“I had ambition not only to go farther than any one had been before, but as far as it was possible for man to go.” – Captain James Cook.
Captain James Cook discovered more of the Earth’s surface than any other person in history. That fact alone is sufficient for his journeys to be ranked in the top three of all time. He also pioneered modern navigation methods, producing maps of world sea routes still in use into the twentieth century. He even helped to defeat scurvy, the scourge of early seamen.
Measuring the Transit of Venus
In 1768, the British Admiralty and the Royal Society petitioned King George III for funds to support a vital scientific expedition: to observe the Transit of Venus. Measuring the time taken by Venus to pass across the Sun would enable astronomers to calculate the distance between the Sun and Earth. Knowledge of this distance would in turn improve global navigation for the British Fleet. It was a fait accompli; George had little choice but to provide the funds or risk presiding over the decline of his navy.
Making the measurement accurately required a viewpoint in the Southern Ocean. Recently discovered Tahiti was in the perfect position. Cook was chosen to lead the expedition, as he was not only renowned within the Admiralty as a first class navigator, but he was also well known to the Royal Society, having published a paper on a solar eclipse. Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, set sail from Plymouth on 26th August 1768, bound for Tahiti. The Transit observations were to be made on 3rd June 1769.
Without having once made landfall in the eight months since leaving Plymouth – including a perilous passage round Cape Horn – Cook and his crew arrived at Tahiti on 10th April 1769. The measuring instruments were set up and the morning of 3rd June dawned clear and favourable to the Transit observations. However, the outline of Venus was surrounded by a blurred penumbra, making it impossible to observe the precise moment that Venus and the Sun coincided. All observations recorded different times. Cook, as expedition leader, was forced by fate to agree with his fellow observers a compromise recording. It would suffice.
In search of the Great Southern Continent
On leaving Tahiti, rather than setting sail for home, Cook was ordered to search for the Great Southern Continent. It was said at the time that whichever country discovered this “golden land” would become the richest in the world. Having reached their target latitude of 40 degrees south and with the crew’s hands freezing to the rigging, no land was sighted. Cook steered north then west, towards a coastline charted nearly 100 years previously by Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman.
Land was finally sighted on 6th October 1769. Although sceptical that it was the prized Great Southern Continent, Cook followed his orders to the letter in conducting a full survey of the coastline – taking some three months to chart over 2,400 miles of coast. Cook’s task no was to return the expedition safely home.
Among the passengers on the Endeavour was Joseph Banks, later director of Kew Gardens. Banks used the voyage to increase his botanical collection and to add to his ethnographic studies. By the time he returned to London, Banks estimated that he had increased by 25 per cent the number of known plant species in the world.
The rigged and ready Endeavour set sail for Olde England on 31st March 1770. In preference to the direct but more dangerous route via Cape Horn, Cook chose to navigate the uncharted waters of the east coast of “New Holland” – today’s Australia. The Endeavour made landfall on 28th April 1770. She dropped anchor in what was later named Botany Bay, after Banks’s extensive studies in that area. Cook and his long-suffering crew mapped the coastline and a good deal of the interior.
Having weighed anchor once more, the Endeavour became stuck on what is known today as the Great Barrier Reef. She remained stuck fast for almost twenty four hours, before being re-floated by a high tide. Cook’s men spent seven weeks repairing the ship and being entertained by the local “kunguru” – a creature “about the size of greyhound, slender, mouse-coloured, swift, with a long tail, jumping like a hare”.
The Endeavour eventually reached its home port following long months of ground-breaking navigation, clashes with hidden reefs, dysentery, malaria and a further three months of essential repairs.
Cook’s discovery of New Zealand and the south east of Australia, which he named New South Wales, scotched the myth of the Great Southern Continent. But it opened up a new world for colonisation by the ravenous British Empire.
The name of Captain James Cook was enshrined in legend when, on 14th February 1779, he was killed in Hawaii undertaking yet another great voyage.
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