James Cook - His First Voyage

James Cook

James Cook was a skilled English explorer credited with charting the coasts of New Zealand and Australia, and discovering Hawaii, among other achievements. Cook was employed continuously in the British Navy and his pay was enough to set up a modest home for his wife and children in the Mile End Road in London. He was a full time surveyor and cartographer. His charts were regularly available from publishers in London.

Cook was born in Yorkshire, England in a town along the east coast. He is a quiet and capable man who has the ability to rise up to problems and somehow come away from them with much more than is expected. But acknowledgment and promotion come slowly to those who are quiet and capable. And so it took James Cook until the age of 40 to be promoted to lieutenant by the Royal Society for yet another ship to be sent to the Pacific.

In November of 1767 the Royal Society of England set up a committee to organize an expedition. The goals of the voyage were:

Find Terra Australis
Witness the transit of Venus from the vicinity of King George's Island
Collect various plant and animal specimens
Circumnavigate the globe

It was to likely be at least a two year expedition. In 1768 the Whitby ship Earl of Pembroke was chosen by Cook and renamed the Endeavor. In his journal Cook describes Whitby ships as Strong with comparatively shallow draft, yet good carriers with plenty of room for men and stores. Such ships "were the safest kind, in which officers may, with the least hazard, venture upon a strange coast." Nor were they too large to be beached and repaired if such a need arose. A square hull would prevent the ship from tipping over in the event that she did come aground.

Roman ships were sometimes sheathed with lead. Arabs sheathed their ships with lime mixed with camel fat. European ships were sheathed with an extra layer of wooden planking. A coating of tero-deterrents was packed between the sheathing and the main hull. Cook chooses to add an extra layer of wooden planking to the hull to shield against borer worms that would surely eat into the ship when they reached the tropics.

H.M.S. Endeavor Profile: H.M.S. Endeavor
photo credit: Captain Adrian Small

Extensive work on the Endeavor continues at Deptford Yard in England. Large water pumps are installed, 8 tons of iron for ballast are stowed below, 3 masts are installed without a mizzen topsail. Cook choses not to add a new and experimental copper plating because he felt that it was too easily damaged.

A copper distilling apparatus for boiling sea water and condensing it into fresh water was stored below with so much else, capable of making 42 gallons of fresh water from 56 gallons of sea water. Fresh water was one of the most serious shipboard problems. Water could not be made to keep fresh in any container, hence the use of spirits. Sailors usually drank half a pint per day, sometimes in addition to a gallon of beer.

Mr. Banks

Sir Joseph Banks Sir Joseph Banks
photo credit: National Portrait Gallery

Quarters are made ready for a crew of 70 plus a naturalist by the name of Joseph Banks Esq. Mr. Banks was educated at Oxford and belonged to the landed elite class of eighteenth-century England. He views the expedition as his own, with James Cook only acting as his personal ship driver, a very skilled ship driver.

Mr. Banks' suit of 8 people includes botanists, artists, an astronomer, surgeons, and naturalists with enough equipment to last 2 years. Their equipment includes glass jars, pots for plants, canvases and paints, writing materials, spirits to preserve captured animals, wax and salts to do the same for seeds, and two large greyhounds. In his eyes, this is the true purpose of the expedition.

By 1761 a revolutionary chronometer used to determine longitude had been developed in England. Fortunately for Cook he sailed in possession of one such instrument and was spared one major navigational problem.

The upgrades to the ship were finished and on July 21, 1768, His Majesty's Endeavour sailed out of Deptford basin, stopped briefly at Galleon's Reach to take on guns and ammunition, and arrived in Portsmouth three weeks later. The sailors spend a few more days at home, saying their goodbyes, before returning for what would ultimately be a journey of almost three years.

The Journey

At two o'clock in the afternoon on August 26, 1768, the Endeavor sailed from her anchorage at Plymouth Harbor. By the time she sailed the ship was packed full of supplies of all kinds. Her ranks had swollen to 94 people aboard from the ages of 16 to 48, protected by ten carriage-guns and twelve swivels with ammunition and provisions for 18 months.

The initial route for this kind of journey was almost commonplace by this time for ships sailing out of Northern Europe. The Endeavor left Plymouth and sailed through the Bay of Biscay, past the coast of Portugal, then gradually veered westward off of the continent and out into the Atlantic. They pass of Finisterre, Spain after eight days out of Plymouth which was very good.

After Portugal the next milestone for a ship headed towards the Far East or South America was to reach the trade winds. The ship ran with the trade winds toward the equator, keeping to the Africa side of the Atlantic. The trade winds do eventually run out, leading to an area called the doldrums, where a ship could wait for days or weeks for any sign of wind.

The Endeavor met some stormy weather but nothing major. Still there was no windbreak built into the design of the ship. The deck was flat with open railing. She had a maximum speed of 8 knots.

Cook meant to touch the coast of South America at Rio, then head for Cape Horn (the southern tip of South America), after which he would be on his own. Cook made the ship to operate on three watches, which allowed the mariners to get a full nights sleep probably for the first time in their seagoing lives. All hands were provided with fishing gear for their entertainment and to add extra provisions. Easels were set up on deck daily to record the surroundings in paintings, and nights were reserved for drinking and journal writing. Banks and his fellows were the first university men that Cook had ever carried aboard his ship and they learned a great deal from each other.

The Endeavor spent a week in the doldrums which nobody minded. And once across, the passage of the southeast trades went by quickly. The ship took to port at Rio and sailors diligently began to prepare the the ship for its passage around Cape Horn.

Cape Horn

Cape Horn photo credit: Captain Adrian Small

Many great storms come from the west, and pass through the expanse between South America and the blizzard of Antarctica. Cook and his crew could not have possibly handled it better. They chose the course that the California clipper ships would later use, through the Straight of le Maire between Tierra del Fuego and Staten Island. The westward passage around the Horn was a sail of at lease 1,500 miles around 50˚ S. latitude.

Cook was two months out of Rio before his ship was in the Straight of le Maire. They were briefly struck my an intense offshore gale. It was Christmas time and summer in the southern hemisphere, but snow laid deep on the Patagonian mountains. Sailors were each issued jackets but there was little heating aboard the ship. They anchored at the most easterly point of Tierra del Fuego from which Mr. Banks and his scientists disembarked to briefly survey the land. Cook took his crew ashore to replenish supplies, mostly of firewood and water.

Taking advantage of all opportunities to sail westward, Cook was close to The Horn a few days later. As soon as a chance of observation offered, Cook and his navigation chief, Mr. Green, worked out their position to be 55˚ 59' S. Latitude and Longitude 68˚ 13' W. This was just one mile out in latitude and a degree out in longitude from where they thought they actually were. But one degree so far south is less than 40 miles. It was a remarkable result worked out from observations taken from the deck of that heaving little ship and calculations made by candlelight inside the ship's great cabin. They worked alongside Mr. Banks and his botanists who were busy categorizing all sorts of plants and flowers mostly unknown to Europe.

The Pacific

The Endeavor makes it past Cape Horn and with winds in their favor proceeds south and west without being blown back. They are now further south than any ship had ever been, some 600 miles from The Horn, and the cold gales blowing from the south had the sting of ice in them. The endless roll of the sea showed obviously that it came from a very long fetch. They could see that there was no sign of continental land for thousands of miles in front of them.

They had been sailing for five weeks since Cape Horn and it was enough. The wind changed to a breeze from east-south-east and Cook knew what to do with it. He went north at full sail. Penguins were seen leaping above water to observe the curious ship. The crew stopped briefly to get into small boats to shoot any birds they may take as specimens.

A few days later the The Endeavor sailed past 50˚ S. near 90˚ W. in the Pacific, 38 days from when they were at 50˚ S. in the Atlantic. Cook continued to press north. His instructions did not require him to search particularly for Terra Australis at this point in the voyage but rather to reach King George's Island (Tahiti) in time to observe the transit of Venus and search for the continent afterward.

The Endeavor did not have a sick man on board and were fully stocked with supplies. The voyage had not run into any major catastrophes around Cape Horn although there was still plenty of hard wind including heavy squalls which split the main topsail and bent another, damage that was repairable. Cook took no chances with anything. He had the marines aboard spend considerable time at small arms practice, and he ordered three of the carriage guns brought on deck and lashed down. Now they were at full sail. The Endeavor sailed 140 miles on her fastest recorded day between Cape Horn and Tahiti.


Tahiti photo credit: Captain Adrian Small

The Endeavor entered the tropics on March 25, 1769 on longitude 128˚ W. They sailed until they spotted an atoll covered in palm trees. There was no suitable place to anchor nor was there a way into the lagoon for anything larger than a canoe. The inhabitants did not appear to be friendly either, lining the beaches waving clubs at the ship. The Endeavor sailed from atoll to atoll, a very dangerous practice, until they finally spotted the high mountains of Tahiti on April 11th. Cook anchored his ship in Matavai Bay on the 13th. Canoes of Tahitians came out carrying the green bough of peace but none would come aboard, only tossing up coconuts and fruit and accepting beads thrown down to them in return.

Tahiti had previously been discovered by Samuel Wallis aboard the Dolphin. A man named Mr. Gore from that expedition was along for Cook's journey and he was delighted to return to the island.

Relations with the natives were generally good. There was some thievery, to which Cook responded to by taking local chiefs captive until the items were returned. Two of the marines deserted the expedition and took local wives. On a proper day the transit of Venus was successfully observed. Cook grew ever more concerned that more of his crew might prefer the island to life in 18th century England. The ship stayed three months in Matavai Bay, during which everything above the water line was restored and supplies fully replenished.

The Transit of Venus

The transit of Venus across the Sun. Recordings of the transit of Venus across the Sun taken by James Cook and Charles Green in 1769.
photo credit: NASA

The crew had previously explained to the natives that their main reason for coming to the island was to witness the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. On June 3, 1769, without a cloud in the sky, they successfully witnessed the event. Cook recorded in his journal that "We very distinctly saw an Atmosphere or dusky shade round the body of the Planet which very much disturbed the times of the contacts particularly the two internal ones." Sunlight filtering through the planet's atmosphere greatly diminished the precision with which they could time the transit. Because of this, Cook's measurements differed from those of Charles Green, the ship's astronomer, by as much as 42 seconds.

Other observations of Venus done at the same time around the globe were similarly inacurate, and as such made it difficult to determine a scale of the solar system as was planned. More accurate observations would have to wait until 120 years later when Venus once again passed between Earth and the Sun.

Many Tahitians volunteered to go with the ship but Cook would only take one, Tupia, to assist with local exploration. On July 13, 1769 the Endeavor sailed from the bay with the flag of England flying aft. Mr. Banks took Tupia to the topmast to have one last look at Tahiti and noted a tear on his face as the island disappeared over the horizon. After brief stops at other islands in the archipelago the Endeavor sailed for Bora Bora. They then set off in search of Terra Australis and the east coast of New Zealand.

New Zealand

On October 6th, 1769, a small boy who was at the masthead called out "Land!", wrote Banks in his journal. The passage from Tahiti had been six excruciating weeks, the worst of which was through the "Roaring Forties." At last they had found a large expanse of land stretching for the entire horizon. Cook and his crew were eager to determine the exact shape of this new found landmass even if it took them a year to explore it. The island they had discovered was New Zealand.

Relations with the natives were not encouraging. The natives themselves had come from the sea to conquer their island, and had no intention of seeing the same thing happen to them. Cook began the extraordinary task of circumnavigating the two islands of New Zealand, starting with the northern island. They sailed north along the east coast in what comprised of over 2,500 miles of extremely difficult sailing along a rugged and uncharted coast, much of it exposed to the Roaring Forties. He was as far from his home base of England as he could possibly get in a small ship that had already been sailing for over a year. If the ship were lost, no one would know where to come looking for them. Cook and his crew sailed on, determined to put New Zealand on a map no matter how long it took or what the difficulties were.

Southwest Pacific Exploration A map of the southwest Pacific showing routes taken by explorers during the 17th and 18th centuries.
photo credit: Captain Adrian Small

Sailing close to shore was incredibly dangerous, but if they did not get close to the coast nothing would be discovered. The ships sails had to be perfectly positioned so as to keep her close to shore without being blown into it and wrecked. One wrong move meant they would likely never see home again. The reality of landing such sailing ships was incredibly difficult as well.

It took James Cook and his crew over six months to chart the coasts of both islands. Beautiful coves were found like Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte's Sound where Cook intentionally grounded the ship and repaired the entire bottom.

On March 14 of 1770, the Endeavor was sailing along the southwestern coast of New Zealand. It was a beautiful day with the sun lighting up the snow capped mountains as well as what was presumably ore shining along the cliffs. A crack was seen between the cliffs that lead to a valley between the mountains at the end of a fjord. Banks requested that they land the ship at the end of this fjord. Fjords are terribly dangerous places to take sailing ships into and as such Cook refuses to land. He knows that if they did enter the fjord they would likely have to wait a very long time for winds that would allow them to leave it. It was a moment that Banks would not forget.

Mr. Banks and his men fit in very well with the crew of the Endeavor. There is little evidence of any friction written down in the crew's journals. However it is revealed in Banks' writings decades later that he still harbored some bitterness towards James Cook for disobeying him, not taking the ship into this particular fjord. It is once again revealed that Banks viewed Cook as a type of personal driver, taking him wherever he happened to want to go.

Australia and the Great Barrier Reef

Cook then sailed west to fulfill his task of discovering and charting Terra Australis, if it existed. At last on April 20, 1770, Cook and his crew sail upon the southeast coast of Australia. Cook apparently does not consider this his discovery, for the earlier explorations of Tasman had led him there.

The little Endeavor sailed north charting as much as they could, and understandably missing much as well. The coast they now sailed along was over 2,000 miles long and they had already been over 20 months at sea by this point. The only way to really examine a coast is to row ashore and set up instruments. To do this along the entire coast of Australia would take years. Cook does land to raise the British flag, taking possession of the continent for King George, as well as to catch fish and replenish what supplies they could. Banks and his men collect many samples of plants and birds, and the giant gum trees, but all attempts to learn anything from the aborigines fails. The indigenous people stay out of the way except when they had to use canoes, "the worst I think I ever saw," says Cook, to fish.

They then entered the labyrinth of the Great Barrier Reef. The reef is 1,200 miles long and sometimes over 100 miles wide. Cook sails north inside the reef, with boats ahead of the Endeavor taking soundings. After 1,000 miles of uneventful sailing along the coast, during a silent and moonlit night, the Endeavor struck. The crew races to take down the sails so that no more damage is made. The tide was on its way out. Luckily the ship was taking on no water. Soundings under where she had struck showed four feet where just nearby there were three or four fathoms.

All hands worked feverishly to take the sails down. The square hull Cook had chosen proved its worth now. A ship with a more pitched bottom would have fallen over and become completely wrecked. They tossed overboard as much weight as possible to lighten the ship, including six cannons and their carriages. Day came and at high tide the men heaved on attached ropes but the Endeavor would not budge. Tide began to ebb and she began to leak, then leak faster. Sailors and passengers manned three pumps, the fourth would not work, but the water could not be made to go down. Now things were desperate. Luckily the sea remained smooth.

That night's high tide finally lifted her off the reef but there was now almost four feet of water inside. There she sat barely afloat with the reef holding her up, but for how long? With the pumps holding the water off Cook decides to heave the Endeavor off the reef. Under light sail the crew heads toward a small harbor to beach the ship and repair her somehow. While on the way the crew draped a sail underneath the ship to hold bits of oakum, wool, and dung against the hull to hopefully seal up the opening, a technique called "fothering."

The Endeavor beached for repairs The H.M.S. Endeavor beached for repairs after striking the Great Barrier Reef in 1770.
photo credit: Captain Adrian Small

The Endeavor was saved. Only after she was beached did they realize how close they were to loosing the ship. A piece of the reef was still lodged in the largest hole. After weeks of hard work camped at the mouth of the Endeavor River, the hull was adequately repaired and the crew set sail again early in August of 1770.

They then sailed north until they found a small opening in the reef. Cautiously they made their way through until they reached the strait leading them away from Australia. Cook sailed on toward Java, thanking God there was only one Great Barrier Reef. In his two Pacific voyages later in life, he never approached this area again.

Batavia, Indonesia

On October 10th of 1770, after nearly two years without any news or mail of any kind, Cook and his crew learn of the impending American Revolution when they port in Java. Cook had his letters ready to be sent to Admiralty and he informs them that there is no great rich and exploitable continent to give them in exchange for the America they were shortly to loose. The ship spent three months in Java for further repairs and to rig the entire ship again. Cook takes on 19 new sailors, many from Scandinavia and Holland.

Batavia was a horribly unsanitary place and nearly the entire crew including Captain Cook were struck by malaria. Seven sailors die while in port. There is much a good captain can do to keep his crew healthy at sea, but the diseases at the Dutch-Indonesian port were much more defiant. The Endeavor staggered west into the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Sunda still riddled with disease. They were 70 days away from the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. At times there were only twelve men aboard well enough to run the sip. The dead were left at sea wrapped in canvas. Cook took on another 10 sailors at the Cape of Good Hope. The deaths continued until they reached the Atlantic.

Home at last

From here on the voyage was pleasant. The ship was thoroughly cleaned and polished to a standard worthy of admiral's inspection. Banks and what was left of his scientific team continued recording everything they saw including St. Helena and Ascention Island. The winds were fantastic and the Endeavor records sailing 855 miles in six days while in the Atlantic. Brief encounters with other ships in the area told of how there were wagers in England that the ship was lost at sea, as there had not been any communication from her in so long.

As they sailed into the English Cannel, the crews of other ships stared at the Endeavor, wondering what ship this was. Surely this could not be James Cook and Mr. Banks, as they had been reported missing for some time. Many were shocked to learn that it was the Endeavor back from circumnavigating the globe. She anchored at Downs on Saturday, July 13, 1771. There were 56 men left of the 94 who had left England almost 3 years earlier. And of course the goat from the previous Dolphin voyage, the first goat in history to make two circumnavigations.

The Endeavor's return home was front page news in all the news papers across England. Publications mainly attributed the accomplishment to Mr. Banks and his team. When Captain Cook was mentioned, his name was usually incorrectly spelled, "Cooke." The London Evening Post of July 15, 1771, wrote "Captain Cooke, from the East Indies with Mr, Banks, Dr. Solander, Mr. Green and other ingenious gentlemen on board for the South Seas."

This was about the only mention of Captain "Cooke." Other publications would write of how Mr. Banks had discovered a southern continent. At 43 years old, Cook was still officially a Lieutenant. He had hoped to now be promoted to Captain but, was instead promoted only to Commander, a position that implied that the position of Captain was still far off. There was still some failure in appreciation for James Cook. The glory for the Endeavor's voyage was given to Mr. Banks even by the Royal Society.

Commander Cook returned to his home on Mile End Road where, after being gone for 3 years, learned of the deaths of his daughter, Elizabeth, three months earlier, and his son Joseph in infancy. He had never met Joseph, who was born within days of the Endeavor's sailing. He was briefly appointed to a captain's berth at the historic Greenwich Hospital, a job that offered him generous income and no excess of duties. Mrs. Cook must have appreciated this time with her husband.

Cook and Banks wrote a book together about the journey along with their editor, a gentleman named Hawkesworth. The book was a huge success across Europe. It was indeed no small feat for a ship from England to traverse the Pacific. No Japanese, no Chinese, Indian, or Arab knew how to sail it.

Cook's next assignment was aboard the Resolution, the flagship for his second voyage, and would set sail on July 13, 1772. They were headed again for the Pacific, this time on a west to east direction.

Originally published
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman

  Captain James Cook by

Other Classic History articles on the voyages of Captain James Cook include:
  Captain James Cook - His Second Voyage
  Captain James Cook - His Third Voyage

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  • Ben
    This website really helped me when doing an assignment on James Cook! Thanks so much for the great information on here
  • Wake
    Glad it could help Ben! I have an article about Cook's third voyage in the works so check back here in the future. Thanks for reading!
  • 16hefd
    write an article about his third voyage as well
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