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HMS Endeavour Dual purpose voyage to south seas

The Endeavour voyage to the Southern Hemisphere had a dual mission – as a scientific voyage of discovery, and as an imperial expedition to search for the Southern Continent, Terra Australis Incognito, and increase the power of the British crown.

The Royal Society, a fellowship of many of the world's most eminent scientists, was involved in various international observations of the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. These were aimed at calculating the distance of the sun from Earth. As the 1761 observations were inconclusive, the society in 1766 began planning another project to observe the transit when it recurred on 3 June 1769.

The Royal Society commissioned the Endeavour voyage to the Southern Hemisphere as a scientific mission to collect scientific data, its goals inspired by a quest for knowledge typical of the Enlightenment. The Admiralty (the Royal Navy) heard about the plan and wanted part of the action … for a different reason. The Admiralty wanted to preserve and increase the power and prestige of the British crown.

Discovering new, efficient navigation routes and commercial trading opportunities would increase Britain’s advantages as a maritime power. The Royal Society and Admiralty agreed on a joint venture that would enable both aims. But first, it needed a suitable ship – strong with plenty of room – and an expedition leader.

Whitby coal ship The Earl of Pembroke was refitted and commissioned as His Majesty’s Bark the Endeavour. Built of white oak, elm, pine and fir, the 368-ton vessel was launched in Whitby in 1764. Her flat-bottomed design made her well-suited to sailing in shallow waters and allowed her to be beached for loading and unloading of cargo and for basic repairs. She had no ornamental figurehead on the prow or stern.

Royal Navy master James Cook was elevated to Lieutenant and appointed to command the expedition.  His instructions, signed by the Admiralty, were classified as secret and in two parts. The first instructed him to sail to Tahiti and observe the transit of Venus.


Cook was told which route to take and where to stop for supplies. The vessel had to arrive at least a month before the critical date of 3 June 1769. The sealed, second set of instructions told Cook to find out if there was land south of Tahiti. He was to sail to the latitude of 40° unless he came upon this land sooner. He was then to sail towards Abel Tasman’s New Zealand to establish how far it extended to the east, and where Australia’s eastern coastline lay.

On 26 August 1768, the bark Endeavour left Plymouth, England on a scientific journey of discovery. On board were nearly 100 people – 11 of them civilians, mainly from Joseph Banks’ scientific party – and a few pigs, cats, dogs and fowl. The Endeavour took surveying and astronomical instruments, an assortment of cannons, guns, and swords; and small gifts for winning friendships and trading with islanders.