All of Cook's remarkable discoveries were undertaken in relatively humble ships designed for hauling coal. 

The voyages

Cook went on three voyages under the auspices of the Admiralty. Each had a different purpose and covered different parts of the globe but Cook’s preference for a particular type of ship was constant.

The flag he sailed under

Naval ships in the 18th century wore red, white or blue ensigns (maritime flags) depending on the rank of the admiral commanding their squadron. Ships on detached duties such as those of Captain Cook wore red ensigns.

The Endeavour

Cook chose a type of vessel for his first grand voyage that he respected and knew to be sturdy and practical – the Whitby collier. Endeavour was solidly built, broad of beam and shallow in draught so was unlikely to run aground, could hold lots of provisions and be managed by a small crew if necessary. According to Cook, 'a better ship for such service I never could wish for.'

How was the Endeavour prepared?

The collier was adapted for its new role in Deptford Royal Dockyard. Many provisions were taken on board: food, livestock, arms and ammunition not to mention scientific instruments for observing Venus. While the official reason for the voyage was to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti, Cook carried secret instructions to search for the missing southern continent.

A little bit of firepower

Endeavour carried ten 4-pounder guns about 6 feet long (180cm) and weighing between 11 and 12cwt. She also was equipped with 12 swivel guns which were 2 feet 10 inches (85cm) long and which were loaded with loose shot for short-range fighting.

Second voyage - Resolution and Adventure

After nearly a year at home, Cook embarked on a second voyage to continue to look for the southern continent. He took two Whitby colliers this time – the Resolution and the Adventure. The well-connected naturalist Joseph Banks wanted to join the expedition but withdrew after Cook would not allow him the building of an extra deck on the ship.

Third voyage - Resolution and Discovery

Cook's third and last voyage was to find the North-West Passage believed to link the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Cook again took the Resolution and another Whitby collier, the Discovery. After coming to a wall of ice in the Arctic, Cook turned south again and explored the island of Hawaii where he found that he was treated as a god by the islanders.

After a short time Cook's ships left, but were forced to return a few days later because the Resolution needed repairs to her mast. When Cook tried to take the king hostage after the theft of a ship's boat, the islanders became alarmed and during a struggle Cook was stabbed and killed on 14 February 1779.

Entry to the National Maritime Museum is free, open daily from 10am

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