The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth


Endeavour Leaving Plymouth, 1768


This painting by Geoff Hunt shows Cook's Endeavour leaving Plymouth in 1768. The Royal Society had requested the Admiralty's aid in observing the transit of Venus at Tahiti, to occur in June 1769, and Cook was given the command of the expedition.

Secret instructions made clear that Cook also was to search for Terra Australis incognita, the "Southern Continent," which philosophers argued must exist to balance the land masses of the Northern Hemisphere.

Cook and the Endeavour left Plymouth on August 26th 1768. In addition to its crew the Endeavour carried two botanists- Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, as well as astronomers (Cook rating as one) and artists. Cook carried an early nautical almanac and brass sextants, but no chronometer.

The Endeavour travelled by way of Madeira, the Canary and Cape Verde islands, Rio de Janeiro and rounded Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean. Cook carried good provisions and citrus fruits thus avoiding the plague of scurvy. The ship reached Tahiti in April 1769.

During their three months there, the scientists examined the island thoroughly and observed the transit of Venus on June 3rd. They sailed West with a Tahitian guide through the Society Islands and then Southward, finally reaching land on October 7th 1769. Cook had rediscovered New Zealand, originally discovered by Abel Tasman in 1642.

He spent several months circling and surveying North Island and South Island, proving that they were islands and not a continent. The expedition then sailed West, reaching the unexplored eastern coast of Australia, which he charted and claimed for Great Britain.

Sailing North, Cook saved the Endeavour after it struck and was grounded on a coral reef. Overall about 3200km (2000 miles) of Australian coast was surveyed. Cook also confirmed the existence of a passage between Australia and New Guinea (The Torres Strait).

The expedition sailed on, refitted at Batvia (Jakarta) in Java, and although the crew had been remarkably healthy until then, 30 died of fever and dysentery contracted while on land. None of the crew however died of scurvy.

The expedition returned by way of the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. It reached England on July 13th 1771. The HM Bark Endeavour sailed from the sheltered waters of Plymouth in England on August 26th 1768, sailing alone with no other vessel as support ship. She carried 94 officers, scientists and crew, two greyhounds plus a milking goat and stores for the voyage. As she was originally built to carry a crew of 17, she must have been bursting at the seams.

The HM Bark Endeavour returned to port in 1771, a voyage of three years, having been reported missing, lost to the unknown sea. But the battered Whitby built ship with pennants flying and the great Royal Navy Ensign clearly to be seen on her quarter deck, sailed up the Channel and anchored off the Downs. There were only 56 on board now plus the indestructible goat.


Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article




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