Island Hopping

Captain James Cook: The Journals

selected and edited by Philip Edwards
London: Folio Society, three volumes and a chart of the voyages, 1,309 pp., $185.00
British Library
The death of Captain Cook on February 15, 1779, at Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii; engraving from John Rickman’s Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Journey to the Pacific Ocean on Discovery (1781). It was the first image of Cook’s death to be published.

On August 26, 1768, a day of fresh winds and cloudy skies, James Cook guided his ship, the Endeavour, past the coast of Cornwall into the open sea. On board, he noted in his journal, were ninety-four men, “Officers Seamen Gentlemen”—including the wealthy young naturalist Joseph Banks—and the ship carried provisions for a voyage of eighteen months. They were heading for the South Pacific.

Cook led three expeditions to the Pacific, each with an overt scientific aim that marked them as typical Enlightenment projects. The first, from 1768 to 1771, was promoted by the Royal Society, which was keen to send expeditions to Scandinavia, Canada, and the Pacific in order to observe the transit of Venus across the sun and to use the differences in angle among the various locations to calculate the distance of the earth from the sun. In early 1768, before Cook’s departure, the British commander Samuel Wallis returned to England with news of his landing in Tahiti the previous year, and the island was chosen as the expedition’s base. Cook sailed west, via Brazil and Tierra del Fuego, and across to Tahiti. From there he would sail on to New Zealand and the uncharted east coast of Australia, and back through Indonesia.

The second voyage, from 1772 to 1775, was sponsored by the Admiralty to hunt for the elusive Great Southern Continent, which the Scottish cartographer Alexander Dalrymple had argued must exist “to counterpoize the land on the North, and to maintain the equilibrium necessary for the Earth’s motion.” This time, Cook sailed east in the Resolution, accompanied by the Adventure under Captain Tobias Furneaux until they were separated in Antarctic fogs. From the Cape of Good Hope the expedition looped along the edge of the great ice fields, and Cook then made two Pacific circuits, visiting New Zealand, Tahiti and the Marquesas, the Tonga archipelago, and the New Hebrides. Sailing home across the southern Pacific and the Atlantic, he concluded that he had traversed the Southern Ocean “in such a manner as to leave not the least room for the possibility of there being a continent, unless near the Pole and out of the reach of navigation.”

Another old Admiralty dream—finding a Northwest Passage—prompted Cook’s third expedition in 1776. In contrast to earlier quests, which approached North America from the Atlantic, he was to attempt this from the Pacific coast, hunting for rivers and inlets that might lead east toward Hudson’s Bay. Unsuccessful, he returned to New Zealand, Tonga, and Tahiti, before heading north and reaching Hawaii in January 1778—the first European landing. From there he crossed…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.