The second voyage of James Cook

William Frame, the British Library’s Head of Modern Archives and Manuscripts, gives an overview of the main events of Cook’s second voyage of 1772-75. It would prove to be one of the greatest voyages of all time, and included the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle.

The search for the Great Southern Continent

On his first voyage, James Cook had searched for, but failed to find, the Great Southern Continent, believed to encircle the South Pole. The Admiralty’s instructions for the second voyage stipulated that he was to search for ‘that Southern Continent which has so much engaged the attention of Geographers & former Navigators’. He was to sail south from the Cape of Good Hope in search of land sighted by a French expedition in 1738 and believed by some to be part of the continent. After this he was to use his own judgement and search for land:

Either to the Eastward or Westward as your situation may then render most eligible, keeping in as high a Latitude as you can, & prosecuting your discoveries as near to the South Pole as possible; And you are to employ yourself in this manner so long as the condition of the Sloops, the health of their Crews, & the State of their Provisions will admit of it …

These open-ended instructions would lead to one of the greatest voyages of exploration of all time. In searching for the Southern Continent, and ultimately proving its non-existence, the expedition would cross the Antarctic Circle three times and, during the winter months, would make two long circuits of the south Pacific, charting a number of islands and island groups not before accurately plotted on European maps.

Cook commanded the Resolution and Tobias Furneaux commanded the Adventure. Like the Endeavour, both ships were former Whitby colliers. The expedition took with it copies of John Harrison’s chronometer, made by Larcum Kendall and John Arnold. The chronometer was a scientific instrument designed to keep accurate time at sea, making it possible to calculate longitude more easily than by the method of lunar distances used on the first voyage. It was looked after on the voyage by William Wales and William Bayly, the two astronomers appointed by the Board of Longitude.

Joseph Banks had planned to sail on the voyage and had assembled a party of artists and scientists to travel with him. Following an argument over on-board accommodation, Banks took his party to northern Scotland and Iceland instead. A new party of scientists and artists was hurriedly recruited by the Admiralty. Johann Forster was appointed as the naturalist and he was accompanied by his son, Georg, who acted as his assistant and natural history artist. William Hodges was appointed as the official artist. The Swedish naturalist Anders Sparrman was recruited as a second assistant when the ship called at the Cape of Good Hope.

The first crossing of the Antarctic Circle

The ships took on supplies at the Cape before continuing south towards the Antarctic. On 10 December the first floating ice was seen in the sea. The ships continued south in sub-zero temperatures, the rigging and sails chequered with ice. On 14 December the horizon was seen to be brighter than usual, with a white reflection visible in the sky, marking the nearness of the ice sheet. Cook wrote: ‘At half past six we were stoped by an immence field of Ice to which we could see no end’. Over the following days the ship remained near the edge of the ice sheet, as Cook searched in vain for a route south. Travel among the icebergs could be extremely dangerous. On 19 December William Wales described ‘passing continually by very large Islands of Ice which the thickness of the fog hindered us from seeing until we come almost upon them’.

The Resolution and Adventure among the icebergs

A sailing ship with two boats in the water among icebergs with a ship in the background.

This drawing shows the Resolution’s boats collecting loose ice in January 1773.

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Several days of warmer weather in mid-January allowed progress to be made to the south again. On 17 January 1773 Cook wrote: ‘at about 1/4 past 11 o’Clock we cross’d the Antarctic Circle for at Noon we were by observation four Miles and a half South of it and are undoubtedly the first and only Ship that ever cross’d that line’. The ships continued south but soon the horizon began to appear noticeably brighter. At 67° 15ʹ south Cook wrote: ‘the Ice was so thick and close that we could proceed no further’.

As the Antarctic summer drew to a close, the ships turned northeast towards New Zealand, becoming separated in fog. In late March 1773 the Resolution anchored in a deep bay on the mountainous southwest coast of the South Island, which the British called Dusky Sound. Provisions were taken on board and the ships were repaired.  From Dusky Sound the Resolution sailed north to Queen Charlotte Sound, where the Adventure had arrived several weeks before. The landing site became the centre of trade during the stay, with people coming from the North Island to exchange goods with the visitors. The crews of both ships were often asked about Tupaia.

The first Pacific circuit

In June 1773 the ships left New Zealand and sailed east on a track ten degrees south of the course of the Endeavour. After a month in which no land was sighted Cook turned the ships north in search of Pitcairn Island, which had been sighted by Philip Carteret in 1767, but saw ‘no thing excepting two Tropick birds’. Of the Great Southern Continent he wrote:

‘Circumstances seem to point out to us that there is none but this is too important a point to be left to conjector, facts must determine it and these can only be had by viseting the remaining unexplored parts of this Sea which will be the work of the remaining part of this Voyage’.

The Resolution and Adventure arrived at Tahiti in August 1773 where provisions were taken on board and a good relationship was formed with Tu, who had succeeded Tuteha as chief of the area around Matavai Bay. In September 1773 the expedition left Tahiti, calling at the nearby islands of Huahine and Ra‘iatea on the journey west. At Huahine a young man called Mai (known by the British as ‘Omai’) joined the Adventure. Mai would later visit London, where he would become a celebrity during his stay. At Ra‘iatea Cook took on board a young man called Hitihiti, who travelled on the Resolution when it made its second and third crossings of the Antarctic Circle, before returning to Ra‘iatea on the Resolution’s second visit in June 1774.

Cook set a course to the southwest where he believed a group of islands described by Abel Tasman were to be found. On 2 October 1773 the island of ‘Eua (called by Tasman ‘Middleburg Island’) was sighted. As the ship approached shore, Cook wrote, ‘two Canoes, each conducted by two or 3 men came along side and some of the people into the Ship without the least hesitation, this mark of confidence gave me a good opinion of these Islanders and determined me to anchor’. The welcome here and at neighbouring Tongatapu would later lead Cook to call the group ‘The Friendly Islands’.

From Tonga the ships returned to New Zealand to prepare for another journey into the Antarctic. During a storm off the east coast they again became separated, with the Adventure putting into Tolaga Bay while the Resolution continued to the rendezvous at Queen Charlotte Sound. After waiting three weeks for the Adventure Cook decided to continue towards the Antarctic. The Adventure arrived at Queen Charlotte Sound about a week after the Resolution sailed. During its stay several men, who were collecting supplies in a nearby cove, were killed in a dispute with local Māori. Following the discovery of their remains, Furneaux decided to return to Britain, arriving in July 1774.

Return to the Antarctic

By mid-December 1773 the Resolution was again entering seas marked by sub-zero temperatures and increasing numbers of icebergs. On 21 December Cook wrote that, amid gale-force winds, thick fog and sleeting rain, ‘we came the second time under the Polar Circle and stood to the SE’. On Christmas Day William Wales described ‘upwards of 200 Islands of Ice in sight, none of which are less than ye ship’s Hull’. The wind had died down, leaving the ship almost becalmed. To Johann Forster the icebergs looked ‘like the wrecks of a destroyed world’.

In mid-January 1774 the weather became milder and the ship made good progress in an open sea, crossing the Antarctic Circle for the third time on 26 January. Two days later Forster wrote: ‘we have never before been so far South, & God knows how far we shall still go on, if Ice or Land does not stop us, we are in a fair way to go to the pole & take a trip round the world in five minutes’.

The ship continued south but began to pass increasing numbers of icebergs. On 30 January it arrived at the edge of the ice sheet, which, in Cook’s words, ‘extended East and West in a streight line far beyond our sight’. He concluded:

I whose ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption, as it in some measure relieved us from the dangers and hardships, inseparable with the Navigation of the Southern Polar regions. Sence therefore we could not proceed one Inch farther South, no other reason need be assigned for our Tacking and stretching back to the North.

Chart showing the Southern Hemisphere

A chart showing the Southern Hemisphere and the route of Cook's second voyage featuring two pictures of Cooks ships with a Pacific volcano and islands.

This chart shows the route of Cook’s second voyage, with the track of the ships drawn in red.

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The Second Pacific Circuit

After leaving the Antarctic, Cook decided to spend a second winter searching for land in the south Pacific, including ‘Easter Island, the situation of which is so variously laid down that I have little hopes of finding’. Rapa Nui (Easter Island) had been known in Europe since 1722 but its location was not accurately charted. Two Spanish expeditions had visited in the early 1770s and when the Resolution arrived in March 1774 the islanders were familiar with European visits. The island marked the eastern edge of Polynesian settlement of the Pacific and Hitihiti was able to act as translator. Much interest was taken in the origin and purpose of the statues. Johann Forster wrote: ‘In what manner they contrived these structures is incomprehensible to me, for we saw no tools with them’.

Tahitian war canoes

Several war canoes with very tall tailboards moving in the water with mountains in the background.

A fleet of Tahitian war canoes drawn up on shore at Pare, home of Tahitian chief Tu.

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The Resolution sailed west, calling again at Tahiti and Tonga, before arriving at a group of islands, which Cook called the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Several landings were made over the following weeks and Cook charted the islands before steering south towards New Zealand. En route the ships also called at New Caledonia and Norfolk Island, neither of which was known in Europe. After taking on provisions, the Resolution left New Zealand. Cook steered southeast, intending to cross the Pacific on the 54th or 55th parallel ‘so as to pass over those parts which were left unexplored last summer’.

Completing the circumnavigation

On 28 November Johann Forster wrote: ‘We advance amazingly on the pinions of the swiftest gales’. No land was found on the passage across the Pacific. On 17 December the west coast of Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, was sighted. Cook wrote:

I have now done with the SOUTHERN PACIFIC OCEAN, and flatter my self that no one will think that I have left it unexplor’d, or that more could have been done in one voyage towards obtaining that end than has been done in this.

The Resolution rounded Cape Horn and continued east into the Atlantic. On 15 January 1775 an island was sighted, which the British called South Georgia. Cook described towering cliffs covered ‘by a huge Mass of Snow and ice of vast extent’. Sailing further south the ship arrived at a group of small islands, the southernmost of which was named Southern Thule at Forster’s suggestion, denoting that it marked the edge of the known world. Cook wrote:

I concluded that what we had seen, which I named Sandwich Land was either a group of Islands or else a point of the Continent, for I firmly believe that there is a tract of land near the Pole, which is the Source of most of the ice which is spread over this vast Southern Ocean.

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