National Maritime Museum Manuscripts : Journal of the Proceedings of His Majesty's Bark Endeavour in a Voyage Round the World : cover

National Maritime Museum Manuscripts

The journal composed by Lieutenant James Cook during what is known as his first voyage of exploration on board HMS Endeavour from 1768-1771. The general purpose of the voyage was to travel to Tahiti in order to observe the Transit of Venus by order of the Royal Society. Cook, however, also carried secret instructions with him from the Admiralty, which asked him 'with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain'.

Throughout the journal, it can be seen that the relationship between fulfilling scientific duties - such as observing transits of celestial objects and collecting botanical samples - always overlapped with the problem of keeping, or taking, possession. In Cook's description 89 of the landing and time spent on Tahiti, he tells us that he ordered his men 'To endeavour by every fair means to Cultivate a Friendship with the Natives, and to treat them with all imaginable humanity'. The humanity of Cook's crew, however, was severely tested when it came to issues surrounding the possession of the land needed for the observatory that was set up for the purpose of observing the Transit of Venus, and keeping possession of the assortment of instruments inside the tent. Cook tells us that he 'resolved to pitch upon some spot upon the North-East point of the Bay, properly situated for observing the Transit of Venus, and at the same time under the command of the Ship's Guns, and there to throw up a small fort for our defence'. Unfortunately for one of the Tahitians, Cook's crew treated this land as their possession and were willing to defend it as a fort. Cook continues that he had 'not been long from the Tent before the natives again began to gather about the observatory, and one of them more daring than the rest pushed one of the Centinels down, snatched the Musket out of his hand and made a push at him, and then made off, and with him all the rest. Immediately upon this the Officer ordered the party to fire, and the Man who took the musket was shot Dead before he had got far from the Tent'.

These problems of on the one hand claiming to make a discovery and on the other securing, or taking possession, might help explain the care Cook took to write such a detailed journal. For there was no guaranteed way in which Cook could secure his claims to have performed as a successful officer and to have carried out the orders to chart and disclose the numerous encounters made on the voyage, without also having a trusted and coherently authored account with which to convince his backers in London.

Eóin Phillips
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge

University of Cambridge Cambridge Digital Library