On 26 August 1768, Captain James Cook left Plymouth, England, on the ship Endeavour for his first voyage. This trip would eventually lead him to discover the east coast of Australia.
James Cook’s first voyage circumnavigated the globe in the ship Endeavour, giving the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander the opportunity to collect plants from previously unexplored habitats.
Although the Endeavour voyage was officially a journey to Tahiti to observe the 1769 transit of Venus across the sun, it also had a more clandestine mission from the Royal Society to explore the South Pacific in the name of England.
The two botanists on the expedition returned with a collection of plant specimens including an estimated 100 new families and 1,000 new species of plants, many of which are currently housed in the U. S. National Herbarium.
Joseph Banks, who would later become Sir Joseph Banks and president of the Royal Society, was a wealthy young scientist.
He invited his close friend Daniel Solander, a Swedish student of Linnaeus working in the natural history collections of the British Museum, to join him on the Endeavour expedition.
Together they acted as the naturalists on the voyage, commanding several servants and artists, including Sydney Parkinson, and outfitted with an excellent array of scientific equipment.
After setting out from London, the expedition stopped briefly at Madeira, a small Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean, and then continued on to Rio de Janiero, on the eastern coast of Brazil.
Here, the expedition encountered one of its first major setbacks when the Portuguese governor Dom Antonio Rolim de Moura Tavare refused to allow anyone from the Endeavour to come on land except to acquire necessities. This restriction, however, didn’t stop the two determined botanists.
Banks and Solander risked being arrested as spies or smugglers in order to sneak onshore to collect specimens around the city. Despite this difficulty, the expedition traveled on to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, where they collected a large number of specimens despite bitterly cold weather that killed two members of the crew.
In April of 1769, the expedition reached Tahiti, where they stayed until July. During this time, Banks and Solander collected over 250 plant species, including the orchids Liparis revoluta and Oberonia equitans (also known as Oberonia disticha) and the flowering plant Ophiorrhiza solandri, in the first extensive botanical study in Polynesia.
After viewing the transit of Venus on June 3, 1769, the expedition began mapping, exploring, and collecting specimens in the relatively unknown regions of New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia (then called New Holland). Plants collected included the large orchid Dendrobium cunninghamii, also known as Winika cunninghamii, native to the western shore of New Zealand, as well as white-honeysuckle (Banksia integrifolia), native to the east coast of Australia.
The Endeavour stopped for nine days at a bay on the coast of Australia, where, according to Banks, the expedition’s plant collection became “so immensely large that it was necessary that some extraordinary care should be taken of them least they should spoil.” The botanists were so successful that Cook decided to name the place Botany Bay in honor of their extensive discoveries.
The Endeavour continued its voyage mapping the eastern coast of Australia, narrowly avoiding shipwreck on the Great Barrier Reef, until it re-entered known waters near New Guinea in late August, 1770. During the last part of the voyage, the Endeavour stopped at the disease-ridden city of Batavia in Java and at the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, returning to England in July, 1771.
Overall, the expedition was very successful, with little strife among the crew and no deaths from scurvy. Although neither Banks nor Solander published their botanical findings, the two naturalists returned to England with a vast wealth of new discoveries.