lying in the Thames, and the crew heard that the. pressgang was out, taking men from every merchant vessel in port, and sweeping the public-houses and the riverside streets of every man on whom they could lay hands, to complete the crews of the King's ships.

Most of the men hid, for they did not want to serve in the Navy.

Cook too, at first hid himself; for even being mate of a collier might not save him from being "pressed."

But soon he tired of that. It seemed to him it would be much better to enter the Navy as a volunteer.

So he went to Wapping, and as an "A.B." (or able seaman) joined the Eagle, a 60-gun ship.

Thus began James Cook's great career in the Navy.

From the first his officers could not fail to see that here was no ordinary man. Even without the help of the letters of recommendation written to Captain Palliser of the Eagle  by Mr. Walker, Cook's former employer, and by other friends, he would at once have made his mark.

Now began to come in the benefit of his book-reading and studying. And the years that he had passed in the hard life on the Whitby ships in the stormy North Sea were not wasted. For there he had learned every possible point of seamanship. There was nothing on the war-ship, except gunnery, that he needed to be taught. Even as a boy he had been self-reliant, and inclined to hold his own opinion, and, the time during which he had been mate of a collier had added to his confidence in himself. Such a man could not be kept down.

When Cook had been but two years in the Navy, he was made master's mate. With this rank he served on board the Pembroke, at the taking of Louisburg, in the Island of Cape Breton. This was when we were fighting the French in Canada in 1758.

The following year he was appointed master of the Grampus, but later he was transferred to the Garland;  and, as it was found that she had already sailed, he was finally appointed to the Mercury.

You must understand that the "master" of a ship was not the captain. He was not even a commissioned officer, though the post was not unlike what in the Navy a few years ago was called "navigating lieutenant."

Long ago, three hundred or four hundred years' ago, the captain of a fighting ship was generally a soldier, one who probably knew nothing of sailing, and very little about the sea. He commanded the fighting men, and directed them when the ship was engaged with an enemy. Under him, there had to be a skilled seaman, whose duty it was to sail the vessel from port to port, and to give orders to the, sailors. This man was called the "master," and the, name was still in use in the Navy thirty or forty years ago.

The post of "master" was an important one, and the pay (as pay then went, was better than that of a lieutenant), but a man who became master seldom rose any higher. He had to be a good seaman, skilled in every part of his profession; but generally he was a man without money and without friends to help him on. Often he grew grey in the service, and ended his days without rising higher in rank.

But Cook was not one of those who cease to rise.

On the Mercury  he sailed for Canada, where his ship joined the fleet which was then helping our troops under the great General Wolfe in the siege of Quebec.

Quebec is a fine city on the river St. Lawrence, and in those days it, and most of Canada, belonged to France.

The entrenched camp of the French troops was at a place near Quebec called Montmorency. To make it possible for our ships to fire into the French camp, soundings of the depth of the river up to that point had to be taken, so that the ships might not get into shallow water and run aground.

To take these soundings was very difficult and very dangerous. Captain Palliser of the Eagle  advised the Admiral to send Cook on the duty.

It was not possible to carry it out in daylight, because the French would certainly shoot anybody whom they saw attempting it, so Cook did it all by night. As soon as it was dark enough, he used to start with a few men in one of the ship's boats, with muffled oats, so as to make no noise. Till daylight he would be busy sounding with a lead tied to a line, and noting down in his pocketbook the depths of the different places in the channel, so that he might afterwards draw a chart of the river.

For some nights all went well. But soon the French began to suspect that something was going on, and they set a trap for Cook.

Some tribes of Red Indians, very brave, but very cruel and bloodthirsty men, were fighting against us. The French collected a large number of these men in their birch-bark canoes at that part of the river where they expected Cook and his boat to be in the early morning.

Just at dawn, when the mist was curling up off the water, and the great trees on the banks were beginning to stand out in the dim light like huge black ghosts, the Indians in their canoes stole quietly out and surrounded Cook's boat before he knew that they were near him. Then, with fearful yells, shouting their war-whoops and paddling furiously, they dashed at him.

[Illustration] from The Story of Captain Cook by John Lang


But Cook never lost his head nor got flurried. There was no possibility of fighting the Indians; they were far too many. So Cook ordered his men to "give way." The boat's crew, bent to their oars, and with straining muscles pulled for dear life. Before the Indians could close on her, the boat slipped through between two of the canoes, and drove hard for the shore. It was a narrow shave. So close to them were the yelling Indians that as Cook and his men tumbled over the bows on to the land, the red men, brandishing their tomahawks and with scalping knives ready, jumped into the stern-sheets of the boat, which they took away with them in triumph. Cook had steered for the shore near to the English Hospital guard, and the Indians did not dare to follow him on the land.

His notes of the soundings of the river were saved, and the chart Cook afterwards drew was so good that it was said that even by daylight the whole thing could not have been better done.

So pleased was the Admiral that after this he employed Cook constantly in making charts of the river below Quebec, where it was dangerous for ships. That work Cook always did splendidly and without mistake.

After this, in 1759, he joined the Northumberland  man-of-war, and during a winter in Halifax he used all his spare time in reading Euclid, and in studying everything that he thought could help him to get on.

In 1762 he went back to England, and in December of that year he was married Miss Elizabeth Batts. But he was not left long at home with his wife. In the following year he was sent out to Newfoundland, where he had already before passed some time; and though he returned to England in the winter, it was only for a stay of a very few months.

In 1764 he was again appointed Marine Surveyor of Newfoundland and Labrador, and he made for the Admiralty charts of all the coast, and explored the country inland where before no white man had ever been.

For several years he was employed in this kind of work, each year adding to the name he was making for himself.