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What a man. What a hero among heroes. I’m talking about Captain James Cook, whose adventures into the unknown, have given him a place in history, equal perhaps only today to the voyage in space to the moon. Fittingly, that vessel was also named “Endeavor,” after Cook’s original ship that took him twice around the globe exploring lands and peoples unknown to the world of 18th-century England.
Pocket Books has just published a vivid, genuinely thrilling account of this singular man whose exploits resonate to this day. “Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook” by Martin Dugard makes for one hell of an adventure you’ll want to experience yourself even if you’re sitting quietly in an armchair in your own home.
Cook was quite an extraordinary man in his own right, even apart from his remarkable travels. Son of a Scottish rebel who crossed the border to England (and rose from swineherd to foreman of a huge landed estate), young James, second of eight, left home and formal schooling at 16, becoming a grocer’s apprentice in a small town on the North Sea. At nights, he taught himself mathematics, geography, and astronomy by candlelight.
The grocer gave him an introduction to a prominent Quaker who owned a fleet of cargo ships. The town of Whitby was a major shipbuilding and cargo transportation center for the entire North Sea and the Baltic. At 17, Cook was a handsome lad, sturdily built, standing over six feet. A sailor’s life in the 18th century was no day at the beach. A popular waterfront saying of that time put it, “Those who would go to sea for pleasure would go to hell for pastime.”
Sailors were transient, poor, foul-mouthed and disease-prone. Most would die at sea and, consequently, drank as if there were no tomorrow. Sixty percent of all sailors were under the age of 30 – the average ship’s officer was in his early 30s. Competition for promotion and employment was fierce, but Cook was nothing if not competitive.
Three years apprenticeship made young Cook a consummate seaman. He learned the fundamentals of navigation, which would enable him to successfully take the “Endeavor” on its record-long voyages. In six years, Cook had worked his way up from apprentice to seaman to first mate – no mean achievement for a country boy. With his new rank, he was sent to London, the big-time city of the age. Seeing the vessels of the Royal Navy and the officers with their powdered wigs, gleaming shoes and bright blue uniforms, Cook, while not an envious man, did have a yearning for status and wealth.
But life in the Royal Navy was sheer, literal hell compared to that of the merchant fleet. The long voyages undertaken by the navy ships meant they were deliberately overstaffed at the outset of every voyage to compensate for the certain deaths due to come. Hundreds of men died of typhus on every voyage – scurvy was the greatest killer of all. The lack of vitamin C in the body for months at sea with no fresh fruits or vegetables meant the slow but inevitable breakdown of the sailors leading to a sure death.
(Interestingly, Cook intuited the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables as a means of combating scurvy and, amazingly, on his three epic voyages – lasting up to four years at a time – no men under his command died from scurvy, while the death rate held steady throughout the rest of the fleet.)
At 26, Cook was offered command of the best vessel in the Whitby merchant fleet but, amazingly, he turned it down despite the fact that there was virtually no hope of advancement unless a man came from the upper class and had an influential mentor to watch over and protect him.
Cook was a practical man in almost every way, but a powerful adventuresome streak ran through him. He not only sought out danger and adventure throughout his lifetime, but also made three singularly unusual and impulsive choices. One got him into the Royal Navy, another won him his wife, and the third got him killed.
One month in the Royal Navy as an able-bodied seaman and Cook was promoted to master’s mate. A new captain, Hugh Palliser, took command of the “Eagle,” and of Cook’s career, having him trained as a cartographer and surveyor and then promoted to warrant officer. In the New World, Cook was ordered to survey the Saint Lawrence and prepare an original set of maps for an attack in the Seven Years’ War.
Using Cook’s maps, General James Wolfe asked Cook to find a way to land 5,000 British soldiers and get them up the steep cliffs to the Plains of Abraham. Wolfe died in the attack, but the Battle of Quebec assured the British victory in the war – and made Cook’s name. And this was all before Cook’s really great adventures began. Martin Dugard, an adventurer of no mean standing himself, (co-holder of the Around the World Speed Record), clearly feels in his bones and understands the character of a man like James Cook, and certainly knows wondrously well how to bring it to life.
Read “Farther Than Any Man” and discover for yourself the quite incredible adventures of a real-life hero. Needless to say, you’ve got the material here for at least three major mega hits. Mel Gibson could do worse than start brushing up on his Scots accent that served him so well in “Braveheart.”