The Coveted Pacific Coast

Enter Cook and the British

A Search for the Northwest Passage

Captain James Cook, Royal Navy, 1770s

Caption: Captain James Cook, Royal Navy, 1770s

Meanwhile, other countries began to take an interest in the Pacific. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, a member of Montcalm's staff in Canada, had explored the South Pacific in the 1760s, as had another participant in the siege of Quebec, Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy. It was to this seasoned explorer, who had already circumnavigated the globe twice, that the British government assigned the mission of exploring the northwest coast of North America. Cook's assignment was to find a possible Northwest Passage, a maritime passage that would join the Pacific to the Atlantic, by going around the continent.

Russian maps published in 1774 showed Alaska to be an island, a large strait separating it from the rest of the continent. In 1771 the explorer Samuel Hearne of the Hudson's Bay Company had reached the mouth of the Coppermine River in the Northwest Territories by a land route, and had seen the Arctic coast. This information led him to believe in the existence of a Northwest Passage, something of immense strategic importance for Canada; if it did exist, Great Britain would have to control it.

On July 12, 1776, the HMS Discovery left Plymouth with 12 cannon and 22 officers, 71 sailors and 20 marines, along with the HMS Resolution, carrying 81 officers and sailors. Cook was instructed not to oppose any of the Spanish or Russian territorial claims, but rather to take possession of any useful lands in the name of the King, with the agreement of the Natives.