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Captain James Cook

Cook and the Pacific voyages

Unknown ocean

Track chart of Anson's Voyage around the world
View full size imageMap of the Pacific before Cook's voyage, 1750.
Before James Cook's voyages, the Pacific was relatively unknown to European sailors. This map shows Captain Anson's voyage around the world some 20 or so years before Cook left England.

The map shows what Europeans knew about the Pacific at that time:

  • New Zealand is simply a squiggle
  • the east coast of Australia is uncharted
  • the positions of many of the Pacific islands are largely guesswork and the Hawaiian islands were still to be discovered by the Europeans.

The new map

Chart Showing the Tracks of the Ships on Cook's Three Voyages
View full size imageChart showing the tracks of the ships on Cook's three voyages. © NMM
This map illustrates the routes of Cook's ships during his three Pacific voyages between 1768 and 1779. Thousands of miles of coastline had been surveyed once the Cook voyages were completed, the map of the Pacific looked very much as it does today:

  • the eastern coast of Australia (then known as New Holland or Terra Australis) was worked out
  • the outline of New Zealand was known
  • the north-west coast of America was charted in outline
  • the positions of most of the Pacific islands and island groups were established.

Cook's impact on the nation

Cook's voyages made a tremendous impact at the time for the following reasons.

Captain James Cook
View full size image Captain James Cook. © NMM

  • No one had made such long voyages of exploration with so little loss of life, both on the ships themselves and in encounters with the people who lived in the Pacific.
  • No one had surveyed such vast areas of coastline so quickly or accurately before.
  • No one had brought back such large numbers of scientific specimens.
  • No one had collected such detailed information on people, plants and animals of a region still virtually unknown to European science.

Cook and the Royal Society

Reflector telescope
View full size imageReflector telescope.
Captain Cook's first voyage between 1768 and 1771 had two main purposes: to observe the transit of Venus and to search for the mythical southern continent.

The transit of Venus was of great interest to scientists. It was believed that the distance between the Earth and the Sun could be calculated by taking accurate observations, from different points around the globe, of the moment that Venus passed in front of the Sun.

The Royal Society, which is still based at Carlton Terrace in London, campaigned for a British expedition to be sent to the Pacific to observe the transit. Although the most famous, Cook's voyage to observe the transit for Tahiti was only one of a number of observations carried out all over the world.

Search for the continent

Chart of part of the Southern Hemisphere
View full size imageChart of part of the Southern Hemisphere.
Once the observations were complete, the expedition was to sail in search of the large continent that from ancient times was believed had to exist in the southern hemisphere to balance the land masses north of the equator.

James Cook had already established a great reputation as a navigator and hydrographer. Over a period of some six years and two extraordinary voyages, Cook was relentless in his search for the southern continent. By the end of them he was able to prove that it did not exist, at least, not in habitable latitudes.