The Great Court of the British Museum, £9.99
Diameter: 43.000 mm
Gift of Sophia Banks
Room 46: Europe 1400-1800
Gold medal of Captain James Cook, by Lewis Pingo
London, England, AD 1784
Intrepid explorer of the seas
Born into a Scottish farming family, Captain James Cook (1728-79) started his career in coal-hauling ships in the North Sea before joining the Royal Navy. He developed an interest in science, sending a detailed description on an eclipse of the sun to the Royal Society in 1766, providing the spur for his expeditions in the South Pacific. In 1768, Cook was chosen as captain of the Endeavour, to take a group of Fellows of the Royal Society to Tahiti to study the planet Venus and to discover 'Terra Australis' ('southern land') a continent thought to exist, but not yet visited by Europeans. The voyage was succesful: Cook found and charted New Zealand and the East Coast of Australia in 1770. Two further trips followed, the first between 1772 and 1775 of the Pacific islands, and Cook was elected as a Fellow of the Society on his return. His last journey ended in tragedy, as the Polynesian natives of Hawaii murdered Cook in 1779 in a dispute over a stolen cutter.
This medal was commissioned by the Royal Society (which received news of his death in 1780), from the chief engraver of the Mint, Lewis Pingo (1743-1830), who finished it in 1784. The portrait of Cook in uniform was made from a painting, with the legend 'the most intrepid explorer of the seas'. The reverse celebrates Cook's journeys, with the image of Fortune holding a rudder over the globe and a motto meaning 'our men have left nothing unattempted'. Only twenty gold medals were ever produced and were given to important people – Sophia Banks, sister of Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, gave this example to the British Museum. His widow gave another version.
L.R. Smith, Captain James Cook – the Royal (Sydney, 1982)