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Captain James Cook

Cook's ship Endeavour runs aground on the Great Barrier Reef on his first voyage, in 1770 In 1768 a ship called the Endeavour sailed from England. It was commanded by Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook (1728–1779). The Endeavour was on a scientific voyage, bound for the island of Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean. But Cook had other instructions as well. At this time, European knowledge of the South Pacific was based on vague reports, mostly from Dutch sailors. Cook was to explore further. In fact, this was to be the first of three great voyages made by Cook, in which he charted much of the coastline of Australia and New Zealand, as well as many Pacific islands. During these voyages he sailed further south than anyone before him.

Captain James Cook, painted by Nathaniel Dance-Holland in c.1775. James Cook was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1728. He went to...Read More >>Captain James Cook, painted by Nathaniel Dance-Holland in c.1775. James Cook was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1728. He went to sea at the age of 18 and became one of the navy’s best seamen. He worked on merchant ships for 10 years before joining the Royal Navy in 1755. As he was already an experienced seaman and an excellent navigator, he was rapidly promoted.

Cook's instructions

The Royal Society, an association of British scientists, had chosen Cook to captain a scientific expedition to Tahiti. Astronomers had predicted that Venus would pass in front of the Sun in June 1769. By observing this from different points around the globe, they hoped to measure the distance of the Sun from Earth accurately. Cook was also given an additional set of sealed instructions, which he was to read on arrival in Tahiti. These told him to locate a continent that was believed to lie far to the south, although no one had ever seen it: Terra Australis Incognita, or “Unknown Southern Land” (what we now call Antarctica), and to claim it for Great Britain.
A painting of Endeavour setting sail from Whitby harbour in 1768

Cook’s ships gave their names to several US spacecraft: the space shuttles Endeavour and Discovery, and Apollo 15’s Command Service Module, also called Endeavour.

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