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Cook's voyages to the Pacific

by Michelle Hetherington

James Cook’s three Pacific voyages represent the turning point for British ambitions in the South Seas. Prior to these voyages, the Pacific was poorly documented. Inadequate charts left room for surmise and disaster. As navigators could only guess their longitude, islands were discovered, lost and then rediscovered under different names. A poor understanding of nutrition resulted in terrible loss of life on expedition vessels. Access to the rich markets of the Americas, China and the Spice Islands remained out of reach. At the end of Cook’s third Pacific Voyage, the Pacific had been charted from Antarctic waters to the Arctic, contact had been made with island populations, and the huge collections of the natural and ‘artificial’ productions of the region had given rise to scientific studies that would develop into what are now known as anthropology and ethnology. From an Australian point of view, the first voyage in particular has great significance. Eighteen years after Cook mapped much of the east coast and claimed it for the British Crown, the First Fleet arrived and British colonisation of the continent began.

Fly whisks and handles.

Cook's Pacific Encounters exhibition, National Museum of Australia, 2006. Photo: George Serras.

British interest in the Pacific was of long standing. Spanish claims to exclusive control of most of South America, the south Atlantic and the Pacific had largely stymied British access to the riches of the New World (although her buccaneers and privateers had been bringing home captured cargoes and maps since the 1580s). Taking advantage of the changed balance of power in Europe following the signing of the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Seven Years War, the Royal Navy sent out three vessels between 1764 and 1766 to locate and claim a suitable land base in the Pacific from which to conduct trade. Each ship failed to find the hoped-for Great South Land, but one of them, the Dolphin, returned in May 1768 with news of a hospitable island claimed for the Crown as King George III’s Island, but known to its inhabitants as Tahiti.

The catalyst for Cook’s first Pacific voyage was a petition sent to King George III by the British Royal Society in 1768.1 The petition requested assistance to send a scientific expedition to the South Seas to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun (expected to occur in June 1769), and supplied the King and his navy with a pretext and opportunity to extend British knowledge of a region from which Spain had sought to exclude them for centuries. The need for more accurate astronomical knowledge which underpinned the petition was as old as Britain’s maritime rivalry with Spain, but the more recent originator of the petition was Edmund Halley, who in 1716 encouraged the Royal Society to observe the next transits of Venus, due in 1761 and 1769. Accurate transit measurements could then be used to calculate the distance of the Earth from the Sun and, by extension, the size of the solar system and the universe.

Observations of the 1761 transit were taken from across Europe and in China, India, Réunion Island, Cape of Good Hope, St Helena and Newfoundland. However, with no method for accurately calculating the longitude of most observation sites, no useful results were obtained. Venus was expected to transit the Sun again on 3 June 1769, but if this opportunity was also lost, it would be another 105 years before the transit next occurred and another attempt at recording it could be made.

The Royal Society’s petition, supported by the Greenwich Observatory, sought the sum of £4000 to defray the costs of a Pacific expedition which would, it was stressed, enhance Britain’s imperial ambitions and scientific reputation, and improve navigation and trade. The petition was soon approved. In addition to the requested sum, a further £8235 was spent on the purchase and refitting of a suitable ship, HMB Endeavour.2 With such a considerable investment at stake, the Lords of the Admiralty rejected the Royal Society’s nomination of a ‘civilian’, Alexander Dalrymple, for captain.3 Dalrymple refused to join the voyage merely as an observer, and so the Royal Society asked the navy to suggest a ‘proper person’ in his stead.

In May 1768, the Royal Society was informed that Lieutenant James Cook had been appointed expedition commander by the Admiralty. Cook had spent most of his summers for the past decade mapping the Gulf of St Lawrence and Newfoundland, and in addition to perfecting his cartographic skills, had also observed a solar eclipse from the Burgeo Islands on 5 August 1766.4 The Royal Society was therefore happy to appoint Cook as one of the observers of the transit in Dalrymple’s place. Cook attended the Council of the Royal Society on 19 May 1768 and accepted the sum of 100 guineas as a ‘gratuity for his trouble as one of the Observers’.5 At the same meeting, Charles Green, assistant to the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich Observatory, was appointed voyage astronomer.

For the 1769 transit, there were 150 observers in locations from Hudson Bay to the Pacific, both north and south of the equator. Dr Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal and fellow of the Royal Society, had calculated that the best possible vantage point south of the equator was between the Marquesas Islands in the north-east and Tonga in the west. The preferred site within this large area had not yet been determined when the Dolphin returned with news of Tahiti, located almost at the centre of the area identified by Maskelyne. In addition to the pleasant climate, friendly locals and excellent food supply, Tahiti’s longitude had been established by the Dolphin’s purser, John Harrison, using Maskelyne’s astronomical tables to perform the mathematically complicated but effective method of calculating lunar distances. The following month, the Royal Society informed the Admiralty that Tahiti was its desired site for the observation of the transit, and also requested that naturalist Joseph Banks and his party be permitted to join the expedition.6

The avowedly scientific purpose of this voyage in a Royal Navy ship, and the inclusion of civilian scientists, naturalists and artists among the Endeavour’s company, was unprecedented. On 3 June 1769, with a cloudless sky and the thermometer at 119°F, measurements of the transit were taken at Point Venus by Cook, Green and naturalist Daniel Solander; at the islet of Taaupiri by Lieutenant Zachary Hicks; and at the nearby island of Moorea by Lieutenant John Gore. And their readings did not agree. Many years of planning and vast sums of money culminated only in confusion, due to the difficulty of determining exactly when Venus first crossed and last touched the solar disc. The 15 to 20 second variations in the Tahitian readings were repeated around the world.7

Other scientific aspects of Cook’s first voyage were more successful, especially Banks’s and Solander’s botanical discoveries and natural history collections, although commentators have regretted Banks’s failure to publish.8 The political and imperial aspects of the voyage, less publicly acknowledged than the scientific rationale, were also a considerable success. Lord Morton, then president of the Royal Society, had supplied Cook with ‘Hints’ outlining the scientific program and desired approach to interactions with the peoples of the Pacific. The Admiralty supplied Cook with secret instructions that required him to search for and claim for the Crown the fabled Terra Australis, or failing that, any other site likely to be valuable as a base for exploration and trade. On leaving Tahiti the Endeavour sailed into southern latitudes in search of a large body of land and, finding none, headed for New Zealand, the west coast of which had been sighted and partially mapped by Tasman in 1642–1643.

The crew of the Endeavour spent from October 1769 to the end of March 1770 circumnavigating and mapping New Zealand, proving conclusively that it was not, as some believed, an outlying promontory of Terra Australis. Cook and his men continued to collect specimens and artefacts, and to record detailed observations, before the decision was made to return home via the east coast of New Holland. Only two stays of any length were made on the Australian coast — one at Botany Bay to take on wood and water, and another to repair their ship at Endeavour River after it struck the Great Barrier Reef. After mapping and claiming a 2000-mile stretch of the coast, Cook sailed for Batavia.

Despite the deaths of many of the ship’s company from illness contracted at Batavia, and the inconclusive results from the observation of the transit of Venus at Tahiti, the Endeavour’s voyage was considered a great success, and even as he sailed home, Cook was formulating a plan to return to the Pacific to establish irrefutably the existence, or otherwise, of the Great South Land. Lord Sandwich, recently reappointed First Lord of the Admiralty, approved Cook’s suggestion, and planning began for a second voyage along similar scientific and strategic principles to the first.

Many lessons had been learnt from the voyage of the Endeavour, in particular the folly of sending single ships on expeditions into unexplored waters. For the second voyage, two ships were commissioned, and the names initially given to them — the Drake and the Raleigh — made clear Britain’s resolve to defy Spanish pretensions to ‘own’ the Pacific. Banks’s experience of the cramped conditions of the great cabin on the Endeavour also led him to make preparations for his improved comfort on the second voyage, with extra accommodation constructed on the Resolution’s upper deck at his own expense and the services of a greatly increased retinue of assistants secured.

Upon reflection, the navy chose not to antagonise Spain, and renamed the ships the Adventure and the Resolution. Banks’s plans also suffered alteration when the Resolution nearly capsized during sea trials to test the safety of his additions. They were removed forthwith. Banks expressed his fury and, after a week of intense lobbying, withdrew himself and his retinue from the voyage. In place of Banks, Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg were appointed as principal and assistant naturalists to pursue the voyage’s scientific program.

William Hodges was offered the position of voyage artist and, unlike the artists of the first voyage, worked under Cook’s direction.

Reflecting much more closely Cook’s own navigational and geographic interests, the second voyage ventured further south than ever before recorded and finally exploded the myth of the Great South Land. Islands mentioned by previous explorers were located and their positions fixed, and new discoveries were made of New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The effectiveness and reliability of the chronometers on board were thoroughly tested and, learning from his earlier experiences of trade and exchange in the Pacific, Cook accumulated a remarkable collection of cultural items including the highly prized mourning dress from Tahiti. Of equal importance, certainly when considering the reception of this voyage back home, Cook also spent his time writing and polishing his own account, thus escaping the embroideries and misrepresentations of John Hawkesworth’s published account of the first voyage, while securing the financial rewards of publication for himself.

The inclusion of the Forsters had a huge impact on the outcomes of the voyage. Described as ‘gentlemen skilled in natural history and drawing’, the Forsters were not given any official instructions for the voyage.9 Principally a zoologist, JR Forster’s wealth of knowledge was his greatest asset.10 Like Cook, he had to rely on his abilities to secure patronage, and like Cook his aim was to exceed the achievements of others in his field. At his own expense, Forster hired Swedish naturalist Anders Sparrman at Cape Town to be his assistant, aware that he and Georg would need extra help to pursue his scientific program of thoroughly documenting the species, elements, productions and phenomena of the Pacific. In 1775 the list of the voyage achievements was excitedly conveyed to Banks by Solander as ‘260 new plants, 200 new animals, 71°10' farthest south, no continent, many islands, some 80 leagues long … no man lost from sickness’.11 While JR Forster brought great learning to his study of mankind, he was less sure in his dealings with its individual examples. He managed to alienate the very men on board the Resolution and in the navy whose good opinion he most needed to retain. As a result, it was nearly 200 years before a thorough appreciation of his achievements was published in English to replace Solander’s scant list.12

Cook’s health had suffered during the three years of this voyage, and after his return to England in July 1775 he sought and secured the position of fourth captain at Greenwich Hospital, a sinecure with pension attached that would allow him time to prepare his account of the voyage for publication. Cook won even greater acclaim for his second voyage to the Pacific than he had for the first. He was presented at Court, made a fellow of the Royal Society and was sought after in polite society as a dinner companion. After two such highly successful voyages to the Pacific, the Admiralty was tempted to restart the 200-year-old search for the North-West Passage between the North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans. Should this passage exist, the British would have a trade route to China and the Spice Islands that avoided the traditional southern routes controlled by Portugal and Spain. Despite needing more time to recuperate, Cook was soon prevailed upon to undertake a third voyage to the Pacific, during which he would also return Omai, a young Polynesian man brought to England on board the Adventure in 1774, to Tahiti.13

The Resolution was repaired and refitted for another voyage, and the Discovery was chosen as consort vessel. No independent scientific party accompanied Cook this time. However, surgeon William Anderson doubled as naturalist and ethnologist, William Bayley served as astronomer and David Nelson was employed to collect botanical specimens for Joseph Banks. The Admiralty appointed John Webber as the voyage artist, and William Ellis also completed drawings and paintings on the voyage. Charles Clerke, who had already made three Pacific voyages, two of them with Cook, was selected as captain of the Discovery. Clerke’s extensive knowledge of the Pacific was typical of many of the crew on board the two ships, large numbers of whom had sailed with Cook before. As a result, there were many who spoke ‘Otaheitian’ with varying levels of competence, and who had established the ties of friendship with islanders that would allow them to acquire and exchange cultural objects for which there was a lucrative market back home.

With such a breadth of Pacific experience among the crew, the success of the expedition must have seemed assured. However, the third voyage was plagued with mischance and difficulty from the start. The departure of the ships was delayed by Clerke’s incarceration for his brother’s debts. The expedition was carrying plant seeds and numerous ‘useful’ animals including sheep, goats and horses with which to stock the Pacific, and the crowded ships had to make frequent landfall for supplies of water and feed to keep the animals alive. Both ships leaked and further delays from bad weather left insufficient time to reach the Arctic Circle during the northern spring. Instead the ships had to wait nearly a year for their next chance to sail north and spent that time cruising the South Pacific with a captain who seemed to have lost his usually strong focus on exploration.14

With so much time at their disposal, the ships made long stays at the islands visited on earlier voyages. Cook’s journal reveals a growing sense of disillusionment with Polynesian society and concern about the impact of European contact. In declining health, Cook reacted to instances of insubordination and theft with increasingly violent outbursts and punishments, which impaired relations with the islanders and caused discontent and desertions among the crew. The observation of a human sacrifice on Tahiti distressed Cook and his officers, and raised concerns as to whether it was safe to leave Omai on that island as intended. Instead, Omai was installed on Huahine in late 1777, and on 8 December Cook left the Society Islands for the last time.

Six weeks into their voyage towards the North American coast the ships encountered Hawai‘i, which Cook named the Sandwich Islands in honour of the First Lord of the Admiralty. The similarities in language and culture between Hawai‘i and the Society Islands eased communication between the ships and the Hawaiian people. Fresh supplies were taken on board and, after a brief reconnoitre that was hampered by bad weather, the ships resumed their passage north. The islands and their people were fascinating, but no-one wanted to miss the northern spring a second time.

Cook’s instructions required him to make landfall at 45°N, near present-day Oregon. He carried an English version of a map by Gerhard Müller, published in London in 1761. Müller had drawn on information from Spanish maps showing the coastline northwards from California and had indicated the routes taken by Bering and Chirikov’s 1741 exploration of the northern Pacific. Cook was suspicious of the accuracy of a map which contained so many omissions, and exploration was hampered by fogs and poor weather that made approaching the coast dangerous. The ships spent a month at Nootka Sound repairing, restocking and trading with the local people. They also explored a number of inlets that proved not to be the North-West Passage and on 28 June 1778 were finally able to sail through Unalga Pass into the Bering Sea and, via the Bering Strait, into the Arctic Ocean.

The Resolution and Discovery crossed the Arctic Circle and reached 70°41'N before pack-ice blocked their path. Heading west they reached the Russian coast at Cape Shmidta and followed it southwards. Nearly two months were spent in the Arctic Ocean before the expedition headed back towards the unexplored parts of the Alaskan coast to search, without success, for the passage. Cook concluded that if the passage did exist, it must lie beyond the Bering Strait where the freezing conditions that prevailed even in summer would compromise its usefulness as a trade route. With summer nearly over, Cook returned to Samgoonoodha in Unalaska where work began refitting both ships. He made contact with the Russians from Dutch Harbour and they kindly supplied him with a letter of introduction to the Governor of Kamchatka, and better charts of the region, which Cook copied.

In late October the ships finally sailed for Hawai‘i, arriving off Maui on 26 November 1778. Many of the islanders, including King Kalani‘opu‘u and Kamehameha, visited the ships in their canoes, but Cook spent the next six weeks sailing around the islands and refusing to land, despite the parlous condition of his ships and the desperation of his men. When the ships finally anchored in Kealakekua Bay on 17 January 1779, relations with the Hawaiians were cordial. Gifts were exchanged and trade was good. Cook’s journal stops at this date, and so we do not have his reaction to the reverential way in which he was treated by the islanders. However, failure by members of the crew to respect the religious sensibilities of their hosts soured relations, and Cook soon realised it was time to leave. The ships were escorted from the bay on 4 February but, after winds broke a mast on the Resolution, returned again on 11 February to a very different reception.

The tabu placed by the Hawaiian priests upon the ships and their equipment which had protected them from theft was lifted, and shows of respect were replaced with taunts and harassment. A number of brazen thefts occurred which many on board were convinced had been instigated by the chiefs. On the morning of 14 February the Discovery’s great cutter was discovered stolen. Cook armed the mates and crews and, attended by ten marines, they set off to take the king, ‘Terreeoboo’, hostage in order to secure the speedy return of the boat. Cook had resorted to taking island rulers hostage before, but he made a serious miscalculation this time and was trapped upon a rocky beach by a furious crowd of rock-throwing islanders. Cook, four of the marines and 17 Hawaiians were killed, and their bodies were left on the shore as the rest of Cook’s party retreated to the ships. Amid the shock and distress on board, Clerke assumed command of the expedition, and John Gore, first lieutenant on the Resolution, was made captain of the Discovery.

Until repairs to the Resolution’s foremast were completed, the ships could not leave, and requests were made to the Hawaiians for the return of Cook’s body. Flesh from his thigh was brought on board on 15 February and on 20 and 21 February bundles of his remains were returned and given burial at sea the following day. Cook’s clothes were sold in the great cabin to the officers of both ships and his papers and effects were reserved for his widow. The final preparations were made for departure, and on 23 February the ships left Kealakekua Bay, although it was not until mid March that the ships finally left Hawaiian waters. They sailed for Kamchatka to complete their mission, as they believed Cook would have wished.

At Kamchatka the Russian governor Behm was preparing to return to St Petersburg and offered to carry with him letters and copies of journals which would be forwarded to the British Admiralty. News of Cook’s death reached London in January 1780, by which time the two ships were finally sailing home. Clerke, who had grown progressively weaker from tuberculosis throughout the third voyage, died at sea on 22 August 1779. Permission was obtained to bury him at Petropavlosk, and Gore became voyage commander in Clerke’s stead. Returning to the Arctic Ocean, they failed to find a north-west passage and the exhausted crews finally reached London in October 1780 after four-and-a-half years at sea. Their arrival had been delayed by six weeks of storms in the English Channel and North Atlantic Ocean.

Lieutenant King, who had been placed in command of the Discovery after Clerke’s death, was given the task of editing the logs and journals for publication, while midshipman Roberts prepared the maps. The voyage account appeared in 1784 and was soon translated into a number of European languages, increasing Cook’s fame. Cook was posthumously awarded a coat of arms and the Royal Society struck a medal in his honour. Poems, a pantomime and an opera were written celebrating his achievements, and paintings and engravings depicting his death in Hawai‘i were produced. Among the more effusive outpourings was an image of Cook being wafted heavenwards by Fame and Britannia above a representation of Kealakekua Bay originally drawn by John Webber. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook captured the popular contemporary view that Cook had become a martyr to Britain’s scientific and territorial advancement.

Cook would serve as the role model for many generations of British explorers, and the wide dissemination of published accounts of his voyages encouraged other nations’ explorers to emulate their remarkable scope and scientific rigour. In the years immediately following Cook’s death, La Perouse, Krusenstern and Malaspina all set out to explore the South Seas and in their wake came countless others. Life in the Pacific was changed utterly and, with it, the scientific and political understanding of the world was transformed.

Michelle Hetherington is a curator at the National Museum of Australia.


1 Joseph Banks’s handwritten records of the Royal Society’s arrangements for recording the 1796 transit are printed in JC Beaglehole (ed.), The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery, vols I–IV, Hakluyt Society Extra Series 34–37, The Hakluyt Society, Cambridge, 1968–1972, reprinted by the Boydell Press, Sussex and Hordern House, Sydney, 1999, vol. I, The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768–1771, pp. 511–514.

2 Another £2000 or so would also be required for wages for the ship’s company. See Richard Sorrenson, ‘The ship as scientific instrument in the eighteenth century’, reprinted in Science, Empire and the European Exploration of the Pacific, ed. by Tony Ballantyne, Ashgate Variorum, Hampshire, 2004, p. 126.

3 Dalrymple had finished his An Account of the Discoveries Made in the South Pacifick Ocean, previous to 1764 in 1767 and a few printed copies were available in autumn that year.

4 Cook’s credentials were helped by the fact that he had sent his observations of the eclipse to Dr John Bevis in England, who read Cook’s paper to the Royal Society in April 1767. In November 1767, Bevis was elected a member of the committee set up by the Royal Society to examine in detail the practical arrangements for the Pacific transit observation. See John Robson, Captain Cook’s World: Maps of the Life and Voyages of Captain James Cook R.N., Random House Australia, Milsons Point, 2000, p. 19. Other members of the committee were Reverend Dr Nevil Maskelyne, John Short and James Ferguson. See Glyndwr Williams, ‘The Endeavour voyage: A coincidence of motives’, reprinted in Williams’, Buccaneers, Explorers and Settlers: British Enterprise and Encounters in the Pacific, 1670–1800, Ashgate Publishing Limited, Aldershot, Great Britain and Burlington, USA, 2005, p. 5.

5 Beaglehole (ed.), The Journals of Captain James Cook, vol. I, p. 513.

6 David Turnbull, ‘(En)-countering knowledge traditions: The story of Cook and Tupaia’, in Ballantyne (ed.), Science, Empire and the European Exploration of the Pacific, p. 230.

7 By the end of 1771 over 200 readings had been received by the French Academy of Sciences and the distance of the Earth from the Sun was calculated as being between 87,890,780 and 108,984,560 miles. Subsequent readings in 1874 and 1882 were no more accurate.

8 William T Stearn, ‘A Royal Society appointment with Venus in 1769: The voyage of Cook and Banks in the Endeavour in 1768–71 and its botanical results’, in Ballantyne (ed.), Science, Empire and the European Exploration of the Pacific, p. 94.

9 This lack of direction differed markedly from the detailed instructions given to the two astronomers, William Wales and William Bradley.

10 Forster excelled in subjects as diverse as ancient history and antiquities, oriental and classical languages, geography, chemistry, mineralogy, meteorology, mapping and surveying, and Linnean classification.

11 Forster’s own estimation of what he and his party achieved can be found in the dedication he wrote to Georg in his book Enchiridion historiae naturali inserviens … (Halle, 1788). ‘On this journey we not only saw new and various miracles of nature, but we described them both in word and drawing … It was my particular province … to describe all the animals, to investigate closely the habits, rites, ceremonies, religious beliefs, way of life, clothing, agriculture, commerce, arts, weapons, modes of warfare, political organisation, and the language of the people we met: and also I had to take note of the daily changes in the atmosphere, the winds, increase and decrease in temperature, and whatever was worth noting … About 500 new plants and 300 animals have been sketched with great care. Any understanding person will be amazed that so much work could have been completed by one man and a youth not yet 20, with only one single assistant.’ Michael Hoare, (ed.), The Resolution Journal of Johann Reinhold Forster 1772–1775, volumes I–IV, The Hakluyt Society, London, 1982, vol. I, p. 77.

12 On their return to England, both Forster and Cook expressed their determination to write the authoritative narrative account of the voyage. The argument which followed led to Lord Sandwich prohibiting Johann Forster from publishing any account of the voyage. His son Georg produced an account instead, racing to beat Cook into print and save his family from financial ruin. See Nicholas Thomas, Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook, Allen Lane, London, 2003, pp. 265–267.

13 Cook’s decision was made easier because the final stylistic and grammatical polishing of his voyage account was now in the hands of Cannon Douglas, and was sweetened by the prospect of a £20,000 reward should the passage be discovered.

14 For more detailed information on Cook’s search for the North-West Passage, see Beaglehole (ed.), The Journals of Captain James Cook, vol. III, The Voyage of the Resolution and the Discovery, 1776–1780, pp. 292–470; and Robson, Captain Cook’s World, pp. 155–162.

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