Prior to the invention of photography, the third voyage of Pacific exploration (1776-1780) led by Captain James Cook was the most fully documented expedition in history. A vivid and precise writer, Cook kept a detailed journal of the voyage with a view to eventual publication. Several officers aboard the two ships under his command, the Resolution and the Discovery, also kept logs and journals. The expedition’s personnel included an official artist, John Webber (1752-1793), a Londoner of Swiss descent (the family name was originally Wäber) who had studied in the academies of Berne and Paris. In addition, two crew members - the surgeon’s mate, William Ellis, and a carpenter named James Cleveley - were accomplished draughtsmen who made many drawings during the journey.
Cook commented on the advantages of having a good graphic record of the expedition in his journal entry for 11 June 1776: ‘That we might go out with every help that could serve to make the result of our voyage entertaining to the generality of readers, as well as instructive to the sailor and scholar, Mr Webber was pitched upon and engaged to embark with me for the express purpose of supplying the unavoidable imperfections of written accounts, by enabling us to preserve, and to bring home, such drawings of the most memorable scenes of our transactions as could be expected by a professed and skilled artist.’
Whereas Cook’s earlier two voyages focused mainly on the South Pacific, the third was primarily concerned with the exploration of northern territories, including the coastlines of Alaska and the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia. Although much was achieved during the four years at sea, the expedition failed in its main aim: the discovery of the North-West Passsage. It was also marred by the violent death of Cook in a skirmish with natives at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, in February 1779.
When the British Admiralty published an official three-volume account in 1784, the first two volumes were drawn from Cook’s journal and the third from an account of the homeward part of the voyage written by Cook’s highly literate second lieutenant, James King. The three-part text was accompanied by a large folio containing sixty-one engraved plated based on Webber’s drawings. The geographical diversity of the illustrations is startling. Subjects range from elephant seals on icebergs and fur-clad Inuits (or, in the terminology of the period, ‘Esquimaux’) to the festive dances of near-naked Tahitians and Hawaiians. Although he had not actually witnessed the Kealakekua conflict, Webber felt obliged to include a suitably heroic image depicting Cook’s demise.
The copy of the Plates shown here was donated by Sir George Grey.
Related resources: Captain James Cook.