05b James Cook (1772-75)

In July 1772 Cook, now a commander, set out with HMS Resolution and Adventure with instructions from the Admiralty for “prosecuting [his] discoveries as near to the South Pole as possible.” First, though, he was to look for Cape Circumcision, mapped by French explorer Jean-Baptiste Bouvet de Lozier in 1739 and potentially the tip of the Southern Continent. The expedition was equipped with provisions for 18 months and the most up-to-date chronometer. Banks had fallen out with Cook and the Admiralty over such matters as accommodation for himself and his party of 17, which included two French horn players; instead, Cook had the erudite but demanding and difficult John Reinhold Forster, described by a Cook biographer as “one of the Admiralty’s vast mistakes.”

Cook sailed south from Cape Town but could not find Cape Circumcision. Exploring south and east, he realized that it could not have been part of a continent, and wrote dismissively: “I am of the opinion that what M. Bouvet took for land … was nothing but mountains of ice surrounded by field ice.” On 17 January 1773 Resolution and Adventure became the first ships to cross the Antarctic Circle, but Cook ventured only a short distance inside the Circle before encountering heavy ice and retreating to the northeast, little realizing that he was only 130 kilometers (80 miles) from the Antarctic continent. Summer was over so he sailed directly to New Zealand.

Cook’s two ships had lost touch in a storm off New Zealand’s Cape Palliser, but Cook turned the Resolution south in November 1773. On 20 December he crossed the Antarctic Circle at about longitude 148°W.  He had seen the first iceberg, but continued eastward through heavy ice. He turned north to explore ocean not covered on his previous voyage, but turned south again at 122°W—to the disappointment of his crew, who thought they were on their way to Cape Horn and home. Instead they crossed the Circle again on 26 January 1774. Over the next few days, they dodged north and south through thick fog and heavy ice. On 30 January they encountered “field ice” dotted with “Ice Hills or Mountains, many of them vastly large.” Cook wrote: “it was indeed my opinion that this ice extends quite to the Pole, or perhaps joins to some land to which it has been fixed since creation.” He continued, with uncharacteristic pride but typical caution: “I will not say it was impossible anywhere to get in among this ice, but I will assert that the bare attempting of it would be a very dangerous enterprise … I whose ambition leads me … as far as I think possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption …” He turned north, having reached a latitude of 71°10´S at longitude 106°54´W—an achievement not to be equaled for 50 years, and then not in this difficult part of the Southern Ocean.

Over the next few days Cook sailed eastward on both sides of the Antarctic Circle before winter (and pack ice) drove him back to warmer regions. Faced with impenetrable ice, Cook and his crew willingly retreated, weary of the “dangers and hardships, inseparable with the navigation of the Southern Polar regions.” He sailed south again from New Zealand in November 1774, heading for the polar spring thaw. For five weeks, Resolution sailed east toward Cape Horn, and on 28 December the ship rounded the Horn and continued eastward through the South Atlantic in search of the land reported by London-born merchant, Antoine de la Roche, in 1675. Cook found it—but far from where de la Roche had placed it. It had been considered a potential promontory of the Southern Continent, but at its southwestern point Cook realized it was an island. He named the point Cape Disappointment, and the island South Georgia.

From there Cook followed the 60° latitude through fog but in a sea clear of ice. On 27 January he encountered an iceberg, the harbinger of a lot of sea ice. He saw some islands and, tantalisingly, some mountain peaks, but in the fog and sea ice he could not discern whether they were located on islands or on the point of a large landmass. He optimistically named it Sandwich Land, after the first Lord of the Admiralty. Later he wrote of this land and ice: “I firmly believe that there is a tract of land near the Pole, which is the source of most of the ice which is spread over this vast Southern Ocean … I can be bold to say, that no man will ever venture farther than I have done and that the lands which may lie to the South will never be explored. Thick fogs, snow storms, intense cold and every other thing that can render navigation dangerous one has to encounter and these difficulties are greatly heightened by the inexpressible horrid aspect of the country, a country doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, but to lie forever buried under everlasting snow and ice.”

Cook returned to England on 30 July 1775, three years and eighteen days after his departure, “In which time,” he noted, “I lost but four men and only one of them by sickness.” The first circumnavigation of Antarctica had been achieved. The quest for the mythical bounty of the fertile great Southern Continent was over: it did not exist. Cook wrote: “I had now made the circuit of the Southern Ocean in a high latitude … in such a manner as to leave not the least room for the possibility of there being a continent, unless near the Pole and out of the reach of navigation …”

author: David McGonigal

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