The British spirit of adventure is personified by the historic figure of Captain Cook. As part of our three-year coin series marking the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s epic voyage, we’ll look at his journey. We’ll follow his adventure year by year and learn more about the challenges that marked his voyage as told to us by Charles Forgan, who volunteers at the Captain Cook Museum in Whitby.
Captain Cook’s Journey (1768–1770)
Our story begins on 25 August when Captain Cook, with his famous sense of adventure, set sail from Plymouth on the HM Bark Endeavour. What stands out from the first leg of his journey towards the South Seas?
Newly promoted to commissioned rank as a Lieutenant, Endeavour was an unusual command. Here was a ship that could be managed by a crew of 20 with an additional 90 people packed in like sardines! Perhaps most challenging of all was a disparate collection of nine civilians and a couple of greyhounds on board, led by Joseph Banks who was of a rank and wealth way beyond Cook. In fact, all of the crew were his superior in polite education, but they understood that Cook was in charge.
The search for a reliable way to calculate longitude had lasted decades, but by the 1760s it had almost been solved. The first stop on the journey was Madeira where the crew stopped to take on food and water as it was common practice to do this at every reasonable opportunity. Cook left Plymouth on 25 August and reached Madeira on 13 September. Had he not stopped to top up at Madeira, he would have been nearly three months at sea before reaching Rio, and it could have taken him even longer to get to the passage of the Atlantic.
The Navy had learnt through bitter experience that if crews were to stay healthy, they had to have fresh food and water. So Cook stopped at Madeira for five days where he took on board 3,032 gallons of Madeira wine, 10 tonnes of water, 270 pounds of fresh beef, a live bullock, and fresh vegetables, including enough onions to issue 30 pounds for each man. The wine was paid for by a bill of exchange drawn on the Admiralty.
During the expedition, Cook lost a master’s mate who got tangled up in the buoy rope and was carried overboard and drowned. He also punished a seaman and a marine with 12 lashes each for refusing to take their allowance of fresh beef.
The second stop was Rio de Janeiro, which was then governed by Portugal, on 13 November. Britain’s relationship at that moment with its ‘oldest ally’ was not at its best and the Governor of Rio de Janeiro was deeply suspicious of Endeavour, so she was placed under restriction. She wasn’t a naval vessel so she must be a spy-ship! Banks sneaked ashore in disguise to explore the native plants, while Cook wrote pompous letters to the Governor protesting this insult to his Britannic Majesty. The Governor was quite right though – Cook sent home drawings of the forts and facilities in Rio, as any naval officer would be expected to do!
It was during this leg of the journey that Banks and his party were caught in an unexpected snow storm on the shore, during which two servants died of exposure and the rest of the party were lucky to survive. Despite the tragedy, in January 1769, Cook rounded Cape Horn in good order, entering the Pacific phase of his outward voyage, with promise of further adventures to come.
As Cook’s voyage unfolds, be sure to revisit our blog for updates on the expedition.