European Exploration of the Pacific, 1600–1800

Works of Art


Much of the European exploration of the Pacific was inspired by two obsessions, the search for the fastest routes to the spice-rich islands of the Moluccas (modern-day Maluku in Indonesia) as well as the theory that somewhere in the South Pacific lay a vast undiscovered southern continent, possibly also rich in gold, spices, and other trade goods.

European exploration of the Pacific began with the Spanish and the Portuguese. By the late 1500s, the Spanish had colonized the Philippines and had discovered several of the Caroline Islands in Micronesia, as well as the Solomon Islands in Melanesia and the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia. Spanish ships, known as the Manila Galleons, regularly crossed from the Americas to the Philippines but seldom encountered any islands unless blown off course. The Portuguese, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to reach the Moluccas, explored the eastern islands of modern-day Indonesia in the early 1500s and also briefly encountered the island of New Guinea to the east. In 1600, however, the vast majority of the Pacific still lay unexplored.

All this began to change in the seventeenth and especially the eighteenth centuries, as explorers, merchants, and privateers from Holland, France, and England began to explore and chart the unknown expanse of the Pacific. In the early 1600s, the Dutch seized control of the Moluccas from the Portuguese. As early as 1605, a Dutch expedition was sent to explore the north coast of Australia and several others followed. Blown off course on their way to the spice islands, Dutch merchant vessels also encountered and began to chart the west coast of Australia. The Dutch exploration of the Pacific culminated in the 1642–43 voyage of Abel Tasman, who sailed south of the Australian continent and encountered Tasmania and New Zealand. He later visited islands in Tonga, Fiji, and the Bismarck Archipelago. At the close of the century, British navigator William Dampier in 1699–1700 explored portions of Australia, island Southeast Asia, and the Bismarck Archipelago.

Although other nations also participated, it was the British and the French who dominated Pacific exploration in the eighteenth century. Beginning in the mid-1700s, the rival nations began to send out scientific expeditions to explore and chart the islands of the Pacific. French expeditions in this period include those of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1766–69), Jean-François de la Pérouse (1785–88), Étienne Marchand (1790–92), and Antoine-Raymond-Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux (1791–93). British explorers include Samuel Wallis (1767–68) and Philip Carteret (1767–68). But by far the most wide-ranging and accomplished of the eighteenth-century explorers was the Englishman James Cook, who made three separate voyages to the Pacific in 1768–71, 1772–75, and 1776–80. During his voyages, Cook not only encountered many Pacific cultures for the first time, but also assembled the first large-scale collections of Pacific objects to be brought back to Europe. Due to the efforts of these and many other explorers, by 1800 the myth of a vast southern continent had been dispelled and virtually the entire Pacific basin had been charted and its diverse cultures brought to the attention of the West.

Eric Kjellgren
Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004


Kjellgren, Eric. “European Exploration of the Pacific, 1600–1800.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

Additional Essays by Eric Kjellgren