Exploring thousands of miles of territory previously uncharted by Europeans, Cook was known for his seamanship, physical courage, ability to lead men and especially his navigation and cartographic skills.

Cook’s vessels were adapted North Sea coal ships (known as Whitby colliers). They were flat-bottomed, with a long body and a deep hold. This design was ideal for long voyages, but also well suited to shallow waters.

During these voyages, Cook circumnavigated the globe twice. Charting New Zealand and the east coast of Australia, he voyaged further south than any other man had sailed before, crossing into the Antarctic Circle.

Visiting Tahiti, the Pacific islands and Hawaii, he also went far into the cold north and entered the Bering Strait.

The voyagers experienced many encounters with local peoples, observing their customs, dances and rituals. Exchanges of gifts were made, and friendships were formed, although not all encounters were peaceful. The Europeans sometimes shot at or killed the local inhabitants they encountered. They killed several Maori in New Zealand, and Aboriginal people were fired upon and wounded at both Kamay (Botany Bay) and Walmbaal Birri (Endeavour River).

Cook's instructions

The British Admiralty's secret instructions directed Cook to search for 'a Continent or Land of great extent', once the observations of the transit of Venus had been completed. If he found this continent, his instructions were to chart its coast and observe its flora and fauna. Cook was well equipped for these tasks, having honed his marine surveying and mapping skills in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. When the Endeavour reached Australia (which Cook knew as New Holland) after his unsuccessful search for the vast southern continent, Cook used these skills to chart the east coast. He did so from Point Hicks in the south to Possession Island in the north.

When at sea, Cook and his crew used a quadrant and sextant to precisely determine latitude. Logs of astronomical observations – and later chronometers – helped to determine longitude.

Charts were essential for recording a ship’s position and Cook had a direct interest in their preparation. He recorded observations and compared his calculations with the ship’s projected course.

A Chart of New South Wales, or the east coast of New Holland. The colour of the paper is creme and the drawing is in grey.

James Cook, A Chart of New South Wales, or the east coast of New Holland (1773). From the National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

Flora and fauna

Despite his youth, the wealthy and well-connected Joseph Banks came to hold great influence in scientific and social circles. He even became an adviser to King George III, urging him to support voyages of discovery to explore and learn about new lands.

Seeing the scientific potential of the voyage, 35-year-old botanist Daniel Solander and 24-year-old Joseph Banks applied for a passage on board the Endeavour, which was received with great enthusiasm and support from King George III. As a result, Banks travelled with an extensive party (paid for out of his own pocket) that included Solander, artists Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan, the naturalist Herman Spöring, four servants to assist in collecting specimens and two dogs.

A student of Carl Linnaeus, Solander had studied at Uppsala University, in his native Sweden. In 1760, Solander moved to England to promote the new Linnaean system of classification developed by his mentor. Banks and Solander had met at the British Museum, where Solander was cataloguing the natural history collections with his assistant, Spöring.


drawing of three men, one sitting down with his arm resting on a desk, the other standing up staring at the seated man and gesturing towards the third man, who wears white robes. Predominant colour is brown.
Von Holst, Theodore and Parry, William. (1838). Copy of the painting Sir Joseph Banks with Omai and Dr. Daniel Solander. From the Rex Nan Kivell Collection in the National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

As well as plants, Banks and Solander collected reptiles, fish, shellfish and insects at each location on the journey. In total, the naturalists on the Endeavour voyage collected about 30,000 botanical specimens, almost 1,400 of which were unknown to Europeans. They also collected over 1,000 zoological species.

Banks was also interested in the customs and cultural practices of the indigenous peoples of the lands they visited, keeping detailed descriptions of the people they met in his diaries.

When the Endeavour returned to England, Solander became the first Swedish person to have circumnavigated the globe.

Professor Paul Turnbull discusses Banks’ collecting and fascination with the natural world.

The Naturalist. From the Australian National Maritime Museum. Transcript available here.

A regulator clock

The famed London instrument maker, John Shelton, created five long-case astronomical regulator clocks for the Royal Society. One of these was used to observe the Transit of Venus to time the track of the shadow of Venus across the Sun’s surface . 

Postcard depicting Captain Cook's regulator clock, which is a square-shaped white-faced clock with wooden legs. The wood is dark brown, and the background is light green.
E Baylis and Son, Postcard Depicting Captain Cook’s Regulator Clock, 20th century. From the Australian National Maritime Museum. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

Lieutenant John Gore’s telescope

John Gore was one of the most experienced Pacific sailors of the 18th century. He sailed on four Pacific voyages, including Cook’s first and third Pacific voyages. He was master’s mate in HMS Dolphin, commanded by Captain Samuel Wallis, which visited Tahiti in 1767. Wallis recommended the island as a suitable place for observing the transit of Venus— the main reason for Cook’s first voyage.

Gore was likely chosen to accompany Cook in HMB Endeavour because of his familiarity with Tahiti and its languages. He took part in scientific observations of the transit there in 1769.

The telescope, a handheld model that could be placed on a tripod, was made by John Dollond, a renowned London optical instrument-maker. It came with two eyepieces — one for day and night use and one just for daytime use. 

Photograph of the achromatic, brass telescope eyepiece used by Captain John Gore, made of a gold-looking colour with words engraved. Only the top of the telescope eyepiece is shown, and it is lying horizontally.
Achromatic, brass telescope eyepiece used by Captain John Gore. From the National Museum of Australia. Click here to view on the National Museum of Australia’s Collection Explorer Site.

Tapa cloth

Barkcloth, commonly known as tapa, is made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry, breadfruit or fig trees. Cook was the first European to collect large quantities of tapa cloth and his three voyages introduced it to collectors in Britain where it was prized as an artificial curiosity and depicted, circulated, sampled and pressed into books.

Pacific Islanders used tapa for clothes and furnishings. They wrapped babies and the deceased in tapa cloth, and used it as wicks for oil lamps. It was hugely important in their lives, and was used as a part of ceremonies and performances. It was also exchanged with explorers such as Cook as part of complex negotiations over access to territory and seeking preferment. Reciprocal gifts were usually made between people of the islands encountered and the mariners seeking passage.  

Sample of tapa cloth and two reed mats brought back by Alex Hood, Master's mate, HMS Resolution. The cloth is mostly orange in colour, and the background is black.
Sample of tapa cloth and two reed mats brought back by Alex Hood, Master's mate, HMS Resolution, ca. 1774. From the Rex Nan Kivell Collection in the National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

 A flying fish

This contemporary work by Peter Hudson is based on a chance event naturalist Joseph Banks described in his journal while sailing southward off the west coast of Africa on 27 September 1768:

‘About one this morn a flying fish was brought into the cabin, the first that had been taken; it flew aboard, I suppose chased by some other fish, or maybe merely because he did not see the ship; at breakfast another was brought, which had flown into Mr Green the Astronomers Cabbin.’

Hudson depicts the flying fish on a white background, superimposed on a night sky. The handwritten words by singer/songwriter Neil Murray read:

‘On Mr Green’s table the fish landed mouth open and gasping, with fins that would be wings, its eye fixed and shining as a spherical orb the shape of a planet … ‘I am your flying celestial body, as wondrous as the stars and you can touch me’… ’

Drawing of a fish with a wing-shaped fin, on a white background, in between a starry-night sky and text. Predominant colours are black, grey, and white.
Peter Hudson, The Visitor, 2013. From the Australian National Maritime Museum. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

First Nations languages

During Cook’s three voyages, cultural and social exchange took many forms between the Europeans and First Nations peoples.

A number of Indigenous wordlists were recorded in the journals kept on the voyages. In many instances, these are the first written record and translation of Pacific languages and are invaluable sources for historians and First Nations peoples today. They show people coming together, trying to make themselves understood and to understand each other.

Image Journal of H.M.S. Endeavour, 1768-1771 showing a page with cursive writing listing out wordlists. Predominant colour is creme.

James Cook, Journal of HMB Endeavour, 1768-1771. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are some of the most endangered in the world. Only around 120 are still spoken of the estimated original 250 languages and, of these, approximately 90% are at risk.

Through their collections, which contain early, often fragmentary records of language from the colonial era, libraries and archives have a role to play in language preservation and revitalisation.

The National Library of Australia, itself charged with recording the narrative of Australia, holds a wealth of language material in print, as oral history recordings, and in unpublished collections of manuscripts—personal papers, diaries, letters and journals. Because of their nature as unpublished works, manuscript collections may be the only place in the entire world where some fragments or words of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages survive.

Cook’s Endeavour journal contains one of the earliest written records of an Aboriginal language (the earliest was by William Dampier in 1687; Dampier recorded a single word gurry, gurry, widely considered to be ngaari, the Bardi word for devil). In 1770, the Endeavour, in need of repairs, was beached at a place known as Walmbaal Birri. Stranded for seven weeks, Cook made contact with the Guugu Yimithirr peoples. During his time on the land of the Guugu Yimithirr, Cook wrote a brief vocabulary list, which included features of the landscape, parts of the body and miscellaneous objects such as cockleshells and canoes.

Wordlists are just a small example of the many documents and recordings held by cultural organisations across the world which are proving valuable in assisting communities in Australia and the Pacific with the revitalisation of their languages today. 

In February 2019, the National Library of Australia held the ‘Language Keepers: Preserving the Indigenous Languages of the Pacific’ conference, which focused on how the revitalisation of Indigenous languages is supporting cultural practice and healing. Speakers from across Australia and New Zealand discussed how European travellers recorded the languages of the Pacific and the important work being undertaken to revive and maintain these ancient languages. The presentations from the two-day conference can be viewed via the National Library of Australia's YouTube channel.