Cook, James, Explorations of

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COOK, JAMES, EXPLORATIONS OF. Captain James Cook (1728–1779), a British explorer, navigator, and navy commander, is best known for his contributions to the geography of the Pacific Ocean, which he explored on three voyages between 1768 and 1779. His first voyage

in the Endeavour (1768–1771), sponsored by the Royal Society, had three objectives, namely to observe the transit of Venus (the planet Venus's passing between the earth and Sun in 1769) from Tahiti, the discovery of the un-known southern continent (Terra Australis Incognita), and the annexation of new lands for the British Empire. During this voyage, Cook charted more than 5,000 miles of coastline in the Pacific, proved the insularity of New Zealand, added the eastern coast of Australia to the map, and claimed New Zealand and eastern Australia for Britain. Although he did not discover the southern continent, his voyages delimited the region in which this continent could be found.

Cook resumed the search for the southern continent on his second voyage (1772–1775) in the Resolution and Adventurer, sponsored by the British Admiralty. On 17 January 1773, his expedition became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle. His second voyage proved that the southern continent as conceived in the eighteenth century did not exist. He further discovered many new islands in the Pacific (including the Hood and Palliser groups); charted new coastlines such as the New Hebrides, the northeast coast of New Caledonia, and Norfolk Island; and suggested the existence of the Antarctic continent, which was not proven until the nineteenth century.

Cook's third and final voyage (1776–1779) brought him from retirement, on the request of the British Admiralty, to search for a northwest passage from the North Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Cook directed the search from the Pacific side in the Resolution and Discovery. After numerous stops in the South Pacific, Cook entered the North Pacific in December 1777, and from March through August 1778, he charted the North American coastline from Oregon to the Bering Strait. Prince William Sound in present-day Alaska was examined in the fruitless hope that it might provide a passage, while investigations of river systems in the area proved equally unsuccessful. Cook concluded that the North American continent extended farther west than expected, and continued to explore the coast as far as Cape Prince of Wales (the most westerly point of the continent). At seventy degrees north latitude, ice prevented further advance to the north, and Cook was forced to abandon his search and returned south. On the return journey, Cook, along with four fellow marines, met his death on 14 February 1779 at the hands of the indigenous people of Hawaii. Charles Clarke took over command of the voyage that returned safely to Britain in 1780. Cook's discoveries and surveys made important contributions to nineteenth-century geography, led to the emergence of the North Pacific maritime fur trade and the North Atlantic cod industry, and further enabled Britain to extend its political control over Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.


Baker, J. N. L. A History of Geographical Discovery and Exploration. London: George G. Harrap, 1931.

Beaglehole, John Cawte, ed. The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery. Reprint. 3 vols. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1999.


See alsoExplorations and Expeditions: British .

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