Cover of Captain Cook's Final Voyage

Edited by James K. Barnett

WSU Press: 2017


The British Navy was outfitting ships for war against the upstart American colonies when Captain James Cook sailed from Plymouth Harbor in July 1776 for his third and final voyage. The mariner sought the elusive Northwest Passage via the west coast of North America, but the ensuing three-and-a-half-year expedition didn’t turn out as planned.

Much has been written about Cook, particularly his earlier voyages to the Pacific Ocean and Australia, using his journals. Lower ranking officers on the Resolution and its consort ship Discovery also kept notes on the third journey. This book brings two of those journals to print for the first time, after Barnett found them in an Australian archive.

Cook and 203 sailors first crossed the Indian Ocean to Tasmania and New Zealand. Among the explorers was First Lieutenant James Burney, a veteran of Cook’s first and second voyages. Henry Roberts, a cartographer on the Resolution, worked under the watchful eye of notorious ship’s master William Bligh.

Burney and Roberts chronicled the journey as it continued into familiar territory for Cook: the islands of the South Pacific. Mai, a Tahitian crew member, mediated encounters between the Europeans and the people of the Cook Islands, Tonga, and Tahiti. Those relations would often begin in a friendly manner but ended with cultural misunderstandings and violence.

As Cook and company traveled east, they stumbled on a place they didn’t expect, and one that would later prove fateful; the Hawaiian islands had never experienced a visit by British sailors when they landed near Kaui‘i. The expedition then traveled near modern-day Oregon and skirted the coastline up to Vancouver Island and Alaska, where they believed they would find the Northwest Passage. Instead they found disappointment and a wall of ice through the Bering Strait.

The ships returned to Hawai‘i, where yet another meeting with islanders turned sour and sealed the fate of James Cook. He was stabbed and killed at Kealakekua Bay. Burney and Roberts witnessed and wrote about the battle.

The journals of Burney and Roberts give valuable insight into the lives of sailors, interactions with Pacific Islanders, and the hardships of eighteenth-century ocean travel. Barnett’s discovery of the journals, along with his commentary, make this book essential reading for anyone interested in that era of discovery.