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Captain Cook - In Search of the North West Passage

Video clip synopsis – Cook’s obsession with discovery continues as he searches for the mythic North West Passage, but is it a journey too far? Now retired and promoted to Post Captain, James Cook is bored. He jumps at the chance to take on a third great voyage: to find a fast route to China to secure Britain’s place in the lucrative tea trade.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 2min 26sec
Tags - Australian History, Captain Cook, discovery, DIY Doco, exploration, see all tags


Captain Cook - In Search of the North West Passage

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About the Video Clip


Captain Cook- In Search of the North West Passage is an excerpt from Northwest Passage, the final episode of the 4 x one-hour series Captain Cook – Obsession and Discovery, produced in 2007.

Captain James Cook FRS RN (October 27, 1728 – February 14, 1779) was an English explorer, navigator and cartographer. Cook made three epic voyages around the world.

In this excerpt Vanessa Collingridge analyses Cook’s personal journeys as well as his geographic ones. She recaps Cook’s achievements in his first two voyages. Cook charted Tahiti and New Zealand and he completed the mapping of Australia in his first voyage as well as adding two new countries to the Empire. During his second, which Collingridge describes as “the greatest voyage of discovery ever made”, Cook went further than any man had gone before, venturing to the Antarctic and then heading north to chart the waters of the Pacific, an area larger than Europe and dispelling for ever the myth of the Great Southern Continent.

Now retired and promoted to Post Captain, James Cook is feted and has his portrait painted but the commentators point out he longs to be at sea again. Collingridge presents Cook as a man driven by ambition and not content to be at home without a quest. Cook and his wife Elizabeth have been together for only four of their 16 years of marriage but he is ready to leave his growing family once more.

This was Cook’s chance to put his stamp on the northern hemisphere, matching his total command of the south. Success meant a personal fortune and an even greater prize for the former farm boy, a knighthood. The prize has dimmed Cook’s memory of his failing health and fraying temper and he does not consider that this journey will be very hard indeed.

Curriculum Focus

  • Knowing and understanding historical events.
  • Using evidence to assist in the drawing of conclusions and understanding of the past.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of motivation, causation and empathy to assist one in drawing conclusions about the past.

Teachers and students should consult their state’s curriculum and learning programs.

Background Information


“I had ambition not only to go farther than any man had been before, but as far as it was possible for a man to go.” James Cook

In the series, best selling British author Vanessa Collingridge, a Geographer and Cook expert tells the story of the explorer James Cook. The series traces him from his origins as son of an English farm labourer, at the very bottom of Britain’s class-bound 18th Century society, through his rise as the best cartographer of the 18th Century, to his incredible voyages of discovery which resulted in Cook describing more of the globe than any other man.

The series relives what it was like to navigate uncharted and unknown waters in search of a legendary 'Great Southern Continent’ and then a North West passage through the Arctic ice; as well as to be among the first Europeans to visit exotic Pacific islands like Tahiti. The harshness and danger of life on the sea is depicted graphically as well as the rigid social structure of the time. The series includes direct descendants of the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Hawaii who Cook met 240 years ago and the men of the Endeavour, Resolution, Adventure and Discovery, particularly the famous gentleman botanist Joseph Banks and the young William Bligh.

All of Cook’s major achievements are dramatised and analysed including his discovery of Hawaii, sailing the uncharted coast of New Zealand, proving it isn’t part of the ‘Great Southern Continent’ and the landing at Botany Bay as he claimed Australia for king and country, to death on a beach on the far side of the world.

A hero to some, a villain to others, Cook is depicted from different points of view: as an historic figure of the great stature to the British Royal Navy of the 18th Century and contemporary western culture, and as an exploiter of the Indigenous peoples he came across.

Classroom Activities



  1. How did Cook “shatter the myth of the ‘Great Southern Continent”?
  2. Identify the three major voyages of Cook. Add these to a timeline. (You might add them to the timeline you have created in one of the other film clips for this series).
  3. Highlight the voyages of Cook on a map, using a tool like Google Maps to draw the route.
  4. What does the presenter, Vanessa Collingridge, suggest was one of Cook’s motivations for seeking out the ‘North West Passage’?
  5. Why do you think the British Government were keen to sponsor such an expedition?
  6. What was the major achievement of Cook during his search for a north west passage?


  1. How do the historians depict Cook’s motivations for taking one more voyage?
  2. What does the clip suggest about the sacrifices Cook made?
  3. Portraiture contributes to our historical and knowledge and understanding. Even today, portraits are commissioned but the role of the portrait in Cook’s time was probably more significant. Why do you think that this may have been the case?
  4. Locate a portrait of Cook. How does it depict him? What role do portraits have in an investigation of the past?
  5. Go to The National Portrait Gallery of Australia website and look at some of the collection. As a class discuss:
    1. What types of people are depicted?
    2. How are the portraits constructed? What is the main medium used? How does this compare to Cook’s time?
    3. Do you think that the purpose of portraiture has changed over time? Why? Why not?
  6. What does this clip suggest about the social structure in Britain?
  7. Investigate the processes that one had to go through to receive a knighthood.
  8. Create a chart that shows the different ranks within Briirtish Society at the time? How were these ranks bestowed?

Further Resources


National Portrait Gallery – Australia

National Portrait Gallery – Britain

British Library: Search for a North West Passage