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Captain Cook - James Cook Joins the Navy

Video clip synopsis – Influential patrons help the bright boy James Cook to an apprenticeship in the merchant navy that would make him a ships’ master. But with an eye for the main chance Cook switches to the Royal Navy.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 2min 23sec
Tags - audiences, Captain Cook, DIY Doco, documentary genre, exploration, historical representations, language, maps, media, media text, script writing, social class, symbols and symbolism, television documentaries, see all tags


Captain Cook - James Cook Joins the Navy

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About the Video Clip


James Cook Joins the Navy is an excerpt from A Likely Lad, the first episode of the 4 x one-hour series _Captain Cook – Obsession and Discovery, produced in 2007.

Captain James Cook FRS RN (October 27, 1728 – February 14, 1779) was an English explorer, navigator and cartographer. Cook made three epic voyages around the world.

In this excerpt the narrator of the series, Vanessa Collingridge, discusses Cook’s entry into the Royal Navy with Cliff Thornton, President of the Captain Cook Society. At the age of 18 Cook underwent an eight year apprenticeship as a mariner and in 1755 was offered the position of ships’ master by John Walker, to whom he had been apprenticed. Instead Cook chose to join the Royal Navy in the lowest rank of able seaman, a decision that was to have profound consequences for Cook’s career and the history of the world.

Cliff Thornton offers two theories as to why Cook chose this path. The first, the accepted historic approach, that with war with France looming, there were excellent opportunities for promotion through the ranks of the Royal Navy. The second, Thornton’s own theory that Cook was encouraged by a local landowner to join the navy and secure land for his father, common practice so that other young men in the area would not be press ganged into the navy.

Vanessa Collingridge relates that Cook’s reason for joining the navy was that he “had a mind to try his fortune”. The clip reveals that Cook’s instincts were sound. Within two years he had been promoted to ships’ master. Dr Huw Lewis-Jones from the University of Cambridge and Professor Andrew Lambert of Kings College, London provide an insight into how the Royal Navy at that time used patronage as a way of promotion and how extraordinary it was that Cook advanced himself through the ranks based on his cartographic skill and navigational talent.

Captain Cook – Obsession and Discovery is a Film Australia National Interest Program. A Cook Films, Ferns Productions, South Pacific Pictures and December Films production. Produced with the assistance of New Zealand On Air, the Canadian Television Fund and Film Victoria, in association with History Television, ZDF in co-operation with ARTE and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. An Australia – Canada Co-production.

Curriculum Focus


Students will learn:

  • how documentaries represent their time of production through style and content
  • how historical figures are represented in documentaries
  • to critically anyalse the codes and conventions of contemporary documentaries
  • to critically analyse the clip’s production values and point of view
  • to create a poster, front page of a newspaper or newspaper advertisement to recruit for the navy of Cook’s era

Curriculum links
National: The Statements of Learning for English- Year 9
Reading, viewing and interpreting information and argument texts

  • Students read and view texts that entertain, move, parody, investigate,
    analyse, argue and persuade. These texts explore personal, social, cultural
    and political issues of significance to the students’ own lives.
  • Students understand that readers and viewers may need to develop knowledge
    about particular events, issues and contexts to interpret texts.


  • When students write information or argument texts, they make appropriate selections of information from a few sources and attempt to synthesise and organise these in a logical way.
  • Students write imaginative texts in print and electronic mediums that contain personal, social and cultural ideas and issues related to their own lives and communities and their views of their expanding world.

This resource is also relevant to Media Studies- Documentaries, Australian History, Geography and Visual Arts.

These outcomes relate generally to English curricula across Australia. Teachers and students should consult their state’s curriculum and learning programs.

Go to The National Curriculum Statements for English

Background Information


“ I had ambition not only to go farther than any man had been before, but as far as it was possible for a man to go.” James Cook

In the series, best selling British author Vanessa Collingridge, a Geographer and Cook expert tells the story of the explorer James Cook. The series traces him from his origins as son of an English farm labourer, at the very bottom of Britain’s class-bound 18th Century society, through his rise as the best cartographer of the 18th Century, to his incredible voyages of discovery which resulted in Cook describing more of the globe than any other man.

The series relives what it was like to navigate uncharted and unknown waters in search of a legendary Great Southern Continent and then a North West passage through the Arctic ice; as well as to be among the first Europeans to visit exotic Pacific islands like Tahiti. The harshness and danger of life on the sea is depicted graphically as well as the rigid social structure of the time. The series includes direct descendants of the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Hawaii who Cook met 240 years ago and the men of the Endeavour, Resolution, Adventure and Discovery, particularly the famous gentleman botanist Joseph Banks and the young William Bligh.

All of Cook’s major achievements are dramatised and analysed including his discovery of Hawaii, sailing the uncharted coast of New Zealand, proving it isn’t part of the ‘Great Southern Continent’ and the landing at Botany Bay as he claimed Australia for king and country, to death on a beach on the far side of the world.

A hero to some, a villain to others, Cook is depicted from different points of view: as an historic figure of the great stature to the British Royal Navy of the 18th Century and contemporary western culture, and as an exploiter of the Indigenous peoples he came across.

Classroom Activities



1. How each of the ‘experts’ interviewed by Vanessa Collingridge is presented and how effective these segments are in communicating the central point being made.

a) Whilst walking through a cemetary, Cliff Thornton discusses his theory with Vanessa Collingride about why Cook joined the navy. Why was this location chosen and what imagery is presented that might enhance the segment?

b) Dr Huw Lewis-Jones from the University of Cambridge and Professor Andrew Lambert of Kings College, London provide an insight into the rigid social structure of the time and Cook’s ability to advance despite this. Why are these interviews presented as head shots to camera? Analyse the locations chosen for the interviews, and elements such as the globe in the background of Huw Lewis- Jones’ interview. If the locations were changed, would this alter the meaning and impact of the interviews? View a selection of interviews from TV news. How are the interviewees framed? Does the size of shot and camera angle alter how we perceive them?

2. The use of drama in the clip. Why are dramatisations frequently used in contemporary documentaries? How effective is this segment in providing insight into the character of Cook and his life on board ship?

Create a text

Design a poster or newspaper advertisement that aims to recruit men for the British Navy in the 18thC. Research the language and print conventions of the time as well as the style and design of advertising and political posters by accessing books and other reference materials. Some recommended sites are The British Newspaper Library,

Further Resources


For teachers notes and further information go to the Film Australia Captain Cook – Obsession and Discovery showcase.

Go to Screen Education and Metro Magazine for excellent articles and study guides for studying Australian documentaries and how to produce media.

Go to The Age Education Online Resources for teaching ideas using newspapers.