Two hundred and fifty years ago Captain James Cook set sail on a voyage that changed the world. William Cook (no relation) explores The British Library’s new anniversary exhibition, which features original journals as well as paintings and drawings capturing Polynesia by Cook’s crew.
In the summer of 1768, an obscure sea captain called James Cook set sail from Plymouth on a ship called HMS Endeavour, bound for a newly discovered island in the Pacific Ocean called Tahiti.
Cook was a steady, unspectacular sailor, unknown outside the Royal Navy, and the Endeavour was an undistinguished vessel, built to ferry coal to London from Cook’s native Whitby.
However his Pacific voyage changed the world, heralding a new age of globalisation, and now the British Library is marking this anniversary with a fascinating exhibition.
The official purpose of Cook’s mission, commissioned by the Royal Society, was to track the passage of Venus as it passed before the Sun.
Its unofficial purpose, commissioned by the Admiralty, was to search for the so-called Great South Continent and claim it for the Crown.
The official mission was only a partial success and the unofficial mission was a failure, but as he searched in vain for this mythic continent Cook explored numerous uncharted territories – most notably New Zealand and the east coast of Australia.
Cook made two more voyages, in 1772 and 1776, ending with his death in 1780 when he was killed by rebellious natives in Hawaii.
By then he’d discovered countless Pacific islands and ventured into the Antarctic Circle, making Britain a global power and bringing Polynesia – for better or worse – into the western world.