As historical figures go, Captain James Cook is a giant. He was the man who explored the South Pacific, sailed to the Antarctic, and mapped a big part of the globe at a time when most men never left their home towns. His voyages in his ship the Endeavour have been called the moon shots of their day. But there’s a part of his legend that few people know about: Captain Cook in Canada.
On a lonely hill on the outskirts of Corner Brook, Newfoundland, stands a monument that most travellers never see. Which is ironic, since it’s dedicated to one of the greatest travellers of all time, Captain James Cook. It tells the story of his formative years sailing Canadian waters, which would play a crucial role in his historic achievements. It was the skills he learned on these voyages that earned him the commission to go off exploring the farthest reaches of the globe.
Cook arrived in Eastern Canada on the good ship Pembroke in 1758, with the British and French still fighting over control of the region. He took part in the blockade of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia. Then, he played a pivotal part in Canada’s history by guiding the British ships up the St. Lawrence River to fight the French on the Plains of Abraham. The outcome of that battle determined Canada’s future for the next 200 years, as a British rather than a French colony.
But it wasn’t these wartime exploits that prepared him for his future as a famous explorer. While in Nova Scotia, Cook learned how to use a device called a plane table, which allowed a map maker to determine distances with great accuracy. He quickly mastered the device, and began mapping the region where the Pembroke sailed. His charts of Newfoundland were so accurate that they were still being used in our lifetimes. The graphic below compares Cook’s map of the island with a modern map made using modern technology: the two are almost identical (click on the photo to see it larger).
Captain Cook might have spent his life exploring Atlantic Canada, but fate intervened. When he returned home in the winter of 1767, the Royal Society was preparing a scientific voyage to the South Pacific, in part to do astronomical observations. Cook’s skill at navigation and mapping, along with his new interest in astronomy, made him the perfect choice to lead the expedition. He went on to discover lands no white man had ever seen, fill in big parts of the world map, and help make England a global empire.
You could argue that Cook’s voyages did as much harm as good, bringing colonialism and disease to the islands of the Pacific. But there’s no doubt they changed the course of history. And the story of Captain Cook in Canada is a vital but almost overlooked part of the legend.
Oh, and if you think Captain James Cook and his ship the Endeavour are forgotten these days, take a look at Captain James Kirk, the hero of Star Trek, and his starship the Enterprise. I guess their voyages were the moon shots of their day …