The English in the Pacific
The first Englishman to sail the Pacific, Francis Drake, crossed it from east to west during his 1577–80 circumnavigation of the globe. Subsequent English interest in the Pacific, like Drake’s own, grew from England’s imperial rivalries with Spain, Holland and France. It was only a little before James Cook’s first voyage, which placed New Zealand definitively on the map, that English ships began to approach the south-west Pacific. John Byron’s voyage of 1764–66 is generally considered the beginning of serious English interest in the Pacific. In 1767 Samuel Wallis was the first European to visit Tahiti.
A new expedition
By the time Wallis returned to England in May 1768, another expedition to the Pacific was already being organised. The Royal Society had proposed to the Admiralty that the transit of Venus (the passage of Venus across the face of the sun) could be observed in the South Pacific. The observation would make it possible to accurately calculate distances from the Earth to both Venus and the sun. When Wallis returned with news of his discovery of Tahiti, the expedition was instructed to go there to make the observations.
Lieutenant James Cook was appointed to command the expedition. In his youth Cook had been a sailor in the North Sea coal trade. After enlisting in the navy he served for 10 years in North American waters, taking part in the capture of Quebec in 1759, and refining his skills and compiling charts as surveyor of Newfoundland. In 1768 he was approaching 40 and still engaged in the Newfoundland survey, when he was given the job of commanding the South Pacific expedition.
The expedition’s purposes
Once the planetary observations had been made, the expedition was to investigate if there was land to the south of Tahiti. The voyagers were then to turn west towards Tasman’s New Zealand, to establish how far it extended to the east. They were also to establish where Australia’s eastern coastline lay.
The goals of the voyage were apparently scientific, inspired by a quest for knowledge typical of the Enlightenment. Because of this emphasis, Cook’s voyage has often been thought of more favourably than Tasman’s, yet the English, like the Dutch, also wished to expand trade and empire. The British Empire was flush with its recent success in the Seven Years’ War with France, and had political, strategic and economic expansion in its sights. Cook was careful to include in his reports information about the resources of the lands he visited, and the suitability of those lands for settlement by Britain.