Mapping Cook
This engraving shows the battle between Cook’s crew and native Hawaiians that led to Cook’s death. Published in Bankes’s New System of Geography in 1788. (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)

Mapping Cook
by Eliane Dotson
Captain James Cook is often regarded as “the preeminent explorer of his age” (Ravneberg, p. 20) who made significant contributions to the mapping of New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, and the South Pacific. He was not just an explorer, but a proficient surveyor and chartmaker who regarded mapmaking as a critical element to his voyages. He became the first European to discover a number of new lands and, as most European explorers are wont to do, he named these new places after royals, patrons, associates, and crewmembers. Although some of these names have since been changed, often in favor of indigenous nomenclature, many can still be found on maps today, serving as reminders of Cook’s three incredible journeys. This article offers a brief overview of Cook’s vast explorations and the maps that resulted.
James Cook was born on 27 October 1728 in Marton in the East Riding of Yorkshire to Grace and James Cook Sr., who served as farm laborers in Cleveland.  He was fortunate to receive some schooling as a young boy alongside various jobs he was required to perform to help support his family. At the age of 17 he found himself working for the Walker family in Whitby, joining the crew upon their ships that operated in the North Sea coal trade. After practicing seamanship skills for nearly a decade, Cook volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1755, passing the master’s examination in 1757 and rounding out his skill set by learning navigation, surveying, cartography, and astronomy. He sailed to eastern Canada the following year aboard the Pembroke, assisting the Royal Navy in their conflict with the French during the Seven Years War and drawing charts along the way.  Cook’s skills as a surveyor and mapmaker were noted by the Navy, and he was sent on several voyages to Canada to chart Newfoundland, an important location due to the cod fishing industry. He sailed between Britain and Canada numerous times between 1758-1767, spending his leave time in London. During one of his annual leaves, he married Elizabeth Batts in London in December 1762, fathering five sons and one daughter on subsequent leaves.
First Voyage (1768-71)
The concept for a voyage to the Pacific Ocean was first championed by the Royal Society, which was intent on observing the next Transit of Venus in 1769. The Transit of Venus enabled astronomers to calculate the distance between the Earth and the sun, and it was determined that the Pacific would provide the most optimal viewing. An additional goal for the voyage was to find the Great Southern Continent (Terra Australis Incognita), which was presumed to stretch across the southern Pacific Ocean and might contain useful resources that could be exploited. As the Royal Society did not own ships, they approached the Admiralty to provide one and recommended that Alexander Dalrymple lead the expedition. The Admiralty agreed to supply a ship on the condition that one of their own command the ship, and thus appointed James Cook and promoted him to lieutenant.
Cook departed Plymouth, England on 25 August 1768 on HMB Endeavour with 94 people on board, including astronomer Charles Green and botanist Joseph Banks, a member of the Royal Society. The Endeavour sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, rounded Cape Horn, and arrived in Tahiti on 13 April 1769.  The group stayed in Tahiti for 3 months to observe the Transit of Venus, which occurred on 3 June, and then toured the island by foot and rowboat to create an accurate map. Once the astronomical observations had been captured, Cook spent a month exploring and charting a number of the neighboring islands, which he named “Society Isles,” possibly in honor of the Royal Society or the fact that the islands “lay contiguous to one another,” as Cook described them in his journal.
This French edition of Cook’s map of Tahiti was published in La Harpe's Abrege de l'Histoire Generale des Voyages circa 1780. (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
This is the first official map of the Society Isles, published in John Hawkesworth’s An Account of the Voyages … in the Southern Hemisphere. (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
Cook then turned his attention to finding the Great Southern Continent, sailing due south. After his ship suffered damage, he changed his course westward to seek land where he could anchor his ship for repairs. On board the Endeavour were charts showing the discoveries of Abel Tasman in Tasmania and New Zealand. The North Island of New Zealand was sighted on 6 October 1769, and the Endeavour sailed counter-clockwise around the island, surveying the coastline and making landfall when possible. By January 1770 the ship reached a safe anchorage, which Cook named Queen Charlotte Sound. The crew spent several weeks there repairing the ship, exploring the island, and making contact with the local Maori. Upon hiking up a hill, now known as Cook’s Lookout, Cook was able to determine that the North Island was separated by a strait from the land upon which he stood. He knew they would have to attempt to circumnavigate this southern land to determine if it might be part of Terra Australis. The Endeavour sailed fully through the strait, which Joseph Banks named “Cook Strait,” and began its course around the South Island. By the end of March, Cook had completed the circumnavigation of New Zealand, noting locations sighted by Tasman in 1642 along the western coast of the South Island. He proved that New Zealand was not part of the southern continent and created a chart of the islands that was an impressive feat of cartography, particularly considering the ship’s inability to sail close to the coastline along many stretches due to foul weather.
This is the first official map of New Zealand, published in John Hawkesworth’s An Account of the Voyages … in the Southern Hemisphere. (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
James Cook then decided to sail west towards the Cape of Good Hope and headed for Tasmania. The ship ended up too far north due to Tasman’s inaccurate coordinates, and Cook’s second-in-command, Zachary Hicks, sighted New Holland on 19 April 1770 instead. Cook named the initial location sighted “Point Hicks,” and the ship began sailing up the east coast of New Holland. The Endeavour anchored for a week in Botany Bay, so named by Cook due to the amount of novel and interesting flora that was found there and collected by botanist Joseph Banks. The expedition continued north, with Cook charting the coastline and naming features along the way. On 11 June 1770, the ship ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and was severely damaged. The ship limped its way to Endeavour River, where the ship was beached and repairs were made.
These detailed charts of the Endeavour River and Botany Bay were published in John Hawkesworth’s An Account of the Voyages … in the Southern Hemisphere. (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
The Endeavour was made sea-worthy enough to continue the journey north, and sailed through the Torres Strait, reconfirming that New Guinea was not attached to New Holland. The crew stopped in Batavia, Java for full repairs before the final journey home. Cook and the Endeavour made their way back to The Downs on 13 July 1771, completing a full circumnavigation of the world.
This map follows Cook’s route from the southern tip of South America to Java between December 1768 and October 1770. Published in a French edition of his expedition, Voyage dans l’Hemisphere Australe. (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
Second Voyage (1772-75)
Although James Cook had made several attempts to find the Great Southern Continent in the south Pacific, his explorations were insufficient to prove or dispel its existence. He proposed a new voyage to the Admiralty, recommending a track around 60 degrees south, as close to the South Pole as ice would allow. He also requested two ships for the voyage due to the challenges he had experienced on his first voyage. The Admiralty agreed to his plan, promoting Cook to Commander and supplying two ships, HMS Resolution and HMS Adventure. With Cook as captain of the Resolution and Tobias Furneaux as captain of the Adventure, the expedition departed Plymouth on 13 July 1772.
On board the ship were several useful tools to help in the navigation. Cook had copies of charts from Alexander Dalrymple of both the South Pacific and South Atlantic oceans, which noted all known sightings of land by previous explorers, including Tasman, Juan Fernandez, Dr. Edmund Halley, Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier. In addition, four marine chronometers were brought on the voyage. Chronometers were a relatively new technology created to precisely measure longitude and were brought on the ships to determine their accuracy. These marine chronometers enabled Cook to make corrections to his previous charts with updated measurements.
After reaching Cape Town on 23 November, Cook headed south to find Bouvet’s “Cape Circumcision,” later named Bouvet Island, but did not locate it, instead sailing south of the island, thereby proving it was not part of the southern continent. Cook’s expedition became the first known ships to cross the Antarctic Circle on 17 January 1773, but were soon forced to retreat north due to ice. The ships escaped the icy seas and went north into the Indian Ocean, where they became separated from one another. They both headed east towards their rendezvous at Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand.
This image is from a separately published map of the southern hemisphere by Didier Robert de Vaugondy (1777), and shows the track of Cook’s second voyage in red south of Africa. The 1773 route of the Resolution and Adventure is shown, as well as the separate return journeys of the Adventure in 1774 and the Resolution in 1775. (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
With Furneaux at the helm, the Adventure headed on a more northly track, reaching the southern and eastern coastlines of Tasmania, but continued east to New Zealand and failed to identify Tasmania as an island. Cook kept the Resolution as far south as possible, but sighted no land en route to New Zealand. The two ships reunited in Queen Charlotte Sound on 17 May 1773. Cook was eager to make a sweep of the South Pacific, and the two ships headed east on a track that was about 10 degrees south of his track on the first voyage. No land was sighted, and the expedition headed north to the Society Islands to resupply and make repairs.
Then ventured west through the Society Islands in search of Tonga, which had been discovered by Tasman. Along the way Cook discovered Manuae and TeAu o Tu, which he named “Hervey Islands” after Augustus Hervey, 3rd Earl of Bristol (and which later became part of the Cook Islands). Cook reached the Tonga islands in October 1773; he named them the “Friendly Isles” and charted a few of the islands, but not in great detail.
This is a French edition of Cook’s map of the Friendly Isles (Tonga Islands), published circa 1785. (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
The ships then headed south again to New Zealand, becoming separated due to heavy gales along the east coast of the North Island. The Resolution succeeded in sailing through Cook’s Strait back to Queen Charlotte Sound, remaining there for several weeks to make repairs. When the Adventure did not make the rendezvous, Cook resolved to head out alone for another sweep of the South Pacific. Five days later the Adventure made its way to Queen Charlotte Sound, and with no sign of the Resolution, Furneaux decided to return home. On his way to Britain, Furneaux attempted once more to find Bouvet Island south of Cape Horn. He did not locate the island, and arrived home on 14 July 1774.
Meanwhile, Cook headed south and passed the Antarctic Circle two more times in December 1773 and January 1774 before he was forced north due to ice pack. No land was sighted – only icebergs – and Cook reasoned that even if a southern continent existed, it would be too cold and icy to be habitable.
This image is from a separately published map of the southern hemisphere by Didier Robert de Vaugondy (1777), and shows the track of Cook’s second voyage in red in the South Pacific. The 1774 route of the Resolution is shown crossing the Antarctic Circle twice. (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
En route to warmer waters, Cook attempted to find the land sighted by Juan Fernandez based on Dalrymple’s charts. However, no land was sighted until the ship reached Easter Island. He shifted his route northwest on to the Marquesas, which had not been seen since Álvaro de Mendaña had discovered them in 1595. He named one of the islands (that had not been previously named by Mendaña) after a midshipman named Hood. (The island is now known as Fatu Huku.) The Resolution continued its track west through some of Cook’s favorite islands – the Society Isles and the Friendly Isles – in search of land discovered by Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandes de Quiros in 1605 and visited by Louis Antoine de Bouganville in 1768. Cook succeeded in finding the islands in July 1774; he named them “New Hebrides” (now known as Vanuatu) and spent 6 weeks exploring and charting them.
Further south, Cook encountered a new island, which he named “New Caledonia” after the ancient name for part of Scotland, the country of his father. The Resolution sailed along the eastern coast of the island for nearly a month, visiting the island around Balade. Cook climbed up nearby Mount Vengaya and noted that the island was quite narrow and the western coastline ran parallel to the eastern. After completing the east coast of the island, the expedition encountered reefs that prevented them from sailing up the west coast, causing them to change course and return to New Zealand.
This is Cook’s official map of the New Hebrides and New Caledonia, published in Strahan & Cadell’s A Voyage Towards the South Pole in 1777. (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
After resupplying and repairing the ship in Queen Charlotte Sound, the Resolution finally made its way back east, around Cape Horn, to perform a southern sweep of the South Atlantic Ocean in search of the southern continent. Cook searched for the “Golfo de St. Sebastiano,” shown as part of Terra Australis on Ortelius’ 1570 map of the western hemisphere, but did not encounter it. Instead, Cook discovered and named South Georgia (after King George) in January 1775 and the South Sandwich Islands (in honor of Lord Sandwich, then First Lord of the Admiralty) in February 1775 en route to Cape Town. Cook arrived at Spithead near Portsmouth on 30 July 1775.
A Dutch edition of Cook’s map of the South Atlantic showing South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (with north oriented to the bottom of the sheet), published in Reizen Rondom de Waereld door James Cook (1777). (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
Third Voyage (1776-80)
James Cook had returned a hero and was promoted to Captain and asked to write a book based on his journals. However, the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, was keen for Cook to return to sea – this time to explore the North Pacific and find a Northwest Passage connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic. Cook acquiesced and again departed Plymouth on 12 July 1776 aboard the Resolution. He was to be accompanied by a second ship, the Discovery, captained by Charles Clerke, who was delayed several weeks in Britain due to an unfortunate family issue. The two ships met in Cape Town and headed east together on 1 December 1776.
They reached Queen Charlotte Sound in February after exploring several islands in the Indian Ocean known to the French (Prince Edward Islands and Kerguelen Island). The expedition headed north to revisit Tonga and spent three months there improving their charts of the islands, followed by nearly four months in the Society Islands. On 24 December 1777, after crossing the equator, the ships arrived at an uninhabited island that Cook named Christmas Island (now Kiritimati). Continuing north, Cook sighted Oahu on 18 January 1778, but first landed on Kauai on January 20. The ships also landed on Nihau, but only stayed in Hawaii for 2 weeks before heading north to the coast of North America, as that was the primary goal of the expedition. Cook named the archipelago “Sandwich Islands” in honor of the Earl.
Cook based his navigation of the coast of North America on the English edition of Gerard Muller’s map, “A Map of the Discoveries made by the Russians on the North West Coast of America” (1761), which showed the discoveries of Vitus Bering and Aleksei Chirikov (1741) along the coast of Alaska. The ships reached present-day Oregon on 7 March 1778 and sailed north, but were often not able to sail close to land due to poor weather, and therefore missed many inlets. As the expedition made its way up the coast, they explored Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, Prince William Sound, and Cook Inlet (near present-day Anchorage), but determined that none led to a northwest passage.
A map of Cook’s discoveries in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet from A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784). (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
After navigating the Alaska Peninsula, the ships sailed into the Bering Sea on 2 July 1778 staying as close to the Alaskan coastline as possible to sight potential passages. On 11 August 1778 he passed through the Bering Strait and then crossed the Arctic Circle. Cook reached as far northeast as Icy Cape on 18 August before being forced to head west due to pack ice. Cook determined that the Bering Strait was the only possible Northwest Passage, but ice would make it impossible to navigate that time of year, so he headed back south to explore Hawaii.
This chart traces Cook’s route through Alaska, the Bering Strait, and the Arctic Ocean, as well as Furneaux’s route along Kamchatka and back to the Arcric Ocean after Cook’s death. Published in A New Authentic and Complete Collection of Voyages Round the World by George William Anderson (1785). (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
The Resolution and the Discovery returned to Hawaii in November 1778, first sighting Maui and then setting out to circumnavigate the Big Island. They anchored in Kealakekua Bay on 16 January 1779 and received a warm welcome, possibly because it coincided with the Hawaiian religious festival of Makahiki. They headed north to continue their tour of the island, but were forced to turn back due to a broken mast and anchored again at Kealakekua Bay on 11 February. This second time the expedition received a different reception, and after several days of strained relations, Cook went ashore on 14 February to meet with the king. A fight broke out, killing Cook, 4 of his crew and 17 Hawaiians. After Cook’s death, Clerke took command of the Resolution and John Gore, who had sailed with Cook on his first voyage, was given charge of the Discovery. They sailed away on 21 February, exploring the Hawaiian islands to the west.
The first map of the Sandwich Islands is credited to Henry Roberts, master’s mate on the Resolution, under the supervision of Cook. William Bligh, who was master aboard the Resolution, later claimed credit for the map, and there remains controversy as to who was the actual author of the map and its inset of Kealakekua Bay. Most likely it was a joint collaboration between Cook, Roberts, Bligh, and possibly other draftsmen on the expedition. However, as Roberts was asked by the Admiralty to prepare the official edition of the map for publication, it is credited to him. However, it is also generally accepted as the “Cook” chart of Hawaii, despite the fact that a portion of the chart was completed after his death, as Cook was in charge of the expedition and oversaw the creation of the chart.
This is the first official map of Hawaii, published in A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. (Image courtesy of Old World Auctions - click on image to view zoomable image.)
Charles Clerke commanded the ships north again, exploring the Kamtchatka peninsula before heading back through the Bering Strait to make another attempt at the Northwest Passage. Clerke died at sea, presumably of tuberculosis, on 21 August 1779. Gore took command of the ships, sailing with the remaining crew back to Britain, arriving on 22 August 1780. Although the expedition had not succeeded in finding a Northwest Passage, and had lost both Cook and Clerke, it returned to Britain with many new and improved charts that would aid in future seafaring ventures.
It is fortunate that so many of the journals, log books, charts, and sketches of the three voyages survived. Many accounts of Cook’s expeditions were published, including official accounts sponsored by the Admiralty based on original manuscripts by Cook and his crew. The account of the first voyage was published by John Hawkesworth in 1773 as An Account of the Voyages Undertaken by the Order of his Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, which also incorporated the voyages of Byron, Wallis and Carteret. The second voyage was published in William Strahan & Thomas Cadell’s A Voyage Towards the South Pole, and Round the World in 1777. Four years after the completion of the third voyage, an official account was published as A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Undertaken, but the Command of his Majesty, for Making Discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere with charts prepared by Henry Roberts and printed by William and Andrew Strahan for George Nicol and Thomas Cadell. The accounts included numerous charts as well as engravings of the lands, people, flora and fauna that were seen during the voyages. These images from faraway places caught the imagination of Europeans, and the accounts were published in numerous editions and several languages. Even today, Cook’s voyages remain “among the greatest exploratory voyages of all time” (Suarez, p. 136) and the maps and engravings that documented his journeys continue to fascinate historians and collectors alike.


Fitzpatrick, Gary L. The Early Mapping of Hawai’i. London: Kegan Paul International, 1987.
Nicholas, Paul, and Mona Nicholas. “The Captain Cook Legacy – Early Charting of the Sandwich Islands.” Mercator’s World Volume 1 Number 1 (1996): 64-68.
Ravneberg, Ronald L. “The Hawkesworth Connection.” Mercator’s World Volume 8 Number 1 (January/February 2003): 20-25.
Robson, John. Captain Cook’s World – Maps of the Life and Voyages of James Cook R.N. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.
Robson, John. “Cartographers with Cook.” IMCoS Journal Number 114 (Autumn 2008): 27-30.
Shirley, Rodney. Maps in the Atlases of the British Library. London: The British Library, 2004.
Suarez, Thomas. Early Mapping of the Pacific. Singapore: Periplus Editions, 2004.
Tooley, R.V. The Mapping of Australia and Antarctica. London: The Holland Press Limited, 1985.