Farther than any other man has been before me

A page of James Cook’s journal from his first voyage around the world in 1770.
Image: British Library Add MS 27885, f.21r

At Plymouth Sound on July of 1772, British explorer James Cook boarded HMS Resolution and headed for Madeira, the first port of call on what was the second of three momentous voyages he would make in his lifetime. The aim of this particular journey, commissioned by the British government, was to circumnavigate the globe in search of Terra Australis Incognita, a hypothetical continent believed by many to sit in the Southern Hemisphere—a vast landmass that had for centuries featured on maps despite being undiscovered. On the day of this diary entry, Cook and his crew had reached his Farthest South—a record that would remain for 49 years. Had it not been for the ice, he would have ventured further.

The Diary Entry

SUNDAY 30th. Winds ESE. Course S 20° E. Dist. Sailed 51 Miles. Lat. in South 70°48′. Longd. in W. Reck.g. 106°34′.

Continued to have a gentle gale at NE with Clear pleasent weather till towards the evening, when the Sky became Clowded and the air Cold attended with a smart frost. In the Latitude of 70°23′ the Variation was 24°31′ East; some little time after saw a piece of Rock Weed covered with Barnacles which one of the brown Albatroses was picking off. At 10 o’clock pass’d a very large Ice island which was not less than 3 miles in circuit, presently after came on a thick fog, this made it unsafe to stand on, especially as we had seen more Ice Islands ahead; we therefore tacked and made a trip to the North for about one hour and a half in which time the fog dissipated and we resumed our Course to the SSE, in which rout we met with several large ice islands. A little after 4 AM we precieved the Clowds to the South near the horizon to be of an unusual Snow white brightness which denounced our approach to field ice, soon after it was seen from the Mast-head and at 8 o’Clock we were close to the edge of it which extended East and West in a streight line far beyond our sight; as appear’d by the brightness of the horizon; in the Situation we were now in just the Southern half of the horizon was enlightned by the Reflected rays of the Ice to a considerable height. The Clowds near the horizon were of a perfect Snow whiteness and were difficult to be distinguished from the Ice hills whose lofty summits reached the Clowds. The outer or Nothern edge of this immence Ice field was composed of loose or broken ice so close packed together that nothing could enter it; about a Mile in began the firm ice, in one compact solid boddy and seemed to increase in height as you traced it to the South; In this field we counted Ninety Seven Ice Hills or Mountains, many of them vastly large. Such Ice Mountains as these are never seen in Greenland, so that we cannot draw a comparison between the Greenland Ice and this now before us: Was it not for the Greenland Ships fishing yearly among such Ice (the ice hills excepted) I should not have hisitated one moment in declaring it as my opinion that the Ice we now see extended in a solid body quite to the Pole, and that it is here, i.e. to the South of this parallel, where the many Ice Islands we find floating about in the Sea are first form’d, and afterwards broke off by gales of wind and other causes, be this as it may, we must allow that these numberless and large Ice Hills must add such weight to the Ice feilds, to which they are fixed, as must make a wide difference between the Navigating this Icy Sea and that of Greenland: I will not say it was impossible anywhere to get in among this Ice, but I will assert that the bare attempting of it would be a very dangerous enterprise and what I believe no man in my situation would have thought of. I whose ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption, as it in some measure relieved us from the dangers and hardships, inseparable with the Navigation of the Southern Polar regions. Sence therefore we could not proceed one Inch farther South, no other reason need be assigned for our Tacking and stretching back to the North, being at that time in the Latitude of 71°10′ South, Longitude 106°54′ w. We had not been long tacked before we were involved in a very thick fog, so that we thought our selves very fortunate in having clear weather when we approach’d the ice. I must observe that we saw here very few Birds of any kind; some Penguins were heard but none seen, nor any other signs of land whatever.

Further Reading

Though these voyages took place in the 18th Century, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Captain Cook’s original journals were transcribed and edited by historian John Beaglehole. Those four volumes are now out-of-print and second-hand copies are expensive, but even if they weren’t I’d still recommend getting hold of The Journals of Captain Cook as edited by Philip Edwards and published by Penguin. It’s a much more digestible edition and contains the most interesting entries from those four volumes.

Also interesting: the Captain Cook collection at the British Library, some of which can be seen online.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *