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 led three epic voyages charting the Pacific Ocean and circumnavigating the globe. His expeditions contributed significantly to geographic, oceanographic, and astronomic knowledge. Of equal importance is the work of the naturalists and artists who accompanied Cook, represented by the natural history illustrations available in Artstor.

Cook’s first voyage (1768 – 1771)

  • When Cook set sail on the HMS Endeavour in 1768, he was joined by the naturalist Joseph Banks. As the Endeavour followed its westward route Banks and the botanist Daniel Solander collected animal and plant specimens, which were illustrated by Sydney Parkinson. In 1770, the ship reached Botany Bay (now Sydney). During the expedition, Banks and Solander collected nearly 5,000 species, many of which were previously unknown. Cook’s first voyage is represented in Artstor by approximately 960 images of illustrations, some executed by Parkinson and others completed later after his initial sketches by artists in Banks’ employ.

Cook’s second voyage (1772 – 1775)

  • On the second voyage, Cook commanded the HMS Resolution and Tobias Furneaux led a companion ship, the HMS Adventure. Cook’s team included the scholar Johann Reinhold Forster, accompanied by his son, Johann Georg Adam Forster, an illustrator, as well as another artist, William Hodges. In 1773, the ships became the first European vessels to cross the Antarctic Circle. Unfortunately, they missed landfall on the Antarctic continent and they were separated. The Resolution continued to explore and chart the South Pacific. Cook’s second voyage is represented in Artstor by approximately 570 drawings and watercolors by Johann Georg Adam Forster of specimens collected throughout the South Seas.

Cook’s third voyage (1776 – 1779)

  • Cook embarked 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 captained the Resolution and Charles Clerke commanded a second ship, the HMS Discovery. John Webber was the official artist, specialized in landscapes and ethnographic illustrations; William Wade Ellis, a surgeon’s assistant on the Discovery, doubled as the natural history illustrator. En route to the North American coast, Cook encountered the Hawaiian Islands before heading north to chart the coastline of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Cook crossed into the Arctic Ocean and noted the freezing conditions which would hamper any potential trade route. Unfortunately, upon returning to the Hawaiian Islands, Cook was killed in 1779. Cook’s ill-fated third voyage is represented in Artstor by approximately 100 drawings by Ellis depicting animals and plants.

The Natural History Museum was founded in 1881, though the origins of its collections date back to the 18th century. Upon his death, Sir Hans Sloane bequeathed his extensive collection of natural specimens and curiosities to the nation, forming the core of the British Museum. As the Museum acquired additional collections, it became necessary to construct a separate facility for natural history. Today, the Natural History Museum houses millions of plant and animal specimens, including the illustrations from all three of Cook’s voyages.