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250 years: Captain James Cook and his crew become the first Europeans to sail below...

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Authored by Rex Cleaver
Published on 17th January, 2023 3 min read

250 years: Captain James Cook and his crew become the first Europeans to sail below the Antarctic Circle.

An image of Captain Cook and his ship.

On this day (17/01/2023), 250 years ago, Captain James Cook became the first European to discover and sail below the Antarctic Circle. Commandeering HMS Resolution in 1773 during the second of his three legendary voyages exploring the Pacific Ocean, Cook had been tasked by the Royal Society of Britain to find the hypothetical Terra Australis (Latin for “Southern Land”). This mysterious continent was believed to lie below Australia and its existence was based on the theory that continental land in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the Southern Hemisphere.

During his first Pacific voyage between 1768 and 1771, Cook had become the first European to encounter the eastern coastline of Australia as well as complete the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand. For his second voyage, Cook now headed further south, finally crossing the Antarctic Circle on the 17th of January 1773. Continuing on, Cook was almost successful in discovering the mainland of Antarctica before being forced to abandon his course and resupply in Tahiti. Though Cook had failed to discover the famed Terra Australis, his second expedition brought him great fame and fortune back in Britain; he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and described in the House of Lords as “the first navigator in Europe”.

Although Cook had been awarded a posting as an officer of the Greenwich Hospital, he could not be kept away from the sea. Departing on his third and final voyage in 1776 with the aim of locating a Northwest Passage around the American continent, Cook famously found his grisly end in Hawaii in 1779. Having previously become the first European to begin a formal contract with the Hawaiian Islands, Cook’s relations with the islanders became strained after a group of Hawaiians stole one of Cook’s longboats, following the theft of wood from a Hawaiian burial ground by Cook’s men. On the 14th of February 1779, Cook marched through the village at Kealakekua Bay and attempted to kidnap and ransom the King of Hawaiʻi, Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Cook made it back to the beach before being brutally killed by the villagers. 

Today, Cook is remembered as much for his violent death as for his long list of naval and cartographic accomplishments. While he is perhaps best known for his landing on the east coast of Australia, critics of Cook hold him responsible for the immense suffering of Indigenous Australian people, most notably the smallpox epidemic of 1789 that killed as many as seven in ten Aboriginal people. While Cook is often held as a leading example of British Enlightenment, one who has left a legacy of highly influential scientific and geographic knowledge, it is additionally important to note his controversial role as an enabler of British colonialism and the violence that is often associated with his contacts with various indigenous people across the Pacific. 

Authored by Rex Cleaver

Rex Cleaver

Rex is an Editorial Assistant at British Online Archives

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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