The three expeditions led by James Cook developed during the second great age of European exploration, a new intellectual frontier demarcated by the insights of the Scientific Revolution. The Cook expeditions were arguably the first journeys dedicated not to trade or romantic exploration exclusively, but whose primary goal was to advance scientific knowledge. But the context that led to the Cook expeditions also involved the influence of the wealthy Sir Joseph Banks, who worked toward the professionalization of naturalists.
Through the Royal Society of London, the premier scientific institution in England, Banks selected Cook, a commissioned naval officer, to lead a scientific journey to observe the 1768 transit of Venus in Tahiti. The second expedition, 1772-1775, found him circumnavigating Antarctica—and upon his return England celebrated Cook as a national hero. For his third expedition Cook sailed the North Pacific, attempting to discover the fabled North West Passage. But a component of all his orders was to collect specimens so that naturalists could establish an ontology for the discovered lands—an integral aspect of imperialism.
Cook and his crew left England in July 1776 in the Resolution and Discovery, just before King George III received the Declaration of Independence from American colonists. On his ships were eight officers and 102 men, as well as two highly erroneous maps of the region, one by Gerhard Müller and one by von Stählin.
They became the first Europeans to make contact with Hawaii, and then sailed north to what is today the Canadian Pacific Northwest: Nootka Sound at Vancouver Island, British Columbia. After a month Cook proceeded north, encountering southeastern Alaska on May 1. On May 12, they reached Kayak Island; at Cape Hinchinbrook they encountered their first group of Alaska natives in their umiaks, or kayaks. After exchanging gifts, Cook's ship left amid fog to Snug Corner Cove, where they traded furs with more natives. Cook and his artists tried to understand the relationship between these people and other races; the Englishmen compared them most with the Chinese rather than either the natives at Nootka Sound or Greenlandic Eskimo with similar craft.
Cook named many physical features, such as the volcanic Mt Edgecumbe, as well as Cross Sound and Cape Fairweather, and estimated the height of Mt Saint Elias. The party was constantly under pressure to push northward, yet their goal necessitated they explore every nook for a possible mouth to the North West Passage. All along the southern coast, however, were many such promising nooks, bodies such as the later-named Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. To determine whether this body of water was the entrance
to the North West Passage, Cook sent Master William Bligh to explore Knik Arm, and Lieutenant King to the mouth of Turnagain Arm to claim the land for England. After the persistent fog lifted on May 26, Cook determined that the inlet was not a part of the North West Passage, and after much delay sailed northward, along the Alaskan Peninsula through the Shumagin Islands. Close to Unga Island, natives again met the ship in their umiaks and gave Cook a note written in Russian. However, very little knowledge of Russian eastern expansion had penetrated Western Europe by the time Cook sailed; thus, he did not have the foresight to employ a Russian speaker on his crew—this shortcoming troubled all subsequent communications with the local population, Aleut and Russian alike.
They sailed on through the Sanak Islands, and then encountered Mt Shishaldin, the large volcano on Unimak Island. On June 25, the party landed for a few days at Unalaska Island; the Aleut village there was the first they were able to explore since coming to Alaska. Soon the party headed into the fog of Bristol Bay; when the fog lifted, the men wrote that the landscape was depressing.
By August 9, they reached what would be known as Bering Strait; however, Cook thought the land to the west was an island, not Russia. Through the strait they sailed northeast, struggling against the ice, finally being forced to turn back at Icy Cape, Alaska, just over
70° N. They attempted to go west, north of Siberia, but here too the ice prohibited the ships' progress.
The ships returned to Unalaska for three weeks, their longest sojourn in Alaska; the crew made many trips to shore, attempting to communicate with the Aleuts. The Englishmen determined that the Russians had impressed the Aleuts into service, and although crew members wrote about the Aleut traditional homes, or barabaras, with distain, John Webber sketched many exotic portraits and lush panoramas. On October 10, they met Russian mariners engaged in the fur trade; the head of the fur factory then helped Cook reconcile his maps with Russian maps and this, combined with their encounter with the Siberian Chukchi, convinced Cook that the western land at the strait was Asia. On October 20, Cook sent a sketch of Alaska along with his letter to the Admiralty, upon which the later 1784 published map would be based.
Cook's party left Unalaska for the Hawaiian Islands in late October, and before he could return north for a second season in the Arctic, he was killed in a minor scuffle in February 1779. Unlike his other two South Pacific trips, Cook had both little time and immense language barriers—factors that greatly inhibited an account broaching the detail of his other expeditions. John Webber's drawings accompanied the 1784 official publication of Cook's journals, a three-volume set that juxtaposed the south seas expeditions with the northern. But the journals of Cooks' crew would also be published, including those of John Rickman, John Ledyard, and William Ellis. All would be highly influential in the conception of the Arctic.
Although the North West Passage had not been achieved, Cook's voyage inspired further exploration. For example, George Vancouver, a midshipman on Cook's journey, led a 1794 exploration to be sure that Cook Inlet was not the mouth of the North West Passage. But perhaps the most direct impact that Cook's third journey had was to communicate to western Europe the extent of Russian eastern expansion— and especially the wealth of the fur trade. By the 1790s, many expeditions had therefore been launched to engage in this trade along the Northwest Coast and southern Alaska, lasting well into the 19th century.
James Cook was born on October 27, 1728 to James Sr. and Grace Pace Cook in Marton-in-Cleveland, England. The son of laborers, James Jr. received his primary education in exchange for chores at the home of his tutor. Later when his father became a farm manager, he attended the Postgate School at Ayton. By 1745, he was a shop-boy in Staithes, but soon became a merchant seaman largely in the coal trade; ten years later he volunteered for the Navy. As a sailing master Cook charted the approach to Québec City via the St Lawrence River in 1758, and by the age of 34 rose to the rank of Captain, marrying Elizabeth Batts in 1762. Cook sailed again to Newfoundland each summer season, from 1763 to 1767, spending most winters back in England with his growing family. In the summer of 1768, the Admiralty sent Cook on the first of what would be known as his three great voyages, the first to observe the transit of Venus at Tahiti, in the South Pacific. From 1772 to 1775 Cook circumnavigated Antarctica. Then in 1776 he began his final journey, landing in what he named the Sandwich Islands, but what is known today as the islands of Hawaii. From Hawaii, Cook attempted to discover the North West Passage, sailing through Bering Strait, but returned to Hawaii for the winter of 1778-1779. In February during a minor scuffle, Cook died, but the Admiralty published the narrative of his journey in 1784.
Beaglehole, J.C. editor, The Journals of Captain Cook on his Voyages of Discovery, Volume III, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961 Beaglehole, J.C., The Life of Captain James Cook, Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1974 Clayton, Daniel, Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island, Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2000 Grove, Richard, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995 Haycox, Stephen & Barnett, James, Enlightenment and Exploration in the North Pacific, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997 Ledyard, John, A Journal of Captain Cook's Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and in Quest of a North-West Passage, Between Asia and America: Performed in the Years 1776, 1777, 1778 and 1779; Illustrated with a Chart, Shewing the Tracts of the Ships Employed in this Expedition..., Hartford: Nathaniel Patten, 1783 Mackay, David, In the Wake of Cook: Exploration, Science, and
Empire, 1780-1801, New York: St Martin's Press, 1985 Rickman, John, Journal of Captain Cook's Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, New York: Da Capo Press, 1967 (reprint of 1781 edition)
Shalkop, Antoinette editor, Exploration in Alaska: Captain Cook Commemorative Lectures, June—November 1978, Anchorage, Alaska: Cook Inlet Historical Society, 1980
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