statue commemorating the Captain James Cook voyages

Captain James Cook voyages

There were three famous Captain James Cook voyages that you need to know about: New Zeland and the Great Barrier Reef, the search for Terra Australis, and the American north-west.

Cook and his crew sailed around the world and chartered the Pacific. Of course, these places had always been there, but Cook was the man in charge of the expeditions that brought the knowledge of them back to Britain.

This blog post will give you a quick overview of the three famous Captain James Cook voyages.

Cook’s first voyage

The first of Captain Cook’s voyages was a scientific exploration of the Pacific Ocean in the HMS Endeavour. He and his crew were tasked to observe and record the way the planet Venus moved across the sun. The Royal Society wanted to see if it was an accurate method of determining longitude.

The crew set off on 26th August 1768, navigating from Britain, round Cape Horn and arrived in Tahiti on 13th April 1769. They took their observations but sadly the results weren’t as accurate or revolutionary as they were hoping for.

The search for Terra Australis

Cook’s instructions weren’t complete with the observations made of Venus. He had sealed orders from the Admiralty to continue his voyage and to search for a place called Terra Australis.

It was believed that Terra Australis existed as a balancing landmass to the known continents. It can be seen on some maps made between the 15th and 18th centuries. Translated from Latin, Terra Australis means South Land.

Of course, Cook found no sign of Terra Australis, but he did come across New Zealand. He and his crew mapped the complete coastline and only made minor errors. That done, they sailed onwards and on 19th April 1770, the expedition became the first recorded Europeans to have encountered Australia.

They first stood on Australian soil in what’s now called Kurnell Penisnsula. Cook originally named the area Stingray Bay, before renaming it later as Botany Bay after all the specimens botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander retrieved. It was here that Cook first encountered the native tribe known as the Gweagal.

On 11th June 1770, the HMS Endeavour suffered damage when it attempted to sail through the Great Barrier Reef. They had to spend 7 weeks on the beach repairing the ship before they could set sail once again.

Cook claimed the entire south-eastern coastline as British territory and began the journey back to Britain, stopping at Batavia (now called Jakarta in Indonesia), The Cape of Good Hope and Saint Helena. Many of his crew died of malaria on the return journey. Cook and the surviving crew arrived back in Britain in 1771.

sunset on the sea

Cook’s second voyage

The second of Captain Cook’s voyages took him back south again, still in search of Terra Australis. By circumnavigating New Zealand, Cook had shown it was not attached to a larger landmass. Despite the continental size of Australia, the Royal Society believed Terra Australis was further south still.

Cook and crew set sail in HMS Resolution in 1772 with companion ship HMS Adventure commanded by Tobias Furneaux. The two circumnavigated the globe at extreme southern lattitudes and were one of the first expeditions to cross the Antarctic Circle in 1773.

In the freezing fog, Resolution and Adventure became separated. Furneaux set course for New Zealand where he lost some of his men in a fight with the local Maori and returned to Britain.

Cook continued his exploration of the Antarctic. They went so far south they almost encountered the mainland of Antarctica but turned for Tahiti to resupply. Once restocked, Cook tried once again to find Terra Australis but was unsuccessful. Instead, they charted Easter Island, the Marquesas Island and the Friendly Isles before returning to New Zealand in 1774.

Before he headed back to England, Cook and crew made one last sweep across the South Atlantic. Captain James Cook discovered Clerke Rocks and the South Sandwich Islands. The charts made during this voyage with John Harrison’s marine chronometer were so accurate they were still being used well into the 20th century. His return to Britain in 1775 with his findings was enough to dispel any remaining belief in Terra Australis.

Cook’s third and final voyage

Despite being given honorary retirement after his successful return from his second voyage, Cook could not be kept from the sea. In 1776, he set out again in HSM Resolution while Captain Charles Clerke commanded HMS Discovery. Publicly, their goal was to return Pacific Islander Omai to Tahiti after he journeyed with Cook to England on his second voyage. Their true goal was to locate a Northwest Passage around the American continent.

After returning Omai to Tahiti, Cook travelled north and became the first European in formal contact with the Hawaiian Islands. They then began charting the north-west coast of America. When they landed on Vancouver Island and developed a somewhat strained relationship with the Yuquot people.

Cook’s third voyage charted most of the North American western coastline on world maps for the first time. On their return to the Hawaiian Islands, Cook is thought to have begun suffering with a stomach ailment. This may have caused him to act irrationally toward his crew, forcing them to eat walrus meat.

Cook’s death

They returned to Hawaii in 1779 during the Makahiki, their harvest festival. After staying for a month, Cook and the crew attempted another Northern Pacific exploration, but a broken foremast meant they had to return to Kalakekua Bay. While they were there, high tensions led to conflict and the theft of one of Cook’s small boats.

Cook attempted to ransom the Hawaiian King and restore order but was struck down by the villagers and stabbed to death. Corporal James Thomas, Private Theophilus Hinks, Private Thomas Fatchett and Private John Allen were also killed, with other crew members wounded in the fight on 14th February 1779.

The islanders retained Cook’s body and conducted rituals reserved for their chiefs and elders. His body was disembowelled, baked to remove his flesh and his bones preserved as religious icons. Some of his bones were returned to the crew for a formal burial at sea.

Clerke took command of the expedition but dies of tuberculosis in 1779.He’s replaced by John Gore who’d been with Cook on the first voyage south. The remaining crew members returned to Britain in October 1780 where the King completed Cook’s account of the voyage.

This has been a whistle-stop tour of the 3 famous Captain Cook voyages. We hope it’s left you feeling a little more in the know about the Whitby explorer!

If you want to find out more about the Captain Cook voyages or his family and early life, why not head to the Captain Cook Memorial Museum?

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