The year is 1768. Europeans have sailed and mapped the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean for generations. But much of the larger Pacific Ocean remains unexplored. The Spanish sailing from Mexico to the Philippines have much knowledge of the Pacific, but one does not share such secrets vital to the national security. The Dutch have settled in what is now called Indonesia to trade for spices. There are many blank spots on the map of the Pacific.
Astronomers of the British Royal Society knew that the planet Venus would pass (transit) between the sun and earth on June 3, 1769. Observing and timing this transit could allow them to determine the distance between the sun and earth. One of the best places to observe the transit of Venus would be in the South Pacific. The British Admiralty selected a ship and a captain to carry astronomers to the South Pacific, and to determine if there was a large land mass or continent (terra australis) in the South Pacific as geographers suspected. The Admiralty selected a 39 year old Navy Lieutenant to command the expedition - James Cook.
James Cook was born of modest circumstances, and went to sea at the age of 17 as an apprentice. He sailed on colliers (coal ships) out of the port of Whitby, learned to navigate, and earned his papers as a mate in the merchant marine. England and France went to war (the French and Indian or Seven Years War) and Cook joined the Royal Navy as a seaman. His experience in the merchant marine led to his promotion to master or navigating officer in the Navy. He conducted several survey (map-making or charting) missions of the St. Lawrence River and the coast of Newfoundland which earned him a reputation as a superior navigator and map-maker.
Captain Cook's first voyage departed England in August 1768. The ship, ENDEAVOR, was a collier of the type Cook had sailed as a young man. A collier was chosen because of its shallow draft and flat bottom which would allow them to get closer to shore, and be less harmed by running aground. A collier also has a large cargo capacity which would be important for a long voyage. ENDEAVOR was only 106 feet long and had a crew of 80 men and 11 scientists.
ENDEAVOR arrived in Tahiti in April of 1769, where they spent three months to observe the transit of Venus. Relations with the natives were generally good, although they stole one of scientific devices needed to observe the eclipse, which Cook was able to recover. Some of the crew got tattoos, and began a tradition among sailors that is still alive today. After observing the transit of Venus, Cook opened his sealed orders to learn of the second half of his mission.
Cook sailed around and charted New Zealand, and became the first European to determine there was a North and South Island. Cook claimed New Zealand for Great Britain, and had several battles with the Maori. He then sailed to the then undiscovered east coast of Australia, and charted most of it. ENDEAVOR grounded on the Great Barrier reef, and was beached for repairs. Imagine being thousands of miles from home with a ship whose hull has a huge hole in it. Cook and his crew were able to patch the hole then sailed north to Batavia (now Jakarta), a Dutch settlement, to obtain permanent repairs.
ENDEAVOR finally returned to England in July of 1771, almost three years after departing. Cook had been able to fill in many areas of the world map on the voyage.
Cook's second voyage began a year later, with two vessels, the RESOLUTION and the ADVENTURE, both colliers. Cook had been promoted to Commander and given command of a new expedition to determine if the south magnetic pole was on water or land, to claim land for England, to chart the South Seas, and collect scientific data and samples. For the first time, a ship sailed with chronometers or clocks which would allow them to determine their longitude, or how far east or west the were from the prime meridian in Greenwich, England. Previously, navigators could only determine how far north or south they were using the star Polaris and the sun, and could only guess at their east or west position.
During this voyage Cook discovered Antarctica, charted most of it, and determined it was all ice. He returned to Tahiti and New Zealand, and discovered and charted Tonga, Fiji, the Society islands, the New Hebrides, and New Caledonia. He returned to England in July 1775, after another three year voyage. He lost only four men in three years, an amazing record in those days.
Cook's third and final voyage began in 1776 with RESOLUTION and DISCOVERY, another collier. He had again been promoted, to Captain. His mission for this voyage was to determine if there was a north-west passage above the North American continent. He sailed around Africa and stopped at Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti on the way north. He named Christmas Island and passed by some of the Hawaiian islands and then sailed up the coast of Alaska into the Arctic ocean until stopped by ice. He returned to the Hawaiian islands to replenish and repair his ship. He named the islands after John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich, a friend and supporter.
After sailing the Hawaiian Islands for eight weeks looking for a harbor, Cook moored in Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. He was initially welcomed and treated well by the Hawaiians. Some think the timing and circumstances of Cook's arrival caused the Hawaiians to consider him a representative of the god Lono. After a month he got underway, but returned within a week after the foremast on the RESOLUTION was damaged. At this point relations with the Hawaiians got bad. A longboat from RESOLUTION was stolen and a guard killed. Cook went ashore with sailors and marines to kidnap a chief to trade for the stolen longboat. A fight developed, and Cook was killed. Some claim he was eaten, but this cannot be established conclusively. But Hawaii was now accurately plotted on European maps, and things would never be the same.
The voyage continued under the command of Captain Clerke of the DISCOVERY, returning to England in 1780.
Captain Cook was probably the greatest navigator of his day, and is honored particularly in Australia for being their discoverer.
Navigation in the 18th century involved both science and technology. As to science, navigation requires a knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. Astronomy to identify stars and planets, whose movements astronomers had recorded in tables. Once one has measured the angle of the star above the horizon, and noted the time, you can then determine where you are on the surface of the earth using spherical trigonometry. The most important technological device for the navigator was an accurate clock, which Cook tested on his second voyage. Without a clock or chronometer the navigator can only determine their position once a day at sea by using the sun at its highest point. If one is coasting (sailing along a coast) you can use landmarks to determine your position. Away from the coast, all you have is the sun, moon and stars.
The sailing ship was the most technologically advanced device of its time. Thousands of ropes, spars, pulleys and levers designed to use the wind to propel a ship. Mastering how to sail a ship efficiently and safely was a major accomplishment. Long voyages often meant more than half of the crew died due to accident or disease. Medicine was just beginning to understand that humans required vitamins to remain healthy. The seaman's diet of bread and meat, with no fruit and vegetables caused scurvy, a sometimes fatal disease that is simply a deficiency of vitamin C. As this knowledge spread, captains gave their crews fresh vegetables and fruit as long as they could, and then provided sauerkraut, vinegar or lime and lemon juice. The nickname 'limey' for British sailors is supposed to come from the practice of giving them lime juice to avoid scurvy. Although Cook lost almost half the men on his first voyage, this was due to disease acquired ashore in Batavia. His loses on the second and third voyages were minimal due to disease and reflected his habit of keeping the ship and crew clean and healthy.