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James Cook and the conquest of Canada

Captain James Cook is famous for the three epic voyages of scientific exploration that he led into Pacific Ocean between 1768 and his death on a beach in Hawaii in 1779. He is much less well known for the role he played before that, in the British conquest of Canada.

Cook came late to the Royal Navy. He learnt his seamanship in the merchant service, aboard Whitby colliers that brought coal from the North East of England down to the growing metropolis of London. He was a talented and ambitious sailor, and by the age of 27 was first mate of a ship. He also had the promise of the owners that he would be made master of his own vessel soon. This proved an insufficient draw to keep a man of his talents and ambition in the coal trade, and he volunteered for the navy in 1755.

He initially signed on as an able seaman, but his ability to navigate saw him quickly promoted as the service expanded with the outbreak of the Seven Years War the following year. He was first warranted as a master’s mate, and a sailing master in 1757. He then joined the Pembroke, 64, commanded by Captain Simcoe. This scientifically minded commander recognised the unusual abilities of his young warrant officer, and introduced him to more complex navigation and astronomy. Cook took to them readily.

In spring 1758 the Pembroke was sent to Halifax to join the fleet assisting in the siege of the French fortress of Louisberg. It was here that Cook was to meet his second major influence, the army surveyor Samuel Holland. Holland was quick to spot the young officer’s ability and, with Simcoe’s encouragement, taught him how to survey and draw maps. Over the next 12 months, Cook honed his new-found skills, producing charts of the coast and waters around the Gulf of St Lawrence.

With the fall of Louisberg, the way was open for a British invasion of New France, as French Canada was then known. By land this would have been an exceptionally arduous task. The distances involved were vast; much of it through road-less wilderness populated by hostile tribes. Fortunately, the St Lawrence River led directly into the very heart of New France, right up to the gates of its capital at Quebec. The only problem was that while the French had charted the river well, the British had not. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

When the ice melted in spring 1759, British ships, led by the Pembroke, navigated their way inland with Cook charting and surveying as he went. By June they had groped their way to The Bason, just bellow Quebec, and were able to bring the army of General Wolfe up river. By September all was in place for the British assault by boat on the Plains of Abraham, and their subsequent victory over the French. New France had fallen, Wolfe was a national hero, and the reputation of Cook was assured. After the war, when the Admiralty wanted an enterprising and skilled young officer to lead the 1768 expedition into the Pacific, it was to Cook that they turned.

The achievements of James Cook are rightly celebrated worldwide. Islands and inlets, mountains and straights, capes and lunar craters have all been named after him. But perhaps the strangest tribute to the great man came from the original writers of Star Trek. They took the idea of a warship venturing into the unknown with purely peaceful and scientific motives as the inspiration for their TV series. James Cook became James Kirk and the Endeavour became the Enterprise. When writing about his objectives for his second voyage, Cook said they were “ go farther than anyone had done before...’ Now, is it me, or is that a split infinitive away from something I have heard before?

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