Digital Edition – September 2019 (#222)

Icebergs, cannibals, and ‘other kinds of people’ The second voyage of James Cook, 1772-1775

Captain James Cook (Part IV)

by Michelle Ann Smith

Captain James Cook part 4 of 6

Still believing a Southern Continent existed, and keen to locate it, Joseph Banks pushed hard for a second Pacific voyage. To his disappointment, the Admiralty called on Cook to lead the expedition, with instructions to find a suitable ship. He found two: Resolution and Adventure, which were fitted out for the voyage. Some of the crew employed had sailed with Cook on the Endeavour. Banks contributed fifteen people, including two French horn players, to the expedition. Demanding alterations be made to make Resolution more commodious for his large party, the Navy Board acquiesced. The results were less than satisfactory. The ship was overhauled, leading to a public row and Banks’ withdrawal from the voyage.2

Instructed to search for ‘that Southern Continent’, Cook was to prove or disprove its existence. He was also to explore ‘as near to the South Pole as possible’.3 Resolution, commanded by Cook, and Adventure by Tobias Furneaux, left England in mid-July 1772. Divided between the two ships were two astronomers, an artist, and naturalist Johann Forster. Replicas of Harrison’s chronometer, a ‘scientific instrument designed to keep time accurately at sea’, were also onboard, allowing for the mechanical calculation of longitude, and replacing traditional lunar methods.4

Nearing the Antarctic Circle, the ships and crew encountered horrendous storms, sub-zero temperatures, and icebergs. The riggings froze and snapped, the sails became ‘chequered with ice’, there was wonderment at the ‘size, colour and formations’ of the floating islands, and amusement at the antics of penguins.5 At 59o south, the ships were almost trapped when the ice fields closed in from the north and south, but through great skill they were extricated with no significant damage. On 17th January 1773 Cook achieved what no other European had done – he crossed the Antarctic Circle, although was unaware he was only 75 miles from the Antarctic coast. Unable to sail any further due to thick ice, Cook turned northeast, losing Adventure in dense fog. Arriving on Aotearoa’s southwest coast (Dusky Sound), Cook cultivated the friendship of a Maori family.6 He left behind goats and pigs to encourage a ‘breeding stock of British farm animals’, and planted a vegetable garden. After six weeks, during which time Cook completed ‘a meticulous chart of the Sound’, and the crew re-rigged the ship, Resolution headed north to Ship Cove.7

Queen Charlotte Sound was deserted when Adventure arrived; three days passed before anyone appeared. Astronomer, William Bayly, set up his observatory in ‘the abandoned pa off the end of Motuara’, but tensions arose when his camp was ambushed, and the ‘ship’s jollyboat was chased . . . by two carved canoes packed with warriors’. The European response was gunfire. By the time Cook arrived six weeks later, trade was brisk. Northern Maori had ventured south to trade with the Europeans. Although none of the Maori traders were known to Cook, many asked him about the Tahitian, Tupaia. Sex was also part of the commerce taking place; something that made Cook highly uncomfortable. Women’s sexual favours were traded by their own men for goods such as spike nails.8

After a relatively ‘peaceful and tranquil’ three months, Cook set off ‘ten degrees south’ of the route taken in 1768, but failed to find the mysterious Southern Continent.9 He headed north looking for Pitcairn island, which also proved elusive, before traversing the Pacific stopping in at Tahiti, Huahine, and Ra’iatea, where he was remembered and welcomed. However, the behaviour of his men regularly caused hostility or displeasure, and Cook spent time repairing relationships. After being warmly welcomed on Eua, and Tongatapu, where Cook again failed to understand the complexities of local politics, and the muskets came out, the ships headed back to Aotearoa.10

Separated again from Adventure in a storm, Resolution eventually reached Ship Cove where Cook waited for Furneaux. Cook’s livestock had disappeared, but his gardens were thriving. Maori soon appeared, some of whom Cook recognized, and trading resumed. When a number of Maori warriors went on a raiding expedition to obtain curiosities to trade with the sailors, one incident had fatal repercussions for the Europeans. Returning with the body of one of their enemies, the warriors cut it up. Pickersgill traded two nails for the head and took it onboard the ship where Charles Clerke sliced some flesh off the face and grilled it. He offered it ‘to a man from another part of the Sound, who ate it with evident pleasure’.11 Becoming involved in the cannibalistic ritual, the Europeans clearly showed a lack of understanding, even disrespect, of its spiritual significance. A week after Cook left the Sound, Adventure arrived to a hostile welcome. Ten of Furneaux’s men were killed, roasted and eaten. While it made no sense to Adventure’s crew, it appears this was retribution for Clerke and Pickersgill’s actions. Furneaux quickly packed up and headed for England.12

In January 1774, Resolution crossed the Antarctic Circle for the third time. Cook ‘reached an unprecedented 71o south’ but was stopped by a densely packed ice field. He wrote:

I whose ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption, as it in some measure relieved us from the dangers and hardships, inseparable with the Navigation of the Southern Polar regions . . .13

Freed from the ice, Cook decided to do a second Pacific circuit (and an exploration of the southern Atlantic) to ‘discover’ islands still unknown to Europeans, and to accurately chart those visited previously. By late February he was horrendously ill; his ambition nearly killed him, and it caused ill-feeling among the men, especially when they realised they were not going home.14

At Easter Island a ‘great stone idol about twenty feet high and five feet wide stood staring out to sea’ was marveled at. In Marquesas Cook attempted to accurately plot the islands whose locations differed on a variety of navigational charts.15 He journeyed west and found ‘new groups of islands inhabited by other kinds of people’, and concluded that Tongans were related to a number of Pacific Polynesians including those from Aotearoa, Easter Island, and Marquesas. He was amazed many had no knowledge of the other, despite having a common ancestral home, and that they were spread some distance across the Pacific.16 Cook charted and sounded the ‘unknown’ islands of Vanuatu, Nuie, Norfolk Island and New Caledonia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were instances of violence, misunderstanding, and gunfire.17 Cook noted with an air of European superiority

. . . we enter their Ports without their daring to make opposition, we attempt to land in a peaceable manner, if this succeeds its well, if not we land nevertheless and mentain the footing we thus got by the Superiority of our fire arms, in what other lights can they at first look upon us as invaders of their Country; time and some acquaintance with us can only convince them of their mistake [sic].18

Briefly back in Queen Charlotte Sound, Cook learned of the Adventure’s departure ten months earlier, and introduced another boar and sow to the area. At Tierra del Fuego the crew shot birds, knocked down penguins, and clubbed sea-lions and seals, provisioning the ship with large quantities of meat and oil that would see them home. Cook ‘now done with the Southern Pacific Ocean’, believed he had thoroughly explored all it had to offer. Heading into the southern Atlantic, he sighted and named ‘new’ islands, including South Georgia, and further proved there was no Southern Continent here or in the Pacific. Resolution arrived home in July 1775.19

Cook received the Royal Society’s Copley Medal for preventing scurvy onboard Resolution. His findings were published, and widely adopted. He wrote a paper about fish poisoning for the Society, and provided the Admiralty with new, and updated, navigational charts. Cook’s ‘discovery’ of the south Atlantic islands confirmed ice was formed on land not at sea, and he observed that by ‘going round the world in an easterly direction’ he had ‘gained a day’.20 The scientists returned with a number of sketches, a vast collection of plants, extensive vocabularies, and ethnographies. But, these white-skinned people from afar did not just take from the Pacific. Items left behind such as animals, vegetables, and European clothing, as well as the mens’ behaviour, all had an impact on land and people.

Article written by Dr Michelle Ann Smith, Historian.


I have relied heavily on the work of Anne Salmond as I feel she gives a fair and balanced view of a series of complex events.

Please see online version for full endnote referencing.

Anne Salmond, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, London, 2003, pp. 170-301.

William Frame with Laura Walker, James Cook: The Voyages, Auckland, 2018, pp. 106-155.

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elocal Digital Edition – September 2019 (#222)

elocal Digital Edition
September 2019 (#222)