Cook’s three voyages of exploration

A chart of the three voyages of James Cook

A chart of the three voyages of James Cook. Red indicates the first voyage, green the second and blue the third. Courtesy Jon Platek and Wikimedia Commons

A reviewer of my book Transit of Venus: 1631 to the present in the April 2012 issue of the Bulletin of The Pacific Circle queries my reference to Cook’s first voyage (1768-71) as his ‘most famous’. The reviewer, who has strong links to Hawaii, suggests that it could have been his last – ‘the voyage that led him to the [European] discovery of Hawaii?’

As an astronomer and an Australian I plead guilty of bias towards the first voyage as it was on that voyage that Cook observed the transit of Venus and on his return voyage his ship became the first European one to reach the east coast of Australia. However, I do realise that the view from Hawaii could be very different.

Accordingly, let us have a quick look at the three voyages and their achievements.

First voyage (1768-71)

We have already discussed a number of aspects of Cook’s first voyage such what telescope was used to observe the transit, why Cook sailed to Tahiti and how he navigated there. Here we will briefly summarise the voyage. Departing England in July 1768, Lieutenant James Cook in charge of HM Bark Endeavour sailed to Tahiti. Endeavour reached the island after a voyage of eight months, during which none of its crew had succumbed to the disease scurvy, which was most unusual for the times.

At Tahiti Cook and his astronomer Charles Green observed the transit more successfully than they had realised. After the transit Cook followed his orders to search for the non-existent Unknown Southern Land until reaching New Zealand. There he spent six months charting the coast before departing for the east coast of the land known as New Holland. He followed the east coast towards the north charting as he went and claimed possession of the country on behalf of the British Crown.

Second Voyage (1772-75)

K1 chronometer

K1 chronometer, courtesy National Maritime Museum UK

The aim of this voyage was to search once again for the Unknown Southern Land. A secondary aim was to test out navigation using chronometers, clocks that can function in spite of the motion of a ship and the great variation of temperature to be expected. On board the Resolution he had K1, a copy of Harrison’s prize-winning chronometer H4 and Arnold No 3 while the second ship on the voyage Adventure had two Arnold chronometers. Of the two used by Cook, K1 kept excellent time so that Cook wrote, ‘Mr Kendal’s Watch has exceeded the expectations of its most Zealous advocate’, but the Arnold did poorly.

During the voyage Cook sailed further south than any explorer had before, but did not find Antarctica as ice and weather conditions blocked his way. During his exhaustive search of the Pacific he found or visited a number of islands such as Easter Island, the Tongan Group, New Caledonia and South Georgia.

Third voyage (1776-1780)

On this his final voyage, Cook was trying to find a route from the Pacific to the Atlantic round the top of North America. He was again on board the Resolution while the accompanying ship this time was the Discovery.

After observing an eclipse of the Sun from an island Cook named Christmas Island, Cook and his crew became the first Europeans to find the Hawaiian Islands. They made a short stop for water and went on with searching for the North West Passage. Not meeting with success, the ships and the crews needed rest so Cook sailed towards the Hawaiian Islands, landing at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii. At first all went well, but later after a departure and an emergency return for repairs disaster struck and Cook was killed by the islanders on 14 February 1779.


On his first voyage Cook solved the problem of scurvy that had plagued seamen on long voyages, observed the transit of Venus, charted New Zealand and the east coast of Australia. To me, and I may be showing my biases here, this voyage still seems to me to be the most important, successful and famous of the three. However, I do understand that someone from Hawaii would vote for the last, sad, voyage instead.

This blog post is simultaneously published on the Transit of Venus website

19 responses to “Cook’s three voyages of exploration

  • Cook managed to find his way from NZ to Cape Howe (not Botany Bay, see map) at the very point where the coast turned from east/west to north.

    That was a remarkable feat of navigation considering he wasn’t supposed to know where the continent was.

    • Howard, Yes, Cook was an excellent navigator. He was well aware there was a continental coast somewhere west of New Zealand, it just hadn’t been mapped by Europeans at that time. He knew of the Dutch mapping of the west, south and north coasts of the future Australia (New Holland at the time) and of Abel Tasmans mapping of parts of Tasmania. The first sighting of the coast was near Point Hicks (the actual identity of this is uncertain I believe) with Cape Howe sighted the following day. He was just sailing westward until he sighted land – it was a coincdence this was where the coast turned north. Yes, I agree the map above is a bit rudmentary and makes it appear that Cook sailed direct to Botany Bay from New Zealand!

  • Cook and his crew were NOT the first Europeans to find the Hawaiian Islands. There’s evidence that the Spanish were in the islands before Cook.

    • EKF, While this is possible is there any real solid physical evidence? The Spanish had the great disadvantage that they could not determine their longitude. Therefore they could not readily return nor send other ships to an exact point in the vast Pacific ocean. Cook’s knowledge became public and the latitude and longitude he measured allowed later ships to return to verify that the islands were in fact where he reported them to be.

      • There are journals in the Hawaii Stare archives that point to our tradings with the Spanish pre-Cook. You can pull the materials in person, nothing will be found online.

    • They were not “in” the islands. They observed them at a distance from the sea. They saw Kilauea erupting at night, made notes in their journal, even named the islands. But they never made landfall. Cook was the first westerner to make landfall.

    • Livi G, You might find more about Cook’s family life from the Captain Cook Society or read one of the many good biographies at your local library. One is Vanessa Collingridge’s “Captain Cook: A legacy under Fire” – this covers his family life and motivations. But there are many more and you shouldn’t rely on just one source.

    • Thank you Alex for your opinion. However, everyone would prefer it if you made a constructive comment and explained why you think this? And how do you think it might be improved?

    • Hello Isabella. I am pleased to hear that the Sydney Observatory blog has helped you with your project. Thanks for letting us know.

  • Very interesting story, in which, I have a slightly different view…

    I would say that all three of Cook’s voyages were of equal value and had great achievements and foibles. However, perhaps the first voyage was better than the others because his seamanship was put to the real test. His more important contribution was in testing out astronomical observations and testing methods for the Board of Longitude back in England. For the first time, we see the use of the nautical Almanac, and timepieces used on lengthy voyages. No doubt Cook’s interesting in scientific pursuits, especially astronomy, geography and accurate mapping; lead to his continued fame. Much of what I read exposes Cook’s passions for learning and enquiry, something that rubbed of on the crew. The same goes for the astronomer, Charles Green, who on instructions by Cook, spent some time teaching the crew the art of navigation and in doing measurements and reductions using early versions of the sextant.

    The first voyage I see far more prominently for its examination of methods of applied technology in situ rather than just pure discovery of SE Australia and New Zealand. 

    You say “I do understand that someone from Hawaii would vote for the last, sad, voyage instead.” I think your being far too kind. The second and third voyage was far too ambitious, and nearly drove Cook to delirium in his pursuit of the non-existent missing southern continent and search for the northwest passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

    I think the English explorer Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) was to later far exceeded Cook. His main fame was one of the seamen and midshipman who had travelled with Cook on his second and third voyage between 1772 and 1774. He, like Cook was promoted to Lieutenant in 1779, and in 1791, commanding as Captain the flagship 330-tonne Discovery, with Lt. William Broughton (1762-1821) in the companion vessel called the Chatham. This well stocked scientific expedition decided to follow-up on Cook first exploratory voyage to discover more about the east coast of Australia and the South Pacific. He then explored and mapped during 1792 the western North American coast, especially along the Canadian Pacific coast, and spent even more time trying to find the shorter route between the Northwest Passage. It was Vancouver who in the HMS Discovery who made the extensive exploration of the Hawaiian Islands. He also was instrumental in the colonisation of the far north western part of North America.

    Younger than Cook, and arguably far more politically astute and capable. Looking at Vancouver’s personality, he was certainly a better diplomat, knew of the great commercial benefits of his voyages, and even kept the rival Spanish interests from braking-out between England and Spain in these new disputed territories. 

    Notable, this was not really a totally astronomical science or science voyage, and no astronomer was despatched to do the any observations. Both Captains Vancouver and

    Roberts did these observations, and were assisted by a Mr. Whidbey.

    [Incidentally, after Cook’s astronomical observations SE Australia observations,

    the next verified English ones on Australian soil were done by Vancouver in Albany, WA (an total eclipse on 28th September 1791) [Discounting Dawes Point Observatory Sydney observations which are scant and were mostly were geographic in nature.] Second of the astronomical observation was made by March–April 1793 in Sydney by Alessandro Malaspina and Thaddäus Haenke – including the independent geographical measures of the long. & lat of Sydney and Parramatta.

    Vancouver describes observing the eclipse as follows;

    In the morning of the 28th, we had again the opportunity of observing the sun eclipsed, but were not so fortunate as to notice its commencement, or its greatest obscuration… The land considered on Tuesday night as the east most part of the main now appeared to be an island, beyond which were seen a high rocky bluff point, and a high mountain forming the eastern most land in sigh… the land appearing like an island N16W to N24W was now seen to comprehend a cluster of rocky barren isles… Many whales were playing about the ship this morning… by the name of Eclipse Islands.“] 


    You also mention Cook’s eclipse here on a Christmas Island in your article. This is, of course, not the Australian Christmas island near Indonesia. From my own research into this eclipse, using his general location, the maximum eclipse was only about 15%, which was annular (07m 53m maximum) in much of the mid-Pacific Ocean. 

    In the quote below is taken from Arthur Kitson’s book, “The Life of Captain James Cook : The Circumnavigator.” (1912), this author states this occurred on 25th December, when it actually occurred on 29th December 1777.

    They crossed the line on the 23rd in longitude 203 deg 15′ East without having seen land since leaving Bolabola. Two days after they picked up a low island and managed to get some turtle, and also a rather unsatisfactory observation of an eclipse of the sun, the clouds interfering with the view of the commencement. Their position had been settled by other observations, so the ill-luck was unimportant. About three hundred turtle were obtained, averaging from 90 to 100 pounds each, and as much fish as they could consume during their stay was caught. Coconuts, yams, and melons.

    There is some real debate on Cook’s intent, who was supposed to have viewed the eclipse and made timings of the annular eclipse from the centre line. Solar eclipses were a top priority for the Admiralty, as it accurately set the local time from the contact points and was a very useful check for the accuracy of the almanac. How Cook missed this event is not known. (A failure in navigation, which would be a big call!) Kitson, here, is just hedging his bets, in my opinion.


    In summary; Vancouver had good close relations to the people of Hawaii. So frankly, if I were a Hawaiian, Vancouver would be my pick over Cook any day!

    Had Cook survived the third voyage, Vancouver feats would have been Cook’s in his theoretically subsequent 4th and 5th voyages. No doubt the 4th voyage would be far more significant to Hawaii.

    Read the book; “A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World : in which the coast of north-west America has been carefully examined and accurately surveyed. Undertaken by His Majesty’s command, principally with a view to ascertain the existence of any navigable communication between the North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans; and performed in the years 1790, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1794, and 1795, in the Discovery sloop of war, and armed tender Chatham, under the command of Captain George Vancouver“,

    This is freely available at Google Books

    One only has to read the introduction of this interesting three volume tome. 

    Note: He says of Cook (pg. v.) [Note the famous pg. iv. of this important document here is missing, where Vancouver sings the praises of the three Cook voyages! He states all three were landmarks , and not just one.]

    …previously to my being honored with His Majesty’s commands to follow up the labours of that illustrious navigator, Captain James Cook; to whole steady, uniform, indefatigable, and undiverted attention to several objects on which the success of his enterprises ultimately depended, the world is indebted for such eminent and important benefits.”

    Also the 3rd paragraph on pg. v. discusses the failing of Cook exploration; possible attributable to Cook unexplained mental state on his last voyage that may have contributed to his eventual death.


    Another scientific explorer was Spanish Alessandro Malaspina during 1788-89 and the French La Pérouse at the same time – but these were eclipsed by Vancouver, only because these other meet with dreadful misfortunes. The scienfific results were lost to us, or were not published or were properly noted at the time.   

    Based on this, I’d say the First Voyage was the most important!

    • Hello Andrew. Thank you once again for a most informative contribution. Your comparison between the achievements of James Cook and George Vancouver is most interesting. Just two brief comments:

      1. There is a link to Vancouver at Sydney Observatory in the form of an astronomical regulator clock that he used in his explorations of North America and was later on board Flinders’ ship The Investigator http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=138867&search=earnshaw&images=&c=&s=.

      2. William Dawes did make some astronomical observations during his time in Sydney from 1788 to 1791. These were mainly for time and longitude, but he did observe an eclipse of the Sun – possible candidates that could have both been seen as deep partial eclipses from Sydney were on 24 May 1789 and 27 September 1791. In 1800 the Board of Longitude paid him £100 for the observations. Sadly, these are now lost, though I hope that they may have been misfiled somewhere so that some bright researcher may eventually discover them in a British archive.

      • Thanks for the extra comments

        I knew of Dawes’ lost observations, but in around about way I was  only trying to saythose observations available to us. The issue is the same as Laperuse’s observations from Botany Bay in 1788, which were lost with both the French ships. We knew they were made, but we can only speculate what they found or truely did.

        As for the solar eclipses, I know of both of the ones you have mentioned. My own general research suggests that Dawes would have had extreme difficulties observing the hybrid eclipse on 24th May 1789, because the start of the local partial eclipse was last only for minutes just before sunrise. It was low to the northeast at azimuth 55 degrees and within Taurus. Unless he was at sea, it would have been most difficult to observe.

        I thought the only solar eclipse Dawes was known to try to observe was the 1% or 2% partial on 14th May 1790 : Partial Lt.William Dawes in Sydney was clouded out. (we do know for this for certain!) Only 1% or 2% of the sun covered at Sydney.

        The 27th September 1791 eclipse passed through Southern Australia in the morning. The eclipse path travelled through Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, and across the NE tip of Tasmania. At maximum totality on the Australian continent had the sun at an elevation of about 35° After this, the eclipse was to pass out into the Tasman Sea travelling south of New Zealand, where the eclipse reached the noontime maximum of 07m 38m. At mid-eclipse, this total solar eclipse had the planet Jupiter at -1.7 magnitude appearing only some 39′E, with the ecliptic roughly parallel to the horizon. Also some 30° westward was -4.5 magnitude Venus, and about halfway between them, the 1st magnitude star of Spica, 16° away.

        It too was apparently cloudy in Sydney, though I have to again double check this. It was about 70% eclipsed in Sydney.

        Cook never saw any eclipses in Australian or New Zealand waters. 

        Between 1762 and 1778, there were only 18 eclipses possible to see from mainland Australia. Possibly only the annular eclipse of 17th November 1770, could have be seen by James Cook on his voyage home back to England. This was mainly visible from South Africa, but not from Australia. Undoubtable this was seen by visual observers there. None of the others listed or recorded here were viewed by Europeans, as far as I know

        Then between Phillip and Brisbane (1788-1827) there were only 9 solar eclipses that were observable from Australia. The most famous and best observed was by Matthew Flinders on 4th March 1802 in South Australia. (The quality of his detailed observations are astoundingly good!)

        The best eclipses in Sydney and New South Wales occurred on 1st February 1851 (annular) and the total eclipse of 25-26 March 1857. The 1857 eclipse was extremely well documented! (John Tebbutt calculated the circumstances and times, which was published in the SMH, including a partial eclipse on 18th September 1857.)

        Between 1760 and 2000, there were 34 total eclipses and 33 annular ones visible from the Australian mainland.

        Note: The two best total solar eclipses in or very near Sydney occurred on 19th May 1547 and 21 June 1610. 
        The next important on is 22nd July 2028 (Can I now book for that one at Sydney Observatory as yet? I will probably sell like hotcakes!) The next important total eclipse in our area will be on 10-11 April 2089 − 77 years form now!

      • Just recalled. On 27 September 1791, the eclipse in Sydney was probably missed. It was also the same day when two of the nine ships of the Third Fleet, being the ‘Active’ and ‘Queen’, arrived in Sydney on 26th September 1791. 
        However, the written records do not say of seeing any partial eclipse, and these accounts state the weather was at the time was poor. 
        Also, the path of totality further south was quite narrow.

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