Nova Scotia

The harbor of Halifax is without doubt one of the best in America sufficiently large to hold all the navy of England with great safety.

Cook’s description of the  coast of Nova Scotia


For four years from 1758 to 1762, James Cook was based in Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia.   He arrived as the master of HMS Pembroke, one of the 17 ships in Admiral Boscawen’s Fleet sent to wrestle the fort of Louisbourg from the French.  The fort was strategically placed to guard the sea route to Quebec via the St Lawrence River.  When British forces captured Louisbourg, the way was opened for the siege of Quebec.

 By Pierre-Charles Canot -, Public Domain,

A view of Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.   James Cook took part in the capture of Louisbourg from the French in 1758. The Royal Navy fleet launched the attack from their base in Halifax, Nova Scotia.   Credit: Pierre-Charles Canot [Public domain]

A map of the St Lawrence River was essential to allow the British troops to safely navigate their way to Quebec.  Cook was employed to undertake this survey and to plan the most suitable routes; his involvement was critical in the conquest of Quebec.  After the battle, he remained in North America (as it was then known) and was assigned the task of surveying the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, spending the winter months at Halifax.

The Headquarters of the Royal Navy’s North America Station were based in Halifax.  Founded in 1749, the settlement was less than 10 years old when Cook arrived.  It was described as a pleasant town with a magnificent harbour, well protected from north-westerly winds.  It held a key position as the most northerly port on the Atlantic coast which remained open throughout winter when other harbours were frozen.  During Cook’s time here, he developed his skills in navigation, astronomy, surveying and cartography; combining the four disciplines to become a highly accomplished naval hydrographer.

A map of Halifax and the Navy yard. Courtesy of Captain Cook Society.

However, he also learned lessons about the importance of caring for his men. During the two month voyage across the Atlantic with Boscawen’s Fleet, twenty-two men on Pembroke died from scurvy.  This devastating disease caused by poor nutrition had a devastating effect on seafarers on long voyages.  This awareness caused Cook to provide fresh food to his crew whenever possible during his voyages into the Pacific and this had a profound effect on the health of his men.  Additionally, during the harsh winters in Halifax, he noted that  many men suffered and died from the biting cold through lack of warm clothing.  There was no issue of suitable outfits, and what they had often became wet and cold.  He ensured on his voyages of exploration  that every man was provided with a good supply of appropriate clothing to withstand the freezing temperatures they encountered.

After Cook returned to England, his commander in Nova Scotia, Lord Alexander Colvill, penned a letter to the Admiralty with the notable recommendation:

… from my experience of Mr Cook’s genius and capacity, I think him well qualified for the work he has performed, and for greater undertakings of the same kind.

The dance Nova Scotia was published in 1751 and again in 1757 to celebrate the founding of Halifax.  It may have been one of the dances mentioned in Admiral Boscawen’s letters as he wrote to his wife about the nightly dances on the Atlantic crossing.  Perhaps it was danced on Cook’s ship to keep his crew healthy as they ploughed the south seas, or in a cultural exchange with the Pacific Islanders.

Header credits:
1. Portrait of Captain Cook by Nathaniel Dance-Holland [Public domain] 2. A jig on board by Cruikshank. Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
3. View of the South Seas by John Cleveley the Younger [Public domain]


The information on this website may be copied for personal use only, and must be acknowledged as from this website. It may not be reproduced for publication without prior permission from Dr Heather Blasdale Clarke.

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