Plates to accompany ‘A voyage to the Pacific Ocean’. London: Printed by W. and A. Strahan for G. Nicol & T. Codell, 1784. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries

Plates to accompany ‘A voyage to the Pacific Ocean’. London: Printed by W. and A. Strahan for G. Nicol & T. Codell, 1784. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries

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Plates to accompany ‘A voyage to the Pacific Ocean’. London: Printed by W. and A. Strahan for G. Nicol & T. Codell, 1784. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries

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Plates to accompany ‘A voyage to the Pacific Ocean’

Ref No: GNZ 910.4 C67
Date Created: 1784

Prior to the invention of photography, the third voyage of Pacific exploration (1776-1780) led by Captain James Cook was the most fully documented expedition in history. A vivid and precise writer, Cook kept a detailed journal of the voyage with a view to eventual publication. Several officers aboard the two ships under his command, the Resolution and the Discovery, also kept logs and journals. The expedition’s personnel included an official artist, John Webber (1752–1793), a Londoner of Swiss descent (the family name was originally Wäber) who had studied in the academies of Berne and Paris. In addition, two crew members – the surgeon’s mate, William Ellis, and a carpenter named James Cleveley – were accomplished draughtsmen who made many drawings during the journey.

When the British Admiralty published an official three-volume account in 1784, the first two volumes were drawn from Cook’s journal and the third from an account of the homeward part of the voyage written by Cook’s highly literate second lieutenant, James King. The three-part text was accompanied by a large folio containing sixty-one engraved plated based on Webber’s drawings. The geographical diversity of the illustrations is startling. Subjects range from elephant seals on icebergs and fur-clad Inuits (or, in the terminology of the period, ‘Esquimaux’) to the festive dances of near-naked Tahitians and Hawaiians. Although he had not actually witnessed Cook’s violent death in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii in February 1779, Webber felt obliged to include a suitably heroic image depicting Cook’s demise.

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