Captain James Cook: his influence in the discovery of Antarctica

Born in a humble Yorkshire village called Marton in 1728, James Cook rose to become one of the most famous and influential explorers in world history. It shouldn’t overly surprise, then, that he is a key figure in the history of human contact with what we now call Antarctica. Here is a little bit of history for you to enjoy reading before booking one of WILDFOOT’s appealing Antarctic cruises.

The mystery of the supposed Terra Australis

Since Antiquity, mankind had regularly put forward the likelihood of a large continent in the planet’s south to balance those continents that were then known to exist further north. However, no surveying had taken place to conclusively prove the existence of Terra Australis, the name given to this supposed continent – and so, in the late eighteenth century, the task fell to James Cook to seek out the continent for the British government.

In 1770, Cook sailed around most of New Zealand, thus proving that those islands were not part of Terra Australis. During his famed second voyage, which took place from 1772 to 1775, he circumnavigated the planet at a high southern latitude, in the process unknowingly circumnavigating Antarctica. He nearly came across Antarctica’s mainland, only to head to Tahiti for more supplies for his ship. He then made a second, but unsuccessful, re-attempt to discover Terra Australis.

So, Terra Australis didn’t exist. Except that it did…

Back in Britain, Cook’s reports of his travels widely convinced the British that the existence of Terra Australis had been a myth. In his book ‘A Voyage to Terra Australis’, published in 1814, decades after Cook’s death, Matthew Flinders argued that the long-believed Terra Australis was not a reality and so the name should instead be given to the closest that mankind had so far discovered to such a continent: what we now know as Australia.

Of course, Antarctica was later discovered, but only later in the nineteenth century. By then, Australia had been firmly established as the name for the above mentioned island, of which Cook is often considered the “father”. However, Cook gained crucial knowledge about the Antarctic that other explorers later built upon – something worth thinking about before you decide which of our Antarctic cruises you should turn to for a southern adventure of your own.