In the quest for a mythical continent, an ocean was charted. Terra Australis Incognita had occupied the attention of Europeans for centuries. Described by Marco Polo and first shown on maps in the 16th century, it allegedly occupied much of the southern Pacific, its landmass balancing those of the Northern Hemisphere. But one man wiped it off the map.
British Capt. James Cook, sailing on the H.M.S. Endeavour, set forth in 1768 to set at rest the question of the continent’s existence. The former Earl of Pembroke, the ship was a four-year-old collier refitted for scientific exploration, with cabins for astronomers, naturalists and draftsmen. She displaced 366 tons, was 106 feet long and 29 feet wide at the beam (the ship’s widest point), and drew 15 feet when fully loaded.
Unlike many Naval leaders, Cook had come from society’s lower ranks. A farmer’s son, he was haphazardly educated and served first in the merchant marine. In July 1746 he signed indentures to a coal shipper, sailing on the 341-ton Freelove between Whitby and London. He stayed on after the apprenticeship ended in 1749 and studied astronomy and mathematics in his spare time, rising to the rank of mate by 1755, when Walker offered him command of a ship. Instead, he quit and volunteered with the Navy as an able seaman, assigned to the 60-ton Eagle at Portsmouth. Promoted to master in 1758, a warrant officer specializing in navigation and ship handling, he charted the St. Lawrence River ahead of the British assault on Quebec. The British admiralty, recognizing Cook’s skill and leadership, named him captain and chief astronomer of the Endeavour, which was sailing to the Pacific to observe a transit of Venus across the face of the sun in June 1769, meant to help determine the earth’s distance from the sun. Accompanying Cook was naturalist Joseph Banks, who, when encouraged to take the usual grand tour of Europe, said, “Every blockhead does that! My grand tour should be one round the world.”
Endeavour rounded Africa’s Cape Horn on Jan. 27, 1769, and reached Tahiti on April 13. The reading, taken June 3 under clear 119-degree skies, was marred by a worldwide optical phenomenon. Afterward, Cook visited the neighboring islands and called the group the Society Islands, as they lay contiguous to one another. Crossing the 40th parallel on Sept. 1, he found no sign of land and headed northwest, reaching New Zealand on Oct. 7, which he rounded on March 13, 1770, proving it an island. Endeavour reached Australia in April, was stuck on the Great Barrier Reef in June, was overhauled in the Endeavour River, and reached Batavia (now Jakarta), Java, in October. The crew had been healthy until staying in Batavia for overhauling, where all but one contacted malaria, which killed six, and 23 more died from dysentery in the Indian Ocean. The one passenger to remain healthy the entire trip was the ship’s goat, brought along to provide milk for the officers’ coffee. This was the goat’s second circumnavigation of the world, the first with Capt. Samuel Wallis in the late 1760s.
Cook ventured forth again, this time in H.M.S. Resolution, accompanied by Tobias Furneaux commanding the Adventure, in July 1772. They explored Antarctic waters that winter, where Adventure disappeared in the fog. Cook headed east along the 60th parallel, met the Adventure in New Zealand, wintered in Tahiti, and returned to New Zealand in October, again losing the Adventure. Cook zigzagged across the southern Pacific, crossed the Antarctic Circle on Dec. 20, headed back to the middle Pacific and reached England on July 30, 1775.
Cook left on his final voyage in July 1776, again on the Resolution. He happened upon the Sandwich Islands in January 1778, the first Europeans to visit what are now called the Hawaiian Islands. He explored the west coast of North America from present-day Oregon on north, searching for the Northwest Passage. Finding none, he returned to the Sandwich Islands and was killed by the natives who on his first visit had thought him a god but turned violent as they realized otherwise. The crew completed the voyage and returned to England on Oct. 4, 1780.
Cook was considered the greatest explorer of his time. He proved that Terra Australis Incognita and the Northwest Passage did not exist, and he made a comprehensive map of the Pacific. That map is peppered with Cook names and names bestowed by Cook, vestiges of one of the world’s greatest explorers.
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