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Across the Pacific—The New Map of the Pacific from Cook’s First Voyage Account

Fine example of the Pacific map showing the tracks of not only Lieutenant James Cook's first voyage, but also those of Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, and Captain Carteret.

The map stretches from South America to the Chinese coast, taking in the breadth of the world’s largest ocean. Engraved by William Whitchurch, it appeared in the official voyage account chronicling British exploration in the 1760s.

The map shows the reconceived understanding of the Pacific, one which includes the east coast of Australia, a complete New Zealand, and Tahiti and the Society Islands. British toponyms pepper these coasts, showing the extent to which the British ships Dolphin, Tamar, Swallow, and Endeavour stamped the Pacific with their influence in a short decade.

The novelty and importance of these additions is underlined by the shading of shores new to European maps. A note explains, “The shaded Lands are new Discoveries, except a part of the West side of New Zeeland, which was seen by Tasman in 1642.” The shading covers all the areas mentioned above, as well as parts of New Guinea, New Ireland, and New Britain.

The chart was printed as part of the official account of Cook’s first voyage, which was edited by the literary critic John Hawkesworth and underwritten by the British Admiralty. An Account of the Voyages undertaken by the order of His Present Majesty for making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere… (London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1773) recounted the voyages of Byron, Wallis, Carteret, and Cook in two volumes interspersed with engraved illustrations and maps. The Hawkesworth account was an instant success and was quickly translated into the other major European languages.

While Cook’s voyage is today the best-known, the other voyages in the volume would have been of interest at the time as well; in addition, the other commanders, like John Byron (grandfather to the poet Byron) would have then been more significant figures than Cook, who was a lieutenant at the time he was selected for the voyage to observe the Transit of Venus.

Byron first entered the Pacific as a midshipman with Anson’s squadron in 1740. While Anson went on to circumnavigate and capture a Spanish treasure galleon, Bryon’s ship, Wager, ran aground and faced a nightmare of privation, mutiny, and murder. However, this Pacific experience did recommend Byron for his later circumnavigation command.

In 1764, Bryon was secretly dispatched to search for a stopover station in the southwestern Atlantic and then to search for the Northwest Passage. He did contact the Falklands, which sparked controversy with France and Spain, searched for Patagonian giants, passed through the Strait of Magellan, and then zipped across the Pacific, conducting the fastest circumnavigation to that date.

Upon his return to England, his ship and some of this crew, including Philip Carteret, immediately prepared for another voyage, this one public. Samuel Wallis commanded Byron’s Dolphin, while Carteret was to accompany in the Swallow. However, the Swallow was practically un-seaworthy. After a torturous passage through the Strait of Magellan, Wallis and the Dolphin streaked northward, eventually landing at Tahiti, the first European ship to do so. Carteret, now alone, led the Swallow through higher latitudes, one of the first to take such a southerly route across the Pacific.

By the time Wallis returned, another voyage was already in the planning. This one was to observe the Transit of Venus, which was particularly visible from the South Seas. Wallis was able to suggest Tahiti as the destination, which was taken up.

Cook's first voyage (1768-1771)

The Transit of Venus is one of the rarest predictable astronomical phenomena, occurring twice in eight years and then not again for over one hundred years (in a 243-year cycle). Observing the time it takes for Venus to transit across the sun can help to calculate the size of the solar system and the distance from the Earth to the Sun. In 1761, scientific societies sought to record the Transit from posts around the world. However, many of the observations were flawed or thwarted by the weather, especially those arranged, in haste, by the Royal Society of London. Determined to not repeat the same mistake, the Royal Society planned a South Sea voyage to view the 1769 Transit in concert with the Royal Navy, as the southern Pacific would be one of the places where the Transit was visible.

The Admiralty chose Lieutenant James Cook to command the expedition, based on his aptitude for charting and instrumentation.  He was joined by Joseph Banks, a wealthy young botanist, and his retinue of scientists and artists. In addition to observing the Transit, Cook was secretly instructed to seek out and claim any potentially-useful territory or resources that his ship, Endeavour, came across.

Cook and his crew sailed from Plymouth on August 25, 1768. It sailed south, to Tierra del Fuego, and then to its destination for the Transit: Tahiti. There, three groups observed the Transit, although their results were imprecise. When the Endeavour left Tahiti in July 1769; on board was a new member of the party, the Rai’aitean priest and navigator Tupaia, along with his servant, Taiato.

The ship headed south, arriving in New Zealand in early October. There, Tupaia found that he could understand and speak with the local people, the Māori. However, this did not prevent several violent incidents that resulted in deaths. While charting the coastline, Cook and the voyage astronomer, Charles Green, observed the Transit of Mercury. The ship sailed round the southern tip of the South Island, proving it was not connected to a southern continent.

Next, the Endeavour set out east, encountering the east coast of Australia in April 1770. They were the first Europeans to do so. After stopping at a place they called Botany Bay, the ship turned north, skirting the coast. Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef; while the ship was saved, they had to stop for repairs at Waalumbaal Birri, or Endeavour River. Here, the Europeans saw their first kangaroo and learned its name from the local people, the Guugu Yimithirr. They nearly ran aground again, but narrowly averted disaster and made for Jakarta, then known as Batavia.

In Batavia, many members of the crew became ill. More than two dozen men, including Sydney Parkinson, the voyage artist, the aforementioned Charles Green, and Tupaia, died in Jakarta or at sea soon thereafter. Weakened, the Endeavour called at the Cape of Good Hope and returned to the Thames in July 1771.