James Cook’s First Voyage

Science and secret missions in the South Seas; innovations, discoveries and derring do. Cook’s first great voyage quickly became the stuff of legend.

Our paths cross

After showing off his skills in charting and even astronomy, the Navy’s rising star and the Observatory were bound to cross paths at some point. His observations and use of instruments like the Harrison-designed watch he took on his second voyage would tie their stories closely to each other from this point on.


The second Astronomer Royal Edmund Halley believed that he could accurately determine the distance between the planets if he could just get reliable observations around the planet of the highly anticipated transit of Venus. His successor Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne would sit on the board charged with organising the observations.

There was no telling what secrets would be unlocked with this essential piece of information and the effect it might have on astronomy and navigation. The brilliant Cook was the obvious choice to lead an expedition down to the South Seas to take an observation from there.

There be monsters

In 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.

The expedition would be given a secret mission to find the southern continent before Britain’s rivals could lay claim to it.

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. 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 islanders’ 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. Cook determined to survey the whole coast. They anchored in Botany Bay where noted naturalist Joseph Banks found many new species of plants.


The Endeavour was nearly wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef but repairs were made and the ship travelled northwards towards Batavia (modern Jakarta) where unfortunately many of the crew died of malaria and dysentery, having successfully avoided scurvy.

A national hero (but was it the right one?)

The Endeavour would return to London having made remarkable discoveries and its adventures caught the imagination of the public. Cook’s voyage would be the talk of the town although much of the glory and glamour of this first great voyage seemed to attach itself to the sociable and well-connected naturalist Joseph Banks.

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