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Captain James Cook

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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:

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:

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

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.

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Transit of Venus



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