The First Voyage of James Cook (1768 – 1771)

The Pacific In The Wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill
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The First voyage of James Cook (1768 – 1771)

The HMS Endeavour departed England on the 26th August 1768. Lieutenant Cook and his crew rounded Cape Horn and continued westward across the Pacific to arrive at Tahiti on the 13th of April 1769, where the observations of the Venus Transit were made.

In what almost seems a footnote to history in this age of satellite-based navigation systems, the result of the observations were not as conclusive or accurate, as Lieutenant Cook and the voyage’s official astronomer, Charles Green, had hoped.

The riddle of longitude would remain unanswered for the moment.

Once the observations were completed, you would rightly assume that this well publicised scientific voyage for the Royal Society would return to Old Blighty- Lieutenant Cook, however, had sealed orders from Admiralty.

There was another mission. A secret mission.

For the second part of his voyage, Lieutenant Cook and his crew were to search the south Pacific for signs of the postulated great and rich southern continent of Terra Australis.



For this part of the voyage, the great navigator and mariner would be joined by another great navigator and mariner, an extraordinary and powerful man who did not choose a career at sea, he and his people were borne of the sea.

Tupaia joined Endeavour in July 1769 when it passed his home island of Ra’iatea, one of the most sacred islands in the archipelago we know today as The Society Islands or officially Archipel de la Société. Tupaia was welcomed aboard at the insistence of Banks, based on his evident skill as a navigator and mapmaker. When Tupaia was asked for details of the region, he drew a chart showing all one hundred and thirty islands within a 3,200-kilometre radius and was able to name seventy-four of them.

Image: Tupaia’s chart of the islands surrounding Tahiti in Oceania, c. 1769, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Lieutenant Cook was, at first, reluctant to take Tupaia on board (for financial reasons), but the incredibly wealthy Banks agreed to be responsible for Tupaia’s welfare and upkeep whilst on board.

Tupaia had navigated from his home on Ra’iatea on a great many short voyages to thirteen of the seventy-four islands on his chart. He had not, however, visited western Polynesia. Since the time of his grandfather, the extent of voyages by Ra’iateans had diminished to the islands of eastern Polynesia. Tupaia’s grandfather and father had passed to him the location of the major islands of western Polynesia and the navigation information necessary to voyage to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

In addition to being a highly-skilled navigator and mariner and, a man from the sacred Ra’iatea, Tupaia was also Areoiti.

The Areoiti or Areoi were an ancient secret society of warriors who styled themselves as descendants of powerful heavenly brothers, Ora-Tetefa and Uru-Tetefa. Each having characteristic tattooing, Areoiti enjoyed great privileges, and were considered as repositories of knowledge and as mediators between us mortals and the pantheon of gods. In that part of the world, Tupaia was a very powerful individual in a complex society that, to the eyes of an 18th century European, would’ve appeared idyllic and serene but, in reality, was divided into many warring factions. Tupaia recognised the power of the English and their powerful sea going vessels and sought to be aligned with them and their King. This alliance would strengthen his own political position on Ra’iatea and other islands in the archipelago.

Lieutenant Cook intended to spend several weeks exploring the Society Islands before heading south, as per his secret orders. Tupaia assisted the expedition as an interpreter and interlocutor with local tribes. He also worked closely with Banks in compiling an account of Tahiti and its inhabitants.

Tupaia accompanied Lieutenant Cook, Endeavour and her crew to the rugged and mysterious islands of Polynesia’s south western extremity, Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud.

In that beautiful place, which is also called New Zealand, Tupaia and his crew, of which Lieutenant Cook was a part, were welcomed by some of Aotearoa’s people, the Māori. Tupaia was recognisable to the Māori as important man, tohunga, evident by his sacred tattoos and the fact that he appeared to command such a large sea-going vessel and crew.

Many Māori have stories about Tupaia and he is remembered fondly. To the Māori, and indeed for the rest of us, the history of Cook’s First Voyage cannot and should not be told without the story of Tupaia.

Image: Lieutenant Cook’s extraordinarily detailed map of New Zealand, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After circumnavigating New Zealand and producing a map of extraordinary detail, the Endeavour sailed west.

On the 29th of April 1770, Lieutenant Cook and crew made their first landfall on the mainland of the continent in Gweagal country at a place that’s now called Kurnell Peninsula. He called the bay of which the Kurnell Peninsula forms the southern part, Stingray Bay, but after being impressed by the abundance of unique plant specimens collected by Banks and Solander, decided to call the place Botany Bay.

The Endeavour continued northwards.


15°46′40″S 145°34′53″E

Endeavour Reef

On the 11th of June 1770, in an event that could’ve ended the voyage, the Endeavour ran aground on a shoal of the Great Barrier Reef. After a week of frantically trying to keep her afloat, she was a “nursed” into an estuary.

The ship was badly damaged, and the voyage was delayed almost seven weeks while repairs were carried out on the beach, not far from the docks of the modern town bearing the Lieutenant’s name, Cooktown, Queensland. The river feeding that estuary is the somewhat unimaginatively named Endeavour River.

After the unscheduled berthing and ad hoc repairs using timbers previously unknown to shipbuilding, the Endeavour continued north eventually sailing through a strait that had been named after another European mariner some one hundred and sixty-four years prior, Spaniard Luis Váez de Torres.


Terra Australis

On the 22nd of August 1770, the Endeavor landed on an island known to its people, the Kaurareg as Bedanug or Bedhan Lag.

It is at this place, on that date, that the politics of a place far away will come to irreversibly change an entire continent and the destiny of its people who had been there from a time before time. The secret orders from Admiralty that Lieutenant Cook opened following the observation of the Transit of Venus, had now been executed.

Lieutenant Cook renamed Bedanug Possession Island and just before sunset on the 22nd of August 1770, declared the coast British territory in the name of King George III.

The entry in the Lieutenant’s journal states:

“I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast…by the name New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast.”

Lieutenant Cook and the crew of the Endeavour eventually made it back to England via the Dutch port of Batavia, now modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia and the Cape of Good Hope.

HMS Endeavour docked at Deal in Kent, England on the 12th of July 1771 and had been away for nearly three years.

Sadly, whilst undergoing repairs in Batavia, many of the Endeavour’s crew succumbed to malaria and dysentery.

Amongst the casualties was the great Areoiti, navigator and mariner, Tupaia.


By: R. J. Hawksworth