European voyages in the Pacific were originally searches for a habitable, southern continent or for a usable northern strait to Asia (neither of which existed). These journeys did expose both New Zealand and Australia as well as many islands and a valuable shale industry to Europeans. Of course, these areas, while new to Europeans, had been inhabited by human beings who had lived there for centuries. When the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen arrived on Easter Island in 1722, there were more than 3000 people on the island. He discovered over 1000 monumental statues, called moai, that had been built by the early Rapa Nui peoples who lived on the island. The descendants of these people who met the Dutch sailors gave him large quantities of locally grown sweet potatoes.


In this 18th century drawing, Roggeveen examines one of the moai on Easter Island (Source: Wikimedia)

When the Spaniards arrived on the island in 1770, they found it to be at exactly the direction and distance from Ecuador that had been detailed to their earlier comrades by the Incas some two centuries before. The Spaniards’ description of Easter Island included the presence of plantains, chili peppers, sweet potatoes, and many differing species of birds. The plants grown on Easter Island were also grown in pre-contact Peru and are found in pre-Inca burial grounds. Their presence matches the ancestral legends of the Rapa Nui peoples that their ancestors had settled the islands on journeys from South America. The Spanish also found totora reeds in large bogs of old crater lakes. The people who were indigenous to the island were expert craftsmen who built houses, boats, furniture, baskets, and fishnets with these reeds. These reeds also had been grown in irrigated fields on the coast of Peru and similarly used. Easter Island tradition insists that an early ancestor, Ure, brought with him the first totora root stocks and planted them in Rana Kao Lake. Captain Cook also visited Easter Island in the late 1770s.

After their defeat in the American Revolutionary War, the British focused their attention on the South Pacific. In the 18th century, European presence in southeast Asia and Oceania was dominated by the British and the French. This began with the voyages of William Dampier, who had twice visited the Indian Ocean coast of New Holland (Australia) between 1681 and 1711. Captain John Byron took possession of the Falklands in 1765 and Samuel Wallis and Philip Carteret followed with exploration of Tahiti, Pitcairn, New Britain, Philippines, and Celebes.

Captain James Cook left England on the first of his three Pacific voyages in 1768 on a scientific mission commissioned by the Royal Society. Cook circumnavigated New Zealand and came upon the eastern shore of mainland New Holland in April 1770 and spent four months exploring the seaboard inside the Great Barrier Reef. He called this land “New South Wales.” Almost simultaneously with Cook’s first Pacific trip, Captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville invaded the Society Islands of Polynesia and claimed them for France. De Bougainville sailed west to the Samoan Islands, New Hebrides, and the Solomon Islands. When the Europeans arrived in Australia, there were more than three-hundred thousand aborigines living in over five-hundred distinct tribal territories. On New Zealand there were as many as two-hundred fifty thousand indigenous Maoris. Cook’s second voyage starting in 1773 took him deep into the Antarctic Ocean and to many islands previously unknown to the Europeans. His third Pacific trip was to find the much-desired Northwest Passage to China through North America, – seeking it from the Pacific side. It was in 1778 on that trip that he discovered the Hawaiian Islands. As an interesting side note, Cook originally named the Hawaiian Islands “The Sandwich Islands” after John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich.

Watch and Learn

Learn about the life and strange death of Captain Cook by watching Crash Course in History #27.


In 1787, the British government decided to send convicted criminals to Australia. The exact number of convicts sent is still in some dispute, but most scholars agree that it was at least seven hundred people, of which about 20% were women and 80% men. These men and women settled in the harbor area to be named Sydney, after an English Lord, and Captain Arthur Phillip set up an autocratic government.


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