The routes of Captain James Cook's voyages. The first voyage is shown in red, second voyage in green, and third voyage in blue. The route of Cook's crew following his death is shown as a dashed blue line.
On 26 August 1768, James Cook (then only a lieutenant) set sail from Plymouth in the bark Endeavour on a mission that today is often compared to a voyage to outer space. Together with a small team of scientists and a crew of less than a hundred men, Cook would sail to the far side of the world and into the midst of a vast ocean of unknown limits and uncertain geography. Ostensibly his mission was to visit Tahiti where his passengers would undertake astronomical observations of the transit of Venus across the sun. But Cook had also been issued secret instructions by his masters at the Admiralty – instructions for a covert mission that would change the shape of the world and determine the course of history in the Pacific.
By the mid 18th century a number of European explorers had visited the Pacific and the seas of the Southern Ocean with one object uppermost in their minds. Learned opinion agreed that there must exist to the south a great landmass, a huge continent that would counterbalance the northern continents. It was assumed that this Terra Australis Incognito, or ‘Unknown Southern Land’, must be as rich in potential for exploitation and colonisation as the Americas had proved to be. Furthermore, it might be uninhabited, or inhabited only by the sorts of natives who had been so easily brushed aside in the New World. Whichever (necessarily European) nation could claim this territory first could reap great benefits and steal a march on its rivals. There would be untold advantages for science, mineral and agricultural wealth and trade.
Thus when a chance arose to dispatch a mission to discover, chart, explore and, if possible, claim this mystery land, the British Admiralty seized upon it. That chance was offered by a scientific expedition planned by the Royal Society. Earlier in the 18th century the astronomer Edmond Halley had predicted that Venus would transit across the face of the sun in 1761 and then again in 1769. Observing and measuring the transit from two widely spaced points on the earth’s surface would allow astronomers to calculate the distance from the earth to the sun, gaining one of the first elements of empirical evidence as to the size of the universe. An expedition to observe the transit from St Helena in 1761 had failed when low cloud obscured the sun. Now the Royal Society planned another, bolder expedition to the far side of the world. Observations garnered there could be compared to measurements taken at Greenwich, and used to calculate the earth–sun distance.
Previous such expeditions under the control of scientists had not gone well – one led by Halley himself decades earlier had nearly ended in mutiny. The admiralty insisted that this time the expedition be led by a navy man. Cook, having proved his credentials in surveys of North America’s eastern seaboard, was selected. The Royal Society put about news of the voyage, which was to be bankrolled by the king, a keen astronomer. The cover story was in place, its credibility boosted by its veracity.
On 30 July, Cook was given his commission and issued with orders to go to Tahiti.Within the orders was a sealed packet of Secret Instructions. These made very clear the nature of his true mission:
Whereas there is reason to imagine that a Continent or Land of great extent, may be found to the South … You are to proceed to the southward in order to make discovery of the Continent above-mentioned … You are to employ yourself diligently in exploring as great an Extent of the Coast as you can … to observe the Nature of the Soil, and the Products thereof; the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the fishes that are to be found in the Rivers or upon the Coast and in what Plenty; and in case you find any Mines, Minerals or valuable stones you are to bring home Specimens of each, as also such Specimens of the Seeds of the Trees, Fruits and Grains as you may be able to collect … You are likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives … You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the name of the King of Great Britain; or, if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.
If he could not find the fabled Terra Australis, Cook was to explore instead lands already ‘discovered’ by Europeans, such as New Zealand and New Holland (as what little of Australia had then been sighted was known).
The voyage of the Endeavour fulfilled most of its instigators’ dreams, except of course the discovery of the Great Southern Continent. Cook came within a few hundred miles of discovering Antarctica, but the Counterweight Continent as envisaged by Europeans did not exist. Instead the doughty navigator charted the coastlines of New Zealand and eastern Australia, claiming the latter for crown and country (despite the obvious signs of habitation). The Endeavour also visited and charted numerous Pacific islands and gathered a huge wealth of biological and geological specimens and data, not to mention successfully observing the transit.
The longer-term consequences of Cook’s secret mission were profound. Australia and New Zealand became British colonies and were extensively settled by Europeans to the detriment of their indigenous inhabitants. Today they are successful, prosperous democracies. The other lands touched by Cook were also altered for better and worse, ending their isolation and incorporating them into the wider world. Disease, war, trade and colonisation killed many natives and transformed their cultures and societies. Bernard Smith, professor of History at Melbourne University, describes Cook as ‘unquestionably one of the great formative agents in the creation of the modern world. His ships, you might say, began the process of making the world a global village.’ His was a secret mission that genuinely changed the world.