The beginning of his maritime career—The command of the Adventure entrusted to him—Tierra del Fuego—Discovery of some islands in the Pomotou Archipelago—Arrival at Tahiti—Manners and customs of the inhabitants—Discovery of other islands in the Society group—Arrival at New Zealand—Interview with the natives—Discovery of Cook's Strait—Circumnavigation of two large islands—Manners and productions of the country.

In narrating the career of a distinguished man, it is well to neglect none of those details which may appear of but slight importance. They acquire significance as indications of a vocation unknown even to its subject, and throw a light upon the character under consideration. For these reasons we shall dwell a little upon the humble beginning of the career of one of the most illustrious navigators whom England boasts.

James Cook was born at Marton, in Yorkshire, on the 27th of October, 1728. He was the ninth child of a farm servant, and a peasant woman named Grace. When scarcely eight years of age little James assisted his father in the rough toil of the farm of Airy Holme, near Ayton. His amiability, and love of work, attracted the interest of the farmer, who had him taught to read.

When he was thirteen years of age, he was apprenticed to William Sanderson, a linendraper at Snaith, a fishing-hamlet of some importance. But young Cook found little pleasure in an employment which kept him behind a counter, and he spent every leisure moment in chatting with the sailors who visited the port. Gaining his father's consent, James soon left the linendraper's, to engage himself as ship-boy, to Messrs. Walker, whose boats carried coal from England to Ireland.

Successively ship-lad, sailor, and master, Cook rapidly learned all the details of his profession.

In the spring of 1755, as the first hostilities between England and France broke out, the boat upon which Cook served was anchored in the Thames. The navy was recruited in those days by means of pressgangs. At first Cook hid himself, but afterwards, urged no doubt by a presentiment, he engaged himself on board the Eagle, a vessel of sixty guns, to the command of which Sir Hugh Palliser was soon appointed.

Intelligent, active, thoroughly at home in all the details of the service, Cook was noticed by the officers, and attracted the attention of his captain, who in a short time received a letter of warm recommendation from the member for Scarborough, sent in accordance with the pressing solicitations of all the inhabitants of Ayton, for young Cook, who shortly afterwards received a warrant as boatswain. He embarked upon the Mercury, bound for Canada, upon the 15th of May, 1759, and joined the fleet of Sir Charles Saunders, who, in conjunction with General Wolfe, conducted the siege of Quebec.

In that campaign Cook found the first opportunity of distinguishing himself. Ordered off to sound the St. Lawrence between Orleans Island and the northern shore of the river, he executed his task with much skill, and drew up a chart of the channel in spite of the difficulties and dangers of the enterprise. His hydrographical sketch was acknowledged to be so exact and complete that he received orders to examine the channels of the river below Quebec. This duty he performed so well that his chart of the St. Lawrence was published by the English Admiralty. After the capture of Quebec, Cook passed on to the Northumberland, under command of Lord Colville, and profited by his stay on the shores of Newfoundland to devote himself to astronomy. Important operations were now entrusted to him. He drew up the plan of Placentia, and took the bearings of St. Peter and Miquelon.

In 1764 he was made naval engineer for Newfoundland and Labrador, and was employed for three consecutive years in hydrographical tasks, which obtained for him the notice of the ministry, and helped to correct innumerable errors in the maps of America.

At the same time he addressed a treatise to the Royal Society of London, upon an eclipse of the sun, which he had observed in Newfoundland in 1766.

This document appeared in the "Philosophical Transactions." Cook was not long in receiving a due reward for so much, and such successful labour, and for his patient studies, the more meritorious, as he had had few opportunities, and was self-taught.

A scientific question of the highest importance, viz., the transit of Venus across the sun's disc, which had been announced for 1769, was eagerly discussed by all the scientists of the day. The English Government, confident that this observation could only be effectually made in the Pacific Sea, resolved to send a scientific expedition thither.

The command was offered to the famous hydrographer A. Dalrymple, equally celebrated for his astronomical investigations, and his geographical discoveries in the southern seas. But he was so exacting in his demands, and so persevering in his request for a commission as ship's captain, which Sir Edward Hawker as obstinately refused, that the Secretary of the Admiralty proposed another commander for the projected enterprise.

His choice fell upon James Cook, who was cordially recommended by Sir Hugh Palliser, and to him therefore the command of the Endeavour was given, whilst he was at the same time raised to the rank of ship's lieutenant.