Chart of the Pacific Northwest Coast Explored by Captain Cook

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Trade. Curiosity. The Northwest Passage. Otter pelts. The addition of another few kilometers of charted coastline to the chart. Fame. The praise of the King. A steady ration of rum and biscuits and the lure of women in distant lands. These are some of the reasons that brought expeditions of British, Russian, Spanish and early Canadians and Americans to the northern Pacific coast of North America during the 1700s.

The Pacific Northwest, the stretch of coastline between the Aleutian Islands to the north and the outer reaches of the Spanish territories of California to the south, was home to a complex network of indigenous societies, but remained a blank area on European charts and maps until the late 18th century. Explorers, in large sailing ships equipped with the most modern navigational equipment, sailed beyond the known map in order to add to their scientific and geographical knowledge of the globe. They often claimed what they found for themselves and their leaders.

To explore is to search or strive for a place, thing or idea, and to discover is to find out about something previously unknown. It can take place as a form of intellectual inquiry or as part of a physical expedition. A Nuu-chah-nulth person from the west coast of Vancouver Island can “explore” her heritage and “discover” a family tradition. Museum curators can “explore” the theme of navigation and “discover” great charts and instruments from their collection to put on display. Captain Cook wanted to “explore” the Pacific Ocean in the 1700s to “discover” new territory and trade for Britain and its growing empire.

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