A letter from Commander James Cook for Mrs. Yollis and class

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Biographical Bonanza

Dear sirs, madams and colonials,

I see a number of American colonials have already written to you, all from my future. What strange world there must be when we can speak from your long past.

It is the year of our Lord, 1771. I have just returned from a successful journey around the world although there were times all might have been lost. I share with you some of my experiences.

The Royal Society requested service from the Admiralty. Their scientists wanted to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun. They had determined the viewing would be most clear from the Tahitian isles on 3 June, 1769. They called on me, Lieutenant James Cook, to take command of His Majesty’s Ship, Endeavour. She is a fine ship. She had started her days as a coaler along the coast of England but had been refitted for our journey. It was in the admiralty’s wisdom to grant me freedom of movement once we were done in Tahiti.

Schools and students have permission to use this graphic for non-commercial, educational purposes.

We departed England in 26 August, 1768 with 94 souls on board and provisions for 18 months. I had chosen a course around Cape Horn, the shortest route to Tahiti, arriving on 13 April, 1769. We awaited the transit. I will share from the ship’s log…

“Saturday 3 rd This day prov'd as favourable to our purpose as we could wish, not a Clowd was to be seen the Whole day and the Air was perfectly clear, so that we had every advantage we could desire in Observing the whole of the passage of the Planet Venus over the Suns disk: we very distinctly saw an Atmosphere or dusky shade round the body of the Planet which very much disturbed the times of the contacts particularly the two internal ones. D r Solander observed as well as M r Green and my self, and we differ'd from one another in observeing the times of the Contacts much more than could be expected.”

Once our observations were complete, I opened sealed orders given by the Admiralty. I had been tasked to find the land to the south known as Terra Australis, hitherto of unknown quantity. Thoughts of riches from the new land had been on mind.

We set sail from Tahiti along an approximate course south-west. A Tahitian had with knowledge of these waters provided us with information of lands once seen by Abel Tasman in 1642. On 6 October, 1769 we reached the islands of New Zealand whereupon I set to task mapping the islands’ coastlines.

From these waters, I was determined to prove once and for all there was no great southern continent. I headed westward hoping to find Van Diemen’s Land (I think you more modern folk call it Tasmania) but bad weather hit on 19 April, 1770. It was the next morning Lieutenant Zachary Hicks sighted land. I named the point of land after the Lieutenant.

To the south, the sea looked empty. I thought this was strange because Abel Tasman’s logs suggested I should see Van Dieman’s Land. The coast we found was not on any charts. With the weather clear, we had a good view of the coast as we headed north. It was 22 April when we sighted people on the land through our telescopes. They appeared dark of skin.

As we continued our voyage north, we had times of bad weather. On 29 April we took our ship into a large bay. Seeing natives on the beach, we tried to make contact but they didn’t speak a language we understood and had tried throwing spears at us with no success. We tried leaving beads and trinkets for them but they avoided us as we explored the area. Perhaps we had broken one of their laws so they wouldn’t meet with us. We did have clashes with them at times but no one had been hurt.

We found two streams and, although the soil was sandy, we saw some fine meadows that might be good for farming. Joseph Banks, our botanist, and Dr Solander, our naturalist, collected many specimens in their explorations. One species unknown to us seemed to be of the honeysuckle family. It was named after Banks and was called banksia.

Schools and students have permission to use this graphic for non-commercial, educational purposes.

One of our crew had been ailing and had died while we were at anchor. Forby Sutherland was buried on May 1 on the shores of the bay we named Botany Bay. May God rest his soul.

Again sailing north, we saw a bay which might be a good anchorage. I named it Port Jackson although I think you modern folk now call it Sydney Harbour. Day after day we continued our journey north. Many nights I spent in my cabin working on charts of the coastline.

Schools and students have permission to use this graphic for non-commercial, educational purposes.

We eventually reached tropical waters. There were plenty of waterfowl to hunt, mussels and large pearl oysters on rocks and fish to be caught. As we continued north, we saw islands to our east. I knew we would have to watch our depth lest we end up on a reef.

Schools and students have permission to use this graphic for non-commercial, educational purposes.

On June 10, the depth under our ship was 15 fathoms as I retired for the night but by the morning, the depth suddenly fell from 14 to 8 fathoms. I ordered all hands to their stations. Our next cast found a depth of 21 fathoms. At 11pm the man at the lead called 17 fathoms but, before we could take another depth, our ship struck a reef. I ordered crew to boats. We needed to haul off the reef before the tide fell. We needed to lighten our ship so we cast overboard unneeded items, including six ship’s guns.

Schools and students have permission to use this graphic for non-commercial, educational purposes.

At 10:20 pm on 12 June, we finally freed Endeavour from the reef. Our battle was not over as water poured in through the holed hull. Sail and packing was used to stem the flow. So far from home, if our ship was lost so were we.

We searched for a safe anchorage to effect repairs. On 18 June we found a safe place to effect repairs at a river near a town you modern folk now call Cooktown. It took six weeks to make repairs. Timber needed to be cut and nails made. It was during this time hunting parties were sent out. We saw strange animals hopping across the land.

Schools and students have permission to use this graphic for non-commercial, educational purposes.

It was 6 August when we were finally able to set sail. We kept watch for further reefs and would send out a boat ahead to take depths. Huge seas threatened to throw us on the reefs on 16 August. I decided to keep the ship close to shore. If we were to be holed again, we could make land.

Our journey had now taken us into seas seen by the Spaniard Torres. If his records were true, we would come to a strait as indeed we did. We landed on a beach after passing through this strait. It was here I raised the flag and claimed the eastern half of New Holland in the name of His Majesty, King George III. I named this land New South Wales although I have heard you modern folk have divided it into smaller states with only a central portion keeping my naming.

I considered this land suitable for settlement.

Our journeyed continued west with a stop over in Batavia (you call it Indonesia now). From Batavia we headed a course WSW, rounding Cape of Good Hope before heading into the Atlantic and north to fair England on 13 July, 1771 where I was promoted to the rank of Commander.

I must leave you now as I have a meeting with the Admiralty to discuss a new voyage back to the southern seas.

Commander James Cook

Royal Navy


I hope James Cook didn't mind me including some photos of a replica of his Endeavour. It is in Eden Harbour, about 20km fom here,  till Monday, May 14th. He didn't have access to cameras.

References used....


Discovery series by Marcia McEwan


Teacher, NSW, Australia

5 thoughts on “A letter from Commander James Cook for Mrs. Yollis and class

  1. Pingback:

    HMB Endeavour at Eden – Cook and his Endeavour

  2. Mozart (Kelly)

    Dear James Cook,

    I fancy your wonderful post. I am Mozart, a world famous composer.
    Unfortunately I did not travel by ship, I travled by carrige. Oh my, that was a bumpy ride. Well in my opinion I think stage coaches are a little bit better because you do not get stuck in a reef.

    Plus, I enjoy my fancy and it would much too dirty on a ship.

    Captain Cook, did you ever get sea sick? Did you eat any interesting foods on your expedition?

    Your humble, but gifted servant,

  3. rossmannell

    Post author

    Dear Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,

    I have heard tell of your prowess with music. At this time you are a mere teenager yet your fame is spreading even tot he shores of fair England. When on land, I also travel by horse or carriage but my life is the sea in service in His Majesty’s navy.

    I do not suffer mal de mer, or sea sickness as you call it, and quickly regain my sea legs once under sail. I have heard tell of officers who have difficulty with mal de mer yet still continue on duty.

    Whilst on my voyages, we do taste unusual food. Cautions must be taken lest the food be poisonous but we find safety when we can by observing the foods eaten by natives.

    Not all foods are palatable to our English taste yet fresh food must be taken when opportunity allows. There is a need to refresh our stores for our voyages.

    My voyage, the subject of my letter, was free from scurvy and, God be willing, my future voyages shall also be. Scurvy is a debilitating disease but we were supplied with bushels of malt, portable soup, vinegar, mustard, wheat, together with quantities of sauerkraut and rob to consume. They seem to have stemmed the rise of scurvy.

    Commander James Cook
    Royal Navy, 1771


    I see Commander Cook spoke of things you may not know. He has given me permission to explain some of what he has written as he realises some readers of his letters are not of his time.

    Mal de mer – from the French language – sick of sea – seasickness
    Portable soup – made from dried vegetables
    Sauerkraut – is made from cabbage
    Rob – concentrated fruit juice
    Scurvy – we now know it is vitamin deficiency, mainly vitamin C and D.

    In 1771, Mozart was a teenager but already had growing fame for his musical talent. Cook may well have heard of him.


  4. Mozart (Kelly)

    Dear James Cook,

    Hello again, James. Traveling on sea seems difficult. I wouldn’t get enough powder for my wig and that would be tragic. Oh, and how many times have I mentioned my clothes! They must remain clean in case I need to perfom!

    Did you get used to eating foreign foods? I remember the Rob and Sauerkraut you mentioned.

    How did you know where you were going? Did you have a compass?

    Your humble, but gifted servant,
    (Kelly from Mrs. Y♥llis’ class)

  5. rossmannell

    Post author

    Dear Mozart,

    Life on the seas would indeed be difficult for a talented composer and musician. We can be gone for years at a time and don’t have room for a piano or instruments other than the few we can carry. Your performances would only be heard by the crew and the occasional people we meet along the way.

    Foreign foods can be troublesome for some but, when you’re hungry, you have to make do with what you find. Rob and sauerkraut may not sound appetising but our physicians tell us it can keep us safe from the dreaded scurvy.

    As my voyage was at first planned as a scientific journey, we had charts from earlier explorers to help us reach Tahiti. Once done, our journey became one of discovery. Others had hinted at finding land to the south-west so we set sail to see what could be found. Fortunately, a Tahitian had some knowledge of the seas but much was a matter of sailing and seeing what we found.

    We did have a compass so we could plot our direction but, without maps, all we knew from it was the direction sailed. Our main instrument of navigation was the sextant. It is used to measure the angle between two visible objects.

    When in the northern hemisphere, we can sight the star Polaris and the horizon to give as a reading of latitude. During the day, we can sight the sun at solar noon.

    It can also be used to determine the time at Greenwich in fair England. We measure the distance between the moon and certain stars to give us Greenwich time. Knowing this, we can judge our longitude. With both latitude and longitude, we know where we are and where any land we find should appear on maps.

    The sextant is a new instrument for us. An earlier instrument called the quadrant had been used when I was a young officer but, around 1760, the newer sextant became the navigation device of choice.

    Commander James Cook
    Royal Navy


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