Voyages just completed had renewed interest for Britain in the problems still unsolved concerning Pacific charts. The British Admiralty was interested in whether or not there was a great southern continent. If there was, as was thought probable by the leading geographers, the Admiralty wished to secure bases similar to the Falkland Islands to protect British routes to the new area of exploitation. The Royal Society wished to have an observation of the transit of Venus across the sun made from one point in the south to correlate with similar observations to be made on Cape North of Norway and in the Hudson Bay area. These projects received the active backing of George III. Cook was finally selected as the man best fitted to command the expedition on the basis of his reputation as a sailor and leader of men as well as for his ability as a scientist, which he had demonstrated by his work in charting North American waters and his previous recording of an observation of an eclipse of the sun on Newfoundland.
On August 25, 1768, Cook sailed from the Thames on the Endeavour with seventy officers and men, twelve marines, and twelve landsmen. Cook was interested in the problem of preventing scurvy, which had brought disaster to so many of the previous expeditions. Wherever possible he secured fresh food and carried live animals. He also insisted on clean quarters and dry clothing. In January, 1769, Cook rounded Cape Horn and, after sailing to 60° south latitude without finding the unknown continent, proceeded northwestward to Tahiti.
Tahiti was sighted on April 10, 1769, on the parallel reported by Wallis but considerably eastward of Wallis's estimated longitude. The expedition did not leave until the middle of July, which gave the Tahitians and the Europeans considerable time to get acquainted. Unlike such encounters in the past, the current European ideas about the noble savage aided in making the encounter friendly. While awaiting the opportunity for the astronomical observation, Cook charted the waters of Tahiti and some of the neighboring islands.
After leaving Tahiti, Cook sailed southward to 40° south latitude looking for Terra Australis without success. This was as far south as he had been ordered to go. His attainment of this southerly point wiped off the contemporary maps a large section of the supposed continent. From here he proceeded westward to find the east coast of Tasman's New Zealand. The Maori of New Zealand were found less hospitable than the Tahitians. Cook sailed slowly around the islands, roughly charting the coast as he went. He discovered the strait that bears his name between North and South Islands. His work definitely established that New Zealand was not part of Terra Australis.
Cook sailed across the Tasman Sea to explore the unknown east coast of New Holland. The name Australia was not applied to this continent officially until 1817. He proceeded up the coast, discovering Botany Bay, and became entangled with the Great Barrier Reef. On June 11, 1770, the Endeavour struck a coral ledge of the Great Barrier Reef and sustained serious damage. After making temporary repairs, Cook proceeded to Batavia by way of Torres Strait, completing the first known navigation on this strait after Torres's original discovery. More men were lost at the disease-ridden port of Batavia than had died on the entire voyage up to this time. Repairs were finally made, and on July 10, 1771, the Endeavour returned to England via the Cape of Good Hope.