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The Great Voyages

The Transit of Venus

It was known that if the planet Venus could be observed at the same time from different places as it passed across the face of the sun, it should be possible to calculate inter-planetary distances.

A ‘transit’ was to take place in 1769.

The Admiralty decided to dispatch a ship with members of the Royal Society to observe the transit from Tahiti. It was also believed that there was a ‘Great Southern Continent’ in the southern hemisphere, which 'balanced' the great land masses of the North.

After observing the Transit, the ship was to sail south and search for the Southern Continent.

Cook was chosen to lead the expedition. He was given the command of the Endeavour and promoted lieutenant. He was of course very familiar with the type of vessel chosen by the Admiralty.

The Endeavour was a Whitby-built collier, solidly built, flat-bottomed and so easy to beach and repair, capacious and able to carry many provisions. The ship could also be managed by a small crew if necessary. According to Cook, “a better ship for such service I never could wish for.”

So Cook and a Whitby ship came together again in the Endeavour to lay the foundation for some of the most significant voyages in the history of exploration.

The First Voyage

Round the world, east to west. Observation of the transit of Venus from Tahiti. Circumnavigation and charting of New Zealand. Charting of the east coast of Australia.

The Second Voyage

Round the world, west to east. Probed far south towards Antarctica. First crossing of the Antarctic Circle. Cook became the first man to sail round the world in both directions. He effectively put paid to the notion of a Great Southern Continent in a temperate zone of the Southern Hemisphere.

The Third Voyage

Further exploration of the Pacific Ocean, and search for the North West passage from its eastern end through the Bering Strait. Cook died in an affray on Hawaii.

Cook’s voyages led to the opening up of the Pacific Ocean to European exploration, trade and eventual colonisation. In his own time Cook's work was of huge international interest, both for the knowledge it added to many fields, from navigation and cartography to botany and anthropology, as well as the potential for further encounters and trade with previously unknown peoples.

More recently, Cook’s reputation has been reviewed as the impact of colonisation on indigenous peoples has brought reassessment of the British Empire and its history. The consequences for peoples already living in the Pacific region were varied and often harmful. Some of his discoveries of places and peoples ultimately led to the loss of indigenous land rights and marginalisation in the decades after Cook’s death.

See 'Countries with links to Cook'

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