'Over Cooked': Is Captain Cook the source of British sovereignty in Australia?

Captain Cook's ship laid on the shoreline of the northern coast of New Holland (now Cooktown Queensland) for hull repairs.
(Background image: 'The Endeavour', c 1770. An engraving by Rennoldson)

The story of Lieutenant James Cook and British Sovereignty over Australia has been overcooked. At no time on any of Cook's three voyages to the Pacific was he intending to go anywhere near New Holland. He did chart the east coast of New Holland in 1770, but that was not part of his Instructions.

The whole story about Cook and his association with the claim of British Sovereignty over the lands now known as Australia is retrospective, rather than consistent with the events of the time.

Cook's initial "mission" was to get to Tahiti to study the Transit of Venus, and to then look for the fabled Great Southern Land, Terra Australis. In Europe, they believed that this unknown land mass was either extending east from Aotearoa (New Zeeland) or further east closer to South America. They already knew that New Holland was not part of Terra Australis.

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When Cook was heading home after mapping Aoteroa (Which Tasman had named New Zeeland) Cook wanted to go back the same way as they came, back around the south of South America, but because of the battered condition of their ship, other officers on board convinced him to travel to Batavia, (Java) to get repairs to the boat and more supplies. The quickest way to do so was to fall in with the east coast of New Holland, and travel northward, up to the strait that separated New Holland from New Guinea, turn left and head straight to Batavia.

Cook also believed that by going back towards South America, he was more likely to discover the mythical Terra Australis.

Cook had no intention of going anywhere near New Holland. After mapping New Zeeland and still wanting to search for Terra Australis, as per his Instructions, (the mythical Great South Land), Cook refers to having to sail "in a high latitude" before going back around Cape Horn, South America,"high latitude" means further south which is a higher latitude south.

Here's what Cook's Journal entry for 31st March 1770,

"Upon my return to the Ship in the evening I found the Water &Ca all on board and the Ship ready for sea and being now resolv'd to quit this country altogether and to bend my thoughts towards returning home by such a rout as might conduce most to the advantage of the service I am upon I consulted with the officers upon the most eligible way of putting this in execution. To return by ^the way of Cape Horn was what I most wish'd because by this rout we should have been able to prove the existence or non existence of a Southern Continent which yet remains doubtfull, but in order to ascertain this we must have kept in a high latitude in the very depth of winter ^but the condition of the ship in every respect was not thought sufficient for such an undertaking. for the same reason the thoughts of proceeding directly to the Cape of Good Hope was laid a side especialy as no discovery of any moment could be hoped for in that rout it was therefore resolved to return by way of the East Indies, but as the state of the Ships provisions was thought more than sufficient to carry us thither it was agree'd ^by the following rout - upon leaving this coast to steer to the westward untill we fall in with the East Coast of New Holland and than to follow the deriction of that Coast to the northward or ^what other direction it might take untill we arrive at its northern extremity and if this should be found ^impractical than to endeavour to fall in with the lands or Islands discover'd by Quiros. "

Cooks Journal Entry 31 March 1770 National Library of Australia

So on advice from his officers Cook sailed west towards New Holland.

Endeavour Chart and Detail

After sighting New Holland (Australia), they turned starboard (northward) and mapped the coast for 350 kms, going straight past Two Fold Bay and then deciding against landing at Bateman's Bay, then going another 250kms before eventually landing at Stingray/Botany Bay where they stayed for a week collecting fresh water, timber and catching fish.

Cook, in what gets described as his meticulous Journal writing, doesn't mention anything about planting a flag, nor any act of taking possession for Britain, until the day after they leave Botany Bay, where his Journal entry records

"During our stay in this Harbour I caused the English Colours to be display'd a shore every day and an inscription to be cut out upon ^one of the trees near the watering place seting forth the Ships name, date &Ca"

More details here: Cooks Journal 6 May 1770 National Library of Australia (Near the bottom of the page)

This is the only time that Cook ever writes of "planting a flag" on the mainland of New Holland, and Botany Bay is the only place he intended to land on the mainland. He did of course end up landing again at Cooktown for emergency repairs to the boat after hitting the reef, but that was not a planned visit. On two other occasions he sent a couple of crew members ashore to search for fresh water, first at present day Seventeen Seventy, (near Gladstone) and again near Cairns, but there's no mention of flag raising then, nor of any flag raising at Waalumbaal Birri (Endeavour River Far North Queensland) where they were stuck for over six weeks, busy getting their boat sailable again.

Yet his Journal records that when they got to what he initially called Passage, but later changed to Possession Island, there's this supposed Proclamation

"Notwithstand I had in the Name of his Majesty taken posession of several places upon this coast I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took posession of the whole Eastern Coast from the above Latitude down to this place by the Name of New South ^Wales together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the same said coast after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were Answerd by the like number by from the Ship"

This proclamation is not mentioned in the diary of Joseph Banks at all, even though Banks is said to have accompanied Cook onto Passage (Possession) Island to get a look to see if they were in another bay, or in the strait separating New Holland from New Guinea.

The most likely scenario is that when Cook and crew got back to England, the Journal entry about flying the flag at Botany Bay, and the proclamation at "Possession Island" were inserted into Cook's Journal. Since the Admiralty seized all of the writings of the crew when they got back to England, and Cook was instructed to rewrite his Journal, such a doctoring (modification) was quite likely. Because Banks was a private paying passenger, his Diary is most likely to be the least altered version of events. Interesting too, that a private copy/version of Cook's Journal that he gave personally to his immediate superior, Admiral Pallister, doesn't mention any big proclamation on Possession Island, only the taking possession of that small island itself.

The probable motive for altering Cook's Journal was that the Admiralty, on learning of French "Explorer" Bouganville having sailed near Cairns but outside the reef, the year before Cook sailed by, made the British Admiralty fear that the French might try to claim the east coast of New Holland for themselves. Ever since, there's been this major publicity campaign to aggrandise Cook as the greatest ever navigator and discoverer, yet even Cook's supposed claim of being the first European to sight the east coast has been contested in Europe, from when it was first made.

Cook knew full well that New Holland was not "the land of great extent" which is why his 2nd voyage focused east of Aotearoa, the area he wanted to sail back through after mapping New Zealand. The only "evidence" of Cook claiming the east coast of New Holland are in two Journal entries, 6th May where he retrospectively writes of having planted the flag each day, and carving initials in a tree, (yet no-one says they've seen such carvings from 1788 to now), and then later the Possession Island thing. No mention of flag planting in 7 weeks at Cooktown, nor at 1770 (near Gladstone) or just south of Cairns when some crew members went ashore looking for fresh water. So from his actions and words, it seems clear that it was not Cook's intent to claim convenient situations along the coast, nor to claim the whole east coast for his King when navigating along the coast. My guess is that that happened back in England, when the Admiralty found out about Bouganville, so they got Cook to insert an entry in his journal and they also changed things in the diaries of the crew.

Doctoring Cook's Journals

Alexander Dalrymple, the Royal Society's choice to captain the voyage, but replaced by navy man Cook, thought that the west coast of NZ might be the west coast of Terra Australis, but Cook proved otherwise. This perhaps was Cook's greatest achievement.

Cook is also touted as a great Cartographer, but on board the Endeavour was the Royal Society's Assistant Astronomer Charles Green, who could do all the fine detailed calculations of the planets and moon, which were needed to determine longitude before the invention of the chronometer. Sadly, Charles Green has been largely forgotten since he died of Malaria, along with 7 or 8 other crew members, when the Endeavour was in Batavia getting repaired with the help of the Dutch East India Company. Cook took a chronometer on his subsequent voyages.

More details here: Cooking the books Sovereign Union

Cook offered praise to Astronomer Charles Green, but this seems to have been largely forgotten from the narrative that praises Cook as the great navigator. From Cook's Journal 23rd August 1770

"... In justice to Mr Green I must say that he was Indefatigable in making and calculating these observations which otherwise must have taken up a great deal of my time, which I could not at all times very well spare. Not only this, but by his Instructions several of the Petty officers can make and Calculate these observations almost as well as himself: it is only by such means that this method of finding the Longitude at Sea can be put into universal practice, a method that we have generally found may be depended upon to ^within half a degree; ^which is a degree of accuracy more than Sufficient for all Nautical purposes."

From: Cook's Journal 23 August 1770 National Library of Australia

Another oddity in the story is that Cook's Journal speaks of it not being widely known whether a strait exists between New Holland and New Guinea, but back in England Alexander Dalrymple had managed to get this strait named in honour of the Spanish seaman Lois Vaez de Torres who had charted it in 1606. Oops.

PS At best, Cook is said to have claimed a coastline in 1770, yet in Instructions to Governor Phillip 1787, he is to be Lieutenant Governor of the eastern half of the continent, as far south as the bottom of Van Diemens Land, even though Cook never went near there, and to the tip of Cape York, from the coast said to be claimed by Cook, as far west as a longitude that cuts New Holland down the middle.

The "official" version of events we have been told, posits that Cook proclaimed the East Coast of New Holland to be a coast of Britain, a few weeks before he was desperately hoping to get his boat repaired by the Dutch East India Company in Batavia. This makes no sense." Could you fix my boat please? By the way, I've just stolen your coast." The proclamation looks especially odd considering that Cook didn't even want to go anywhere near New Holland when leaving New Zeeland, but decided to, only so as to get to Batavia for repairs.

The President of the Royal Society offered these Instructions to Lieutenant Cook in 1768.

Hints offered to the consideration of Captain Cook
'Hints offered to the consideration of Captain Cook, Mr. Bankes, Doctor Solander and other gentlemen who go upon the expedition on board the Endeavour. Chiswick, 10 August 1768.'

The Douglas Archives

  • To exercise the utmost patience and forebearance with respect to the Natives of the several Lands where the Ship may touch.
  • To check the petulance of the sailors and restrain the wanton use of Fire Arms.
  • To have it still in view that sheding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature;- They are human creatures, the work of the same omnipotent Author, equally under his care with the most polished European, perhaps being less offensive, more entitled to his favour.
  • They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit.
  • No European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country or settle among them without their voluntary consent.
  • Conquest over such people can give no just title, because they could never be the Aggressors.
  • It is natural for them to defend their land and if they are hostile there are to be no reprisals.

Detailed suggestions are given on how to approach the natives peacably. The primary object of the expedition is to observe the transit of Venus. Once this has been achieved, attention can be turned to other matters "particularly the discovery of a continent in the lower temperate latitudes".

James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton, Chiswick, 10 August 1768.
Notes for Cook, Banks, Dr. Solander and the other gentlemen who go upon the expedition on board the Endeavour.

Cook's Journal of March 31, 1770, reiterates this purpose. (see above)

Because the general thinking in Europe at the time was that the discovery of a continent in the lower temperate latitudes was the reason Cook wanted to go back across the Pacific toward South America, looking further south than how they had travelled to New Zealand, which was via Tahiti.

It thus seems illogical that Cook would then claim the East Coast of New Holland, since it had nothing to do with his Instructions. He had no intention of going there except to get to Batavia for repairs.

Research by Graeme Taylor