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Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in Polynesia

James Cook's First Voyage

page 25

James Cook's First Voyage

1768 to 1771

James Cook, after gaining experience in coal ships plying out of Whitby, volunteered as an able seaman in the Royal Navy in 1755. He did survey work in the St. Lawrence and on the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia with such ability that he was sent out in 1763 to survey and prepare charts of the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts. He observed an eclipse of the sun and in 1766 communicated the results to the Royal Society. His work earned the respect of both the Admiralty and the Royal Society.

The transit of Venus, expected on June 3, 1769, aroused a great deal of interest in scientific circles, and as the newly discovered island of Tahiti in the south Pacific was held to be a favorable place for making scientific observations of the impending phenomenon, an expedition was planned under the joint auspices of the Admiralty and the Royal Society. Cook was chosen to lead the expedition, raised in rank from master to lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and given command of H. M. Bark Endeavour, 368 tons. The complement of 94 included Charles Green, astronomer; Joseph Banks, F.R.S., and Charles Solander, botanists; and Sydney Parkinson, draftsman for Banks.

Cook sailed from Plymouth on August 26, 1768, and after two stops, rounded Cape Horn on January 27, 1769. Sailing west, he chose a course between that of Byron and Wallis; but in the early part of the voyage through the Tuamotu Archipelago he unknowingly followed the course of Bougainville (p. 50). Thus on April 4 and 5 he picked up Vahitahi, Akiaki, and Hao and named them Lagoon, Thrumb-Cap, and Bow. All these islands had been discovered and named by Bougainville. However, Bougainville had turned south to avoid what he termed the Dangerous Archipelago, whereas Cook sailed on and gave names to the islands he encountered. On April 6, 7, and 8 he saw The Groups (Marokau and Ravahere), Bird Island (Reitoru), and Chain Island (Anaa). From Anaa he had a clear run to Osnaburgh (Meetia), and on the same day, April 10, he sighted King George Island (Tahiti). He anchored in Matavai Bay, named Port Royal by Wallis, and established his observatory at a nearby cape, which he named Point Venus. He established friendly relations with the Tahitians. The transit of Venus was observed on June 3, 1769, under a clear sky.

Cook had decided to take a native named Tupaea with him as an interpreter and a guide to islands to the north which Tupaea said existed, one of them his native Raiatea. The Endeavour sailed north from Tahiti on July 13 and sighted an island on the first day. Parkinson's account says that Tupaea called this island "Tetiroah"; and as Tetiaroa is about twenty-six miles north of Tahiti, it is evident that Parkinson is correct. The first of the leeward group was sighted on July 14. As Tupaea knew the native names of the islands, the only difficulty in naming them was the recording of the native sounds. The page 26following islands were recorded, and the Cook spellings are given in parentheses; Huahine (Huaheine), Raiatea (Ulietea), Tahaa (Otahau), Borabora (Bolabola), and Maurua (Maowrooah). Landings were made on Huahine, Raiatea, and Tahaa. Friendly relations were maintained with the inhabitants, and pigs and other refreshments were obtained for the ship. Cook named the leeward islands, which he discovered, the Society Islands after the Royal Society of London,2 but in deference to Wallis, he retained the name Georgian Islands for Tahiti and the islands forming the windward group. However, in the course of time, the name of Society Islands came to include both groups and the term Georgian Islands dropped out of current use. As Tupaea maintained that there were many islands in that direction, Cook sailed south from Raiatea. On August 13, the high island of Rurutu was sighted, and Tupaea called it Oheteroa. Attempts to land were opposed, hence the record concerning the inhabitants is scanty.

The course was next directed southwest toward the Staten Land discovered by Tasman over a century before. On October 7 a promontory was sighted by Nicholas Young and his name was inverted to give it the name of Young Nicks Head. Young Nicks Head is the southern promontory bounding the entrance to a bay which Cook named Poverty Bay because he failed to obtain provisions there. The bay is on the east coast of the north island of what came to be called New Zealand. Cook spent six months less a week in surveying New Zealand. He circumnavigated both islands, sailed through the interisland strait which now bears his name, and proved conclusively that the Staten Land of Tasman had no connection with a great south continent.

Cook sailed west from New Zealand on March 31, 1770, and explored the east coast of Australia in the masterly manner that characterized all his work. He went on to Batavia and returned via the Cape of Good Hope to England, where he anchored in the Downs on July 13, 1771, after a voyage of two years ten and one-half months.