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Captain James Cook

Students learn about European exploration and colonisation in Australia and throughout the world up until the early 1800s. They examine the impact of exploration on other societies, how these societies interacted with newcomers, and how these experiences contributed to their cultural diversity.
Key inquiry question #1: 
Why did the great journeys of exploration occur?

Featured Content

Mapping Australia

Caption on bottom

To download the Mapping Australia transcript, click here.

Content Summary

The journey(s) of AT LEAST ONE world navigator, explorer or trader up to the late eighteenth century, including their contacts with other societies and any impacts (ACHHK078)

Background notes for teachers

James Cook was eighteen when he became an apprentice in the British merchant navy (commercial ships). When war broke out in 1755 between Britain and France, Cook was twenty-seven, but he immediately joined the Royal Navy and by 1758 was master of his own ship and saw service in Canada. In 1762 he married Elizabeth Batts and they had six children.

Cook studied mathematics, charting, geography and astronomy. His skill and knowledge in the latter led to his appointment by the Royal Navy as the leader of an astronomical expedition that the Royal Society (a prestigious society of scientists) was organising. He was promoted to Lieutenant for what became his First Voyage.

The expedition would be to little-known and uncharted areas of the Pacific to make observations of the phenomenon called the Transit of Venus. It was thought that if accurate measurements were made of this event, but in very different and distant parts of the world, this would enable us to work out the distance between the sun and the earth.

However the Royal Navy had another agenda. It also gave Cook secret instructions that ‘so soon as the Observation of the Transit of the Planet Venus shall be finished’ to proceed to search for ‘a Continent or Land of great extent, [which] may be found to the Southward’ and ‘You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain or if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.’

First Voyage 1768-1771

Cook sailed the ship Endeavour to Tahiti where the astronomical observations were made. Following the secret instructions he then proceeded to New Zealand where he mapped the coast and then continued to Australia, which was already known as New Holland.

Though he is almost always called Captain Cook, this title came much later. When he explored the Australian coast he was still Lieutenant Cook.

Cook and the crew of Endeavour were the first known Europeans to sight and chart the east coast in 1770. They entered Botany Bay where they collected specimens and made contact with Indigenous peoples. The Endeavour then continued North, through Torres Strait, over the Indian Ocean and round Africa back to England.

Though it was an epic journey Cook had not found the Southern Continent that the Royal Navy was looking for. They were looking for something other than Australia, which was already known.

Second Voyage 1772-1775

Cook undertook this expedition to again try and find the fabled Southern Continent. By exploring vast areas of the Pacific Ocean and venturing into the Antarctic Circle he disproved the possible existence of any such huge new land. In addition he had circumnavigated the world a second time, put many new, previously unknown islands on the European maps and discovered new societies in the Pacific.

Third and final voyage, 1776-1780

Cook was promoted to Captain for his third and last voyage, which was also undertaken with a secret agenda. The purpose was to find what was called the Northwest Passage. This was a possible shortcut through the Arctic Ocean that could connect Europe, Asia and America. If found this would be a quicker trade route.

Cook explored the northern Pacific and mapped extensive parts of North America and Alaska before being turned back by ice. He stopped at Hawaii to resupply and winter over before resuming exploration but was killed in a confrontation with the natives. Some of his bones were later returned by the natives to the shocked and grieving crew. Cook’s remains were then given a burial at sea. His crew continued the exploration and confirmed that if a Northwest Passage existed it was impassable by ships due to the Arctic ice.

The legacy of Captain James Cook is his enormous contribution to the geographical knowledge of the time, the disproving of some of the most widely held theories like the existence of a great southern continent and a useable Northwest Passage, the mapping of the east coast of Australia which paved the way for British settlement eighteen years later, his observation and collection of samples of the flora and fauna of new places, his recording of customs and interactions with native peoples and his pioneering work in navigation and the treatment of scurvy. He is considered one of the greatest navigators and explorers of all time and, even before his death, was celebrated as a British national hero and icon.

Student Activities

A museum for Captain Cook memorabilia

The State Library of NSW has an amazing collection of artefacts and images of Captain James Cook.  Students examine some of these sources to ask historical questions about the past.

Number of set tasks: 1

Questions for Cook

Students research the life of Captain James Cook. They imagine that they can travel back in time and interview Captain Cook about this life and achievements.

Number of set tasks: 1

Activity Notes for Teachers

Activity 3

This learning activity is designed to introduce students to the concepts of contested history and multiple interpretations of history. They are required to discuss the question, ‘Who discovered Australia?’

Students work in pairs or groups to:

  • examine the inscription on the plaque which is dated to 1934.
  • discuss the description of Cook as ‘the discoverer of Australia’. What does it mean?
  • consider the implications of the word ‘discoverer’ in relation to the presence of Aboriginal people in Australia before the arrival of European explorers.
  • consider other explorers who reached Australia before Cook (e.g. Willem Janszoon, Dirk Hartog, William Dampier, Abel Tasman).
  • discuss the accuracy of the inscription. If the information is not accurate, why was it written on the plaque in 1934?
  • suggest another, more accurate description of Captain Cook.


'Cook, James (1728–1779)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.


A student:

  • HT2-3 describes people, events, actions and consequences related to world exploration
  • HT2-4 describes and explains changes and consequences of British colonisation in Australia
  • HT2-5 applies skills of historical inquiry and communication


Comprehension: chronology, terms and concepts

  • use historical terms (ACHHS082, ACHHS066)

Analysis and use of sources

  • locate relevant information from sources provided (ACHHS068, ACHHS084, ACHHS215, ACHHS216)


  • pose a range of questions about the past (ACHHS084)

Explanation and communication

  • develop texts, particularly narratives (ACHHS070, ACHHS086)
  • use a range of communication forms (oral, graphic, written) and digital technologies(ACHHS071, ACHHS087)
  • Cause and effect: events, decisions or developments in the past that produce later actions, results or effects
  • Significance: importance of an event, development or individual/group

Learning across the curriculum

  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Literacy