Captain James Cook - His Second Voyage

The Resolution in the Antarctic

After completing his first voyage through the Pacific in July of 1771, Captain James Cook spent the next year enjoying time with his family while reviewing his charts. It was obvious that no one had yet explored the high latitudes of the South Pacific, that is, closer towards the south pole. It was possible that there was still a good bit to discover there. The theorists of Victorian England had predicted that a continent existed in the South Pacific, to balance the known land masses around the globe. Cook thought the prospect of finding such a continent was dim. The behavior he had observed on the previous voyage of wind patterns, storms, and of the sea, extended his knowledge into areas not yet physically discovered.

But there was still a good case for further exploration. James Cook suggested a voyage that would traverse the South Atlantic and South Indian Oceans, as well as the South Pacific in the high latitudes. At this time, no one knew if such a route was possible. It was Cook’s job to find out.

He would do so during the southern summers in the Antarctic, two of them at least. So the plan he made included diversions north to Queen Charlotte’s Sound in New Zealand and Matavai Bay in Tahiti during the winter. Using these two bases as a winter refuge, he planned exploration of the ocean between 100˚ W. and 160˚ W. longitude during the summer months, which no one had yet investigated.

It was a brilliant plan. So brilliant that Cook thought it strange no one had proposed it before him. The British Admiralty approved without hesitation. And they had good reason to. If Britain did not make such a voyage, sooner or later somebody would, and they might discover something of great value down there. There was already reason to fear the loss of the American colonies, and Canada of the 18th century was a poor substitute.


Cook’s plans were not only approved but put in motion immediately. Two Whitby ships were chosen for this new voyage, the Resolution, carrying 112 men, and the smaller Adventure, carrying around 80. Work begun on their conversion and outfitting in English shipyards. Stores and provisions were made to last two and a half years. Coins were cast showing George III on one side and the ships on the other as gifts for worthy natives, warm clothing for the extreme lower latitudes, and a Harrison chronometer.

Everyone approved of Captain Cook’s instructions for the ships’ outfitting. All except for one, Mr. Banks, who made it known that he should be a part of the second voyage. But he would not be reduced to traveling around the world in the paltry ships Cook had chosen. He suggested a two or three decker ship-of-the-line would be more fitting. Cook did not budge, the ships he had selected must go, and British admiralty sided with him.

Banks did succeed in enlarging the great cabin of the Resolution to make room for his large party which included an artist, naturalists, scientists, draftsmen, servants, and an orchestra of three. The great cabin also served as a chart house and navigation headquarters. An extra cabin was built on top of this solely for Captain Cook. The additions made the working of the ship more difficult, as well as expanding the cost and time taken to prepare the ship.

The Captain stood by and watched the procession of the high and mighty. But it became obvious that the ship was now unstable. She could barely keep from rocking wildly back and forth in the flat River Thames. The additions were ultimately removed and the ship returned to her original configuration. The naturalist, Banks, was also replaced.

The Ships

The Resolution The Resolution
photo credit: Captain Adrian Small

Cook chooses both ships. The Resolution is 462 tons, 100 larger than the Endeavor of his first voyage. She has three masts, is 112 feet long and 35 feet wide with a double skin of wood with borer deterrent packed in between. She was bought for 4151 Pounds and upgraded for 6565 Pounds, mostly wasted on Mr. Banks. 18 Royal marines are aboard and 20 Endeavor veterans.

The Adventure is 340 tons, bought for 2103 Pounds, with Lieutenant Tobias Furneaux in command. The ships were stocked with the usual assortment of beer, salted beef, biscuits, and sauerkraut. The astronomer named for the voyage is William Wales.

When the crews of the ships learned that the new voyage would take them into icy waters at the bottom of the world where no man had been before, scores deserted the mission. Those who stayed were better off, as Cook saw that they were well treated. The seamen all received two months extra wages for their loyalty.

The Voyage

The Resolution sailed out of Plymouth Sound on the morning of July 13th, 1772. The two ships took the usual route down the west coast of Africa, stopping at the Cape Verde Islands to replenish supplies of fresh water and livestock. It was necessary for Cook to make it to the Antarctic during the summer, so their time on the islands was a brief as possible.

The sailing was going quite well, and neither ship showed any signs of instability. They were not particularly fast ships, daily runs of 150 miles were usual and anything over 100 was considered good. After 109 days at sea they reached the Cape of Good Hope. Here their orders were to sail directly south in search of a place called Cape Circumcision, supposedly seen by the Frenchman Bouvet. The two ships searched diligently but would find no signs of land. The opinion was reached that the Frenchman’s sighting had probably been the top of an iceberg.

Cook’s next order was to locate the island of Bouvet, which had in fact been confirmed. The trouble was that they must look for the island where Bouvet said it was. Cook’s navigational standards were some of the highest, and no island was seen where it was supposed to be. There was no other speck of land within a thousand mile radius of this island, so locating it was next to impossible notwithstanding the foggy and stormy nature of this part of the sea.

The Antarctic

The two ships continued south into the sub-Antarctic waters. What possible use a continent or cape in this part of the world might be to anyone could not be imagined. But Cook’s orders were clear, if Cape Circumcision could not be found, Cook was “to proceed upon farther Discoveries, either to the Eastward or Westward as your situation may then render most eligible, keeping in as high a Latitude as you can, and prosecuting your discoveries as near to the South Pole as possible…”

Ships such as the Resolution and Adventure could only be sailed from their exposed decks. The rigging froze. The sails froze solid in their position. Cook writes that the men operating the sails and rigging could not do so while wearing gloves.

Being from the Northern Hemisphere, Cook and his crew could not help but to think of the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere in their own terms. But the Antarctic waters are quite different from the Arctic. It is not possible to circumnavigate these seas except in a nuclear powered submarine or massive icebreaker. The Arctic of the north pole is a frozen sea surrounded by great areas of land, the Antarctic of the south pole is a great frozen land surrounded by vast stretches of iceberg-littered seas.

In January of 1773 Cook sailed across the Antarctic Circle, the first man ever to do so. He came within 75 miles of the continent of Antarctica but made no report of sighting it. There was just too much ice between him and the frozen continent. An enormous wall of solid ice stood in his way. If a lane did open up in the ice and the ships went through it, it was likely the lane would close behind them and they would be trapped inside.

The Resolution in a South Pacific gale photo credit: Captain Adrian Small

"A strong gale attended by a large sea" came up from the east bringing heavy snow. Cook stood on deck with his men, who were beginning to get a little concerned. He rotated the crew on and off of the topsail positions. Those who had just finished their rotation were given an extra glass of brandy as they came down. The crew balanced themselves with grace on the icy decks and drank liquor together with a smile, in defiance of the fierce elements of nature. It was a morale building experience for Cook and his crew, knowing they were the best at their trade and served a captain who obviously did his best to take care of them.

After the strong gale passes the two ships make speed to the north. The icebergs crashed against each other as they sailed past them, sometimes flipping completely over, roiling the sea around them. Cook did not dare to cross the Antarctic Circle again that season. He turned east above the heavy ice and traversed the entire Indian Ocean as far as present day Adélie Coast (Near Australia). There was no sign of land at all, only storms and intense cold.


During one particularly bad patch of weather, the Resolution and the Adventure lose sight of each other. It really had been a miracle they had stayed together for so long. There was nothing to worry about, as the Adventure was lead by Furneaux, an experienced captain. The two ships would simply reconcile at a predetermined meeting place at Queen Charlotte’s Sound in New Zealand.

The Adventure had orders to first make for the east coast of Tasmania. They stayed there only for a few days and did not discover that it was an island, separate from New Holland. The Resolution made for the south island of New Zealand. 117 days at sea from the Cape of Good Hope and having sailed 11,000 miles, much of it where no man had been before and in some of the most dangerous seas in the world, Cook and his crew anchored the Resolution in Dusky Sound on New Zealand’s southwest coast.

The crew anchored in a beautiful inner cove, a tiny, sheltered place with tall trees and a fallen trunk made a convenient jetty. The area offered fish, seals, some game, firewood, fresh water, good timber to make repairs, and mostly a generally relaxing place for a crew who had just endured a long expedition through Antarctic waters.

There were no vegetables here, the crew plants some seeds they had brought with them as planned. Even the ship’s cats prospered here, pouncing on unsuspecting birds who had evolved on an island without animal predators. The Resolution spent six weeks in Dusky Sound before they headed north. They met with the Adventure in mid May in Queen Charlotte’s Sound and found that Captain Furneaux had her rigged down, preparing for months of winter quartering. He did not yet fully appreciate the drive of James Cook, who promptly ordered that the two ships continue their expedition even if it was the middle of winter.

Scurvy had taken hold of theAdventure’s crew and her rigging was in bad disrepair. Cook repeats his instructions the the crew on a required diet. Both crews spend a month to repairing the Adventure’s rigging. In the meantime the Resolution remained the taught ship she always was, and friendly relations were made with the local Maori. Furneaux had planted gardens of potatoes, carrots, turnips, and so forth. But there was no time to stay to take a harvest, so the crops were given over to the Maori, who were delighted at the unique gift.

Into the South Pacific

Finally, by early June, the two ships were free from scurvy and fully restored. They set out to hunt for Dalrymple’s Terra Australis between New Zealand and the Chilean coast as planned, then a wide sweep through the tropics, then back to New Zealand by the summer of 1773-1774 before heading back down into the Antarctic.

They do so during the southern winter months, a bad idea but one that the schedule demands. They had originally planned to be in Tahiti by now. Cook challenges convention and proves that you can indeed explore this area in the winter. They explore well into the east past the longitude of Tahiti. Scurvy and general sickness were beginning to return to the Adventure, as the captain and crew were not fully adopting Cook’s diet and cleanliness methods. The two crews press on and by mid August the mountains of Tahiti were in sight.

Tahiti Approaches

The Resolution and Adventure at Tahiti The Resolution and Adventure at Tahiti

As the two ships approached the island, the winds dissipate, leaving them unable to steer themselves, drifting towards the Tahitian reef. All the landing boats were put out to tow the two ships away from the reef, but could not do much to change the direction they were drifting. At midnight the wind finally picked up, perfect sailing weather in fact. Cook turns in for the night confident in the abilities of his officers to use the favorable conditions to steer themselves away from the island. It is not clear what exactly happened, but something went wrong. Perhaps the officers and crew were drawn to the dimly lit mountains of Tahiti, and the adventures that might wait there. The currents quietly edging them towards the reef.

A peaceful dawn breaks and suddenly the sea is filled with fleets of canoes full of happy Tahitians paddling towards the English explorers, shouting Taio! Taio! as they came with their gifts of fruit and coconut to trade. Scores of smiling and beautiful young women, bare to the slim waist, climbed up the sides of the ships, leapt over the rails and threw their arms around the crew.

“Lee force brace! Down helm!” The sudden, commanding voice was that of Captain Cook. “Bring her up to wind!” But there was no wind. The Resolution was much closer to the danger of the reef than the Adventure by now. Slowly the Resolution edged towards the reef, the Adventure drifting behind on a similar course. A light anchor was 30 fathoms deep and still no bottom was found. They were close enough to see the surf smashing on the coral now. Cook notes that there is a slight chance that they could make it past what appears to be the end of the reef.

The morning dragged on nervously. A slight break was observed in the reef, should they attempt to navigate into it? The many Tahitians now aboard told Cook that there was insufficient depth there. It was a break in the coral, not a channel. Instead of offering safety, the opening allowed a current which pulled the Resolution towards the reef even faster. The ships lurched on helplessly.

Anchors still found no bottom, now at 100 fathoms. Then she found bottom with her keel. The rigging shook and the bow rose quickly. The Resolution avoided a broadside grounding, now anchored by her bow. She was not taking on any water - not yet. The bottom there must be just sand.

The crew, surrounded by crowds of Tahitians, got out the light anchors, directed by the tall figure of their Captain. They could see the bottom now, it was sand. The small boats were set out again and men began to attempt to tow the ship out. A light breeze began to blow again right as the ship came free of the sand, anchors were quickly raised.

At the same moment the Adventure got under way too, thanking God for the breeze. As she got underway there was imminent risk of collision in the confined space. The two ships passed within feet of each other, the Adventure axing away three anchors to get out of the path. Before they cleared the two ships were so close that “a tolerable plank would have crossed from gunnel to gunnel.”

After the brush with shipwreck, the ships anchor at Matavia Bay, where Cook had landed with the Endeavor during his first voyage to Tahiti. Local Chiefs set up elaborate ceremonies to receive Captain Cook. Trading was made with the locals for fruit and livestock, though the locals seemed intent on stealing as much as they could from the English explorers. The ships lay moored for several weeks while the crews rested and the scurvy patients slowly recovered. There began to be some trouble with the tribal leaders, and provisions there were apparently scarce, so Cook sailed on westward to the Society Islands and more elaborate welcomes. The trading was better here, but the locals proved to be just as thieving as those at Matavia Bay.

Relations with the natives goes so well that Cook names these the Friendly Islands. But the expedition must continue. It was the first week of October, 1773, and the ships now sailed towards New Zealand, and another excursion into the Antarctic.

Separated Again

Before heading into the Antarctic once again, it was essential to spend a day or two in the perfect base of Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand. Cook had the Resolution moored there a few weeks after leaving Tahiti, but once again the Adventure was missing. An intense gale on the New Zealand cost had separated the two.

Cook waited weeks but the Adventure did not show. On November 25th, Cook unmoored and sailed, leaving instructions in a buried bottle for his absent junior who might be blown toward Cape Horn by now. There was no more time to waste, a sailing ship could stay in the Antarctic waters only until March. There was the vast area south of New Zealand toward Cape Horn (South America) still to be explored.

The Adventure did finally make it to Queen Charlotte Sound a few days after Cook left. But it was too late to think of rejoining, Cook was on his own. After a brief rest, and the loss of 10 men, killed and eaten by the Maori, Furneaux sailed sadly towards Cape Horn, The Cape of Good Hope, and finally, England. He crossed the Pacific by a far southern route that no one had then investigated, adding another tract of land free oceans to Europe’s maps. He was back in England 12 months before Cook, just in time to pick up command of the frigate Syren, outfitted for the wars of the American Revolution.

Cook and his men made their way below 60˚ S, sailing past the infinite “ice islands.” Christmas Day of 1773 was spent in the area of 67˚ S, across the Antarctic Circle. A thick fog set in with sleet and snow that froze onto the entire ship. A wonderful Christmas scene that made grim work for the crew.

They continued south in a vain attempt to reach the South Pole. The pole lay impregnable at the center of Terra Australis, what they now realized was the Antarctic mainland. No man was to stand on the South Pole until the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, 135 years later.

Cook reached a latitude of 71˚ 10' S before the ice fields blocked his path south and east. They were at longitude 107˚ W, not far from a part of the Antarctic known today as the Walgreen coast of Marie Byrd Land. Here they turned back north, they would not cross the Antarctic Circle again.

Easter Island and the Infinite Pacific

Having proven that there was no unknown south continent except what lie behind a giant wall of ice, Cook embarks on what would be his most extensive sweep of the Pacific yet. Cook is well east of New Zealand when he nearly dies. He writes in his journal that he suffered from a “bilious colic.” Years of torment from the sea diet meant to be an example to his crew of how to avoid scurvy combined with the stress of the dangers of the sea, his digestive system had broken down. The continuous stress likely caused him ulcers as well. He could not keep food down, and grew painfully thin. One of the crew sacrifices his pet dog, making Cook a nice stew to enjoy. Cook kept it down and for the moment begins to recover.

After 103 days at sea and with their captain still in a weak state, they came upon that most odd Pacific island, the one called Easter. The natives were friendly and the massive stone heads impressive, but there was little sustenance here, so Cook pushed on.

There was no sign anywhere of large land masses. He passed the Marquesas, not seen since the Spaniards in 1595. They then made their way back towards Tahiti. When they were in sight of the island a fleet of several hundred warriors in canoes rowed towards the Resolution. The local chief explains that their raiding party was against Tahiti’s neighbor, Moorea. He asks Cook if he will use the Resolution’s guns to help fight in his war. Cook’s reply is to quickly inform the local chief that King George’s ships are not to be used for inter island warfare with any natives.

The ship passes south of the Tahiti island group and then heads in a northwest direction. The expedition stops at the New Hebrides island group, where there is open hostility. Nonetheless they chart the islands and carry on. Not far to the southwest was an island Cook named New Caledonia, a new discovery, populated with a unique and friendly people. The island had plentiful fruits and the delighted crew gave the natives some of their hogs. They wished they could stay longer here, but it was already the end of September.

Sailing south towards the Isle of Pines, the ship came close to the reefs again, but managed not to shipwreck themselves. Sailing on past Norfolk Island, the Resolution anchored once again at Queen Charlotte’s Sound in New Zealand in November of 1774.

Now the Resolution raced east across the Pacific at 55˚ S along what would become the wool clippers route. Still no sign of land. Cook made directly for Cape Horn. To do this he settled at a latitude just below that of the Cape and made a 5,000 mile run. After 36 days the ship was past Cape Horn and off of Cape Deseado (on the east coast of South America). It was clear now that there was no Terra Australis.

Glimpses of the South Sandwich Islands, a new discovery, encouraged no further search of prosperous lands in this area. Near the Cape of Good Hope he crossed his outward track of 1772, and his great circumnavigation was complete.

Racing Home

Icy Circumnavigation Cook's icy circumnavigation of the Antarctic.
photo credit: Captain Adrian Small

On March 21st, 1775, the Resolution anchored at the Cape of Good Hope where she had left in November of 1772, almost three and a half years before, on a voyage such as had never been done before or since. He had discovered new islands in both the Atlantic and Pacific, pinned down the Antarctic, sailed Dalrymple’s “continent” of Terra Australis off the sea forever, and not lost one man to scurvy. Three had drowned, and one had died of disease he brought aboard with him.

After five weeks at the Cape he sailed for England. Three years and eighteen days after the start of the voyage, Cook brought the Resolution back to England and dropped anchor off Spithead.

It was July 30, 1775. The War of the American Revolution had been raging for three months. He informed admiralty that there was no Terra Australis. Soon enough there would be no American Colonies either.

Originally published
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman

  Captain James Cook by
  The Horizon History of the British Empire edited by

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

connect Twitter Follow Classic History on Facebook Instagram youtube

Sign up for email updates.

Welcome new readers!

In a hope to share any interesting historical stories I come across in the future I will be writing and posting articles whenever I can. Hopefully quite often.

I'll also be keeping you up to date on any good reads I come across in the Recommended section.

Looking for something in particular? Find it more quickly on the Search page.

And here is a complete list of all articles since the beginning.

H. G. Wells Portrate

"It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn."


The Discovery of the Future

 Captain James Cook
Link - Commissions Earned


Captain James Cook - His Second Voyage

  • Justin
    Such an incredible voyage.
  • 16hefd
    you should write an article about cook's third voyage
  • Wake
    Its in the works, check back here in a few months. Glad you enjoyed this one.
  • If you would like to leave a comment or a reply, please answer this security question: