The Last Voyage of Captain James Cook

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A Brief History

On July 12, 1776, famous explorer English Captain James Cook set sail from Plymouth on what was to be his final voyage.  The premier English explorer of the Pacific, Cook had taken voyages from 1768-1771 and 1772-1775, greatly expanding British knowledge of the Pacific, its islands, aits people.  Cook’s third voyage would take the route around Africa to the Indian Ocean and on to the Pacific.

Digging Deeper

Captain Cook was given the task of returning a young man named Omai (Mai in his native language) to his homeland of the island of Raiatea, one of the Society Islands near Tahiti.  The British expedition included the HMS Resolution under the command of Captain Cook, and the HMS Discovery under the command of Captain Charles Clerke, with Cook in overall command.  Returning Omai to his native island was the public reason for the trip, though the main reason Cook and his ships had been sent to the Pacific was to search for a Northwest passage, a navigable water route across the top (North) of North America which would provide a greatly abbreviated route to the Pacific from Europe rather than going around the Southernmost tip of South America or the Southernmost tip of Africa.

Captain Cooks first Pacific voyage (he was just Lieutenant Cook then) took him 3 years and circled the globe.  He became the first European to visit what is now New Zealand since Abel Tasman went ashore there an astounding 127 years earlier!  That visit did not go well for the native Maori people, with the British leaving at least 5 of the natives dead.  The purpose of this voyage was to chart the path of the planet Venus and to ascertain if there was indeed a large land mass in the area of what we now know as Australia, and indeed, Cook and his crew became the first known Europeans to land at Australia.  His ship for that first voyage was a converted collier (coal hauler) renamed the Endeavor. The ship was tiny by modern standards only 106 feet long and 28 feet wide, with a displacement of only 368 tons.  She was armed with a dozen swivel guns and 10 four pound cannons.  Intended for exploration and landing on exotic shores, the ship was also equipped with 3 boats and provisioned with the necessities of a sea voyage, namely 17 barrels of rum, 44 barrels of brandy and 250 barrels of beer!  Cook and friends returned to England to a heroes’ welcome 3 years later, with rumors of the ship and men having been lost at sea or sunk by the French giving the English folk a nice surprise when Endeavor showed up with its crew intact.

Cook’s second voyage also circumnavigated the globe, taking him around New Zealand and the East coast of Australia where he charted the lands down under.  Another notable achievement of Cook’s second voyage was his sailing past the Antarctic circle, the first known Europeans to have gone South of that latitude.  This second voyage was a 2 ship affair, with the Resolution and the Adventure making up the little fleet.  Resolution was slightly bigger than Endeavor and marginally better armed, with 6 pounder guns instead of Endeavor’s 4 pounders.  A main goal of this second voyage was to determine the presence or absence of a fabled land called Terra Australis Incognita, not to be confused with what we call Australia.  (There was no such land found.)  Another accomplishment of the second voyage was navigational advances using a new type of chronometer.  The success of the second voyage earned Cook a promotion to Captain.

Now a renowned explorer, Cook was dispatched on his third voyage to explore more of the Pacific and hopefully discover a Northwest Passage around the Northern coast of North America.  Unfortunately for James Cook, not only was the search for the Northwest Passage a failure, but the Captain was also killed in a battle with native Hawaiians on the Big Island of Hawaii in February of 1779.  His crew returned to England via the Westerly route through the Indian Ocean and around Africa back to Great Britain, arriving home in October of 1780, almost 3 and a half years after the voyage began.  Upon the death of Captain Cook, Charles Clerke assumed command, but he also died during the voyage in August of 1779, from the insidious enemy, tuberculosis.  Command then reverted to John Gore, a British naval officer from the Virginia Colony in North America.  Gore stayed loyal to the Crown when the American colonies, including Virginia, declared independence in 1776. (Gore died in 1790 having circumnavigated the globe a total of 4 times during his naval career.)

The encounter that led to the death of Captain Cook concerned the Hawaiians stealing one of Cook’s small boats, a not uncommon occurrence when dealing with Pacific Islanders during the 18th Century voyages of discovery.  Normally, the British would take natives and hold them hostage under the British property was returned, but this time Cook made the mistake of seizing the Hawaiian king as his hostage, evoking a violent response by the natives.  Hawaiian legend has it that Cook was killed personally by a chieftain named Kalanimanokahoowaha.  (Say that 3 times fast!)

When the Resolution and Discovery made it back to the British Isles in October of 1780, they were blown past England and ended up in the Orkney Islands of Northern Scotland!  News of the deaths of Cook and Clerke had preceded the arrival of the ships, and this time the welcome was somewhat restrained.

The voyages of James Cook and his intrepid sailors and the journals compiled by Cook and others expanded the European knowledge of the Pacific and its lands and peoples.  James Cook goes down in history as one of the great explorers in the Age of Discovery.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Dugard, Martin.  Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook. Washington Square Press, 2002.

Hough, Richard. Captain James Cook: A Biography. W. W. Norton & Company

The featured image in this article, the Death of Captain Cook by John Webber (–1793), is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.

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About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.