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The life of James Cook

James Cook was born in the Yorkshire village of Marton on October 27, 1728. At the age of 18 he joined a Whitby coal ship as a cabin boy. As an intelligent and active man, Cook rose through the ranks quickly. He was offered the rank of captain but declined the offer and joined the British Royal Navy as a seaman.

Cook was known to be very concerned with the health and safety of his crew. He always tried his best to make sure everything was clean to avoid sickness on board.

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The search for the Great South Land

During the 15th and 16th centuries, many explorations by Europeans helped to map the northern, western and half of the southern coastline of Australia. The east coast, however, was still unknown and unmapped.

James Cook was the first Englishman to chart the east coast of Australia. In 1768 the British Government chose James Cook to lead an expedition to Tahiti in the South Pacific. Cook boarded a coal ship named ';Endeavour' with many scientists, botanists and astronomers. They had the mission to observe the transit of Venus in front of the sun, an event which occurs only once every 105 years.

While Cook was at sea, he received a secret order from the British Government. He was to continue sailing west from Tahiti across the South Pacific to find a large continent known only as The Great South Land.

After completing his orders in Tahiti, Cook continued his search of the south of the Pacific Ocean. After some weeks, Cook ran into bad weather and changed direction to head west.

On 7 October 1769 Cook sighted New Zealand. He spent six months sailing around both islands of New Zealand to draw accurate maps. He discovered that New Zealand was not part of a huge continent but in fact two separate, large islands.

At this point, Cook could have sailed back to England. His ship, however, was in a state of disrepair, so he could not travel in open seas. Cook decided to travel further west. He knew that a land known as New Holland must lie in that direction. At the end of March 1770, Cook sailed along the east coast of Australia up to the East Indies (Indonesia) where he could repair his ship.

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The first sighting of the east coast of Australia

In the early morning of 19 April, Lieutenant Zachary Hicks, Cook's second-in-command, sighted the east coast of Australia. That place is now named after him and is known as Cape Hicks (or Point Hicks), near the New South Wales-Victoria border.

Hicks alerted Cook, who realised that the ship was some distance north of where Tasman had landed.

Because strong southerly winds had blown his ships further north, Cook decided to change direction. Instead of going south to find out whether Van Diemen's Land was attached to New Holland, he sailed toward the north.

Over the next four months, the ';Endeavour' made its way toward the north along the eastern coast of the Australian mainland.

The first landing of James Cook at Botany Bay

Cook made his first landing of eight days in an inlet south of Sydney. He named the place Botany Bay because of the many plants collected there. The bay left a positive impression on Cook and Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist who accompanied Cook on the expedition. Cook and Banks realised that the soil seemed suitable for growing crops. They also noticed that there were many animals to hunt.

The Aboriginal people in the area tried to resist the British arrival. They threw spears and rocks at the sailors but were eventually driven away by gunfire.

Cook then continued north along the coast until he reached the dangerous waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

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A narrow escape near Cooktown

On 11 June 1770, the ';Endeavour' struck a coral reef. The crew dislodged the ship from the reef and sailed it to the mainland. As a large piece of coral remained stuck in the hull, it acted like a plug and kept the ship float. Finally, after nine days, the crew went ashore near the mouth of a river, which is now known as Endeavour River, near the present-day town of Cooktown.

It took two months to repair the ';Endeavour'. During that time, Cook explored the surrounding area. He and his crew camped on the beach, ate kangaroos, turtles, fish, birds and local plants. He seemed to like the new land and described the local Aboriginal people as an ';inoffensive race'.

After leaving Cooktown, Cook continued his northward journey. He sailed cautiously to Cape York and landed on a small island, now called Possession Island, where he raised the British flag. Cook claimed the eastern coast of Australia for Britain and named it New South Wales. Discovering Tahiti, New Zealand and the Great South Land for Britain, Cook had fulfilled the orders given to him by the British Government.

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