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CAPTAIN COOK, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?(I)


Introduction


With 2020 marking the 250th anniversary of James Cook's landing on our shores, the attention Cook is now receiving from government and the media is reaching new heights. He has become the symbol of the foundation of modern Australia, and as author and historian Dan O'Sullivan has put it, 'a point of origin ..., a crucial factor in the creation of a national and cultural identity'.' Cook would have been amused by such flattery given that his foray along Australia's east coast was seemingly not of great significance in his own mind, and indeed a source of exasperation because of the delay it caused on the way home (see below). The limelight over the British discovery of our cast coast could very well have shone on another Englishman, William Dampier, had Dampier not been prevented from mapping the east coast of New Holland, as Australia was called then, because of the poor state of his ship.2 Dampier first arrived on the western side of our continent around 80 years before Cook and the tainting of Dampier's name through his association with buccaneers or pirates3 along with some unfortunate comments he made about our Indigenous population4 would have made for a particularly uncomfortable east coast anniversary celebration of the kind that is now taking place.
White the Cook anniversary has met with numerous flattering accounts of the man the event has not been plain sailing. Many view Cook in an unfavourable light, seeing him as a symbol of British colonial rule in this country and its accompanying negative impact on our Indigenous population. This article is not concerned with what others think about Cook but rather what Cook might have been thinking himself, with a focus on his first voyage when he visited our shores. It is left to the reader to decide whether the attention he is receiving at the present time good and bad, is fair.


Cook and the Australian Story

By all accounts Cook was an extraordinary man, spending half his life at the behest of the British Government conquering the world's oceans largely by his own wits, and all the while sacrificing the comforts of home for what must have often been a crowded, damp and smelly wooden ship. His persistence in the search for the Southland (Terra Australis Incognita) in the bitter cold above the Antarctic Circle on his second voyage would have been nothing less than a brutal experience and a powerful testimony to the mettle of the man, as well as his crew. The wretched suffering documented in the journal of J.R. Forster, a crew member on Cook's second voyage, offers a grim picture of sailing the seas in those times.

Apart from his surveying work of the St Lawrence River and the coast of Newfoundland when he was a young man, Cook is generally remembered for commanding three voyages of discovery, circling the globe two and half times before his untimely demise on the final voyage. It is not clear why Cook was chosen to command HMS Endeavour on the first voyage; Beaglehole, Cook's well regarded biographer and editor, commented that it was possible," the voyage did not rate very highly with the Lords of the Admiralty, as long as a naval officer of some sort was in charge of a naval vessel", According to O'Sullivan it may have been Cook's early surveying and astronomical work on the east coast of North America that swayed the opinions of the decision makers.'° In the end, the decision to appoint Cook to the Endeavour set Cook up on his life's work, and as amazing as his voyages turned out to be none achieved their primary goals. This was nothing to do with Cook, he prosecuted the voyages as well if not better than anyone else possibly could have. but for various reasons the goals could not be met because of technical reasons on the first voyage (considered below) and sea ice on both the second" and third voyages preventing passage of Cook's ship.

For Australia, the story of Cook begins in April, 1770 when he ran across the east coast of the continent in the final stage of his first voyage. Cook's instructions for the voyage did not make mention of

the mapping of the east coast of New Holland or for that matter even visiting the land. The primary intent was to measure the time of transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun. and then to sail to the South Pacific in search of the fabled Southland before finishing the mapping of the coast of New Zealand.


The 1769 Transit of Venus

This measurement made from several locations on the earth was a way for determining, through triangulation, the distance between the earth and the sun. With the distance in hand, astronomers could determine the sun's true brightness and mass from whence the size of the solar system and the distance between all the known planets could be calculated!' Strong support from the Royal Society for a voyage to the South Pacific to observe the transit secured the necessary funds from King George III It was the second set of instructions, in a 'Sealed Packet', directing Cook to make a claim on the Southland in the interests of the Empire that was a motivating force behind the voyage's primary intent.

In HMS Endeavour, Cook sailed west from England around Cape Horn and into the Pacific. Upon reaching Tahiti, Cook engaged as many of his crew as possible along with some of the local population to build the infrastructure (Fort Venus) to house the clocks and telescopes necessary to monitor the transit, and on the crucial day reported a cloudless day. It was nothing less than a complex and brilliant achievement. But an unforeseen problem was to undermine the whole episode; the precise beginning and end of the transit across the sun's disc could not be determined with sufficient accuracy because of a blurring (referred to as the 'black drop effect') of the edge of the dark planetary disc against the bright surface edge of the sun. It was an optical effect that is now put down to a combination of the darkening of the sun's disc near its apparent edge and less than ideal optical instruments of the time.

It is likely that Cook would have felt disappointed at the outcome given just how much it had taken by all concerned to get to this endpoint and perhaps because of this he recorded precious little of how he felt about the observation, confining his description to a short paragraph in his journal:

SATURDAY 3s. This day prov'd as favourable to our purpose as we could wish, not a Clowd was to be seen the whole day and the Air was perfectly clear, so that we had every advantage we could desire in Observing the whole of the passage of the Planet Venus over the Suns disk: we very distinctly saw an Atmosphere or dusky shade round the body of the planet which very much disturbed the times of the Contacts particularly the two intemal ones. Dr Solander observed as well as Mr Green and my self, and we differ'd from one another in observing the times of the Contacts much more than could be expected. Mr Greens Telescope and mine were of the same Mag(n)ifying power but that of the Dr was greater then ours It was ne[a]rly calm the whole day and the Thermometer exposed to the Sun about the middle of the day rose to a degree of heat we had not before met with.

Cook's record is little more than a brief documentation of the facts without further reflection, which is surprising given that the reason for the voyage in the first place hinged on the observation. Beaglehole was clear in his view of the events of the day when he wrote, `The day of observations provided perfect conditions. The observations, so far as their primary purpose was concerned, were a failure.

When back in England the Astronomer Royal, the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne, unkindly pointed the finger at Charles Green, Cook's professional astronomer (who had died late in the voyage) for the bad result even though Maskelyne had first-hand experience with the difficulty of timing the transit based on his own observations of the 1761 transit. Cook strongly defended Green's observations of the transit but it must have furthered Cook's angst over the voyage that he may have felt had not achieved a great deal. The transit was a failure and neither New Zealand nor New Holland were new to the world. As well, Cook probably felt that he had come up short in his attempt to find the Southland Cook's preliminary report to the Admiralty sent from Batavia included the following regarding his feelings about the achievements of the voyage:
Altho' the discoverys made in this Voyage are not great, yet I flatter myself they am such as may Merit the Attention of their Lordships: and altho' I have failed in discovering the so much talked of Southern Continent (which perhaps do not exist), and which I myself had much at heart, yet I am confident that no part of the Failure of such discovery can be laid to my charge.

Captain W.J.L Whanon, hydrographer of the British Admiralty, put a positive slant on these words when he wrote in 1893.
"Although the discoveries made in this voyage are not great" In these modest words does Cook describe his work. I read them to mean that with his love of accuracy he did not wish to claim his explorations of New Zealand and the East Coast of Australia as discoveries. as it was already known that lands existed there; but seeing how little was known, and how completely he did his work, there we but few men who would have refrained from classing them, as indeed he truly might have, as discoveries.

Irrespective of how Cook may have felt about the voyage as a whole and his expressed humility about the achievements of the voyage, there is nothing in the written account to suggest that he felt poorly about his own performance in addressing the objectives.


The Southland and New Zealand

After leaving Tahiti, Cook proceeded into the South Pacific Ocean to latitude 40 degrees south in the vain attempt to find the Southland before sailing west to explore the coast of New Zealand. His circumnavigation of New Zealand was a monumental achievement but he was well aware that he was only completing the map of a coastline partly surveyed nearly 130 years before him by Tasman Upon leaving New Zealand, Cook decided to head for home and on March 31st, 1770 recorded that he would sail west '...until we fall in with the East Coast of New Holland ...and return to England by way of the East Indies.


Cook heads for home and our east coast

The options for returning home that led to the European discovery of our east coast are described in both the journals of Cook and Joseph Banks. According to Banks, a 'consultation', presumably between the officers and most likely Banks as well, took place and the 'unanimous' decision made to sail immediately west for our east coast." He wrote that the poor state of the ship including the sails and rigging was a deciding factor in their decision to sail for New Holland rather than to 'weather the hard gales' by sailing east at high latitudes around Cape Horn. Furthermore. Banks says that to sail southward of Van Diemen's Land and onto the Cape of Good Hope was unlikely to result in new discoveries." Cook also stated in his journal that the Endeavour could not have made the tempestuous journey east at high latitudes even though he would have valued the opportunity to search once again for the Southland. To quote from Cook's joumal,
To return by the way of Cape Horn was what I most wished, 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 the Condition of the Ship, in every respect was not thought sufficient for such an undertaking.'
It would have been a difficult decision for Cook not to go east to establish once and for all if the Southland existed in the South Pacific Ocean. The theory of the Southland first mooted in antiquity remains without precedent in terms of its longevity, so the prize was worthy of consideration.
Ironically, it was because of the poor state of Cook's ship that our east coast was discovered at that time whereas in the case of Dampier our east coast was not discovered for the same reason many years earlier.
Cook undertook a running survey of most of our east coast and in the process landed several times and made contact with our Indigenous population. On some or all of these occasions Cook took possession of the land, recording in his journal at the conclusion of his survey,
I had in the Name of His Majesty taken possession of several places upon this coast, I now once more hoisted English Coulers (sic) and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast from the above Latitude [referring to 38° South] down to this place [referring to what is now known as Possession Island in the Torres Strait] by the name of New South Wales

It was not so much that Cook claimed our land for the Empire that has got him into so much trouble in recent times, it was more that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that is, on our east coast so soon before the British colonization. After all, William Dampier had already been here, along with the Dutch and probably the Portuguese. but that was long before Cook and largely on the western side of the country. Cook's instructions included the directive that, `... with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situation in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain...' The land referred to in this instruction only applied to the Southland (if found), and the instructions continue on and direct Cook to take possession of all lands, 'that have not hitherto been discover'd by any Europeans' without further mention of any possible Indigenous habitation of these lands. When it came to our east coast Cook followed these instructions to the word and took possession of the land. He was after all a public servant doing the job he was asked to do. Beaglehole believed drat the voyage would have constituted a proving ground for Cook and his future career in the Navy when he wrote,
The first voyage has an importance in Cook's career which does not fully reveal itself except to close study. For this voyage also. masterly as it was, was part of this training'.
The same thinking would surely not have been lost on Cook at the time, and may be why Cook, according to O'Sullivan, followed his instructions to the letter and shows in this respect a different attitude to that of his predecessors in the Pacific...  Cook himself 'confessed' that he was 'a man Zealously employed in the Service of his Country and obliged to give the best account he is able...

 

TO BE FOLLOWED

 

 

 

 

 

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