Voyages of Captain Cook Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Three voyages led by James Cook reliably mapped most of the Pacific Ocean, discovered new island archipelagos, led to the British settlement of Australia and New Zealand, and established Great Britain as a leading trading and maritime nation. Cook was also the first sea captain to use citrus fruits to prevent scurvy among mariners.

Summary of Event

By the 1760’s the Pacific basin, though visited by several European navigators, remained largely unexplored and unmapped. Hoping to observe an expected transit of Venus across the Sun from the Pacific, the British Royal Society pushed for a new voyage. Both the society and the Crown also wanted information about a vast, undiscovered continent called Terra Australis Incognita Terra Australis Incognita (unknown southern land, or Southland) rumored to exist in the southern latitudes, offering the prospect of empire and productive trade. [kw]Voyages of Captain Cook (Aug. 25, 1768-Feb. 14, 1779) [kw]Cook, Voyages of Captain (Aug. 25, 1768-Feb. 14, 1779) [kw]Captain Cook, Voyages of (Aug. 25, 1768-Feb. 14, 1779) Exploration;Pacific Ocean Circumnavigation of the globe [g]Worldwide;Aug. 25, 1768-Feb. 14, 1779: Voyages of Captain Cook[1880] [g]Pacific Islands;Aug. 25, 1768-Feb. 14, 1779: Voyages of Captain Cook[1880] [g]Southeast Asia;Aug. 25, 1768-Feb. 14, 1779: Voyages of Captain Cook[1880] [g]Australia;Aug. 25, 1768-Feb. 14, 1779: Voyages of Captain Cook[1880] [g]New Zealand;Aug. 25, 1768-Feb. 14, 1779: Voyages of Captain Cook[1880] [c]Exploration and discovery;Aug. 25, 1768-Feb. 14, 1779: Voyages of Captain Cook[1880] [c]Cartography;Aug. 25, 1768-Feb. 14, 1779: Voyages of Captain Cook[1880] [c]Health and medicine;Aug. 25, 1768-Feb. 14, 1779: Voyages of Captain Cook[1880] Cook, James Hawke, Edward George III Banks, Sir Joseph

Lord of the Admiralty Edward Hawke wanted an experienced ship’s master to lead the mission. James Cook, who had served as master of a survey ship off the Canadian east coast, was the Royal Navy’s surprising choice for commander. He was given the Endeavour, a 106-foot, flat-bottomed coal collier rebuilt to carry a crew of ninety-six, scientific equipment, and supplies for at least a year’s voyage. George III personally allocated £4,000 for the refitting and supply of the ship. His first voyage was set to begin August 25, 1768.

Cook’s first voyage entailed the assignment to observe, from Tahiti, the transit of Venus, but this effort failed. In the meantime, however, Cook’s party recorded much about the behaviors and way of life of the indigenous Tahitians. The islanders were more friendly than hostile, although they were inclined to filch mariners’ property. Cook’s secret orders were to proceed southwest from Tahiti and search for the unknown continent. Failing to find it, he continued to New Zealand, which the Dutch navigator Abel Janszoon Tasman had discovered, but not explored, a century earlier. Cook’s expedition was wary of the warlike Maori inhabitants but managed to land, communicate with them, and collect food and biological samples. The Endeavour sailed completely around the two large islands and mapped them.

This essentially completed Cook’s assigned mission. However, the lure of undiscovered territory was strong. Sailing west, the Endeavour landed at Botany Bay, Australia, which Cook named for the many new plant species collected there by Joseph Banks and his colleague Daniel Solander. Turning north, the ship sailed inside the Great Barrier Reef, where unpredictable coral hazards almost wrecked it. At Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia), they landed for major repairs. The Dutch trading station was swampy, with malaria and dysentery prevalent. Virtually the whole ship’s contingent became sick, and there were several deaths. Cook sailed on across the Indian Ocean as soon as he could, arriving in Britain in July of 1771.

The voyage had achieved all its goals and gathered a huge amount of information about Pacific geography, flora and fauna, and inhabitants and cultures. In addition, Cook’s diet regimen of providing sauerkraut and citrus syrups had enabled the crew to avoid scurvy. His insistence on cleanliness minimized other diseases on board. Cook was promoted to commander and held a short audience with the king, but Banks and his exotic specimens drew the greatest public acclaim.

The Admiralty concurred with the idea of a second voyage. In 1772, Cook set out again, this time to explore the southernmost latitudes of the Pacific. An additional vessel, the Adventure, accompanied his ship, the Resolution. They sailed south after Cape Town, South Africa, still in search of the elusive unknown continent, although Cook had begun to doubt its existence. For the next four months the Resolution battled gales and dodged icebergs, and it lost track of the other ship. After rendezvousing in New Zealand, the expedition sailed due east for two thousand miles, surveying the last temperate stretch of ocean in fruitless search of a continent. A second venture into colder seas followed. The Resolution recorded whales and penguins, was trapped among icebergs several times, and crossed the Antarctic circle twice. Cook guessed a large continent stretched beyond, but clearly it bore no resemblance to the fabled, lush Terra Australis Incognita. In fact, he came very close to Antarctica. Crisscrossing a wide area, the expedition then discovered some thirty new islands, including New Caledonia, before exploring the South Atlantic’s colder reaches and turning homeward.

Upon his return, Cook was promoted to captain and inducted into the Royal Society. There were plans for a third voyage, this time to explore the North Pacific and look for another rumored phenomenon, the Northwest Passage. However, Cook’s health and patience had been battered by the previous voyages. He was not sure he would, or could, lead a third, but when the chance arrived, the adventure proved irresistible to Cook. On July 12, 1776, a refitted Resolution and a second ship, the Discovery, set out, stopping at New Zealand, Tonga, and Tahiti before heading due north. The next landfall was the Hawaiian island of Maui, previously unknown to Europeans. After naming the islands for the earl of Sandwich, the ships sailed on to the coast of what is now Oregon, along the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States. Amid fog and storm they traveled north, exploring many inlets but finding none that cut far inland. Sailing into the Aleutians, the expedition made contact with Russian fur traders as well as hospitable Aleut Indians. Reluctant to winter in the Arctic, Cook sailed back to Hawaii Hawaii and anchored there on January 17, 1779.

The landing coincided with the date when Hawaiians expected their god Lono to arrive, bringing peace and prosperity. They welcomed Cook as Lono and feted the entire crew as part of a god’s retinue. On February 4, 1779, pleased with the hospitable treatment, the mariners departed. One week out, a storm broke the Resolution’s mainmast. There was no choice but to turn back for repairs. This time they were not welcomed. Lono’s season was over; it was time for Ku, the king’s ancestor god, to take over. This time, Cook was not recognized as a god, however. Hawaiians also felt they could not afford to provide more food to the visitors. The stage was set for tragic misunderstanding.

When Hawaiians stole the Resolution’s only large boat, Cook blockaded the harbor. A high-ranking chief, attempting to launch his canoe, was shot. Angry Hawaiians attacked the crewmen. Cook, who had gone ashore to direct a marine retreat, was killed. He had been clubbed, stoned, and stabbed to death. Four marines also were killed. Charles Clerke assumed command, ordered the new mainmast brought on board, and demanded Cook’s body be returned. Rather than extract further revenge, Clerke left.

Clerke tried to carry out Cook’s plan, but impassable Arctic ice defeated the search for the Northwest Passage. When the ships docked in London in October, 1780, they had been at sea for more than four years. Clerke had died of tuberculosis on the return home. The three voyages had yielded an incredible trove of knowledge and opened Earth’s largest ocean to navigation and new settlement.


In many ways, James Cook was the first modern explorer. His boundless curiosity, his forbearance when confronted with such extreme customs as cannibalism, and his measured responses to the filching and other minor aggravations from indigenous peoples succeeded where previous explorers’ cultural prejudices led them astray. The voluminous journals of the voyages, along with artists’ renderings, specimen gathering, and observations recorded by the ships’ scientific teams, likewise set a high standard for future expeditions. Not only explorers but also contemporary disciplines such as anthropology have learned from his approaches and discoveries.

Naval customs and navigation practices also benefited from his innovations. The maps produced by his voyages, many of them showing hitherto unknown islands and features, were invaluable to future mariners. Although Royal Navy surgeon James Lind Lind, James had suggested in 1753 that citrus fruits would prevent scurvy Scurvy Diseases;scurvy on long voyages, Cook was virtually the first captain to put Lind’s theory into practice. His success in keeping his crews healthy proved the theory, so that future generations were spared scurvy’s ravages. On his second voyage, Cook tested four chronometers for measuring longitude; one of these, designed by watchmaker Larcum Kendall, gave the first accurate measures of longitude ever taken in the Pacific.

Most significant was Cook’s discovery and documentation of so many new land areas. Some, like the Hawaiian Islands and New Caledonia, had been unknown to Europeans. Others, such as Australia and New Zealand, had been sighted, but nothing was known about their size, climate, and other natural features. England was soon to lose many of its North American colonies to American independence, so the discovery of the latter two lands in the temperate zone offered welcome a substitute as places for investment and colonization. Cook is celebrated in these countries with much the same awe that Americans traditionally give to Christopher Columbus.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Oliver E. “The Great Ocean’s Greatest Explorer.” In The Pacific Navigators. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980. A lavishly illustrated account with paintings by the expeditions’ artists. A cutaway drawing of the Endeavour shows how it was able to hold so many people and supplies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blumberg, Rhoda. The Remarkable Voyages of Captain Cook. New York: Bradbury Press, 1991. A fact-filled and illuminating book written for young adults. Contains many illustrations, maps, and footnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bown, Stephen R. Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004. Recounts how surgeon James Lind’s theory about preventing scurvy among mariners was practiced by Cook, saving the lives of countless crew members during long voyages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, James. The Journals. Edited by Philip Edwards. London: Penguin Books, 2000. Captain Cook’s journals, indispensable for any serious study of the voyages. This new one-volume abridgment includes helpful added material by the collection’s editor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salmond, Anne. The Trial of the Cannibal Dog. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A retelling that emphasizes some of the more exotic adventures and discoveries. Also gives much eighteenth century cultural background and examines shipboard tensions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shute, Nancy. “Captain Cook, Anthropologist.” U.S. News and World Report 136, no. 7 (February 23, 2004): 73. Highlights Cook’s objective attitude toward indigenous cultures and questions the recent revisionist view of Cook as an agent of imperialism.

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Bougainville Circumnavigates the Globe

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Joseph Banks; William Bligh; Louis-Antoine de Bougainville; James Cook; George III; Richard Howe; Sir Alexander Mackenzie; Arthur Phillip; George Rodney; George Vancouver. Exploration;Pacific Ocean Circumnavigation of the globe

Categories: History