Captain James Cook was a man on a mission: Find the great southern continent that was then believed to exist and claim it for Britain. The quest for the rumored continent had been going on for centuries—most recently by the British and French. On Cook's first voyage to the South Seas (1768-1771), he circumnavigated New Zealand and mapped large portions of the Pacific but found no continental landmass.
Cook was itching to return to the hunt. In February 1772 he proposed to his patron John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich and first Lord of the Admiralty, that he circumnavigate the globe "in as high a latitude as the weather and other circumstances will admit." By September 1773 he had reached what are now the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. Spotting a few small islets, he "named them Sandwich in honour of my noble Patron the Earl of Sandwich," but the name didn't stick.
In July 1774, while sailing along the island chain of Vanuatu, Cook christened a port in Malakula after Sandwich and—just two days later and a little farther south—honored his friend and supporter again by naming one island (Éfaté) Sandwich and another (Émao) Montagu. Six months later Cook came upon South Georgia and sailed nearly the entire length of the island before naming Sandwich Bay in the south. He was at first hopeful that South Georgia would prove "to be part of a great Continent," but finding it was not, he judged that "it would not be worth the discovery" and pressed on, noting that "the Frigid, Gloomy and Savage aspect which nature has given to this Country exceeds every thing that could have been imagined."
On January 31, 1775, the fog cleared before Cook's ship, and land came into view. Cook wrote: "I concluded that what we had seen, which I named Sandwich Land was either a group of Islands or else a point of the Continent, for I firmly believe that there is a tract of land near the Pole, which is the Source of most of the ice which is spread over this vast Southern Ocean." (In fact, Cook first named the archipelago Snowland before calling it Sandwich Land.) For extra measure, Montagu's name was also applied to a cape and, later, an island.
Fed up with a "constant succession of bad weather," Cook soon fled the area, having traversed the Southern Ocean "in such a manner as to leave not the least room for the Possibility of there being a continent, unless near the Pole and out of the reach of Navigation." He had given up on finding the great southern continent but not on exploration: On his last voyage (1776-1779) he would become the first European to see Hawaii, which he would name—what else?—the Sandwich Islands.
–Kathy B. Maher