After Cook's voyages: the imperial legacy

Professor Glyn Williams describes how Britain was quick to exploit the discoveries of Cook’s voyages.

On his three voyages Captain James Cook established the salient features of the Pacific, the vast ocean that extended over one-third of the world’s surface and contained 25,000 islands. As James King, a lieutenant on his third voyage put it, at last ‘the Grand bounds of the four Quarters of the Globe are known’. Exploitation followed exploration, for as the preface to the published account of Cook’s last voyage urged, ‘Great Britain…must take the lead in reaping the full advantage of her own discoveries.’

Within a few years of Cook’s death in 1779 such a process was well under way. The First Fleet sailed for Australia to establish a British settlement in Australia; William Bligh and the Bounty left for Tahiti to collect breadfruit; British vessels on the northwest coast of America engaged in the maritime fur trade whose potential Cook had revealed; British and American whalers followed Cook’s tracks in far southerly latitudes; and in the next century Cook’s charts were the essential preliminaries to British settlement in New Zealand.

A chart of New Zealand by James Cook

Cook’s chart of New Zealand shows the course of the Endeavour as the ship circumnavigated the North Island and then the South Island.

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In the decades following Cook's three voyages, all of which spent time in New Zealand, its remoteness and the fearsome reputation of its Maori inhabitants discouraged settlement, although traders, whalers and missionaries visited North Island in increasing numbers. They lived mostly in Cook’s Bay of Islands, where in 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and Maori marked the beginning of formal British settlement.

The First Fleet and Botany Bay

During the War of American Independence the British government investigated whether Cook’s first landing place on the east coast of Australia might be a place of transportation for the many thousands of convicts who could no longer be transported to the rebellious American colonies. 

Sir Joseph Banks was a key witness, for no other European ship had reached Australia since the Endeavour’s visit in 1770. According to Banks, the climate at Botany Bay was mild; the grass was long and luxuriant; oxen and sheep would thrive, and the Aboriginal inhabitants were few and timorous.  

With the coming of American independence the matter became more urgent, and in further government investigations Banks insisted that at Botany Bay that the Aborigines ‘would speedily abandon the country to the newcomers’.

Joseph Banks collected thousands of plant and animal specimens, many of which were unknown in Europe, during the Endeavour voyage. Watch Sir David Attenborough’s account of the man who transformed Europe’s knowledge of science and botany.

This was a crucial determinant, and in May 1787 the eleven ships of the First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth and arrived at Botany Bay, so named by Cook after the activities of Banks and his fellow collectors in January 1770. 

After a few days the Governor, Arthur Phillip, moved the settlers ten miles north and through an inlet that Cook had noted but not entered in 1770. It led, Phillip reported, to ‘the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security’, and he named it after the Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. 

Further shipments of convicts arrived, soon followed by free settlers, and from its unpromising beginnings Sydney grew into a bustling port-city.

Sydney Parkinson and breadfruit

On Cook’s Endeavour voyage the combination of botanists collecting plants and of artists painting them set a new standard for naturalists in the Pacific. At Tahiti the team’s collections offered an invaluable picture of the island’s plant life at the moment of the European arrival. Banks and his fellow-botanist Daniel Solander paid particular attention to Tahiti’s cultivated plants, describing breadfruit, banana, yams and sweet potatoes among others. The expedition’s natural history artist, Sydney Parkinson, drew up a comprehensive fourteen-page list headed ‘Plants of Use for Food, Medicine, &c in Otaheite’. It included long descriptions of the palm and breadfruit. Banks’s eulogy of the latter became well-known: ‘In the article of food these happy people may almost be said to be exempt from the curse of our forefathers…their chiefest sustenance Bread fruit is procured with no more trouble than of climbing a tree and pulling it down.’

Tahiti, Captain Cook’s first voyage

Tahiti, Captain Cook’s first voyage

Sydney Parkinson’s drawings and paintings of breadfruit in Tahiti recognised its importance as a staple food.

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20 years later the breadfruit became the ominous centrepiece of the most celebrated voyage that followed Cook’s, that of the Bounty commanded by William Bligh, who had been Master of the Resolution on Cook’s last voyage. Once again Banks was much involved, not only in his praise of the breadfruit as a potential foodstuff for the enslaved people on Britain’s West Indian plantations, but also in his recommendation of Bligh to command the Bounty. The mutiny on the Bounty, accompanied by the hurling overboard of Bligh’s precious breadfruit plants, is one of the best-known episodes in British maritime history. Less well known is the story of the successor expedition commanded by Bligh in the Providence, which successfully transported breadfruit to the West Indies in 1793, although it never met expectations as a standard food for the slave populations.

The fur trade of the Northwest Coast

In many ways Cook’s third voyage was a disappointment. No Northwest Passage had been found, and Cook had been killed. The only compensation was that it had drawn attention to the ease with which sea-otter pelts could be obtained along the northwest coast of America from Vancouver Island to Alaska. For almost 50 years Russian fur traders had been attracted to Alaskan waters, where they had caused havoc among both the human and animal populations, but in Western Europe little was known about their activities.

The publication of Cook’s third voyage drew aside the veil of secrecy, and traders from Europe and the United States were quick to fit out vessels to the North Pacific. Banks was interested in more than the commercial aspects of the voyages for as one merchant put it, he was a leading patron of schemes ‘for prosecuting and converting to national utility the discoveries of the late Captain Cook.’ Despite Cook’s insistence that no Northwest Passage existed, the voyages of the maritime fur traders seemed to show that a strait leading deep into the interior might yet be found. Profits from the coast’s furs might provide the capital link needed to make viable a gigantic northern network of trade from China and Japan in the west to the Canadian territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the east.

Vaitepiha Bay, Tahiti and The Resolution in Resolution Cove, Bligh Island, Nootka Sound, Prince William Sound

John Webber, The Resolution in Resolution Cove, Bligh Island, Nootka Sound, 1778. British Library Add. MS 15514, f.10

This drawing shows Cook's ships in April 1778 in Nootka Sound. At the time, it was an obscure inlet on the west coast of Vancouver Island (itself not recognised as insular). Cook misnamed it Nootka Sound because he misunderstood what the local inhabitants (the Mowachaht and Muchalaht peoples of the Nuu Chuh Chah) told him.

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The Nootka Crisis and its aftermath

In London speculation and plans on the subject came to an abrupt halt when in February 1790 news arrived from Madrid of the Spanish seizure of British vessels and property at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. The Nootka crisis almost led to war between Britain and Spain until the matter was settled by the Nootka Sound Convention of October 1790. This laid down that the coasts of Spanish America should be accessible to non-Spanish trade and settlement except within thirty miles of an existing settlement, a proviso that opened almost all the northwest coast. To carry out the terms of the Convention the Admiralty sent an expedition commanded by Captain George Vancouver (who had sailed on Cook’s last two voyages) to the northwest coast. Apart from his diplomatic tasks Vancouver was to carry out a detailed survey of the northwest coast, to settle once and for all the issue of a Northwest Passage. It took Vancouver three gruelling seasons to accomplish this task, but his detailed charts of the northwest coast were still in use in the mid-19th century.

‘You men of Captain Cook’

It was Cook and those who sailed with him who dominated British voyages to the Pacific. As William Windham remarked on hearing of Bligh’s remarkable open-boat voyage after the Bounty mutiny, ‘But what officers you are! You men of Captain Cook: you rise upon us in every trial.’ They had graduated in the most demanding of training schools, and vanity, even a touch of arrogance, is understandable. As Cook wrote of his chart of the North Island of New Zealand on his first voyage: ‘I believe that this Island will never be found to differ materially from the figure I have given it’.

Within a generation of Cook’s death the Pacific was criss-crossed by the tracks of the traders, whalers and sealers. In terms of volume and value the Pacific trade was slight compared with that of the North Atlantic or Indian Ocean, but almost three hundred years after Magellan’s voyage the great ocean had at last been properly brought within Europe’s sight. It was perhaps George Forster, who had sailed with Cook on his second voyage, who saw most clearly the results of the explorer’s surveys. ‘What Cook has added to the mass of our knowledge is such that it will strike deep roots and long have the most decisive influence on the activities of men.’

  • Glyn Williams
  • Glyn Williams is Emeritus Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London.