This month’s talk was on Captain Cook’s second voyage – given by Tony Barrow again, who noted that we hadn’t managed to mark 250 years from the start of the first voyage, so were catching up now. Part of the reason for choosing the second voyage to talk about was that Trinity House had a copy of the book of engravings printed from the paintings of William Hodges, who accompanied the expedition and made images of the Pacific islands available in Britain for the first time, as well as original editions of the accounts of the voyages.
The voyages were a project of the enlightenment age – a reaction against the various religious controversies of the previous century, and towards science and discovery of the world, and a time when European nations were both collaborating and competing for these discoveries – precursors to Cook’s voyages included a 1735 joint French and Spanish voyage to the equator to measure the roundness of the world, and Wallis’s 1765 voyage in the Dolphin which was the first to visit Tahiti.
We had a brief biography of Cook just to bring us up to speed – born at Marton (then in North Yorkshire, now in Middlesbrough), educated at Great Ayton, and first working as a grocer’s apprentice in Staithes, before going to sea from Whitby on the ships of the Quaker shipowner John Walker. In 1755, although he was close to becoming master of a merchant ship, he joined the navy as an able seaman, but soon rose through the ranks again. As master of the Pembroke he charted the Gulf of St Lawrence, and buoyed the channel in the river at Quebec which allowed Wolfe’s attack, and he then worked on mapping the coast of Newfoundland.
The first of his three great voyages lasted from 1768-71, and reached New Zealand and Botany Bay in Australia. The second, from 1772-5, set out to either find or disprove the existence of Terra Australis, the supposed great southern continent, and the third, from 1776-9, explored Pacific North America in search of a North West Passage.
The first voyage was famously a scientific undertaking, observing the transit of Venus from Tahiti as part of an international effort to measure the distance between the earth and the sun, and taking along the naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander to record finds along the way.
From Tahiti they headed south to search for new land, discovering that New Zealand, visited many years earlier by Abel Tasman, was two islands, and then becoming the first Europeans to visit eastern Australia and the Great Barrier Reef.
Cook continued to make very accurate charts of these new lands, some of which were used for nearly 200 years before finally being bettered by improved technology – Tony was particularly impressed by the fact that having laid down the location of Dusky Bay on the first voyage, using the lunar distance technique, he was able to sail directly to it on the second voyage after spending 120 days out of sight of land.
The account of this voyage was published – and embellished – by John Hawkesworth, and so Cook made sure to publish his own more accurate account of the second voyage.
This had scientific aims – to test one of Harrison’s chronometers and a possible cure for scurvy, among others – but it was mainly a voyage not just of geographical discovery but of possible annexation. Britain was arguing with France and Spain over colonies in Canada and the West Indies, and both of these countries had already made Pacific voyages, so that any new discoveries might be very important to Britain. There was also the fabled great Southern continent to be found, although Cook was a sceptic, and after his previous voyage the area where it might be found was much smaller.
Two Whitby ships were once again used for the voyage, named Resolution and Adventure. Some of the officers from the first voyage sailed in the second, and the captain of Adventure, Tobias Furneaux, had been a lieutenant on Wallis’s Dolphin. The midshipmen included George Vancouver and James Burney, who went on to fame in their own right.
The ships carried two astronomers, an artist, and a botanist, but although Banks was intended to travel with them again, adaptations which he had made to the Resolution affected her sailing qualities and were removed by the Admiralty, at which point he went off in the huff and organised a private expedition to Iceland.
From Plymouth they sailed to Madeira and Cape Town, then to a point where the French navigator Bouvet claimed to have sighted land in 1739, finding nothing, and crossed the Antarctic circle for the first time in January 1773. The two ships were parted, but met again at a rendezvous point in New Zealand, where Cook discovered that there was scurvy on Adventure, Furneaux not having kept as strictly to his regime.
The two ships spent the southern winter charting Pacific Islands, visiting Tahiti and Tonga, but missed a second rendezvous in the Cook Strait, and Adventure headed home after an encounter with Maori where some of the crew were killed and apparently eaten.
The paintings which Hodges made during this time were very influential, recording island life, but also strengthening the idea of the ‘noble savage’.
From New Zealand Resolution returned to the Antarctic, reaching a latitude of 71S, a record which stood for nearly 50 years, and proving that there was no large southern continent in the habitable regions, whatever might lie beyond the ice. They then set out through the Pacific again, visiting Easter Island, Tahiti, Tonga, New Caledonia and the New Hebrides before returning to New Zealand. From there the ship headed home by way of Cape Horn, South Georgia, Cape Town and Saint Helena, reaching Portsmouth in July 1775.
On his return, Cook was finally made a Post Captain, and also a member of the Royal Society – not for his geographical or cartographical achievements, but presenting a paper ‘On the Health of Seamen’, dealing with his efforts to prevent scurvy with sauerkraut and ‘marmalade of carrots’.
He was made Governor of Greenwich Hospital, but that was a tame kind of job for someone who’d been round the world twice, and he soon signed up for a voyage to the Pacific Northwest, in search of the western end of the Northwest Passage. Once again he travelled by way of the Cape 9of Good Hope and New Zealand into the Pacific, visiting Tahiti and Hawaii on the way, before sailing up the coast of Oregon and Alaska into the Bering Strait, where he was turned back by ice. He returned to Hawaii by way of the Aleutian Islands, and was killed in a fight there.
The talk finished by summing up the positive and negative aspects of Cook’s legacy – on the one hand, his hydrographic legacy, both in his own work producing charts, which led to the development of the navy’s hydrographic department, and training other talented chart makers such as Bligh and Vancouver, his work on the prevention of scurvy, his observations of the transit of Venus, and the images brought back by Hodges which allowed others to see the far side of the world for the first time. But the villages also had a great and fairly rapid impact on the Pacific and the Pacific islands, bringing whalers into the waters, and bringing western diseases and great cultural changes.
At the end of the talk we were allowed time to look at Trinity House’s copies of original editions of the accounts of the voyages, and particularly at the published engravings of Hodges’ paintings – all very impressive.
A local connection with the Antarctic was also noted – William Smith, who was born in Seaton Sluice and sailed from Blyth as part owner of the ship Williams, sighted land south of 60S in 1819, and on going back with the navy’s Edward Bransfield to chart what became the South Georgia islands early in the next year, became one of the first Europeans to sight the Antarctic mainland.