The Third and Final Voyage of James Cook (1776–79)

The Pacific In The Wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill
Starts Monday August 27 at 7.30pm AEST


The Third and Final Voyage of James Cook (1776–79)

By 1776, James Cook was well-renowned for his seamanship, surveying and exploring. He had commanded two great voyages around the world and become the first European to visit many parts of the Pacific. Once again promoted by Admiralty, he set out on his third and final voyage of exploration with two ships, the Resolution and Discovery.

The voyage’s principal goal was to locate a Northwest Passage around the American continent.  After a short stay in Tahiti, the Resolution and Discovery travelled north.

In 1778 became the first European to begin formal contact with the Hawaiian Islands.

From the Hawaiian Islands, the Resolution and Discovery sailed north and then north-east to explore the west coast of North America north of the Spanish settlements in Alta California.

Resolution and Discovery soon after entered Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island where the two ships anchored near the First Nations village of Yuquot.

The two ships remained in Nootka Sound from 29 March to 26 April 1778. Relations between Cook’s crew and the people of Yuquot were cordial, if sometimes, strained.

After leaving Nootka, Resolution and Discovery mapped the pacific north-west coast all the way to the Bering Strait. In a single visit, this extraordinary navigator charted most of the North American north-west coastline on world maps for the first time, determined the extent of Alaska, and closed the gaps in Russian (from the West) and Spanish (from the South) exploratory probes of the Northern Pacific.

By August 1778 Resolution and Discovery were through the Bering Strait, sailing into the Chukchi Sea. They headed north-east up the coast of Alaska until blocked by sea ice. The two ships then sailed west to the Siberian coast, and then south-east, back to the Bering Strait. By early September 1778 they were back in the Bering Sea to begin the trip to the Hawaiian Islands.

Commander Cook became increasingly frustrated on this voyage, and perhaps began to suffer from a stomach ailment; it has been speculated that this led to irrational behaviour towards his crew, such as forcing them to eat walrus meat, which they had pronounced inedible. After so many years spent exploring, James was a confident commander and experienced in meeting with people of different cultures. Yet there is evidence in some of his officers’ journals, that their commander was showing violent and erratic behaviour and poor judgement during this third voyage, both towards his own men and towards the people they met. He burned towns and sank canoes in reprisal for very minor thefts by the islanders during his most recent visit to Tahiti in 1777.

Was Cook tired or ill after all his years of voyaging? Did this affect his judgement? We’ll never really know for sure.


By: R. J. Hawksworth