What, you ask? How can we get Isaac Newton into our story of Australia and its discovery? Well, believe me we can.
Back in England during the 18th century, we can detect that “the times were a changing”, to quote singer songwriter Bob Dylon.
This change is best illustrated by the formation of the “Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge”. A society whose reputation Sir Isaac Newton from 1703 until his death in 1727 did much to enhance as the leading voice in the pursuit of knowledge and discovery within Britain.
The Royal Society evolved from a small group of like-minded individuals who called their gathering the “Invisible College”. This group’s focus was to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. It evolved into a “Royal” Society in 1660 by Royal Charter and whose future membership would include a number of eminent people such as Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday.
During the early 18th century the Royal Society saw the number of Fellows increase from 110 to approximately 300 by 1739 and it is following this time that the society influences the search for the Land Down Under…
In the mid 18th century we are entering a new Age of Discovery, as opposed to a period motivated largely by the outright quest for trade & plunder (principally spearheaded by the Spanish and Dutch).
The Royal Society directly intersects with our story when two topics begin to dominate its discussions. The first is the possible existence of an undiscovered continent in the Earth’s southern hemisphere (New Holland was thought by the British to be too small to be the Great Southern Land) and an impending astronomical event, the crossing of Venus across the face of the sun. Interest in this event had been increasing since a British clergyman Jeremiah Horrocks became the first recorded observer of a transit of Venus in 1639.
Why Venus? Firstly, only Mercury and Venus transit the Sun. Secondly, the transit of Venus, as opposed to Mercury, is relatively easy to observe, but extremely rare. The 1761 transit was viewed with only limited success and the British were keen to make the most of the next transit. At that time the British plans for viewing the transit of 1769 were mediated by the Royal Society, which asked King George III to authorise three more expeditions, including one aboard a Royal Navy vessel to Tahiti in the South Pacific.
The Royal Society wanted Alexander Dalrymple, geographer and a former employee of the English East India Company to lead the expedition. Dalrymple also wanted to take advantage of the proposed expedition to undertake further exploration for this mysterious land, Terra Australis Incognita. This importantly coincided with the desires of the British Admiralty; but unfortunately for Dalrymple and the Royal Society, the Admiralty stipulated that a Navy officer command a Navy ship. So it was out with Dalrymple…and a new candidate was sought…
With the hopes of Dalrymple scuttled, it would open an opportunity for another man to step forward and take the lead in this history changing endeavor. A man whose name would become synonymous with the “discovery of the Great Southern Land”…
SMALL SIDE NOTE:
The motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in verba – Latin for “Take nobody’s word for it”.