This telescope was owned by the British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook (1728-1779) and is one of a number of treasured keepsakes that his widow, Elizabeth, kept long after his death. These treasures included everyday items such as shoe buckles and drinking glasses, as well as mementoes of his travels. This telescope dates from the period of Cook’s three great voyages of discovery around the Pacific Ocean, charting the east coast of Australia, New Zealand and the islands of Hawaii. It was on the second of these journeys in January 1773 that Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time and was able to claim that he had travelled farther south than any other person.
In 1768, Cook was commissioned by the Royal Society to voyage south to chart and explore the Pacific Ocean; to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun from Tahiti; and to search for the fabled Terra Australis Incognita. Returning in 1771, Cook had successfully claimed the east coast of Australia and New Zealand for Britain, but had not been able to discover the fabled southern land. Cook remained uncertain whether such a land existed and concluded if it did that it must lie at a high latitude.
Determined to know once and for all whether land lay far to the south, Cook set off once more, charged with exploring as close to the South Geographic Pole as possible. On 13 July 1772, Cook’s ship the Resolution, accompanied by the Adventure, left the British port of Plymouth and sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. On 17 January 1773, the two ships became the first to cross the Antarctic Circle yet soon encountered heavy ice and were forced northwards to New Zealand. Separated by fog and storms, the Resolution returned south alone in November 1773. Over the next two southern hemisphere summers Cook and his crew skirted the Antarctic Circle dodging fields of ice and sailing tantalisingly close to land. Cook had successfully circumnavigated Antarctica and although he hadn’t sighted land he was able to demonstrate that if a great southern continent did exist it would ‘lie forever buried under everlasting snow and ice’ somewhere within the Antarctic Circle. Cook returned to England arriving on 29 July 1775, over three years after his departure.
Cook’s final Pacific voyage took him once more through Antarctic waters en route to trying to find the Northwest Passage, an elusive fast sailing route from Europe to Asia. It was during this journey, whilst anchored at Hawaii that Cook was killed during a dispute over a stolen small boat. A wretched end for a remarkable man.
Currently held by the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
Online images available via the State Library of NSW at: