Voyages of Exploration

Captain James Cook, from The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery

James Cook (1728–1779), the son of a farm laborer, volunteered for the navy in 1755. Although he had little formal education, he taught himself the mathematics necessary to make accurate marine surveys, and charted the St. Lawrence River and the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. The first of his three famous voyages of discovery (1768–1771) took Cook from England to Madeira to Rio de Janeiro, around Cape Horn to George's Island, >> note 1 or Tahiti, through the Society Islands, around New Zealand, around the east coast of what later became known as Australia, to Batavia, around the Cape of Good Hope, and back to England.

The alleged purpose of the Endeavour's voyage was scientific: Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook and his passengers from the Royal Society, >> note 2 particularly Charles Green, an astronomical observer, were to observe the transit of Venus from the island of Tahiti. It was hoped that their measurements of this event would assist astronomers to calculate the earth's distance from the sun, and to complete a set of astronomical tables that would allow sailors to calculate their longitude at sea more accurately. The transit of Venus is an event like a solar eclipse, except that the planet Venus, not the moon, blocks out part of the sun. Whereas solar eclipses are common, only a few transits of Venus occur each millennium (the next transit of Venus will occur on June 8, 2004). Artists and botanists also formed part of Cook's entourage, and helped to document the voyage.

However, Cook also received a second packet of instructions from the Admiralty. These instructions, labeled "secret," authorized him to make "Discoverys of Countries hitherto unknown" for the "Honour of this Nation as a Maritime Power" and for the advancement of its "Trade and Navigation" (Beaglehole, CCLXXXII). Cook was to search for a great southern continent known as Terra Australis Incognita, and claim it for Britain. Dr. John Campbell, editor of the 1744 edition of Navigantium atque Itinerantium Bibliotheca, or a complete collection of voyages or travels, proposed that the lands seen by Captain Abel Tasman in 1642 and 1644 (including New Guinea, New Holland, and Antony van Diemen's Land) were all part of one gargantuan continent that stretched from the celestial equator to 44º south latitude, and from 122º to 188º longitude (Beaglehole, LXXV). Although he did not find Campbell's imaginary southern continent, Cook did produce accurate surveys of the coast of New Zealand and the east coast of Australia.

The first report of Cook's voyage was the anonymous book, A Journal of a voyage round the world in His Majesty's Ship Endeavour, in the years 1768, 1769, 1770, and 1771; undertaken in pursuit of natural knowledge, at the desire of the Royal Society (1771). The best-known eighteenth-century rendition of the voyage is probably John Hawkesworth's An Account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His Present Majesty for making discoveries in the southern hemisphere, and successively performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret and Captain Cook, in the Dolphin, the Swallow, and the Endeavour (1773), which was partly based on Cook's journals.

The coastal lands Cook surveyed were inhabited, and trade with the inhabitants was an important part of his mission. While on Tahiti, Cook traded items such as glass beads, axes, spikes, large nails, looking-glasses, and knives with the native inhabitants for provisions such as hogs and breadfruit. He formed a strict policy for these transactions, based on his instructions from the Admiralty:

1st  To endeavour by every fair means to cultivate a friendship with the Natives and to treat them with all imaginable humanity.

2d  A proper person or persons will be appointed to trade with the Natives for all manner of Provisions, Fruit, and other productions of the earth; and no officer or Seaman, or other person belonging to the Ship, excepting such as are so appointed, shall Trade or offer to Trade for any sort of Provisions, Fruit, or other productions of the earth unless they have my leave so to do.

3d  Every person employ'd a Shore on any duty what soever is strictly to attend to the same, and if by neglect he looseth any of his Arms or woorking tools, or suffers them to be stole, the full Value thereof will be charge'd againest his pay according to the Custom of the Navy in such cases, and he shall recive such farther punishment as the nature of the offence may deserve.

4th  The same penalty will be inflicted on every person who is found to imbezzle, trade or offer to trade with any part of the Ships Stores of what nature soever.

5th  No Sort of Iron, or any thing that is made of Iron, or any sort of Cloth or other usefull or necessary articles are to be given in exchange for any thing but provisions.


Rule 5, which hints at the Tahitians' desire of obtaining iron above all other trade goods, was given with good reason. On a previous visit to the island, the crew of Captain Wallis's Dolphin had surreptitiously pulled the iron nails out of their own ship to trade them for sexual favors with Tahitian women. The excerpt below, taken from Cook's own journal, details a diplomatic incident arising from a similar cause, which occurs when two of Cook's crew attempt to desert the Endeavour.

I. The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768–1771

[Tahiti; July 1769]

[Click on image to enlarge] [For the first 2 or 3 days we was out upon this Excursion we labour'd under some difficulty for want of Provisions, particularly Bread an Article we took but little of with us, not doubting but we should get Bread fruit >> note 3 more than sufficient for a Boats Crew at every place we went to, but on the Contrary we found the Season for that Fruit whole over & not one to be seen on the Trees, & all other Fruits & roots very scarce; the Natives live now on Sour Paiste which is made from bread fruit, & some bread fruit & Wild Plantains >> note 4 that they get from the Mountains where the Season is later, & on Nuts not unlike a Chess Nutt, which are now in Perfection, but all these Articles are at present very scarce, & therefore it is no wonder that the Natives have not supply'd us with these things of late. Upon my return to the Ship I found that the Provisions had been all examin'd & the Water got on bad amounting to 65 Tuns, I now determin'd to get every thing off from the Shore & leave the Place as soon as Possible, the geting the several Articles on board & Scraping & Paying the Ships Sides >> note 5 took us up the whole of the following week without anything remarkable happening until

SUNDAY 9th. When sometime in the Middle Watch Clement Webb & Saml Gibson both Marines & young Men found means to get away from the Fort (which was now no hard matter to do) & in the morning were not to be found, as it was known to every body that all hands were to go on board on the monday morning & that the ship would sail in a day or 2, there was reason to think that these 2 Men intended to stay behind, However I was willing to wait one day to see if they would return before I took any steps to find them.

MONDAY 10th. The 2 Marines not returning this morning I began to enquire after them & was inform'd by some of the Natives that they were gone to the Mountains & that they had got each of them a Wife & would not return, but at the same time no one would give us any Certain intelligence] where they were, upon which a resolution was taken to seize upon as many of the Chiefs as we could, this was thought to be the readiest method to induce the other natives to produce the two men. We had in our Custody Obarea, Toobouratomita, and two other Chiefs but as I know'd that Tootaha would have more weight with the Natives then all these put together, I dispatch'd Lieutt Hicks away in the Pinnace >> note 6 to the place where Tootaha was to endeavour to decoy him into the boat and bring him on board which Mr Hicks perform'd without the least disturbance. We had no sooner taken the other Chiefs into Custody in Mr Banks's Tent than they became as desireous of having the men brought back as they were before of keeping them, and only desire'd that one of our people might be sent with some of theirs for them; accordingly I sent a Petty Officer and the Corporal of Marines with three or four of their people not doubting but what they would return with the two Men in the evening, but, they not coming so soon as I expected I took all the Chiefs on board the Ship for greater safety. About 9 oClock in the evening Web the Marine was brought in by some of the Natives and sent on board, he inform'd me that the Petty officer & the Corporal that had been sent in quest of them were disarm'd and seiz'd upon by the Natives and that Gibson was with them. Immidiatly upon geting this information I dispatch'd Mr Hicks away in the Long boat with a Strong party of men to resque them but before he went, Tootaha and the other Chiefs was made to understand that they must send some of their people with Mr Hicks to shew him the place where our men were, and at the same time to send orders for their immidiate releasement for if any harm came to these men they, the Chiefs, would suffer for it, and I believe at this time they wished as much to see the Men return in safty as I did, for the guides conducted Mr Hicks to the place before daylight and he recover'd the men without the least opposission and return'd with them about 7 oClock in the Morning of

TUESDAY 11th. I then told the Chiefs that there remaind nothing more to be done to regain their liberty but to deliver up the Arms the people had taken from the petty Officer and Corporal and these were brought on board in less then half an hour and then I sent them all a Shore, they made but a short stay with our people there before they went away and most of the Natives with them but they first wanted to have given us four Hogs, these we refus'd to accept as they would take no thing for them. Thus we are likly to leave these people in disgust with our behavour towards them, owing wholy to the folly of two of our own people for it doth not appear that the natives had any hand in inticeing them away and therefore were not the first agressors, however it is very certain that had we not taken this step we never should have recover'd them.

The Petty officer whom I sent in quest of the deserters told me that the Natives would give him no intellingence where they were nor those that went along with him, but on the contrary grew very troblesome and as they were returning in the evening they were suddently Siezed upon by a number of arm'd men that had hid themselves in the woods for that purpose; this was after Tootaha had been seized upon by us so that they did this by way of retaliation in order to recover their Chief, but this method did not meet with the approbation of them all, a great many condem'd these proceedings and were for having them set at liberty, while others were for keeping them untill Tootaha was relase'd. The desputes went so far that they came from words to blowes and our people were several times very near being set at liberty but at last the party for keeping them prevail'd; but as they had still some friends no insult was offer'd them; a little while after they brought Web and Gibson the two deserters to them as prisoners likwise but at last they agree'd that Web should be sent to inform us where the others were.

When I came to examine these two men touching the reasons that induce'd them to go away, it appear'd that an acquentence they had contracted with two Girls and to whome they had stron[g]ly attache'd themselves was the sole reason of their attempting to Stay behind. * * * This day we got every thing off from the shore and to night every body lays on board.

Note: The information in square brackets indicates material added from a transcript of Cook's journal (the Mitchell Manuscript); the rest of the material is taken from Cook's holograph journal.

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