Captain Cook’s Voyages and Quest for the “Southern Continent”

Captain Cook’s exploration of the far reaches of the Southern hemisphere.

Solar parallax
Joseph Banks
71° 10' S latitude

Captain James Cook’s Early Life and Career

Captain James Cook was born in 1728 in the small village of Marton, England. He began his career as a merchant seaman and later joined the Royal Navy.


During the French and Indian War between 1754 and 1763, Cook served as a naval master in Newfoundland, mapping its jagged coast and developing a reputation as a skilled cartographer and able astronomical observer – work that was sent to the Royal Society in 1767.

Cook’s significance to history came in the following year, being selected by the Admiralty to captain a scientific voyage to the Pacific Ocean. He set sail from on a refitted collier – HMS Endeavour, in August 1768, rounding Cape Horn, before reaching Tahiti in 1769.

The Royal Society's Astronomical Mission

The public purpose of the voyage was in the service of The Royal Society, Britain’s oldest scientific institutions, who sought to use the journey to measure the solar system.

1769 was the year in which the planet Venus was due to pass between the earth and the sun, which presented a special opportunity for astronomical calculations, known as the “solar parallax”.

The solar parallax is a measure of the apparent shift in the position of a star against the background of more distant stars as viewed from two different locations on Earth. This measurement is important in astronomy because it allows scientists to determine the distance between the Earth and the sun.

By observing the transit of Venus from the strategic position of Tahiti, the Society hoped to draw a celestial map of unprecedented accuracy – of great value to navigation.

Exploring New Zealand and Meeting Tupaia: Cook's First Voyage


Cook’s employment, however, had a second, secret mission, communicated in a sealed envelope: to seek out the still rumored “southern continent” (Terra Australis), and scope out its potential for British exploitation.

Therefore, after observing the transit in June 1769 – largely considered a failure due to inaccurate timing, the Endeavour sailed further afield to New Zealand.

The Endeavour’s route around New Zealand was a crucial part of Cook’s first voyage. He charted the coastline and mapped out harbors, bays and inlets with great accuracy. During his time there he encountered Māori people who were friendly and welcoming to him and his crew.

During his voyage, he encountered Tupaia, a Tahitian priest with intimate knowledge of the islands in the South Pacific who was to prove able to provide invaluable assistance in navigation.

Finding they shared a similar language, Tupaia also served as an interpreter between Cook and the Māori people in New Zealand, helping to establish diplomatic relations, ensuring safe passage for Cook’s ships throughout their travels.

Joseph Banks and the Botanical Bounty of Captain Cook’s First Voyage

Joseph Banks, a wealthy English botanist and later President of the Royal Society, accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage aboard the Endeavour. He was tasked with collecting specimens of plants and animals from around the world to bring back to England for scientific study.

The area where Cook landed in 1770 is now known as “Botany Bay” after Banks’s extensive collection of plant specimens there; it has since become an iconic symbol of Australian history and identity.

During this expedition Banks collected a vast quantity of plant specimens, describing species previously unknown to Europeans. He also recorded his sighting of a kangaroo – the indigenous name he noted in his diary being the same we use in English today.

Cook's Second Voyage: Proving or Disproving the Existence of Terra Australis

In 1772, Cook set sail on his second voyage aboard the HMS Resolution, set to finally prove or disprove the existence of Terra Australis, not fully established on his first voyage.

During this expedition, Cook circumnavigated the globe via Antarctica, using a replica of John Harrison’s chronometer. His journey took him further south than any other explorer before him; he reached 71° 10′ S latitude, only 800 miles from Antarctica.

Cook also successfully rounded Cape Hornat the tip of South America, proving, finally, that there existed no “Terra Australis”.

Captain Cook's Search for the Northwest Passage

In 1776, Cook set sail on his third and final voyage aboard the HMS Resolution. His mission was, seeking answer to a question that had plagued explorers for centuries: the discovery of a “Northwest Passage” between Europe and Asia via the Arctic Ocean.

In 1778 Cook became the first European to set foot on Hawaii, before setting off North in search of a potential passage.

Unfortunately, he failed to find it due to thick ice blocking his way but he did manage to chart much of Canada’s coastline during this journey – from the coast to the Bering Strait, calculating the alaska.

The Mysterious Death of Captain Cook in Hawaii

Cook’s death at the hands of native Hawaiians on the homeward stretch of his voyage has been a source of enduring mystery and historical intrigue.


It came, puzzlingly, after a month of friendly relations with the native Hawaiians, after arriving on its shores in January of 1779. This coincided with a traditional harvest festival called the Makahiki, centered on the God of fertility, Lono.

From Cook’s account, historians have speculated that Cook, by several coincidences identifying him with a indigenous religious prophecy, was assumed to be Lono himself. Upon his arrival, he was showered with gifts and ceremony.

Violence and hostility erupted only on his unexpected return to make repairs on his ship. This resulted in the British attempting to kidnap the Kings, and ultimately Cook’s death, possibly at the hands of the chief.

The Rise of British Penal Colonies in Australia and New Zealand.

James Cook’s voyage to Botany Bay in 1770 gave rise to British settlements in Australia and New Zealand. Joseph Banks in particular saw Botany Bay as a potential penal colony (a place to transport convicts from Britain) and used his influence to lobby for this use of the land.

In 1787, the British government authorized the First Fleet to sail from Plymouth to New South Wales to establish the penal colony of Sydney in 1788. The fleet, carrying over a thousand passengers, included convicts, soldiers, and administrators.

Several other penal colonies were established in Australia in the following years, including in Tasmania. The British government saw these colonies as a way to relieve overcrowding in British prisons, extract hard labor, and establish a foothold in the region.

Gradually, penal colonies were joined by communities of free settlers, leading to a sharp decline in Aboriginal populations.

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