The Enlightenment was an era of vast intellectual achievements, when philosophers, scientists, engineers, and statesmen, such as Isaac Newton, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, and Adam Smith, revolutionized the way we think about the world. But among this pantheon is one whose feats are relatively little known to Americans—which is astonishing considering the scale of his discoveries. This is Captain James Cook, the greatest navigator and explorer of his age—perhaps of all time—who was born into an obscure English family and enjoyed no formal education but rose through hard work and discipline to the highest ranks of British society.
Sadly, thanks in part to the doctrines of cultural relativism and racial politics fashionable in our own day, Cook now often is regarded as a vanguard of imperialism and the exploitation of native peoples. Prominent University of Hawai‘i professor Haunani-Kay Trask, for example, has labeled Cook a “syphilitic, tubercular racist,” and her sister, Miliani Trask—a political activist who served as a trustee for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs—has urged people to vandalize the monument to Cook located on Hawai‘i Island.1
This is a travesty, because Cook was a humane man, a conscientious scholar, and—in the context of his era—astonishingly modern in his treatment of the natives his expeditions first encountered. Equally remarkable was his care for the men who accompanied him on his three voyages around the world and who suffered few of the illnesses common to sailors then, thanks to Cook’s scientific concern with hygiene and diet. Before meeting his tragic death at Kealakekua Bay, Hawai‘i, Cook broke all records of previous explorers and set a few that would stand for centuries afterward.
Cook, who partly inspired the character of Captain Kirk in Star Trek, once voiced his ambition to seek out new civilizations when he wrote in his journals that he had gone “not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.”2 He wrote those words on January 30, 1774, as his ship lay at 71° south latitude, which no expedition would reach again for fifty years.
Over the course of his three missions, Cook discovered Hawai‘i, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and countless Pacific islands and peoples. He explored New Zealand, Australia, and Alaska, and he became the first European to see a kangaroo, the Maori haka dance, and the Alaskan Inupiat people. Most important, the maps he drew made the scientific exploration of the Western hemisphere possible and changed the course of world history so dramatically that it still is difficult to grasp the true grandeur of his accomplishments. . . .