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Exploration of the Pacific Ocean can be divided into several phases. The Spanish and Portuguese were active in the 16th and into the 17th centuries, starting with Ferdinand Magellan. The Dutch period of exploration was mainly in the 17th century, with Abel Tasman being the best known of their explorers. Then came the English and French phase in the 18th century. For the French, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville is perhaps the most well-known. The Englishmen who were famous for their exploration activities during this period were John Byron, followed by Samuel Wallis, Philip Carteret, and finally James Cook. Reasons for British exploration included expansion of the empire, trade, research and defence.

An exception to this pattern of exploration was the journey of Englishman Francis Drake in the 16th century. Queen Elizabeth I sent Drake to fight the Spanish on the Pacific side of the Americas in the Pelican in 1577. He captured a Spanish ship that was laden with gold near Lima, and chased and caught another ship with gold on board. This second ship had been sailing west for Manila, an area the Pope had given Portugal the right to explore. This led to a Spanish invasion of Portugal in 1580. Meanwhile, Drake claimed land somewhere north of Point Loma for the British. He attempted to find a western end to the Northwest Passage, but was forced back by freezing weather. He then crossed the Pacific to the Moluccas islands in modern-day Indonesia and returned to England via southern Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, becoming the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world.

John Byron first circumnavigated the globe as a midshipman. In 1741 his ship, the HMS Wager, was shipwrecked off the southern Argentina coast. He led a squadron to destroy fortifications built at Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, and later defeated a French flotilla at the Battle of Restigouche. He again circumnavigated the world in the mid 1760s, taking possession of the Falkland Islands. While on the Pacific Ocean leg of this voyage, Byron discovered various islands, including the Gilbert Islands, Tokelau and Tuamotus, as well as visiting Tinian Island in the Northern Marianas group. He was appointed governor of Newfoundland and was later the British fleet’s commander in chief in the West Indies during the War of Independence.

Samuel Wallis was sent by the British Admiralty in HMS Dolphin in 1766 to search for a continent that was believed to exist south of South America. In July 1767, he saw a mountain that he thought could be the new continent, but he had discovered Tahiti instead. The Tahitians threw stones, to which Wallis’s men responded by firing cannons. Next day, the explorers went ashore and planted the British flag and claimed possession. Two days later, armed Tahitians approached the Dolphin in canoes as well as the party on the land. Guns were fired and the warriors fled to the hills. Later that day, the Tahitians begged for peace with food and other gifts, and their young women. The Dolphin’s crew went ashore and the trading commenced.

Philip Carteret was a lieutenant on the Dolphin with John Byron. He then took command of the Swallow and accompanied Samuel Wallis on the 1766 voyage around the world. They became separated at the Magellan Strait at the southern tip of South America. Carteret went on to discover Pitcairn Island, and the Carteret Islands or Atoll near New Guinea. He also discovered the York Islands, and the Solomon Islands which probably hadn’t been sighted by a European since Spaniard Alvaro de Mendana 200 years earlier. His health suffered as a result of the expedition and he was put on half pay. He finally got a new ship, the HMS Endymion in 1779, and conducted a voyage to the West Indies.

James Cook is perhaps the best known of the English explorers in the Pacific. He was the first person to map Newfoundland, before making three trips to the Pacific Ocean. His first voyage of 1768-71 in HMS Endeavour started by sailing round Cape Horn at the bottom of South America and heading across the Pacific to Tahiti. As planned, he observed Venus’s transit across the Sun. He went on to circumnavigate New Zealand, producing a remarkably accurate map for the time. He crossed the Tasman Sea and reached the eastern coast of Australia in April 1770, being the first European to see this part of Australia, unlike the west coast which had been visited by many European explorers starting with Dutchman Willem Janszoon in 1606.

Cook’s first landing on the continent was at Botany Bay, on the south-eastern coast. A convict settlement was established 18 years later in 1788 just north of this area as a direct result of a favourable report by Joseph Banks, Cook’s botanist on the trip. The convict colony was Sydney, now the largest city in Australia, with a population of over four million. In 1779, in Cook’s absence on another voyage, Banks was called as a witness by a House of Commons committee set up to decide where Britain should send its convicts after the War of Independence stopped them from being sent to America. He mentioned the availability of fresh water, abundance of fish, arable soil, good pasture, plentiful timber and warm climate at Botany Bay. He also reported that the Aboriginal people were placid and disinterested, presenting little threat. Botany Bay was eventually selected for the convict settlement, but it moved to Sydney Cove after the original location proved inadequate within a week of arriving.

On his second voyage in 1772-75, James Cook was sent in HMS Resolution to find the great habitable landmass that was still thought to exist south of Australia and New Zealand. He crossed the Antarctic Circle in January 1773, and also claimed South Georgia for Britain. He became separated from his companion ship HMS Adventure captained by Tobias Furneaux who continued on to New Zealand where a number of the crew were killed in a fight with the Maoris. Cook sailed well south of the Antarctic Circle, but didn’t quite reach the Antarctic mainland. He then headed north, all the way to Tahiti. He also visited Easter Island, the Friendly Islands or Tonga, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Norfolk Island. Cook was able to make very accurate maps with the help of the ground-breaking Larcum Kendall K1 chronometer. This voyage also put an end to the Terra Australis myth.

James Cook’s third and last voyage took place on the Resolution in 1776-79. Its main purpose was to find the Northwest Passage to the north of Canada, thereby linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. On this trip, he went to Tahiti and then became the first European to see the Hawaii Islands. He mapped for the first time the western coast of North America right up to the Bering Strait, between Russia and Alaska, but found it to be impassable. He returned to Hawaii. After several months, he departed the islands but was forced to return due to a broken foremast. It seems that Cook’s return was not welcomed by the Hawaiians. There was quarreling and one of Cook’s boats was taken. He tried to take their king as hostage. The villagers prevented this and he was struck on the head and stabbed to death in the shallows.

The British Empire’s exploration of the Pacific Ocean achieved some remarkable things. The west coast of America and the east coat of Australia were charted for the first time, and many islands were discovered. Accurate maps were drawn for the first time. Cook had extensive contact with the people of the Pacific and correctly concluded that their ancestors had come from Asia. More than 3,000 plant species were collected, which were of great value to botanists in Britain. A favourable report by Cook’s botanist Banks resulted in the settling of Australia by Europeans.