Captain James Cook’s Pacific Exploration


Until the successes of Captain James Cook, the Pacific was very imperfectly known despite earlier voyages by men like Abel Tasman, employed by the Dutch East India Company, and William Dampier, whose observations of the coasts, winds, and other natural features were so accurate that when he came back to England he was asked to lead a government exploring expedition.

James Cook 1728-1779

Son of a Yorkshire Farmer, Cook learned his seamanship in the North Sea and with the Royal Navy. On three voyages to the Pacific between 1768 and 1778 he proved himself a brilliant commander. He kept a cool head in emergencies and took care of his men, making sure that they regularly ate fresh meat and vegetables, including sauerkraut, so as not to get scurvy. He made precise observations of the geography and peoples of New Zealand, the east coast of Australia and the Pacific islands. He was the greatest scientific navigator of his age.

Cook’s First Pacific Voyage

Cook set about the task of Pacific exploration systematically. On his first voyage he visited Tahiti and mapped the coasts of eastern Australia and New Zealand. On this trip his men first saw kangaroo and encountered the aborigines of Australia. Endeavour, the converted Whitby collier which Cook used on this voyage, was nearly lost when she struck the Great Barrier Reef on a clear, moonlit night.

Luckily, the ship floated off after Cook jettisoned extra cargo (including a canon which has since been recovered from the sea bed), and he beached the Endeavour for repairs. The carpenter discovered that a piece of coral had remained wedged in the hole in her hull, preventing her from taking too much water.

Cook’s Second Pacific Voyage

On his second voyage Cook was instructed by the Admiralty to search for Terra Australis, the southern continent which was supposed to exist in the south Pacific. Cook’s journey, one of the greatest long distance voyages, took him completely round the world and into regions so cold that the rigging of his two ships grew stiff with ice.

Cook’s Third Pacific Voyage

The third and last of Cook’s voyages ended at Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii. Cook had gone ashore to negotiate with a Hawaiian chief, when the natives attacked the shore party just as they were returning to their vessels. Today the spot where Cook fell is marked by a plaque at the water’s edge.


  1. Balchin, J (2005) To the Ends of the Earth : Journeys of the Great Explorers: From the Equator to the Poles. Arcturus Publishing.
  2. Collingridge, V. (2003) Captain Cook: The Life, Death and Legacy of History’s Greatest Explorer. Ebury Press