Time to get back on track. Let’s do a bit of a survey of the status of naval exploration at this time. As mentioned previously, “the times were are a changing”…
Why the Pacific? Well, by this time most of the areas of influence had already been pretty well established. South and Central America was largely a Spanish domain. North America belonged to the British and French. But the Pacific was still full of unknowns. It remained wide open, still shrouded in mystery, and what little maritime knowledge was known at the time was held closely by each nation.
As we will see with the future instructions provided by the British Admiralty to Captain James Cook, naval exploration was often elevated to a matter of national importance. The desire for colonial reach and the pursuit of knowledge began to outweigh greed and trade as the primary motives for exploration.
A so-called “Golden Age” of Pacific exploration was approaching.
But as with everything, the discovery of the Pacific was not going to be completely straightforward. The Pacific was a virtual melting pot of competing interests, with the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British all vying for primacy in the region.
To date the British had really only really dabbled in the Pacific since the time of Sir Francis Drake. Initially their missions were focused on competing for trade against its European rivals (mainly the Spanish) as opposed to the pursuit of exploration for its own sake. However, things now began to change. In 1764 the ships the Dolphin and Tamar were placed under the command of Commodore John Byron and you see the emergence of covert objectives, such as:
1. Claim the Falkland Islands for Britain
2. Find any other promising islands in the South Atlantic
3. Explore the west coast of North America and claim what lands they could
4. Sail into the North Pacific to discover the North-West Passage.
Clearly knowledge was power!
Ultimately, however, the voyage of Commodore Byron was not overly successful, and a further expedition followed in 1766 led by Captain Samuel Wallis and Lieutenant Philip Carteret. Wallis was instructed to search for Terra Australis Incognita. However neither Wallis nor Carteret succeeded (Wallis did, however, discover Tahiti, and Carteret discovered Pitcairn Island).
What we are starting to see is the agenda of the British Admiralty influencing exploration. Its focus was on increasing maritime knowledge and claiming land for the Crown. And the French were not far behind. In 1766 the French sent its own expedition into the Pacific, comprising the vessels Boudeuse and Etoile. This voyage was commanded by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and among its members were a number of experts: an astronomer, a botanist, and a cartographer. This mix of skills is a significant change from the buccaneer and privateering types dispatched in prior years.
Bougainville’s voyage was a real success compared to some of the first English expeditions. His voyage discovered a wide variety of new botanical species, conducted a number of astronomical experiments, and made several geographical discoveries. Bougainville also “discovered” Tahiti (less than a year after Wallis).
After leaving Tahiti, Bougainville sailed west, encountering the island of Samoa, then Vanuatu. In fact, he was inching ever closer to the east coast of Australia. Bougainville came within only 150 kilometers or so of the Australian mainland, but found himself blocked by a reef (that was later named after him). So near! Yet so far!
With his way blocked, Bougainville turned north and returned to France by way of Batavia then the Cape of Good Hope. He dropped anchor in France in 1769 to great fanfare after a true voyage of discovery.
But in the meantime another captain had weighed anchor and set sail. He in an Englishman and his name was Captain James Cook. A man of talent, and a man of destiny….. and he is about to sail into the center of our story….