James Cook collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of material relating to Cook's second expedition the British Naval Expedition, 1772-1775.

Administrative / Biographical History

James Cook was born on 27 October 1728, at Marton, near Middlesborough, England, the son of an agricultural foreman. He was educated at a day school in Great Ayton and, at the age of sixteen, worked briefly in a haberdashery shop in the fishing village of Staithes. At the age of eighteen, he was apprenticed to a Quaker ship owner in Whitby, initially serving as a deckhand on board a Whitby collier, carrying coal to London. Altogether, Cook spent nine years in the North Sea trade, progressing from mate in 1752 to master three years later. In 1755, he joined the Royal Navy, quickly rising from able seaman to master during the Anglo-French wars, and seeing action off France and eastern Canada, where he took the opportunity of improving his mathematics and knowledge of navigation and surveying. Between 1758 and 1759, he charted parts of the St Lawrence River, thereby enabling the capture of Quebec in September 1759. After the war, he was promoted to King's Surveyor in April 1763, and returned to Newfoundland to chart and survey the coasts and harbours. In 1768, he was promoted to lieutenant and appointed to lead the British naval expedition, 1768-1771, with instructions to observe the transit of Venus across the sun. A Whitby collier was selected as the expedition ship and her name changed to HMS Endeavour. The ship left Plymouth in August 1768, sailing for Rio de Janeiro and Cape Horn before reaching Tahiti, where the transit of Venus was successfully observed on 3 June 1769. Endeavour circumnavigated Tahiti and Cook mapped seventy-five other islands in the group, which he named the Society Islands. Cook then headed south and, not sighting land, turned west across the Pacific Ocean, sighting New Zealand on 7 October. During the following five months, he circumnavigated and surveyed the coasts of both main islands. Sailing northward, he charted the east coast of Australia, before heading to New Guinea and then on to Cape Town. During the voyage, he encouraged his crew to eat fresh meat whenever possible, largely as a result of which no sailors died of scurvy during any of his expeditions.

Within a month of his return in July 1771, he was promoted to captain and commissioned to lead the British naval voyage, 1772-1775, to explore the southern oceans in search of Terra Australis Incognita, a supposed southern continent. Sailing from Plymouth in the converted collier, HMS Resolution, accompanied by Tobias Furneaux in HMS Adventure, he made the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle on 17 January 1773. Wintering off New Zealand, he headed south again in spring, reaching his furthest south of 71° 10 minutes South on 30 January 1774. Prevented from exploring further by ice, he turned eastward, charting Easter Island before sailing north to discover many tropical islands in the Pacific. After wintering in New Zealand, he sailed across the south Pacific and arrived at Tierra del Fuego. Sailing into the Atlantic, he landed at South Georgia on 17 January 1775, and continuing south, discovered the southern South Sandwich Islands, claiming both of these discoveries for King George III. Cook was promoted on his return to Britain and accounts of his voyages were published as books. He made no claim to have seen land far south on this expedition, but judged correctly that so great a mass of ice could have accumulated only on land nearby.

He led the British naval expedition, 1776-1780, again in Resolution, accompanied by Charles Clerke in HMS Discovery, with the object of seeking a Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. During the outward voyage, he confirmed the earlier French discoveries of the Prince Edward Islands, which he named, and Iles Kerguelen. After a successful foray into north Pacific waters, Cook returned to Hawaii, where he was killed in a skirmish with natives on 14 February 1778.

Published work The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery, (3 volumes), volume I The voyage of the Endeavour, 1768-1771 by James Cook, edited by John C. Beaglehole, Cambridge University Press (1955) SPRI Library Shelf (7)91(08)[1768-1771] Volume II The voyage of the Resolution and Adventure 1772-1775 by James Cook, edited by John C. Beaglehole, Cambridge University Press (1961) SPRI Library Shelf (7)91(08)[1772-1775] Volume III The voyage of the Resolution and Discovery, 1776-1780 by James Cook, edited by John C. Beaglehole, Cambridge University Press (1967) SPRI Library Shelf (3)91(08)[1776-1780]


The collection is arranged chronologically.

Access Information

By appointment.

Some materials deposited at the Institute are NOT owned by the Institute. In such cases the archivist will advise about any requirements imposed by the owner. These may include seeking permission to read, extended closure, or other specific conditions.


Anyone wishing to consult material should ensure they note the entire MS reference and the name of the originator.

The term holograph is used when the item is wholly in the handwriting of the author. The term autograph is used when the author has signed the item.

Descriptions compiled by N. Boneham, Assistant Archivist with assistance from R. Stancombe and reference to Encyclopaedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans ed. Bernard Stonehouse, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester (2002) ISBN 0471986658 SPRI Library (7) and 'James Cook, RN, 1728-1779' by Jill Rutherford and Patrick H. Armstrong in Geographers, Bibliographical Studies number 19 p9-23 and Robert Keith Headland Antarctic Chronology, unpublished corrected revision of Chronological list of Antarctic expeditions and related historical events,(1 December 2001) Cambridge University Press (1989) ISBN 0521309034

Other Finding Aids

Clive Holland Manuscripts in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, England - a catalogue, Garland Publishing New York and London (1982) ISBN 0824093941.

Additional finding aids are available at the Institute.

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Further accessions possible.