The First Accounts of Captain Cook’s Fateful Voyage

A transportive highlight in our October 17 auction of Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books is the rare complete set of first editions detailing Captain James Cook’s voyages around the world.


Lot 285: James Cook, Complete set of first editions of the Southern Hemisphere, South Pole and Pacific Ocean Voyages, London, 1773-84. Estimate $10,000 to $15,000.


The handsome set of nine volumes, published serially, provides the foundation of modern knowledge of the Pacific, and is a cornerstone of the literature of travel and exploration. The tomes  feature the original tan morocco binding with black and red accents. Each contains multiple folding maps and engraved plates depicting some of the sights and novelties Cook encountered on his final three journeys.


Otahiete, an island in French Polynesia.


Cook’s first circumnavigation began in 1764 aboard the ship Endeavor. He set off for Tahiti and the Southern Hemisphere, ostensibly to observe the transit of Venus across the sun, an event visible only from that part of the world. He was also given a secret military agenda, in a sealed document to be opened after the astronomical wonder had taken place. According to The History Channel, “Cook carried sealed orders instructing him to seek out the ‘Great Southern Continent,’ an undiscovered landmass that was believed to lurk somewhere near the bottom of the globe.” He did not find evidence of such a landmass, though he did circle New Zealand, proving that the country is an archipelago.

The BBC notes that “Endeavor arrived in Tahiti in April 1769 where [they were] able to observe the transit of Venus. Endeavor continued on to New Zealand, and then sailed along the length of Australia’s eastern coast, which had never before been seen by Europeans. Cook claimed it for Britain and named it New South Wales.”


A “Man of New Zealand”


Cook and his crew of some hundred men returned to England in 1771 and publication of the first three volumes began shortly thereafter, in 1773. By this time, he had already embarked on his second circumnavigational voyage (1772-75), during which he was supposed to gather information about the South Pole. Engravings in the books show Cook’s men shooting at walruses, which they called “sea horses,” in what appear to be insufficient coats.


Cook’s men hunting “sea horses” in the Antarctic.


A human sacrifice in Otaheite.


Cook’s third and final voyage (1776-80) sent him back to the Pacific, where he was tasked with finding a passage through the Arctic ice cap. Between the ice floes and the generally terrible conditions, his crew began to mutiny and he was forced to turn south. His two ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, approached Hawaii’s Kealakekua Bay, where the locals received them with much fanfare. On Valentine’s Day in 1779, they returned to the harbor for safety from a storm. The conversation came to fisticuffs and Cook was killed. His crew completed the circumnavigation and the series was finished.

Explore the full catalogue.