From the time that the Spanish navigator Vasco Núñez de Balboa stood and gazed in silence at the vastness of the Pacific Ocean in 1513, explorers from around the globe have been fascinated with its mysteries and sheer size. The discovery of the Pacific Ocean opened up new areas of exploration and eventually led to the settlement of the New World, which forever changed life on the planet as it existed in Balboa’s time.
Exploration of the Pacific also provided cartographers with the information needed to chart the entire globe more completely than had ever been done before. In the beginning, the Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese had led the way in exploring the world.
However, as exploration of the Pacific became both more urgent and profitable, Britain and France also financed expeditions. Each new voyage added to existing maritime knowledge of tides, currents, and wind patterns and helped to discover new navigational guides that made exploration safer and more productive for ships and their crews.
Seven years after Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean, Ferdinand Magellan (Fernão de Magalhães) of Portugal became the first navigator to circumnavigate the globe and cross Balboa’s ocean, which he named the Pacific to honor its serenity. The path that Magellan traveled, which bears his name, is now known as the Strait of Magellan. Thus, Magellan became the first known explorer in the history of the world to travel the waters of the South Pacific.
Scientists of his time believed that in order for the balance of the Northern Hemisphere to be maintained, an undiscovered continent, which they had named Terra Australis Incognita, would have to be located in the furthest areas of the Southern Hemisphere. Over the next 250 years, countless explorers attempted to find this mysterious southern continent.
By the 18th century, the question became how soon new lands could be claimed by nations looking for colonies with rich resources. This new emphasis on exploration and annexation arose out of the massive changes that were taking place in Europe.
After Sir Isaac Newton introduced the notion that science was better suited than philosophy to explain the world, educated Europeans became hungry for any knowledge that broadened their understanding of the world in which they lived.
As a result, the Enlightenment brought about new social and political orders that were accompanied by a desire to learn more about non-Western societies. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution was creating increasing demands for raw materials and new products that could be exploited for trade.
Recent discoveries in the field of navigation, such as the chronometer and the English Nautical Almanac, provided navigators with more exact methods of computing longitude and longitude in open water, making voyages of discovery safer and more productive. In the 18th century all of these changes came together to fuel the desire to explore the Pacific Ocean.
England and the Pacific
In August 1766 aboard the H.M.S. Dolphin, Captain Samuel Wallis sailed from Plymouth, England, with orders to find the Great Southern Continent and claim it for Britain. He was accompanied by Captain Philip Carteret in the H.M.S. Swallow. On June 28, 1767, after navigating the Strait of Magellan, the Dolphin discovered the island of Tahiti, where they were met by hundreds of Tahitians in canoes.
After establishing friendly relations with the curious Tahitians, Wallis docked in Matavi Bay. However, the natives decided they were under attack and began pelting the ship with stones. Wallis responded with gunfire, destroying at least 50 canoes. Afterwards, the Tahitians brought out young girls to entice the sailors back to the beach.
Satisfied that the danger was past, trading began in earnest, with the English trading nails for young girls, chicken, fruit, and hogs. Wallis was forced to confine his men to the ship to keep them away from the girls. In May 1768 officials in London learned of Wallis’s discovery of this new tropical paradise.
Of all British explorers who traveled the Pacific in the 18th century, Captain James Cook was the best known and most respected. In 1768 King George III chose Cook to lead a geographical and scientific expedition in which the Royal Society planned to observe an upcoming phenomenon that involved the planet Venus passing between the Earth and the Sun.
Scientists predicted that observations of this phenomenon would provide the information needed to calculate the exact distance from the Earth to the Sun. Since Tahiti was believed to be an ideal spot for observing the event, Cook traveled there.
He was also charged with exploring the coast of New Zealand and continuing the search for the Great Southern Continent. Consequently, Cook became the first navigator to explore the area of the Pacific Ocean that lies between New Zealand and South America.
He made three separate voyages to the Pacific between 1768 and 1779, and his accomplishments include disproving the existance of the mythical southern continent, discovering the Hawaiian Islands, claiming parts of Australia for Britain, charting the 300-mile area from Oregon to beyond the Bering Strait, and providing the first comprehensive map of the Pacific.
On his first journey to the Pacific as captain of the Endeavour, Cook worked for half pay because he was not as experienced as other navigators who had sought the assignment. Cook’s entourage was made up of 119 individuals, including 11 passengers.
The most amazing thing about Cook’s journey was that he did not lose a single individual to scurvy, which was considered the plague of long oceangoing voyages. Avoiding the mistakes of earlier navigators, Cook stocked the Endeavour with a variety of foods that included portable soups, sauerkraut, onions, evaporated milk, vinegar, lemon juice, and all sorts of vegetables and fruits.
Initially, Cook followed the path established by previous navigators, traveling along the Strait of le Maire to sail between Tierra del Fuego and Staten Island. From there, Cook sailed westward. By the time, the Endeavour reached Tahiti, Cook and his passengers had traveled some 5,000 miles. On June 3, 1769, with the assistance of three telescopes, the scientists were able to observe Venus as it crossed between the Earth and the Sun.
Cook remained in Tahiti for three months and then sailed south into unknown territory, eventually hoisting the flag over the Society Islands. Over a six-month period, Cook and his crew navigated the coast of New Zealand, charting a 2,400-mile area while being besieged by hostile aborigines and severe storms.
On April 28, 1770, the Endeavour anchored at Botany Bay in Australia, allowing Cook to chart and name the area’s various islands and bays. When they reached the 80,000-square-mile area known as the Great Barrier Reef, which reached from the tropic of Capricorn to the coast of New Guinea, the Endeavour struck a reef.
After repairing the ship, Cook set out for the East Indies. Thirty-eight members of the crew were lost to malaria and dysentery over the coming months. Nevertheless, by the time Cook returned to England, he had added a considerable amount of land to the British Empire.
On July 13, 1772, Cook again set sail with orders to circumnavigate Antarctica and settle the question of whether or not another continent existed. The Resolution and the Adventure set out together, and Cook’s plan was to continue sailing southward after traversing the area between Madeira and the Cape of Good Hope. This was the first voyage to circumnavigate the Earth from west to east.
Cook also became the first navigator to cross the Antarctic Circle, discovering thousands of islands along the way. His journey included extensive explorations of Easter Island, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, the Marquesas, and the Isle of Pine. The Resolution arrived at Spithead on July 30, 1775. In honor of his explorations, Captain Cook was named Commander Cook.
After Captain Cook’s exploration of the southernmost continent laid to rest the question of whether or not an unidentified continent still existed, Cook shifted his focus north and renewed his attempts to find the elusive Northwest Passage, which could decrease travel time between Britain and the East Indies.
On July 12, 1776, the Resolution again set sail with instructions to travel from west to east, reversing the routes of earlier expeditions. After spending time in Tahiti, Tasmania, and New Zealand, the Resolution turned north in December 1777, leading to the discovery of the Channel and Sandwich Islands, which were part of the kingdom of Hawaii.
By April 26, 1778, Cook had reached the northernmost point of North America, which he named Cape Prince of Wales. When the ship traveled through the Bering Strait, Cook met solid walls of ice. With winter coming on, he decided to turn around and head back toward the Hawaiian Islands.
This was to be the last lap of his final voyage. In Kealakekua Bay, on February 14, 1779, a dispute with locals ended in Cook’s being murdered. However, his influence did not end with his death. Other navigators chose to explore the waters of the Pacific and complete Cook’s unfinished work.
It was another English explorer who ultimately succeeded in finding the Northwest Passage. This was accomplished during a search for members of a lost expedition led by Sir John Franklin who had been trying to force his way through the Arctic from Baffin Bay to the Beaufort Sea to discover the passage. Exploring the relevant area from 1850 to 1854, Robert John McClure became the first person to traverse the Northwest Passage, although he traveled part of the way by sledge.
McClure’s ship was ice-bound for three years around Banks Islands, but he and his crew were rescued at the point of starvation by a party led by Sir Edward Belcher. It was not until 1906 that Norwegian Roald Amundsen in the ship Gjoa succeeded in traversing the Northwest Passage entirely by ship.
France and the Pacific
By the late 18th century, France had developed a strong interest in the Pacific Islands, which it believed to be filled with uncivilized but noble savages. The government was convinced that these islands would open up new avenues of trade and provide philosophers and scientists with new subjects for study. Most important, France wanted new colonies to make up for those that had been lost in North America and India.
As a result, in November 1766, three months after Captain Wallis sailed from Plymouth, England, Chevalier Louis-Antoine de Bougainville set sail on the Boudeuse, charged with discovering and claiming for France the southern continent that was believed to exist in the uncharted areas of the South Pacific. Two scientists and a crew of 200 accompanied Bougainville.
In April 1768, two years after Wallis’s discovery of Tahiti, Bougainville and his crew rediscovered and claimed the island, which Bougainville named Nouvelle Cythère, or New Cythera, after the Greek mythological Utopia.
The Tahitians again offered their young girls in trade, with the result that the French left numerous cases of venereal disease behind when they left the island. When they returned to France, they were accompanied by the Tahitian Shurutura. Bougainville’s books about his voyage became an instant best seller in France.
When La Pérouse set sail in August 1828 to explore the Pacific Ocean, he was determined to seek his own path. Instead of traveling east as Cook had done, he mimicked the actions of previous navigators and traveled west.
In June of the following year La Pérouse arrived at the point in Alaska where Cook had turned back in 1776. The Frenchman explored the area between Alaska and Monterey, California, and then headed for Macao in the South China Sea, where he charted the East Asian coast of the Pacific.
By the summer of 1789 La Pérouse had begun his journey up the Pacific coast of Asia. Between 1837 and 1840 French naturalist Jules Dumont d’Urville explored the Southwest Pacific, claiming Antarctica for France. D’urville’s careful charting of the atolls and reefs in the Pacific was immensely valuable for future navigators.
North America and the Pacific
During the last half of the 18th century, European settlers began colonizing Australia, New Zealand, and the major Pacific islands. The United States and Canada entered the fray in 1780, establishing trading routes that netted silk, spices, and other products from distant lands.
First with whaling ships and later with steamships, explorers traveled the entire Pacific Ocean. One of the most notable of those explorers was Alexander MacKenzie, a Scot who emigrated to Montreal, where he became a fur trader. After discovering the MacKenzie River in 1878, this explorer became the first North American to traverse the continent and helped to establish Britain’s claim to the Canadian West.
Increased knowledge of the Pacific also led to a period of inland exploration in the United States and Canada during the early 19th century. As areas became more settled, there was a push to explore western boundaries and to find more direct routes to areas outside North America.
In the early 19th century, France owned most of the land beyond the Mississippi River. In 1803 Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory for around $15,000,000, annexing all land north of Texas and westward toward the Rocky Mountains.
The newly purchased area included what is now Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, most of Oklahoma, Kansas, Wyoming, Montana, most of Minnesota, and part of Colorado. The following year, Jefferson acted on his dream and financed the Lewis and Clark Expedition. On November 7, 1805, the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean, completing the charting of the United States from east to west.