James Cook was born on October 27, 1728, in the tiny Yorkshire village of Marton, the son of a Scottish farm labourer and his Yorkshire wife. His education was basic, taught in Marton by a farmer's wife, Mary Walker.

When he was eight years old, his family moved to Airyholme Farm, Great Ayton, where he won himself five years' education at the local village school, paid for by his father's employer. After a spell as a farm labourer, James tried apprenticeships in grocery and haberdashery in the fishing village of Staithes.

But his first love was the sea and he finally persuaded his parents to let him re-apprentice to a Whitby coal shipper. He learned the trade of mariner aboard colliers servicing the Tyne and the Wear.

Cook showed talent, and in 1755 was likely to have been given command of his own merchant collier ship but instead he joined the Royal Navy as an Able Seaman, aged 26. The Seven Years' War broke out between Britain and France the following year, and Cook worked his way through the ranks.

By the age of 29 he became master of his own ship, the 64-gun HMS Pembroke. His major contribution to the war effort was helping to survey the estuary of the St Lawrence River to prepare for General James Wolfe's campaign against Quebec.

Cook was fascinated by navigation, astronomy and the production of charts and maps, and after peace was declared in 1763 he continued his marine surveys around Newfoundland, during which he made a detailed report on an eclipse of the sun, which came to the attention of the Royal Society.

Astronomer Edmund Halley had observed, during a rare passage of Venus across the face of the sun, that it would be possible to calculate the distance of the planet from the Earth - a feat which would involve observations from all over the globe. An international attempt to do this was organised to 1769 and the Royal Society enlisted the help of the Royal Navy for its Pacific observation.

Even though he was only a warrant officer, Lieutenant James Cook was asked to command the quest. This was because of whom he knew as well as what he knew. Admiral Pallister, who had been Cook's first captain and had encouraged his interest in navigation, recommended Cook to Philip Stephens, Secretary to the Admiralty.

He took the 370-ton Whitby collier Endeavour to Tahiti with a team which included an astronomer and an amateur botanist, Joseph Banks, whose task was to record plants and animals discovered on the voyage.

Before he started on his epic journey, Cook had already made a discovery. During his time in Canada he had realised that scurvy, the seaman's plague, could be avoided with careful attention to diet. On the eight-month journey to Tahiti, Cook insisted that his sailors collect and eat fresh fruit and meat at every opportunity. Consequently none of his 94-strong crew developed the illness and in all his years at sea he lost only one crew member to the disease.

The Northern Echo: Letter sent by Cook to the Admiralty informing them of his safe return from his epic journey. Found on the back of a list - made by Cook

Because he introduced limes into his men's diets, throughout the world Englishmen are known as Limeys.

Cook had been given an envelope which contained secret orders, not to be opened until the observation of Venus was complete. The instructions were to proceed south to latitude 40S where geographers felt there should be a huge southern land mass - a Terra Australis Incognita - to balance out the continents in the northern hemisphere.

After weeks' sailing from Tahiti no land was found so Cook turned towards New Zealand, as some believed it was attached to the elusive southern continent. On October 6, 1769, Cook landed at Poverty Bay, New Zealand.

He spent six months surveying and circumnavigating the country, discovering that it was two islands. Following his orders, Cook continued west, to head home by way of the Cape of Good Hope. After three weeks, he caught sight of land - Australia.

The land had been sighted before. Many Dutch voyages along the west coast following the first sighting by Dutchman Captain Jansz in 1606 had led it to be known as New Holland.

But on April 28,1770, after a week sailing north along the coast, an inlet was seen, lush with unfamiliar vegetation. There they landed, and Banks discovered so many new plants that Cook called the inlet Botany Bay. Almost 2,000 miles of meticulous charting followed, which almost ended in catastrophe when the Endeavour became trapped and holed on the Great Barrier Reef. It took six weeks to repair.

Following the coast, Cook rounded the northernmost tip, which he called Cape York, and took the east coast of 'New Holland' for Britain. He returned home in July 1771 after three years at sea - and was soon planning his next expedition to discover another continent south of 'New Holland'. The Admiralty loved the idea and fitted out two ships, Resolution and Discovery, for the expedition. He headed south again.

Cook's obsession with fresh food was almost the death of him. He ate all manner of exotic creatures, and off a Polynesian island in his second expedition he ate the liver of a blowfish which contains the deadly poison tetrodotoxin. Some islanders realised what had happened and saved his life with an emetic.

On January 17, 1773, Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle, going farther south than anyone ever had, but he found no land. Cook knew that if land lay ahead, it would be so inhospitable that it would have little economic significance. More lucrative, however, would be a sea route to China by way of a north-west passage above Canada. He would try to find it from the Pacific side.

Cook was married for 17 years to Elizabeth Batts, the daughter of a keeper of a London pub where sailors waited to take their colliers back to the Tyne. In all, Cook spent three years with his wife and had six children, all of whom died in childhood or at sea.

When he returned from his Antarctic voyage he had intended to retire from the sea but his lust for discovery of the northern passage meant he began a third expedition on July 14, 1776. Cook sailed to the South Sea islands then to Alaska, discovering the Hawaiian islands on the way. Here he was feted as a god, and he and his men were welcomed.

Then he sailed north into the Arctic ice but could find no way through. He went to sit out the winter in Hawaii - but the god was not expected to return and the reception was hostile.

Cook, a man of determination, industry and diligence, a decisive yet relaxed man with a keen eye for detail, had changed. His three and a half year journey in the frozen south had aged him. There is speculation that he had a long-term health problem which changed his personality.

There are many theories about Cook's death, aged 50, at the hands of natives in Hawaii on Valentine's Day, 1779. One such theory is that he attempted to take the local king hostage in a plan to recover a stolen boat, only to be hacked to death by furious natives. Crew members recovered some of his remains and buried them at sea.

The Northern Echo: The spear that killed Captain James Cook on 14th February 1779 was turned into a walking stick

Cook's reputation has been questioned in recent years, as the indigenous peoples of the lands he discovered make calls for reparations. Although regarded as a gentleman and national icon by white Australia, he is a demonic figure in Aboriginal history; they mourn the anniversary of his arrival in their country as White Invasion Day.

The arrival of European explorers and subsequently European colonists, with their assumed superiority, their diseases to which the natives had no immunity, their weapons and their alcohol saw the Aborigine population collapse from 300,000 to 50,000 in one century.

But the upheaval of nations, one of the consequences of Cook's discoveries, are also the responsibility of the generations which followed. Cook was a complex human being, and his life is open to interpretation, but there is no doubt that the North-East of England produced one of the greatest maritime explorers of all time, whose tenacity and willingness to go to the very edges of the earth changed the course of history.