Why was the HMS Endeavour ever here?

It’s rather sad that in all of the misinformation and fake news in New Zealand around the arrival of James Cook to “discover and colonise” New Zealand, there has been a rather stunning silence about the achievements of the expedition from the Scientific community.


Figure 1 Captain Cook, engraving by W. Bond, from “The Three Voyages of Captain Cook Round the World. Vol. I. Being the First of the First Voyage. Published 1821.


After all, New Zealand was “found” by Abel Tasman 127 years previously (in 1642) while looking for a southern sea route from Java to Chile. His men were the first Europeans to officially encounter Māori.

By contrast, Cook was in command of a scientific expedition financed not by the British Government but by the Royal Society. A transit of Venus was to occur in 1769 and would not re-occur for another 100 years, so the Royal Society determined to measure the transit at various sites around the world (Hudsons Bay, North Cape (Norway) and the Pacific). This was important stuff. The transit would enable the calculation of the size of the solar system – Venus was the key, Halley had realised in 1716. By noting the start and stop times of the transit at the three locations, the distance to Venus and the sun could be calculated through the parallax effect. It was also expected that the expedition would look for the “Terra Australis Incognita” the hypothesised continent whose existence would balance the land masses of the Northern Hemisphere.

The parallax effect is the apparent displacement in the position of an object viewed at the same time along different lines of sight. For example, a speedo needle in a car may read 50 kph to the driver, but appear to be a different speed to the passenger, due to the angle of viewing. Our brains also use parallax (two eyes looking at the same object).


It was a voyage on a par with a trip to the moon. The explorers were on their own, in uncharted waters with no assistance possible if they got into trouble. Banks was to write in his journal “we took our leave of Europe for heaven knows how long, perhaps for ever”. It was expected that at least half of the crew would die of scurvy, accidents and diseases so to this end the Endeavour was to trial the novel idea that certain foodstuffs could prevent scurvy. Notwithstanding his success in taming scurvy, Cook eventually lost 40% of his men through accidents and disease. As late as the 19th Century it was expected that sailing ships voyaging between Australasia and the UK had a one in ten chance of disaster and to lose at least one crewmember per trip was common. How much more so was the risk in 1768?

The Navy was told to find a ship, and they chose the Endeavour. Cook was chosen as Master because of his experience in observing the transit of the Sun in 1766 and from his experience as a formidable surveyor and cartographer. Cook was subsequently to train Bligh and later Flinders in chart making, the latter went on to map most of the Australian coastline. Cooks’ charts of the New Zealand coast were still in use into the 1970’s.


Figure 2.Chart of New Zealand, Captain Cooks Journal Copy published 1893

The Royal Society appointed Joseph Banks Esquire to lead the scientific expedition “a Fellow of this Society and a Gentleman of large fortune well versed in Natural History” together with a retinue of 8 including the naturalists Daniel Solander and Herman Spöring, The astronomer Charles Green and the artists Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan. There were also 4 menservants, two of whom were servants from the Revesby estate (see tombstone photo of one) and two were Negro servants (both of whom died of exposure in Tierra Del Fuego). All of the civilian party were funded by Banks. It has been estimated that the expedition cost Banks personally 10 000 pounds – equivalent to 1.8 million pounds today.

At the time he was chosen, Banks was a well-established and published scientist with a formidable network of colleagues throughout Europe and with interests in botany, natural history, ethnography, fossils, medicine, archaeology and astronomy.  He would be appointed as President of the Royal Society in 1778.

The expedition brought home 30 000 specimens, including 14 000 new species, a feat that has not been equalled since.  For New Zealand, what Cook did document was a huge collection of plant and animal specimens, drawings charts and other artefacts that perhaps comprised the first and largest collection of carefully documented scientific material from New Zealand to be obtained by any expedition visiting these shores.  Banks had difficulty in publishing the drawings of his plants. He intended to publish 14 folio volumes of his natural history discoveries and 738 copper plates were engraved but through various difficulties and pressure of other work, they were not published. Finally in 1980 a limited edition of the full set was published in colour by the Natural History Museum and Editions Alecto. You can see examples of the beautiful drawings on the internet.

There has been comment on the so-called “secret orders” that Cook received, and the “Claiming of New Zealand for the crown.  The secret orders have in-fact been published and can be read at http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-MacHist-t1-body-d3-d7.html

Figure 3 Tombstone of James Roberts, manservant to Joseph Banks. Born and died at Mareham-le-Fen, Lincolnshire. Photo by author..