James Cook and Joseph Banks: reading over the shoulders of giants

When the Endeavour left Plymouth harbour in August of 1768, it carried in its cabins the collected navigational knowledge of its predecessors in South Sea exploration. The vessel, under the command of Captain James Cook, was to be the site for a pioneering venture: a circumnavigational voyage in pursuit of knowledge terrestrial, oceanic, and celestial. As a voyage of European “discovery”, it would prove revolutionary in several important ways, the success of which rested upon the knowledge acquired by other, earlier expeditions.

‘The Bark, Earl of Pembroke, later Endeavour, leaving Whitby Harbour in 1768’, by Thomas Luny. National Library of Australia.

Cook’s first voyage (1768-71) represented a joint information-gathering venture between the British Admiralty and the Royal Society. Officially, its purpose was to observe the 1769 transit of Venus from the South Pacific – part of an international effort to establish Earth’s distance from the Sun. The decision to carry this out from Tahiti specifically was relatively last-minute, depending as it did on the island’s first European visit by the Dolphin under Captain Samuel Wallis the previous year.

Artist unknown: Gezigt van Matavia-baai, aan het Eiland Otahiti [1769. Copied ca 1785]. Ref: E-329-f-004. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23137528

Moreover, the official instructions for the Endeavour had an unofficial counterpart. Cook had also been instructed to carry out a search for Terra Australis Incognita – the Great Unknown Southern Continent. Upon completing their astronomical observations in Tahiti, the Endeavour, plying the wake of previous ships, was to sail south, as the Secret Instructions ordered:

"Whereas there is reason to imagine that a Continent of Land of great extent, may be found to the Southward of the Tract lately made by Captn Wallis in His Majesty’s Ship the Dolphin (of which you will herewith receive a Copy) […] You are to proceed to the southward in order to make discovery of the Continent above-mentioned until you arrive in the Latitude of 40 degrees unless you sooner fall in with it. But not having discover’d it or any Evident signs of it in that Run, you are to proceed in search of it to the Westward between he Latitude before mentioned and the Latitude of 35 degrees until you discover it, or fall in with the Eastern side of the Land discover’d by Tasman and now called New Zeland." (Ref: Cook's voyage 1768-71: copies of correspondence, etc. National Library of Australia, MS 2.)

Thus Cook, a functionary of both the British military state and the global scientific cause, found himself and his crew in search of a theorised southern landmass.

That the Secret Instructions explicitly reference the voyage accounts of both Wallis and Tasman in this search, however, shows the importance of previous navigational knowledge to the mission of the Endeavour. It also illustrates the way in which the information acquired on prior voyages was codified and distributed, and, as well as the ‘Tract lately made by Captn Wallis’ concerning the Dolphin’s journey to Tahiti, Cook and his crew possessed accounts by Tasman and others from the so-called ‘Heroic Age of Exploration’.

‘A Chart of New Zeland’, engraved by Isaac Smith after the original by Cook. British Library, Add MS 7085.  

This becomes apparent when one reads records compiled by members of Cook’s first voyage. A good example is the navigational journal produced by Joseph Banks, held in the Manuscripts Collection at Auckland Libraries and recently published on Kura Heritage Collections Online with a full transcription. The journal is an abstract of parts of Cook's journal and was made as a summary of the ship's movements and geographical features encountered between Poverty Bay, New Zealand and Batavia (modern-day Jakarta). Banks, himself a proponent for the accurate transmission of knowledge, incorporates information from Abel Tasman in his navigational notes. On Christmas Day of 1769, for instance, he wrote of "a small island probably the island of 3 kings discoverd by Tasman […].’

Joseph Banks. Journal kept during the first voyage of Captain Cook in H M S Endeavour from Poverty Bay to Batavia, 9th October, 1769, to 10th October 1770. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, GMS 51.

Days later, the ship continued south, rounding what was ‘judgd to be that calld by Tasman Cape Maria Van Diemen" – Cape Reinga.

Observations like these continue throughout the voyage. Whilst sailing the east coast of Australia, Banks voiced navigational doubt in the matter of Van Diemens Land (modern-day Tasmania):

"By Tasmans journal it appears that the body of Van Diemens land lay due south from us which was judgd probable from the quick falling of the sea after the wind abated the land here trending NE & SW westerly made it possible that Vn. Diemens land is an island but that point must be cleard up by future navigators"

Chart of Torres Strait, based on navigational surveys by Cook during the Endeavour voyage. National Library of Australia, 2941732.

As the Endeavour came into less isolate waters and entered the Indonesian archipelago, Banks refers to earlier explorers who, like Tasman, left records of their travels. In June 1770, they found themselves "now in the lat of Quirus’s discoveries" – lands charted by the 16th century Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós. Closer to the Dutch port of Batavia, near Timor, the crew came into the neighbourhood of "the island of Anaboa (as calld by Dampier)", seeing the homeward stage of their journey overlap with that of their 17th century English countryman and predecessor in European exploration of the Pacific.

To read Banks’ journal in this manner is to understand the way in which Cook’s first voyage was part of a longer process of European knowledge building. This is made clear in Banks’ recognition of how the question of Van Diemens Land "must be cleard up by future navigators." It also sheds light on the means by which this knowledge was communicated across the centuries and, though not detracting from the achievements of men like Tasman and Cook, indicates the degree to which they, as participants in the European search for knowledge, were themselves dependent on the work of those who came before them.

Author: Jake Bransgrove, Auckland Library Heritage Trust Cook / Banks Scholar 2019

Further reading

Tuia - Encounters 250 - the official site of the Tuia 250 national commemoration, marking 250 years since the first onshore meetings between Māori and Europeans in Aotearoa.

The first voyage of James Cook -  William Frame, the British Library’s Head of Modern Archives and Manuscripts, gives an account of Cook’s first voyage of 1768-71 on the Endeavour.

Encounters | NZ History - this section of the NZ History website contains stories of encounter which led to the formation of a new nation, Aotearoa New Zealand.