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For more than 200 years the exploits and explorations of Capt. James Cook have captivated all who have a sense of adventure and appreciation for discovery; who courageously face challenges and meet them; whose audacious thirst for knowledge pushes aside any lingering characteristics of timidity.
Cook personified this lifestyle and his name and exploits provide him a historical legacy that but for it being based on fact would otherwise be the stuff of a suggested apocryphal legend.
Yet, when that historical record is discussed, most all of the focus concentrates on his Pacific Ocean adventures aboard, first the Endeavour and then the Resolution, two ships of the Royal Navy, who like him, will forever remain giants in the historical record. This is perhaps quite understandable considering all that he accomplished while sailing across that ocean.
Yet, what is far less known is that Cook, explorer of the Pacific, master mariner, accomplished hydrographer, cartographer, surveyor and draughtsman got his start in Cape Breton and learned most all of those talents that so distinguished him as a mariner while stationed in Nova Scotia.
In fact, he spent more time (nine years) in Nova Scotia during his adult life than in any other single place.
For those who do not know how all of this came about, you are invited to read the following abridged account, an article of this sort never being able to provide sufficient justice to the true measure of the man’s history in Atlantic Canada.
First, let there be no question as to James Cook’s humble beginnings. He was born in the English Midlands on a small farm, living in a one-room or maybe two-room house with his parents and siblings. Not content to follow in the family tradition of farming, he left home to work for a grocer. There he remained for a year.
He had an interest in, but absolutely no knowledge of sailing. Still, at 18 he signed on board a merchant vessel, its principal cargo being — how’s this one as representative of what would prove to be another Cape Breton connection — coal.
Yes, for nine years Cook was a labourer aboard a coal hauler, sailing along the western English coast to and from London.
Quickly his excellent sailing skills came to the fore and, as was the case throughout his career, his superiors recognized his superb seafaring talents. These talents were not only in being able to navigate a ship but also in its management, upkeep, care and maintenance.
Even then, Cook had these abilities in abundance and also, this being something else he demonstrated throughout his life, the desire and capacity to learn, face his mistakes and work to overcome them.
Among these was his lack of formal education. Despite having none really, he came to study on his own mathematics, astronomy, literature and much of what might be called the physical sciences. He was, however, throughout his life, a poor speller.
Despite what would likely have been a successful and lucrative career in the merchant marine, he opted to join the Royal Navy.
It might be thought by many that societal position and privilege was the key to success in rising through the ranks in the 18th century British Royal Navy. Such a thought, after all, would be quite plausible considering England’s then and continuing nonsensical class system. However, this was not the case in the Royal Navy.
Promotion was based on competency and merit and, equally important, one had to serve for a minimum of six years, starting as an able seaman, before being eligible for promotion.
Cook enlisted shortly before the commencement of what became known as the Seven Years War in 1756 and remember, he was then 26, a comparatively older age to join up at that time.
He soon was sailing to Halifax where plans were being made by the British for an assault on the French fortress town of Louisbourg. Cook was assigned to the Pembroke, one of the 20 ships in that invasion fleet.
After approximately five weeks of intense battles, including naval engagements, the French surrendered on July 26, 1758.
It was a day or two after the surrender, while walking along Kennington Cove amidst the wreckage of more than 100 destroyed and damaged British landing craft, that an event occurred that was to change not only Cook’s life, but arguably the course of maritime exploration history.
Cook noticed an officer intently taking what appeared to be measurements or readings, using some sort of instrument.
The officer was army Lt. Samuel Holland. The instrument was the “surveyor’s plane top.”
Neither were then known to Cook but in short order one became a lifelong friend and colleague and the other a working tool that introduced him to the world of hydrography and the fame he would attain flowing from it.
So, next time you look to Louisbourg and Kennington Cove, remember that it was on that most well-known of its beaches that the man who may justifiably be considered among the world’s greatest, if not the greatest, explorer got his start. Had he not opted to walk along that beach on that day the future course of world exploration might have been quite different.
For the next few days, he worked and studied with Holland.
What he learned in particular was the technique known as triangulation, something then very familiar to army engineers and surveyors but not at all used by the navy. Cook changed that forever.
The earliest of Cook’s recorded sailing directions known to exist describes his impression of Louisbourg harbour.
Titled, Directions for sailing in and out of the Harbour of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, its opening lines read: “In the mouth of this harbour lies two small islands, the outermost is called Green Island and the innermost the Island Battery by means of it being fortified.”
This entry was representative of something new in naval mapping, namely descriptions of harbour approaches and lands contiguous to the sea. Up to then such records provided merely depth and shoal information, the remainder being left to a seafarer’s prior experience and conjecture.
Cook initiated the practice of describing hazards, buoys, proper approaches, pilot books and grades and like information. Again, this began at Louisbourg.
Returning to their station in Halifax, Cook and Holland spent the remainder of the year surveying, primarily in the Gaspé, charting the mouth of the St. Lawrence in preparation for the forthcoming invasion of Quebec City.
There Cook, then a ship’s master, a non-commissioned rank below that of lieutenant, having the responsibility for the ship’s maintenance, distinguished himself in a daring feat of navigation.
Together with the masters of three other ships he guided the entire British fleet of more than 100 vessels through a narrow channel known as the Traverse. Previously, no French ships of the size of the British man-of-war composing part of the fleet could navigate through … and this was with buoys.
The French, as insurance, removed the buoys, thinking this would assuredly send aground any British ship that might attempt the perilous passage. It didn’t happen that way.
Cook and his colleagues made certain the entire fleet made it through, without a scratch. How’s that for seamanship.
(Cook) got his start in Cape Breton and learned most all of those talents that so distinguished him as a mariner while stationed in Nova Scotia.
The administrative office responsible for the British Navy, described Cook’s efforts in laudatory terms, saying he acted “in a manner that gave complete satisfaction to his officers but with no small peril to himself.”
They soon followed this up with another tribute, awarding him the sum of 50 pounds, then equivalent to eight months pay, “in consideration of his indefatigable industry in making himself Master of the pilotage of the River Saint Laurence.”
Soon he was dispatched to Newfoundland to map and chart its more than 6,000 miles of coastline.
While not advancing in rank, he was given his first command of a ship, namely the Grenville, a 68-ton schooner.
His work in mapping the Newfoundland coastline has been described by his biographers as the greatest of his career. Its precision and scope were of such extraordinary accuracy in its thoroughness and detail that two centuries later maps made from satellite imagery were indistinguishable from the draughtsman ship of Cook and his assistant Michael Lane.
His immense talents encouraged the Royal Navy to send him to those corners of the world where his fame grew, maintaining a legend neither diminished by time nor the achievements of others.
It all began on a Cape Breton beach at a place called Louisbourg.
David Delaney can be contacted at [email protected]