So I have to tell you a little secret. It was an apprentice shopkeeper who discovered the Great Southern Land. I kid you not!
Well, may be a little bit. The part that is true is the apprentice shopkeeper part. It is, however, perhaps more accurate to say this person mapped and laid claim for the Crown to the previously uncharted east coast of Terra Australis, Terra Incognita, or New Holland, whatever we may choose to call it.
Discovery, as we have seen, has been underway by a number of brave (and dubious) soulsfor well over a century or two.
Luckily for our story, this apprentice shopkeeper was good at maths, was a hard worker, and sought a future more challenging than being a grocer in the village of Staithes under the tutelage of merchant grocer William Sanderson.
But even though Staithes is a pretty non de-script village, it is here that an important connection is made. Staithes, a small village only a day’s walk from Middlesbrough, is on the sea; it is a relatively busy little fishing village. Here a fateful choice is no doubt offered to our storekeeper.
We can imagine him standing outside the wooden shutters of Sanderson’s seaside shop, the smell of fish and ocean spray in the air, asking: “Should I follow in the footsteps of my father and work the land, or turn to the sea that stands before me and seek out my future there?”
We all know what this man of humble origins chose. He chose the sea. In 1746, with the blessing of his family he was apprenticed to a Whitby ship owner, Mr. John Walker. His company transported coal between Newcastle and London. Nothing glamourous, but an opportunity all the same. One that he grasped with both hands. With hard work and application to his studies, including maths and navigation, he earned a chance to become a Master of the Friendship (a master is responsible for the navigation of the sailing vessel). Of course he said “yes” to the opportunity! Well, in fact, he turned it down!
What is clear about this 27-year-old seaman is that that a career on a nondescript sailing vessel hauling cargo about the English coast or even the Baltic sea was not enough. There was only one career option that would give this young man the canvas he desired to paint on. And that was the Royal Navy. He promptly signed on as an Able Seaman of the 60-gun ship the Eagle carrying out tasks from standing watch to helmsman and lookout.
Here it becomes even more apparent that we a dealing with a man of talent. Within a month of being on board the Eagle he is appointed as a masters mate; within two years he is qualified by examination for the navigation and handling of a royal ship. He then becomes master of the Pembroke and in 1758 crosses the Atlantic to participate in the Siege of Louisbourg. This was a pivotal battle in the Seven Year War that ended the French colonial era in Atlantic Canada.
In 1763 French colonial interest were ceded to the British and our talented master is about to make the most of the situation and further develop his skills for the grand adventure to come.
This seaman and navigator we now know as Captain James Cook. A man who would write prior to heading into the Pacific that he wished to go ‘farther than any man has been before…, but as far as I think it possible for man to go’. Well, he was not wrong…
First Fleeter Lieutenant Governor Robert Ross of Australia was also thought to be present at the Siege of Louisbourg. He was appointed lieutenant-governor of New South Wales in 1786 and sailed in the Scarborough with the First Fleet. From the early days of the colony, Ross and the Governor Arthur Phillip were in conflict (more about that later). Ross did not settle well into this new land and wrote in 1788 : ‘I do not scruple to pronounce that in the whole world there is not a worse country than what we have yet seen of this.’