The Natural History Museum, London, has contributed approximately 1,600 images of botanical and zoological illustrations associated with Captain Cook’s expeditions to the South Pacific to the Artstor Digital Library. With support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the museum has digitized watercolors and drawings and made them available for scholarship and education in Artstor.

James Cook (1728 – 1779) was a captain in the British Royal Navy who commanded three epic voyages of exploration, charting the largely unexplored Pacific Ocean and twice circumnavigating the globe. Cook’s expeditions contributed significantly to contemporary geographic, oceanographic, and astronomic knowledge. Of equal importance are the scientific contributions made by the naturalists and artists who accompanied Cook, which are represented by the natural history illustrations now available in Artstor.

Cook’s first voyage (1768 – 1771)

  • The primary objective of Cook’s first expedition was to improve oceanic navigation by charting the transit of Venus from Tahiti. When Cook set sail on the HMS Endeavour from Plymouth harbor in August 1768, he was joined by the naturalist Joseph Banks (1743 – 1820) and his civilian entourage. As the Endeavour followed its westward route around the globe, Banks and Daniel Solander (1733 – 1782), a botanist and pupil of Carl Linneaus, collected animal and plant specimens, which were illustrated by Sydney Parkinson (c. 1745 – 1771), the resident artist. In April 1770, the Endeavour reached the eastern coast of Australia; the initial landing site was named Botany Bay (present-day Sydney) for the abundance of new plant discoveries. Indeed, over the course of the expedition, Banks and Solander collected and documented more than 1,000 animal species and 3,600 plant species, approximately 1,400 of which were previously unknown to science. Cook’s first voyage is represented in Artstor by approximately 960 images of illustrations, both those executed by Parkinson during the expedition and those watercolors later completed from his initial sketches by artists in Banks’ employ (Frederick Polydor Nodder, John Frederick Miller, and John Cleveley II).

Cook’s second voyage (1772 – 1775)

  • During his first voyage to the Pacific, Cook had proved that New Zealand was not part of the terra australis incognita, a mythical continent erroneously introduced by Aristotle as a counterweight to the landmass of the Northern Hemisphere. To confirm the location of this “southern continent,” the Royal Society commissioned Cook to circumnavigate the globe at a high southern latitude. For this second voyage, Cook commanded the HMS Resolution and Tobias Furneaux (1735 – 1781) led a companion ship, the HMS Adventure. In July 1772, Cook set sail with a new team of scientists and artists. The scholar Johann Reinhold Forster (1729 – 1798) was accompanied by his son, Johann Georg Adam Forster (1754 – 1794), an illustrator, as well as another artist, William Hodges (1744 – 1797). In January 1773, the Resolution and Adventurebecame the first European vessels to cross the Antarctic Circle. Unfortunately, they missed landfall on the Antarctic continent by a mere 75 miles and fog separated the two ships. The Resolution, commanded by Cook, continued to explore and chart the South Pacific (Tahiti, the Friendly Islands, Easter Island, Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu), before returning to England and finally laying the myth of terra australis to rest. Cook’s second voyage is represented in Artstor by approximately 570 drawings and watercolors by Johann Georg Adam Forster of plant and animal specimens collected throughout the South Seas by his father, Johann Reinhold Forster.

Cook’s third voyage (1776 – 1779)

  • Upon his return from the second voyage, Cook was promoted to the rank of Captain. He agreed to embark on a third and final voyage, whose purpose was to find the Northwest Passage, a hypothetical trade route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Cook once again captained the Resolution and Charles Clerke (1741 – 1779) commanded a second ship, the HMS Discovery. While there was no official naturalist attached to the expedition, there were two artists, John Webber (1751 – 1793) and William Wade Ellis (c. 1756 – 1785). Webber, the official artist, specialized in landscapes and ethnographic illustrations; Ellis, a surgeon’s assistant on the Discovery, doubled as the natural history illustrator. En route to the North American coast, Cook first encountered the Hawaiian Islands, which he named the Sandwich Islands after the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, before heading north to chart the coastline of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Cook crossed into the Arctic Ocean and noted the freezing conditions that persisted even during the summer months, which would hamper any potential trade route. Unfortunately, upon returning to the Hawaiian Islands for repairs, Cook was killed on February 14, 1779 before he could complete the expedition. Cook’s ill-fated third voyage is represented in Artstor by approximately 100 drawings by Ellis depicting animals and plants collected throughout the journey.

The Natural History Museum was founded in 1881, though the origins of its core collections date back to the 18th century. Upon his death, Sir Hans Sloane (1660 – 1753) bequeathed his extensive collection of natural specimens and other curiosities to the nation, forming the core of the British Museum. Over the years, as the British Museum acquired additional collections, it became necessary to construct a separate museum to display the natural history collections in their own space, resulting in the Natural History Museum. Today, the museum houses an extraordinary collection of millions of plant and animal specimens, including those amassed by Joseph Banks during Cook’s first expedition aboard the Endeavour, as well as the natural history illustrations associated with all three of Cook’s voyages.