James Cook

Captain James Cook

James Cook was the son of a Yorkshire farm worker. He was apprenticed to a ship owner, joined the Royal Navy, and eventually became a famous explorer of the Pacific. He made three Pacific voyages over about ten years. The portrait of Cook on the left is from a book about his second voyage published in London in 1777. Click on the picture to see the title page.

First Voyage (1768-1771): New Zealand and Australia

Cook’s first voyage had two aims:

  • Take scientists to the Pacific island of Tahiti to watch the planet Venus passing in front of the Sun
  • Explore the Unknown Southern Continent, which he knew was somewhere in the South Pacific

After stopping in Tahiti, Cook sailed south. He mapped the coast line of New Zealand. This proved that it was two islands rather than part of a continent. Then he travelled on until he reached Australia.

Abel Tasman had explored the west coast of Australia, but no European had ever been to the east coast. Cook started to make a map of the east coast of Australia (right). Then his ship was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef. The picture below shows the sailors stopping to mend the ship (click on it to see more). They managed to repair the boat and return home, but they had not found the Unknown Southern Continent. So in 1772 Cook set out again.

Cook's ship is wrecked

Title to 'A chart of New South Wales'

Cook claimed eastern Australia for the British. About twenty years later Britain was using it as a place to send prisoners. Click on the picture above to see more of Cook's map of the east coast of Australia.

The pictures on this page come from books about Cook's voyages that were published soon afterwards. People wanted to read about his exciting discoveries.

Second Voyage (1772-1775): The Antarctic Circle and Pacific Islands

On his second voyage to find the Unknown Southern Continent, James Cook went further south than anyone had been before. He became the first man to cross the Antarctic Circle. The picture below shows Cook’s ship sailing through a sea full of dangerous icebergs (click on it to see more). Sailors are getting ice to melt down for fresh drinking water. Cook thought the Unknown Southern Land might be beyond the ice that blocked his way further south.

Cook also discovered new islands on his second voyage. These included New Caledonia in the Pacific, and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in the Atlantic.

Cook's voyage encounters ice islands

The Chief of Santa Christina

People on Cook's voyage took notes about the places they visited. The picture above shows the Chief of Santa Christina Island in the Pacific. Click on it to see more.

Cook was proud of the illustrations in his books. He used the best illustrators and state of the art illustrating techniques to broadcast his discoveries visually.

Third Voyage (1776-1779): The Bering Strait, The Cook Islands, and death in Hawaii

Cook‘s third voyage aimed to explore the North Pacific. He was looking for the Northwest Passage; a channel of water that people believed crossed North America and linked the Pacific to the Atlantic.

As Cook travelled north from New Zealand, he discovered the Hawaiian Islands and the Cook Islands. Then he followed the coast of North America.

He reached the Bering Strait, a channel of water separating Eastern Russia from Alaska in North America. Then ice blocked his way and he had to turn back. He returned to Hawaii for the winter, where he was killed in a fight with the Hawaiians.