The first voyage of James Cook

William Frame, the British Library’s Head of Modern Archives and Manuscripts, gives an account of Cook’s first voyage of 1768-71. Cook was instructed to observe the transit of Venus. But his expedition also had a secret aim to find lands in the south Pacific.

The Great Southern Continent and the transit of Venus

Until James Cook’s voyages the Pacific, the largest of the world’s oceans, was primarily an imagined space to Europeans. There had long been a theory among geographers that, in order to balance the world as it spun on its axis, there had to be land in the southern hemisphere equivalent to that in the north.

In 1767 the British cartographer Alexander Dalrymple published An Account of the Discoveries made in the South Pacifick Ocean, which argued, from fleeting sightings of land by navigators, that there was an extensive landmass awaiting discovery in the Pacific. He wrote: ‘we have traces from antient times, warranted by latter experience, of rich and valuable countries in it; no subject can be more interesting, to a commercial state, than the discovery of new countries and people, to invigorate the hand of industry, by opening new vents for manufactures’.

James Cook’s first voyage was initially planned by the Royal Society as part of its observation of the 1769 transit of Venus (the passing of Venus between Earth and Sun). By observing the transit from different locations on Earth it was hoped to use the different angles of observation to calculate the distance to the Sun. The Royal Society proposed that Alexander Dalrymple should lead the expedition but the Admiralty, which was the joint sponsor, insisted it should be led by a naval officer. In April 1768 James Cook was appointed. As well as his task of observing the transit of Venus, Cook was also secretly instructed by the Admiralty to search for lands in the south Pacific, including the mythical Great Southern Continent.

James Cook and Joseph Banks

James Cook was a skilled cartographer, having learnt his skills during the Seven Years War, when he had helped to chart part of the St Lawrence River ahead of the pivotal British attack on the French-held city of Quebec. After the British victory in Canada he spent several years in Newfoundland, preparing a chart of its coasts for the Admiralty.  Cook also conducted astronomical observations in Newfoundland and the results were published in the journal of the Royal Society. The ship chosen for the voyage to the Pacific was a former Whitby collier, recently renamed the Endeavour, a type of ship Cook was familiar with from his early career spent as a seaman on merchant ships carrying coal from north-east England to London.

Did you know James Cook's charts were still used by sailors in the 1950s? Sir David Attenborough remembers sailing in the Great Barrier Reef using a chart that Cook prepared. Hear him describe the unexpected situation Cook and his crew found themselves in while navigating this part of the world.

Joseph Banks, a wealthy landowner and keen botanist, paid for berths aboard the Endeavour for himself and a party of artists and scientists. Banks formed an effective partnership with Cook in leading the expedition. His party collected thousands of plant and animal specimens, many of which were unknown in Europe. They also collected artefacts from the places visited and the artists drew pictures of local society and culture, which were often the first European depictions of the places visited. Although Banks did not return to the Pacific, Cook’s second and third voyages would also take artists and collectors to document the places visited.

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.

Tierra del Fuego and Tahiti

Cook’s orders instructed him to sail to Tahiti via Cape Horn, ‘using your best endeavours to arrive there at least a Month or six Weeks before’ to allow time to prepare for the observation. The Endeavour called en route at Rio de Janeiro to take on supplies and, before rounding the Cape, anchored at Tierra del Fuego to take on fresh water and wood. During the stay Joseph Banks and his party collected plant specimens and the artist Alexander Buchan drew a series of pictures of the Haush people, who lived in the area, and their culture.

'Endeavour' off the Coast of Tierra del Fuego

'Endeavour' off the Coast of Tierra del Fuego, by Alexander Buchan.

This view was produced by Alexander Buchan after the first sighting of Tierra del Fuego by the Endeavour crew in January 1769.

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The Endeavour arrived at Tahiti in April 1769. Tahiti had been chosen by the Royal Society following the return of a British expedition led by Samuel Wallis in April 1768 with news of the first European landing at the island. Several of the Endeavour’s crew had sailed with Wallis, and good relations were soon established with leading Tahitian figures, including Tuteha, the chief of the area around the landing site, and Purea, a leading woman on the island. Permission was obtained to build a fort on a spit of land, known as Point Venus, at the edge the bay. Although intended as a defensive position in case of attack, ‘Fort Venus’ became the chief meeting point between the British and the islanders and a centre for trade.  During the stay, the British became friendly with Tupaia, a priest and navigator from the nearby island of Ra‘iatea. Tupaia and his servant Taiato joined the voyage at Tahiti, sailing to New Zealand and Australia.

Longhouse and Canoes in Tahiti

Polynesian longhouse in Tahiti with trees and plants; Tahitian canoes sailing in the foreground; by Tupai'a

In addition to map-making, Captain Cook's Raiatean navigator Tupaia produced drawings of the Society Islands such as this Tahitian scene.

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The Admiralty’s secret instructions

After observing the transit of Venus on 3 June Cook followed a second set of orders, which came in a sealed packet and were from the Admiralty only. These instructed him to search for new lands, including the Great Southern Continent, the discovery of which ‘will redound greatly to the Honour of this Nation as a Maritime Power, as well as to the Dignity of the Crown of Great Britain, and may tend greatly to the advancement of the Trade and Navigation thereof’. If land was found he was to survey the coastline and ‘observe the Nature of the Soil, and the Products thereof; the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the fishes that are to be found’. The orders also noted ‘in case you find any Mines, Minerals or valuable stones you are to bring home Specimens of each, as also such Species of the Seeds of the Trees, Fruits and Grains as you may be able to collect’.

In accordance with his orders, Cook sailed south in search of land, to a latitude of forty degrees. Finding only open seas there he then sailed west in search of land, also as directed in his orders, until he reached the coast of New Zealand. This was known in Europe only from a brief visit to the west coast by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642. The sliver of coastline charted by Tasman had been incorporated in European maps, using the Dutch name ‘Nieuw Zeeland’, and was sometimes shown as part of the Great Southern Continent. The Admiralty’s orders stipulated that Cook was to ‘explore as much of the Coast as the Condition of the Bark, the health of her Crew, and the State of your Provisions will admit’.

New Zealand

New Zealand had been settled by the Māori people between 700 and 800 years ago, during a series of voyages from the central Pacific islands. The Māori name for the country is Aotearoa, meaning ‘land of the long white cloud’. The Māori language was from the same group as that spoken in Tahiti and, during the Endeavour’s visit, Tupaia was able to act as interpreter and intermediary. The first landing took place at Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, which Cook later called Poverty Bay, on 9 October 1769. During the first twenty-four hours three violent incidents took place in which the British fired their muskets with fatal consequences. One man was killed on the first evening and several others the following day. Although a peaceful meeting took place the next morning, the Endeavour sailed soon after. Cook’s actions remain highly controversial in New Zealand today.

A chart of New Zealand by James Cook

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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After leaving Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (Poverty Bay), the Endeavour spent several days exploring the coast and searching for a place to land to take on supplies. After being invited ashore by two chiefs who approached in a canoe, the expedition stayed for a week at Uawa, which Cook called Tolaga Bay. Banks and his party collected artefacts and documented local society and customs. The artists made a number of drawings, including of the famous arched rock in the bay.

Over the following weeks there were further landings on the east coast of the North Island. The Endeavour then explored the west coast but did not land, due to strong winds, before anchoring at Queen Charlotte Sound at the top of the South Island in January 1770. The ship spent much of February and March circumnavigating the South Island, allowing Cook to complete his chart of New Zealand and to disprove the theory, common in Europe, that it was part of the Great Southern Continent.

The east coast of Australia

The Admiralty’s instructions did not provide guidance on which route to follow after leaving New Zealand. On 31 March 1770 Cook called his officers together to discuss the options for returning home. He wrote in his journal:

To return by the way of Cape Horn was what I most wish’d because by this route we should have been able to prove the existence or non-existence of a Southern Continent … But the condition of the ship in every respect was not thought sufficient for such an undertaking… It was therefore resolved to return by way of the East Indies [Indonesia] by the following rout: upon leaving this coast to steer to the westward until we fall in with the East Coast of New Holland [Australia] and than to follow the deriction of that Coast … untill we arrive at its northern extremity.

The Endeavour arrived off the east coast of Australia in April 1770 and sailed north in search of a harbour in which to take on supplies. In late April it anchored at a place Cook later called Botany Bay. During the first landing two men, armed with spears and stones, tried to stop the British coming ashore. After a stand-off lasting ten or fifteen minutes the British fired muskets loaded with small shot, wounding one of the men in the leg. The Endeavour stayed a week at the bay, during which no direct contact was made with the Gweagal people, who lived in the area, although both groups observed each other from a distance.

Sydney Parkinson’s sketchbook

Loose pencil sketches of two standing men, one holds a spear with a spear thrower. Also sketches of shields and canoes and a man in a canoe.

These drawings by Sydney Parkinson were probably made when the Endeavour stayed in Botany Bay. They include a sketch of a man with a spear and spearthrower.

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The Endeavour sailed north but was forced to stop in a river estuary in what is now northern Queensland, following a collision with the Great Barrier Reef in June 1770. At ‘Endeavour River’ the British met with a group of men from the Guugu Yimithirr people, who lived in the area.  The men made several visits to the camp and Sydney Parkinson, one of the artists, compiled a vocabulary of their language. This included the word ‘Kangooroo’, based on the Guugu Yimithirr word gangurru, which referred to the animal Parkinson described as ‘the leaping quadruped’.

One of the indigenous communities that James Cook encountered when he first landed in Australia was the Guugu Yimithirr people, and they gave us a word we all use today. Can you guess what it is?

After reaching the northern extremity of the east coast Cook landed on an island, which he called Possession Island. Here, in the name of George III, he ‘took posession of the whole Eastern Coast from the above Latitude [the point where the Endeavour sighted land] down to this place by the name of New South Wales’. He wrote it ‘gave me no small satisfaction’ to be able ‘to prove that New-Holland and New-Guinea are 2 Separate Lands or Islands’. Cook’s claiming of the already inhabited east coast of Australia would be the first step on the road to the British colonisation Australia.

The voyage home

From Australia, the Endeavour sailed north to Batavia, the centre of the Dutch empire in the East Indies, where arrangements were made for it to be repaired in the dockyards. The Dutch had modelled Batavia on the towns of Holland, even down to the canals which ran through its centre and acted as natural reservoirs of disease. On 28 October Joseph Banks commented that ‘the Seamen now fell sick fast so that the tents ashore were always full of sick’. Seven men died at Batavia, including both Tupaia and Taiato. On the journey across the Indian Ocean fever again took hold. More than two dozen men died, including the artist Sydney Parkinson and Charles Green, the astronomer who had helped Cook chart New Zealand and the east coast of Australia.

The Endeavour passed Land’s End on 10 July 1771 and anchored off the Kent coast on 13 July. Cook had written to the Admiralty from Batavia that ‘the discoveries made in this Voyage are not great’ and explaining he had ‘failed to discover the so much talk’d of southern continent (which perhaps do not exist)’.

  • William Frame
  • William Frame is Head of Modern Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library.