Cook's first two voyages had removed most of the major mysteries regarding the south Pacific. One large section of the Pacific remained to be charted, the northeast. This section remained on the charts in much the same state it had been after the early cartographical interest of the sixteenth century. A map of the Pacific published between the second and third voyages shows the islands of the south and west Pacific in correct positions, little different from the most recent maps. This map shows the northeast Pacific with the same names applied to vaguely located islands as were shown on the sixteenthcentury maps of Mercator and Ortelius.
The decline of the economy of the Caribbean possessions of Britain and the interest in the newly acquired areas in Canada had led to interest in the northwest coast of North America. Bering had already established the strait that bears his name, but little was accurately known of the area between the strait and what is now northern California. The Spanish had done some exploration as far north as Nootka Sound but had not made this knowledge available to the world. The Admiralty was sufficiently interested in the coast to send Cook on another expedition.
On July 12, 1776, Cook sailed from England on the Resolution, accompanied by the Discovery. Cook proceeded by way of Capetown, Tasmania, and the Cook Islands to Tahiti, where he arrived in August, 1777. At Tahiti, Cook landed the cattle, sheep, and horses, which were gifts from George III to the Tahitians. In December he left the Society Islands and sailed northward. On December 24 a small low island was discovered and named Christmas Island.
On January 18, 1778, Niihau and Kauai, the westernmost of the large Hawaiian Islands, were discovered. Brief landings were made on Niihau and Kauai to secure fresh provisions, and Oahu was sighted, but Cook did not stay long enough to explore the islands thoroughly and map them. His orders made it clear that he was to explore the northwest coast of North America before developing incidental discoveries. The islands were named the Sandwich Islands in honor of the Earl of Sandwich, who was then the First Lord of the Admiralty and an important backer of Cook's Pacific explorations.
The question immediately arose concerning prior Spanish discovery of the Hawaiian or Sandwich Islands. Cook's contemporaries gave credit for the original discovery to the Spaniards. This credit has recently been questioned. Pacific maps from as early as 1569 had shown islands in the approximate position of the Hawaiian Islands. The discovery of these islands has been commonly attributed to a little-known Spanish explorer, Juan Gaetano, who was a pilot on the Villabos expedition, 1542-1545.
Cook found the Hawaiians in possession of a few pieces of iron that they valued highly. Iron was unknown in other parts of Polynesia before the arrival of Europeans, and the Hawaiians had been without contact with the rest of Polynesia since pre-Spanish times. However, the possibility of Japanese origin of the iron has been advanced. Some years after Cook's visit legends were collected that would seem to indicate that the Hawaiians had traditions of earlier visits by Europeans. Whether or not Cook was the first European to set eyes on the Hawaiian Islands, he does deserve the honor of being the first to record the position of the islands clearly and to describe their inhabitants.
In March, Cook sighted the coast of North America a few degrees south of the present United States-Canadian border. He sailed northward along the coast and through the Bering Strait to a position 70° 30′ north latitude, where his further poleward exploration was blocked by ice. For the first time this coast was clearly established. As winter approached, Cook decided to carry out his work of exploration in southern waters and returned to the Hawaiian Islands. He was now free to explore them in detail, having fulfilled the Admiralty's orders to first chart the northwest coast of North America.
Maui was sighted on November 25, 1778, and the big island of Hawaii soon after. Between November 30 and January 17, Cook sailed around the island of Hawaii (or, as he recorded it--Owhyes), charting the coast without making a landing. On January 17, 1779, he finally anchored in Kealakekua Bay. While the ship sailed around the island there was mounting excitement ashore, and the kahunas, or priests, had time to work out an explanation for the visit. The ships were associated with the god Lono, who, according to tradition, had sailed away, promising to return. The kahunas explained to the people that this was Lono returning. When Cook landed he received an embarrassingly friendly reception. Provisions desired for the ships were supplied by the Hawaiians, and gifts were exchanged with the kahunas and chiefs.
At last the ships departed on February 4 without any serious friction between the Hawaiians and the Europeans. The Resolution was damaged in a storm, and the expedition returned to Kealakekua Bay on February 11 for repairs. The reception was not as enthusiastic as before. Supplying food had been a severe strain for the common people. The chiefs were jealous of the kahunas. Friction developed, and the number of thefts increased. The friction reached a climax with the theft of a large ship's boat, which the Hawaiians broke up for its nails. On February 14 Cook landed with nine marines and a lieutenant, intending to take a chief as hostage for the return of the boat. Cook almost accomplished his purpose, but trouble suddenly developed. In a few minutes Cook and four of the marines were dead. Some reprisals were taken, and part of Cook's body was recovered. Finally, on February 22 the Resolution and Discovery departed.
The expedition continued under the command of Captain Clerke. Following the orders of the Admiralty, Clerke sailed across the Pacific to Kamchatka and through Bering Strait. The expedition was again blocked by ice in a position 70° 33′ north latitude on July 5, 1779. The Resolution and Discovery returned to England by way of Japan, Formosa, Sunda Strait, and Capetown, arriving on the Thames in October, 1780.
Cook is one of the oustanding explorers of all time. When he began his Pacific explorations, this great portion of the earth's surface was but poorly known. The maps and charts were dotted with vague islands, which were often incorrectly located, and the south Pacific was portrayed as possessing a great land mass that rivaled Asia in size. When Cook died the major mysteries of the Pacific were solved and the principal island groups fixed in their correct positions.