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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > August 2018 > The Secret Mission of Captain Cook

The Secret Mission of Captain Cook

Pat Kinsella retraces James Cook’s first voyage of discovery, a globe-spanning tale of peril and adventure that took him off the edge of the map

Britain’s greatest explorer and the search for the lost continent

James Cook’s first voyage took him into waters uncharted and to lands unknown


Astronomers hoped to use observations of the transit of Venus to work out how far Earth was from the Sun.

Shortly before 11pm on 11 June 1770, the captain and crew of HMS Endeavour, a lonely little ship an awfully long way from home, experienced a sickening shudder. The belly of their boat was being gored by a reef that had reared unexpectedly from the inky brine below.

Two Endeavour replicas have been built, but only one has completed a worldwide voyage

The captain was James Cook, a man destined to become the most famous British explorer of his era, and arguably any era. Despite beginning his career at the tail end of the Age of Discovery, when the European powers had already planted their flags in most of the world, Cook was about to claim an enormous prize for his king. But that would only count for anything if he made it home alive to tell anyone about it.

The Endeavour lay impaled off the tropical coast of a little-understood land known to Cook and his contemporaries as New Holland, but to us as Australia. The odds were not good. Cook was on his first major voyage as a captain, and suddenly it looked like it might be his last. It was pitch dark and they were 24 miles from land. The Endeavour carried three small boats, woefully inadequate for transporting the 90-plus crew to safety should she sink. And even if they did make it to shore, this was a wild and utterly unfamiliar place, well beyond the pale of trading or whaling routes. Rescue was not likely. Cook barked an order for the sails to be dropped to prevent the wounded vessel being dragged farther across the reef, then for a kedging anchor to be dropped. This, he hoped, would allow the Endeavour to be physically dragged back out into open water.

“It was an unfamiliar place, well beyond the pale of trading or whaling routes. Rescue was not likely”

When this desperate effort failed, Cook ordered the crew to begin lobbing anything heavy overboard. Iron and stone ballast went first, but cannon soon followed, then the precious drinking water, spewed out over the side in the hope that the lightened ship would be refloated by the rise of the morning tide.

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About History Revealed

In this month's issue… Captain Cook's secret mission Retrace James Cook's 1768 first voyage - a scientific expedition that morphed into a globe-spanning quest to find a lost continent thanks to a set of secret instructions. Plus: Louis XIV and the Palace of Versailles; the tragedy of British Tour de France hero Tom Simpson; the fall of the Russian Romanov dynasty; history of chocolate; William Wallace; weird pets; and Palymrene Queen Zenobia takes on Imperial Rome.