On the 26th August 1768, James Cook and 93 others set sail from England aboard HMS Endeavour on the first of three voyages that would change the world. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the merchant ship leaving Plymouth on a 1051 day trip in which numerous discoveries were made that helped to shape the world as we know it. In honour of this anniversary, the British Library recently put on a detailed exhibition about all three of Cook’s important voyages, featuring original documents such as maps, artworks and handwritten journals.
James Cook, born in Yorkshire in 1728, was the second of eight children of a Scottish farm labourer. Despite having been raised to work on a farm, Cook was lured by the sea, becoming an apprentice to John Walker, a shipowner in the nearby port of Whitby. His first assignment was aboard the cargo ship Freelove in 1748, however, it was not only a case of learning how to sail a ship. As part of his studies, Cook had to become proficient in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, navigation and astronomy, the latter which would put him on his path to fame.
By 1755, Cook had enlisted in the Royal Navy and was fighting in the Seven Years War. Although he had to begin at the bottom as an able-bodied seaman, his hard work during the global conflict soon saw him climbing the ranks. Cook returned to England in 1762, where he married Elizabeth Batts (1742–1835) on 21st December 1762 at St Margaret’s Church, Barking, Essex. Little is known about Cook’s home life because, after his death, Elizabeth destroyed many of his personal papers.
Whilst fighting during the war, Cook was stationed on the seas near North America where he took the opportunity to produce the first large-scale and accurate maps of Newfoundland. This, as well as his mastery of practical surveying, brought him to the attention of the Admiralty and Royal Society, which would result in his first overseas discovery voyage.
“Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.” – James Cook
During the 18th-century, Europe was advancing with scientific discovery and technological development, seeking rational explanations for the existence of everything on Earth. Now referred to as the Enlightenment, this was a time when religion and traditions began to be challenged. The British Library included evidence of the ideas British people believed before the embarkation of HMS Endeavour, including incorrectly drawn maps featuring non-existent continents.
The first voyage took place between 1768 and 1771 with the purpose of observing and recording the transit of Venus across the Sun, which would help to determine the distance of the Earth from the Sun. This phenomenon is not common, therefore, it was crucial that this expedition was undertaken at this moment. Since 1769, the Transit has only occurred four times, the next being December 2117. Unbeknownst to the public, Cook, a lieutenant at the time, and the rest of the crew were also tasked with searching out new lands and trading opportunities, including the locating of the hypothesised southern continent, Terra Australis.
In order to view the Transit of Venus, Cook needed to be in Tahiti by June 1769, however, he visited many places before he reached the island. The first landfall was Madeira, off the northwest coast of Africa on 12th September 1768. This was followed by Brazil a few months later and Tierra del Fuego at the beginning of the following year. The group of islands was the southernmost inhabited place that Cook came across and lies off the tip of South America. The British Library had examples of weapons and jewellery belonging to the Haush people who inhabited the islands.
Whilst James Cook receives all the glory for the voyage upon HMS Endeavour and the later voyages aboard HMS Resolution, there were many other people with vital roles amongst the crew. At each destination, examples of plants and animals were collected, drawn and preserved to be taken back to England and studied by naturalists and biologists. The man in charge of this task was the young naturalist Joseph Banks (1743-1829), who paid for himself and his team to join the Endeavour voyage. His team was made up of a Swedish botanist, Dr Daniel Solander (1733-82); a secretary, Herman Diedrich Sporing (1733-71); two artists, Sydney Parkinson (1745-71) and Alexander Buchan (d1769); and four servants.
Joseph Banks came from a rich London family and became enchanted with nature and natural history from a very young age. After studying Botany at Oxford University, Banks was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, where he became aware of the planned expedition to observe the Transit of Venus. Knowing this would be a grand opportunity to study the wildlife of foreign lands, Banks quickly established a place for himself and his companions on board HMS Endeavour.
During the voyage, Banks and his team collected an estimated 1000 zoological specimens and 30,000 plants, 1400 of which species had never been seen before in the west. One of these plants was the now common bougainvillaea, named after a friend of James Cook, Louis Antoine de Bougainville. Descriptions and drawings were included as part of the British Library’s exhibition, including journals written in Banks’ hand.
The Library displayed a couple of specimens preserved from the original voyage, including a pencil sea urchin found in the Pacific ocean. Many of Bank’s other finds are currently kept at the Natural History Museum in London.
Amongst the drawings displayed throughout the exhibition were a handful of child-like impressions of the scenes James Cook and the other crew members saw on their journey. These were drawn by Tupaia, a high priest of Oro – the god of war – who Cook and Banks befriended in Tahiti. Tupaia’s intelligent knowledge of the area helped Cook to draw a detailed map complete with island names. Tupaia also acted as a tour guide to the crew, introducing them to new traditions and culture.
Drawings by Tupaia included a typical Tahitian scene, complete with traditional longhouse and canoes, a dancer and Chief Mourner at a funeral, and a depiction of a Māori trading a crayfish with Joseph Banks. The latter was drawn in New Zealand where Tupaia had accompanied Cook to act as an interpreter and help establish good relationships between the British and the natives. Tupaia’s ultimate aim was to return to England with Cook, however, he died after suffering from a fever in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) in 1770.
Cook spent six months circumnavigating New Zealand, producing a detailed map of its coastline, thus disproving the theory that the Great Southern Continent existed in that area. From New Zealand, the ship sailed to eastern Australia, or New Holland as it was then known, landing at the Kurnell Peninsula, or as Cook named it, Botany Bay.
As with the other areas they visited, whilst Cook attempted to make relations with the natives, Banks and his companions took stock of the plants and animal species growing in the area. Shortly after disembarking, the team saw an animal ‘as large as a greyhound, of a mouse colour and very swift’. This, it turned out, was the native kangaroo, an animal that was alien to Europeans. Sydney Parkinson, the naturalist draughtsman, produced the first sketch of what they called a “Kanguru”.
Parkinson was offered a place on HMS Endeavour by Banks who was impressed with his talent for drawing flowers. As well as drawing the specimens Banks collected, Parkinson also kept a detailed journal of the things he saw, including the journey, weather, customs and languages. This was particularly valuable for the scientists back home who were unable to view the countries first-hand. Unfortunately, Parkinson never made it back to England, dying of dysentery, which he contracted in Indonesia.
Despite everything discovered on the first voyage, the Admiralty was determined to locate the Great Southern Continent and sent Cook, now a commander, on another expedition to find it. Aboard HMS Resolution, with Captain Tobias Furneaux (1735-81) following on its convoy ship, HMS Adventure, Cook set sail for Africa in 1772. From here, the aim was to keep going south, searching for this fictional piece of land. Although Cook disproved the existence of Terra Australis, he went so far south that he unintentionally lead the first expedition to cross the Antarctic Circle.
Similarly to the first voyage, Cook sailed with a number of other companions, including the naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-98) and his son Georg (1754-94), who produced a handful of paintings shown at the British Library. In total, 112 people sailed on HMS Resolution, many of whom produced written or visual accounts of the journey and findings. The exhibition displayed journals from the astronomer William Wales (1734-98) and sketches by William Hodges (1744-97), both of whom contributed to the development of scientific knowledge.
As well as Antarctica, Cook revisited Australia and New Zealand followed by the Friendly Islands (Tonga), Easter Island and Vanuatu. In 1775, HMS Resolution turned homeward, landing in Portsmouth on 30th July, bringing the news that the Great Southern Continent did not exist. Nonetheless, the Admiralty and Royal Society were pleased with Cook’s accomplishments and promoted him to the rank of Captain.
Having now accepted that the Great Southern Continent did not exist, James Cook was sent back to sea in 1776 from Plymouth to New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands to attempt to discover the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, which would help to shorten the trade route. The Library displayed weapons constructed from reindeer skin and wooden armour worn by people met during the journey.
As with both the previous voyages, HMS Resolution was filled with people of a number of different roles, most importantly a botanist and the official artist, John Webber (1751-93). Whilst Cook searched for the Northwest Passage, which turned out to be impassable, Webber produced numerous detailed drawings and paintings of the lands they visited.
Whereas HMS Resolution had sailed as far south as Antarctica on her previous voyage, she now went as far north as the Arctic. Journals by Cook and other crew members suggest that Cook struggled more with this journey, often losing his temper, forcing the crew to eat inedible walrus (or what he mistakenly called “sea horse”) flesh.
After leaving the Arctic, HMS Resolution sailed on, eventually landing at Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i in January 1779. Their arrival coincided with the Makahiki, a Hawaiian harvest festival of worship for the Polynesian deity, Lono. As a result, Cook was forced to join in a peculiar ceremony, which was documented by the ship’s artist. Unfortunately, many of the crew thought Cook had shown himself as weak by joining in, rather than the composed captain as he was supposed to be seen.
The crew stayed in Hawai’i for approximately one month before setting off to explore the rest of the North Pacific. Regrettably, the foremast of the Resolution broke shortly after departing, forcing the ship to turn around and sail back to land – a decision that proved to be fatal. Before Cook could set back out to sea, some of the natives stole one of the small boats belonging to the ship. Cook was used to thefts and usually took people hostage until his possessions were returned. Unfortunately, in an attempt to kidnap the King of Hawaiʻi, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, Cook was attacked by angry Hawai’ians resulting in a blow to the head followed by repeated stabbing until he was dead. Four other Marines were also killed and HMS Resolution returned to England on 4th October 1780 to a rather subdued welcome.
Although James Cook’s three voyages shaped Europe’s knowledge of the world, the results of his expeditions are still open to controversy. In documentary videos around the British Library featuring people from some of the countries Cook visited, the famous broadcaster Sir David Attenborough (b1926) looked into the negative impacts of the three voyages.
Controversial aspects include violence and unnecessary death in New Zealand and eventual imperialism in Australia. Other countries and islands were now of interest to people in Europe and were soon to be colonised, virtually eradicating native societies, traditions and countries.
The British Library attempted to show both the good and bad results of James Cook’s three voyages, however, by doing so, did not go into all that much detail about the trips and discoveries. Everything revolved around the items they had collected, such as drawings, journals and a few specimens; anything not visually documented was forgotten about, leading those who did not previously know much about James Cook wondering why it is mainly him and not other crew members that are remembered for the voyages.
In terms of science and geography, the voyages have shaped the way we view the world, including evidence of lives and religions pre-western colonisation. From the specimens collected, botanists, naturalists and scientists have been able to discover so much more about the properties of plants and animals from different locations. Although it is much easier to accomplish what Cook did today, with faster means of travel and scientific equipment, without Cook and the others to show Europe what was out there, the determination to learn more may not have flourished quite as strongly.
James Cook: The Voyages closed on 28th August 2018 to make way for the Anglo-Saxon exhibition opening on 19th October. However, those interested in Cook’s discoveries can view various documents and drawings at the Natural History Museum throughout the remainder of this 250th anniversary year.