In the first of his three expeditions to the South Pacific, Cook managed to be the first man from western Europe to lay eyes upon what is today New South Wales. When he took on the mission, Cook received a grant from the Royal Society to observe the rare celestial occurrence of Venus passing across the sun in the South Pacific and use the information to determine the distance between the Earth and its nearest star. Seen in 1761 by scientists from Britain, Austria and France at locations all over the world, the Royal Society wished to see if Edmond Halley’s calculations about the transit of Venus were correct. Dispatching Cook to Tahiti in 1768 for observations, the following year allowed the young navigator ample time to plan his route and gather supplies.
Leaving Plymouth, England on August 26th, Cook sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and down the coast of South America before turning west into the Pacific after rounding Cape Horn. In mid-April 1769, a minor collection of observations of Venus’ path were made. But the mission also had a hidden military agenda. Cook carried sealed orders instructing him to seek out the “Great Southern Continent,” an undiscovered landmass that was believed to lurk somewhere near the bottom of the globe. Within a few weeks of leaving Tahiti, Cook sailed the HMS Endeavor along the edges of New Zealand, creating a detailed map of the coastline, proving it was a pair of islands and not connected to a larger landmass. Then he turned toward New Holland – what is now known as Australia – to serve as his guide back toward Southeast Asia on a westward course to Britain. Early on the morning of April 19, 1770, the southeastern edge of Australia came into view. Cook and his men entered history as the first Europeans to record seeing that stretch of coastline as they slowly skirted along to the north around the land mass.
While Cook’s journeys took place during a time when Britain was variously at war with the United States, Spain and France, his reputation as a pioneering explorer allowed him to travel the seas with relative impunity.