Captain James Cook

Captain CookCaptain James Cook, 1728–79 by William Hodges, 1775–76. Repro ID: BHC4227 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Acquired with the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial FundCaptain CookCaptain James Cook by Nathaniel DanceIn the 18th century, the Pacific Ocean was still virtually uncharted. Ever since Magellan made the first European crossing in 1520 there had been rumours of a large southern continent called Terra Australis Nondum Cognita (the southern land not yet known). French, Dutch and English sailors, including Francis Drake, had hunted in vain for this mythical land.

What was the plan of the British government?

The British Admiralty wanted to organise a scientific expedition to observe the transit of Venus due in June 1769, during which the planet Venus would cross the face of the Sun. The expedition would also be given a secret mission to find the southern continent.

Find out more about the expeditions to observe the transit of Venus in our online exhibition.

Who was to lead this expedition?

The Admiralty chose a brilliant young navigator called James Cook who had successfully charted the St Lawrence river in Quebec. Cook's charts helped General Wolfe and the British army to capture Quebec from the French in 1759. Cook had also observed and described an eclipse of the Sun in 1766.

What were James Cook's beginnings?

Cook was born in the small Yorkshire village of Marton on the 27 October 1728. At 17 he worked for a shopkeeper in Staithes near Whitby. Here he decided that a life at sea was what he wanted and he became apprenticed to a firm of Whitby coal shippers. He worked hard at mathematics and at astronomy, which was very important for navigators. He was soon offered command of a merchant ship, but chose to join the navy as a seaman instead. Cook was one of very few men to rise through the ranks from seaman to command, and was thus much more sympathetic to the needs of ordinary sailors. Though still hard, conditions on his ships were much better than on many others.

What kind of ships were used on the expedition?

HM bark 'Endeavour'HM bark Endeavour, full hull model, made by Robert A. Lightley c. 1973. Repro ID: D3358_1 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Reproduced with kind permission of Robert LightleyCook chose a type of vessel 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. Scientific instruments for observing Venus were under the supervision of the astronomer, Dr Green. Joseph Banks also joined the expedition as an amateur botanist. There were also two artists: Buchan who painted scenic views and Parkinson who drew the plants that Banks collected.

Was there more than one voyage planned?

Cook went on three voyages under the auspices of the Admiralty. However each had a different purpose and covered different parts of the globe.

Where did the first voyage go?

The Endeavour set off from Plymouth, and sailed around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, anchoring by the island of Tahiti. The islanders welcomed the crew and were interested in all that they did. There were some difficulties between the crew and the islanders due to the differing views on property, for the islanders considered all property as communal. However, Cook took a lenient view of small 'thefts' and tried to encourage his crew to do likewise, with varied success. The islander's custom of decorating themselves by pricking their skin and dyeing it led to the fashion among sailors of tattooing.

After an idyllic stay in Tahiti, the Endeavour continued on to the North Island of New Zealand where they met Maori with war canoes, before sailing on to the South Island. They found that neither island was joined to a large southern continent. The Endeavour continued towards Tasmania and the east coast of Australia discovered by the Dutchman, Tasman in 1759. They anchored in Botany Bay where Banks found many new species of plants.

The Endeavour was nearly wrecked on the coral reefs to the north but repairs were made and the ship travelled northwards towards Batavia (modern Jakarta) where unfortunately many of the crew died of fever. Cook had managed to protect his crew from the sailors' scourge of scurvy by making sure that high standards of cleanliness were kept on board ship and that the crew ate as many fresh vegetables as possible.

Why was the second voyage made?

Harrison's Marine Chronometer (H4)Marine Chronometer (H4) by John Harrison, 1759. Repro ID: D0789_1 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Ministry of Defence Art Collection 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. Banks wanted to join the expedition but withdrew after Cook did not allow him an extra deck on the ship! Another artist, William Hodges, painted a series of views of the Pacific Islands which showed dramatic and romantic landscapes which fascinated everyone in England. Find out more about Hodges and his career in our online exhibition.

On this expedition Cook tested a copy of a timekeeper, or sea clock, designed by John Harrison. Its successful performance meant that Cook and all future navigators were able to fix longitude much more accurately than before. Our online gallery has more information about Harrison and the problem of accurately measuring longitude.

Between January 1773 and January 1774 Cook's ships entered the Antarctic circle several times, but because of the intense cold were forced to turn back only 121 km from Antarctica's coast.

Cook then travelled on to New Zealand where he traded with the Maoris. After this he sailed to the island of Tahiti. Two islanders from Tahiti came back to England with the expedition.

Why did Cook make a third voyage?

The Ice Islands by William HodgesThe Ice Islands by William Hodges [artist], B. T. Pouncy [engraver], 16 July 1776. Repro ID: PAI4021 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonCook'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. This time the mood had changed. 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. Captain Clerke took command of the ships, but he too died on the voyage and Lieutenant Gore finally brought the ships home.

James Cook's achievements in mapping the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia radically changed understanding of world geography and proved him in the words of a contemporary 'the most able and enlightened navigator that England ever produced.'