In the late 1700s Captain James Cook (1729 – 1779) led three now legendary voyages to explore the Pacific Ocean in ships named Endeavour, Resolution, Adventure and Discovery. To people living in Britain at the time, the Pacific was as mysterious and unreachable as outer space is to ordinary people today. With his crew Cook voyaged further south than any European before him and brought back new knowledge to Britain of the seas, lands, peoples, plants and animals they encountered. The three voyages transformed knowledge and understanding among Europeans about the wider world and its people.

The first voyage lasted three years (1768 –1771). Cook and his crew sailed on Endeavour to Tahiti, New Zealand and then to the east coast of Australia, an area of the country where no European had ever been before. Cook named this part of Australia ‘New South Wales’. Believing there was a ‘great southern continent’ to be discovered, Cook and his crew set out on a second voyage in 1772, this time venturing as far as the Antarctic circle. They were forced to turn back because of the intense cold and travelled instead to New Zealand and Tahiti. Cook’s third voyage began in 1776 and took him to North America and then Hawaii. Cultural differences between the Hawaiian islanders and the crew led to difficulties between them and relations turned hostile. Cook tried to take the Hawaiian Chief hostage and was killed.

They saw people, plants and animals unlike any they had ever encountered before such as kangaroos, dingos and breadfruit trees.

These voyages of exploration reflected European competition for global resources and scientific kudos, with different nations seeking to gain an advantage by improving their geographical and imperial powerbases. The ships were like floating laboratories, crewed by sailors, scientists and artists and packed with equipment to help them explore the lands they encountered. They saw people, plants and animals unlike any they had ever encountered before such as kangaroos, dingos and breadfruit trees. They traded with the Maoris in New Zealand, and were even joined by two Tahitians on their second voyage who accompanied them back to England.

In Britain they shared their observations through drawings, paintings, writing, lectures and through the specimens they brought back with them. Their findings transformed British thinking and understanding about natural history, geography and anthropology. New knowledge about this area of the world led Britain to begin colonising Australia in 1788. Australia day is still celebrated on January 26, marking the arrival of the first British settlers.  But colonisation had devastating consequences for the indigenous Aboriginal peoples, who have long campaigned for the date to be changed. They argue it should be a date of mourning, not celebration, and refer to it as ‘invasion day’.

This is an exact scale model of Endeavour, complete with stores, equipment and full complement of crew. They can all be identified against Endeavour’s  ‘muster list’ (the list of a ship’s crew and their roles on board). The figures help show the scale and how cramped conditions were. Different views of the model, its crew and cargo can be seen on the National Maritime Museum’s website.


Did you know..?

When Cook’s crew landed in Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii, in 1779, they were fascinated to witness people riding the waves on long wooden boards. By 1779, surfing had become an integral part of Hawaiian culture and was practised by everyone from Chiefs to ordinary people.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above. 

Find it here

This object is in the collection of Royal Museums Greenwich