Archive for the ‘Discovery’ Category

On the 12th of April 1769 Cook wrote: “and at 6 AM it (Tahiti) bore from SSW to WBN being little wind and calm several of the Natives came off to us in their Canoes, but more to look at us than any thing else we could not prevail with any of them to come on board – and some would not come near the ship” 

Despite the distance travelled, Cook and his crew arrive in good health.  Thanks to an unusual combination of food and drink. So wrote Cook as he dropped anchor:  “At this time we had but very few men upon the Sick list and these had but slite complaints, the Ships compney had in general been very healthy owing in a great measure to the Sour krout, Portable Soup and Malt…”.

So with a full compliment of crew and civilians, Cook approached the island of Tahiti for the all-important observation of the Transit of Venus. Here we get a glimpse of an Englishman, in his own words, as he “meets the locals”…. 

And it appears to be exactly as we would like to imagine, an idyllic meeting on a blue ocean, surrounding a beautiful tropical island…

“We had no sooner come to an Anchor in Royal Bay as before Mentioned than a great number of the natives in their canoes came off to the Ship and brought with them Cocoa-nuts, &ca and these they seem’d to set a great Value upon- amongest those that came off to the Ship was an elderly Man whose Name was is Owhaa, him the Gentlemen that had been here before in the Dolphin kne ow and had often spoke of him as one that had been of service to them, this man, / together with some others / I took on board / and made much of him thinking that he might on some occasion be of use to us”

The last comment indicates that Cook was there for a purpose (the Transit of Venus and future discovery for the Crown), not as an individual intent on “experiencing the color and nuances of a new culture”…

“1769 Friday Apl 14th This morning we had a great many canoes about the Ship, the Most of them came from the westward but brought nothing with them but a few Cocoa-nuts &Ca  Two that appear’d to be Chiefs we had on board together with several others for it was a hard matter to keep them out of the Ship.  As they clime like Munkeys, but it was still harder to keep them from Stealing but every thing that came within their reach, in this they are prodiges expert” 

The ever logical Lieutenant Cook quickly apprised the situation, and realising their stay would not be short drafted a list of regulations for the behavior of his people. Namely…

RULES to be observ’d by every person in or belonging to His Majestys Bark the Endevour, for the better establishing a regular and uniform Trade for Provisions, &c:a with the Inhabitants of Georges Island —

st To endeavour by every fair means to cultivate a friendship with the Natives and to treat them with all imaginable humanity —

d A proper person or persons will be appointed to trade with the Natives for all manner of Provisions, Fruit, and other productions of the earth; and no officer or Seaman or other person belonging to the Ship, excepting such as are so appointed, shall Trade or offer to Trade for any sort of Provisions, Fruit or other Productions of the earth, unless they have my leave so to do —

d Every person employ’d a shore on any duty what soever is strictly to attend to the same, and if by neglect he looseth any of his Arms or working tools, or suffers them to be stole, the full Value thereof will be charge’d againest his pay, according to the Custom of the Navy in such cases- and ^ he shall recive such farther punishment as the nature of the offence may deserve —

th The same penalty will be inflicted upon every person who is found to imbezzle, trade or offer to trade with any of the Ships ^ Stores of what nature so everunless they

th No Sort of Iron, or any thing that is made of Iron, or any sort of Cloth or other usefull or necessary articles are to be given in exchange for any thing but provisions —


Illustration by Alberto Salinas

Soon after establishing a camp, Cook set out for a look-see, accompanies by Mr Banks and others, leaving thirteen marines and a petty officer to guard the tent.

Cook and his company had not gone far when there was conflict back at the tent.  One of the locals took a fancy to one of the petty officers’ muskets and took to purloining it. The midshipman petty officer ordered the marines to fire on the crowd of more than a hundred. After a pursuit the thief was shot dead, but apparently no one else was injured.

Lieutenant Cook was not impressed with the conduct of the petty officer and had to use all of his powers of persuasion in an attempt to calm the locals and proceed with his mission. But he succeeded and later at the fort the transit of the planet Venus across the sun’s disk was observed with great success by Dr. Solander and Mr. Green.

Stage 1 of Lieutenant Cook’s mission had been a success. And now it was time to depart for much greater glory….


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So in May 1768, with Lieutenant Cook duly appointed to the command of the Endeavour, he steps on board and takes charge of the ship. The Endeavour lay in Deptford-yard, where she was being fitted out for sea…..

Click for video of the Endeavour Replica sailing

In the meantime, every good ship needs a good crew. And Cook set about with due advice assembling his team. According to the muster book (crew list) approximately 70 men joined the Endeavour and began receiving wages from 25 May 1768. This included such likes as a carpenter, boatswain’s mate and sailmaker, servants, able seamen and marines.

The refit included sheathing and caulking the hull to protect against shipworm attack, the addition of a third internal deck to provide extra cabins, and adding a powder magazine and storerooms.

The new cabins were allocated to Cook and the Royal Society representatives: naturalist Joseph Banks, his assistants Daniel Solander and Herman Spöring, astronomer Charles Green, and two artists, Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan. These were the key civilians who will help reveal some of the first secrets of the Great Southern land.

One civilian that has become especially well known is the naturalist Joseph Banks. Banks is credited with the introduction to the Western world of plants such as the eucalyptus, acacia, mimosa. In recognition he had the genus Banksia named after him, with approximately 80 species of plants bearing his name. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, that is in the future…

So with the wind becoming fair on 26 August 1768, our Great Navigator finally gets under sail.

The Endeavour departs Plymouth carrying 94 people (71 Ships Company, 12 Royal marines and 11 civilians) plus 18 months of provisions. All of this was on a vessel that was only 32 m long and a beam (width at widest point) of just under 9 meters. This is not a big ship (step it out and imagine you and a 100 people living and working together in this space for a year or so!)

A variety of livestock was on board including pigs, poultry, two greyhounds and a milking goat. There is nothing glamouraour about travel at this time, for captain, civilians or crew. The cabins for Captain and civilians were rude 2m x 2m additions to the new deck and for the rest they were just an outstretched arm from another human, or animal day in and day out.

The first port of call was Funchal in the Madeira Islands, which Endeavour reached on 12 September. She stayed for a week where Lieutenant Cook and his company’s needs were tended to by a Mr. Cheap, the English consul, one of the leading merchants in the town. Here it is worth noting one of the outstanding traits of Cook’s leadership. As mentioned previously, scurvy and disease was still an enemy lurking just out of sight of any deep sea voyage at this time.

At this first stop Cook ensured that he laid in a fresh stock of beef & water (and wine) before setting sail from the island. Indeed, on the next leg of the voyage on the 7th of November he noted that several articles of the ship’s provisions were beginning to fall short. He did not hesitate to put in a stop over in Rio de Janeiro. This port he preferred because he could be better supplied with what he wanted.

While there Cook and his company seemed to have some difficulties with Count Rolim, Viceroy and Captain General of the Estates of Brazil. It culminated on the 5th of December when as the Endeavour weighed anchor to depart and two shots were fired at it from Santa Cruz, the principal fortification of the harbour.

When Cook cast anchor and angrily demanded the reason of the conduct, the explanation given was that the commandant had not received an order from the Viceroy to let the ship pass. Anyway, correspondence flowed and things were sorted (in reality nothing more than some colonial ego contest), and on the 7th of December the Endeavour finally got under sail.

From Rio de Janeiro, Lieutenant Cook pursued his voyage, and on the 15th of January, 1769 anchored, first before a small cove, which was understood to be Port Maurice, and afterward in the Bay of Good Success.

While the Endeavour was in this station, Mr. Banks, Dr. Solander, Mr. Monkhouse the surgeon, and Mr. Green the astronomer together with their attendants set off inland with two seamen. They climbed  a mountain to search for plants. The weather apparently turned foul and exposed them to extreme cold; Dr. Solander , apparently nearly died, but was more fortunate than two black servants who did actually died of exposure during the night.  Not a great start, but in reality nothing exceptional for the times (for a little more detail on that incident and Cook’s meeting of the locals, I have included an edit excerpt from Cooks Journal).

So, our Great Voyage of Discovery begins as the English set sail for the Great Southern Land. Soon our history of the opening up of that vast and ancient continent will begin…


Cook’s Journal: Daily Entries

16 January 1769

“Monday 16 A Fresh breeze of Wind at South and S.W. with frequent Showers of Snow and rain –   at 2 PM Anchor’d in the Bay of Success… hoisted out the Boats, and Moor’d with the Stream Anchor, while this was doing I went a Shore accompany’d with by Mr Banks and Dr Solander to look for a Watering Place, and to speak with the Natives who were assembled on the beach at the head of the Bay to the number of 30 or 40; they were so far from being afraid or surprised at our coming amongest them that three of them came on board without the least hesitation. They are something above the Middle size of a dark copper Colour with long black hair, they paint their bodies ^in Streakes mostly Red and Black, their cloathing consists wholy and ^of a Guanacoes skin or that of a Seal, in the same form as it came from the Animals back, the Women wear of a peice of skin over their privey parts but the Men observe no such decency   their Hutts are made like a behive and open on one side where they have their fire, they are made of small Sticks and cover’d with branches of trees, Long grass &Ca in such a manner that they are neither proff against Wind, Hail, rain or snow, a sufficient proff that these People must be a very hardy race; they live chiefly on shell fish such as Muscles, which they gather from off the rock, … we saw amongst them with other European things such as Rings, Buttons, Cloth, Canvas &Ca which I think proves that they must sometimes travel to the Northward as we know of no ship that hath been in those parts for many years, besides they were not at all surprised at our fire arms, on the contrary seem’d to know the use of them by making signs to us to fire at Sea^ls or Birds that might come in the way …we could not discover that they had any head or chief, or form of Government, neither have they any usefull or necessary Utentials except it be a Bagg ^or Basket to gather their Muscels into: in a Word they are perhaps as miserable a set of People as are this day upon Earth —  Having found a convenient place on the So side of the Bay to wood and Water at, we set about that work in the morning, and MBanks with a Party went into the Country to gather Plants &Ca”

7 January 1769

“Thursday [Tuesday] 17th Janry Fresh gales at South, SW and W, with rain and Snow and of Course very cold weather, notwithstanding we kept geting on board Wood and water, and finished the Survey of the Bay. Mr Banks and his Party not returning this Evening as I expected gave me great uneasiness as they were not prepared for staying out the night, however, about noon they returned in no very comfortable condition and what was still worse two black servants to Mr Banks had perished in the night with cold; great part of the day they landed was spent before they got through the woods, after which they advanced so far into the Country that they were so far from being able to return that night that it was with much difficulty they got to a place of tolerable shelter where they could make a fire — these two men being intrusted with great part of the Liquor that was for the whole party had made too free with it and stupified themselves to that degree that they either could or would not travel but laid themselves down in a place where there was not the least thing to shelter them from the inclemency of the night. This was about a 1/4 of a Mile from where the rest took up their quarters and notwithstanding their repeated endeavours they could not get them to move one step farther, and the bad traveling made it impossible for any one to carry them, so that they were oblig’d to leave them and the next morning they were both found dead…”

 Click for Source Link

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We finally move towards Cook’s voyage of discovery. He is back in England after his nearly 10 years in Canada. By now an officer of technical reputation, but not what you would say, of public reputation. Rather a man in waiting.  Enter Edmund Hailey, the now famous astronomer…

Halley predicted that on June 3 1769, the planet Venus would cross in front of the sun. This was important because when this happened you could calculate the distance of the Earth from the Sun by timing the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun.

Based on the Halley’s observations, the Royal Geographic Society proposed that observers be sent to three places around the world to observe this transit. They nominated Norway, Hudson Bay and a remote island in the Pacific.

So how did a relatively unknown Cook get to lead the planned voyage into the deepest reaches of the Pacific? Well, there seems to be a bit of politicking in the Admiralty, as well as reward for good word done….

Alexander Dalrymple, then an eminent member of the Royal Society, was, at the time, the favored contender. He was renown as a man possessing a solid knowledge of astronomy, and had previously distinguished himself by his inquiries into the Southern Oceans. But he was not at his core a seaman, or a naval officer.

And Sir Edward Hawke would not have a bar of Dalrymple leading the expedition. As head of the Admiralty he refused to accede to Dalrymple’s appointment. It was written by Andrew Kippis in a biography of Cook in 1788 that, “Sir Edward declared, that he would suffer his right hand to be cut off before he would sign any such commission”.

The background to this opposition was the previous mutinous behavior of Halley’s crew on an expedition; they refused to acknowledge the legal authority of their non-naval commander.

It was then that the Secretary of the Admiralty, Sir Phillip Stephens, left his mark on history by suggesting Cook’s name. As Cook was relatively unknown Stephens added that soundings should be taken of his former commander and Governor of Newfoundland, Sir Hugh Palliser. Palliser actively and enthusiastically supported Cook’s nomination and so it was quickly a done deal.

Cook was to be off to the Pacific!

Mr. Cook was appointed to the command of the expedition by the Lords of the Admiralty and promoted to the rank of a lieutenant in the royal navy, his commission being date the 25th of May, 1768.

Under the guidance of Sir Hugh Palliser, the then Lieutenant Cook examined a number of ships which lay on the banks of the river Thames. They decided on one, purchased it on behalf of the Admiralty, and it was commissioned as His Majesty’s Bark the Endeavour. She was a former Whitby built ship, only 32 meters long and measuring only 3 meters at her greatest width. We expect that Cook would have been influenced by the fact that this type of vessel was in common usage in the area where he grew up and he would be familiar with it.

But there is a twist to this scientific story of discovery…this was not going to be just a scientific mission…no it was going to be much more if the Admiralty has its way…

We may not realize it now, but publicly at the time Cook’s voyage was not a “boy’s own” voyage of discovery in search of the mystical Terra Australis Incognita, or “unknown southern land”.  No, that aspect was a secret. As we have mentioned, at this time exploration and its results were held close to the chest. Exploration was a matter of national importance, and there were rivals out there, across the channel. Secret orders were to be issued…

Cook’s secret instructions from the Admiralty were straight forward: he was instructed that if he found the unknown land, he should chart its coasts, obtain information about its people, cultivate their friendship and alliance, and annex any convenient trading posts in the King’s name.

Colonial ambitions were again coming to the fore as Cook departs on his voyage…an ominous sign for the Great Southern Land….



The Secret Instructions issued to captain Jame Cook:



By the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral of Great Britain & ca.

Additional Instructions for Lt James Cook, Appointed to Command His Majesty’s Bark the Endeavour

                     Whereas the making Discoverys of Countries hitherto unknown, and the Attaining a Knowledge of distant Parts which though formerly discover’d have yet been but imperfectly explored, will redound greatly to the Honour of this Nation as a Maritime Power, as well as to the Dignity of the Crown of Great Britain, and may tend greatly to the advancement of the Trade and Navigation thereof; and Whereas there is reason to imagine that a Continent or Land of great extent, may be found to the Southward of the Tract lately made by Captn Wallis in His Majesty’s Ship the Dolphin (of which you will herewith receive a Copy) or of the Tract of any former Navigators in Pursuit of the like kind, You are therefore in Pursuance of His Majesty’s Pleasure hereby requir’d and directed to put to Sea with the Bark you Command so soon as the Observation of the Transit of the Planet Venus shall be finished and observe the following Instructions. You are to proceed to the Southward in order to make discovery of the Continent abovementioned until’ you arrive in the Latitude of 40, unless you sooner fall in with it. But not having discover’d it or any Evident sign of it in that Run you are to proceed in search of it to the Westward between the Latitude beforementioned and the Latitude of 35 until’ you discover it, or fall in with the Eastern side of the Land discover’d by Tasman and now called New Zeland.

If you discover the Continent abovementioned either in your Run to the Southward or to the Westward as above directed, You are to employ yourself diligently in exploring as great an Extent of the Coast as you can carefully observing the true situation thereof both in Latitude and Longitude, the Variation of the Needle; bearings of Head Lands Height direction and Course of the Tides and Currents, Depths and Soundings of the Sea, Shoals, Rocks &ca and also surveying and making Charts, and taking Views of  Such Bays, Harbours and Parts of the Coasts as may be useful to Navigation. You are also carefully to observe the Nature of the Soil, and the Products thereof; the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the Fishes that are to be found in the Rivers or upon the Coast and in what Plenty and in Case you find any Mines, Minerals, or valuable Stones you are to bring home Specimens of each, as also such Specimens of the Seeds of the Trees, Fruits and [FIRST PAGE ENDS] and Grains as you may be able to collect, and Transmit them to our Secretary that We may cause proper Examination and Experiments to be made of them. You are likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives, if there be any and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them, making them presents of such Trifles as they may Value inviting them to Traffick, and Shewing them every kind of Civility and Regard; taking Care however not to suffer yourself to be surprized by them, but to be always upon your guard against any Accidents.

You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain: Or: if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.

But if you shall fail of discovering the Continent beforemention’d, you will with upon falling in with New Zeland carefully observe the Latitude and Longitude in which that Land is situated and explore as much of the Coast as the Condition of the Bark, the health of her Crew, and the State of your Provisions will admit of having always great Attention to reserve as much of the latter as will enable you to reach some known Port where you may procure a Sufficiency to carry You to England either round the Cape of Good Hope, or Cape Horn as from Circumstances you may judge the Most Eligible way of returning home.

You will also observe with accuracy the Situation of such Islands as you may discover in the Course of your Voyage that have not hitherto been discover’d by any Europeans and take Possession for His Majesty and make Surveys and Draughts of such of them as may appear to be of Consequence, without Suffering yourself however to be thereby diverted from the Object which you are always to have in View, the Discovery of the Southern Continent so often Mentioned.

But for as much as in an undertaking of this nature several Emergencies may Arise not to be foreseen, and therefore not to be particularly to be provided for by Instruction beforehand, you are in all such Cases to proceed, as, upon advice with your Officers you shall judge most advantageous to the Service on which you are employed.

You are to send by all proper Conveyance to the Secretary of the Royal Society Copys of the Observations you shall have made of the Transit of Venus; and you are at the same time to send to our Secretary for our information accounts of your Proceedings, and Copys of the Surveys and discoverings you shall have made and upon your Arrival in England you are immediately to repair to this [SECOND PAGE ENDS] Office in order to lay before us a full account of your Proceedings in the whole Course of your Voyage; taking care before you leave the Vessel to demand from the Officers and Petty Officers the Log Books and Journals they may have Kept, and to seal them up for our inspection and enjoyning them, and the whole Crew, not to divulge where they have been until’ they shall have Permission so to do.

Given under our hands the 30 of July 1768

Ed Hawke

 Piercy Brett

                                                                                       C Spencer

By Command of their Lordships


              Php Stephens


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So how is our shopkeeper from the little coastal village of Staithes fairing?  We left off in the last byte with our shopkeeper hitting the high seas and heading for Canada with the British Navy….

Well, Cook arrives in Halifax, Canada in May 1758, where in short order he takes part in the siege of Louisbourg which effectively ended French control in Canada. And so starts Cook’s near 10 year engagement with Canada, its coast, rivers and tributaries. These were to be critical years that transforms this shopkeeper into the pre-eminent navigator/explorer of his time.

Following the surrender of the French, Cook’s ship involved itself with the ferrying of troops up the St. Lawrence River for a planned British assault on Quebec. This gave ample opportunity for Cook to further refine his mapping and navigation skills. During this time he was mentored and tutored in how to survey and chart by Samuel Holland, an army surveyor-engineer.

Holland did his work well and Cooks work soon so impressed Admiral Saunders under whom he served that Saunders arranges for his charts to be published (Saunders went on to become a very influential First Lord of the Admiralty and future supporter of Cook’s abilities).

Cook’s career progression continued, and he was next transferred to the gun ship Northumberland, where he served as its Master for the next two years (a Master is responsible for the navigation and steering of the vessel).

In the meantime the French turned their attention towards Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada and its important cod fisheries. With this new French threat the need for accurate maps was never greater and Cook was the obvious answer. The new Governor of Newfoundland appointed him ‘marine surveyor of the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.’ As a part of this appointment Cook was entrusted with his first command, that of the HMS Grenville, a 12 gun schooner. Cook continued in this role until 1767.

Cook’s mapping and surveying skills over this time gained him the technical reputation and contacts that was to allow our shopkeeper to elevate himself to almost “superstar status” within Britain later in life.

But by design or fate, there was another activity that also played an important role in shaping his destiny. During 1766 he made detailed observations of the eclipse of the sun. Again his eye for detail and accuracy came to the fore. It was if all the “stars were aligning” to make him the obvious choice for any future voyage of discovery. For there was to be a rare transit of Venus in 1769, visible in the South Pacific.

During his time in Canada Cook took time to return to Britain and marry Elizabeth Batts. They went on to have five sons and one daughter, the first, James, being born in 1763.

But it was in 1767, upon his return to Britain, when it became clear that he was a man capable of making good on his claim to go as far as any man could go…


Another View of Captain James Cook from Today:

“Few things have plummeted more disastrously than Cook’s reputation,” Mr. McLynn writes in his book “Captain Cook: Master of the Seas.”. “In the Victorian era he was the classic Boy’s Own hero, saint and martyr, bringing light to benighted savages, perceived as a larger-than-life figure from the long eighteenth century who died, like Wolfe and Nelson, while fighting for empire.” But he has become, according to the prejudices of our era, “racist, imperialist, [a] man of violence and spreader of venereal disease” and thus “the object of almost universal execration in all societies that have lived through colonialism.”

Your thoughts….???

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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.’

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“I first set out of England on this voyage at the beginning of the year 1679, in the Loyal Merchant of London, bound for Jamaica…” 

So starts Captain William Dampier in his book A New Voyage Around The World, which describes his first circumnavigation of the World.

Dampier was a character of the age, variously described as a buccaneer, explorer, sea captain, author and scientific observer. From our point of view he is a man who is to contribute greatly to the unveiling of the Great Southern Land.

Dampier was born in 1652, the son of a farmer near Yeovil, south west of London. Some 20 years or so later we find him on the other side of the world cutting and loading log-wood on the Bay of Campeachy in the present day Gulf of Mexico. Not satisfied with life there, in 1679 he sets sail on a grand adventure that will lead to his first circumnavigation of the World. Importantly he would popularise this voyage in his very successful book A New Voyage Around The World which regales stories of his travels and numerous buccaneering adventures.

It was in fact the very success of his journals that propel him into our journey of discovery. The British Admiralty become aware of his experience in the Pacific and seek his advice on the exploration of this part of the World. In 1699 they provide him with the command of the Roebuck and a commission to explore the east coast of New Holland (the name the Dutch had given to our Great Southern Land, Australia).

So at the age of 47 Dampier, Englishman and buccaneer, is at the helm of the Roeback, and at the centre of our journey of discovery.

However, not all goes well, supporting a view that perhaps notoriety, not talent put him in command of this expedition. He sets off late in the season in 1699 traveling via the Cape of Good Hope and the roaring forties. It is soon clear, however, that the 21-gun ship was not up the task of such an arduous trip, nor did he have good relations with his crew, actually having to clap one of his lieutenants into irons on the way. Scurvy follows, as well as chronic water shortages not making for a happy time when he reaches the coast of Western Australia.

But despite all of this Dampier pushes on, following the Western Australian coast north to Roebuck Bay near modern day Broome, then heading for Timor.

From January to April 1700 he follows the North Coast of New Guinea and during this time discovers New Britain. But instead of heading to explore the east coast of Australia he heads homeward, the cause, the poor state of the Roeback. In fact Dampier and his crew barely makes the volcanic Ascension Island in the mid Atlantic. Soon after their arrival their ship flounders and sinks. Dampier and sixty men have to wait two months until they are rescued.

Although in reality doing little more than previous visitors (like the accidental visitor Dirk Hartog) Dampier does popularise the exploration of the Pacific, again publishing a book of his journeys, A Voyage to New Holland in 1703 and 1709 (Part 2). Dampier’s visit also produces the first detailed observations of Australian flora and fauna. But other than this, the voyage is not much of a success, and falls well short of the goal of exploring the east coast of Australia.

Dampier himself was disappointed in what he saw. Viewing this new land as a mixture of dangerous shoals and reefs surrounding a barren land inhabited by ‘the miserablest people in the world’.

On Dampier’s return to England things did not get much better. He was court martialed for his treatment of Lieutenant Fisher (who he had clapped in irons), found guilty, fined all his pay and declared to be “not a fit person to be employed as commander of any of His Majesty’s ships.”

However, this did not stop Dampier. With the outbreak of the Spanish War of Succession his buccaneering experience again puts him to the fore with the Admiralty. Sought out as because of his knowledge of the Pacific and experience as a privateer he is given command of a ship the St. George in 1703. From there he fades from our story of discovery, but he will still circumnavigate the world another two times.

Dampier’s role in the exploration of the Great Southern Land is indirect, but significant. His ability with the pen, along with his scientific observations, inspires his fellow countrymen to join in the exploration of the Pacific. Once again, here come the English…and they are serious this time…


Books by William Dampier

  • A New Voyage Round the World, (1697)
  • Voyages and Descriptions, (1699)
  • A Supplement of the Voyage Round the World
  • The Campeachy Voyages
  • A Discourse of Winds
  • A Voyage to New Holland, (Part 1 1703, Part 2 1709)

Wikipedia provides the following interesting list on the impact of William Dampier:

  • His observations and analysis of natural history helped Charles Darwin’s and Alexander von Humboldt’s development of their theories,
  • He made innovations in navigation technology that were studied by James Cook and Horatio Nelson.
  • Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was inspired by accounts of real-life castaway Alexander Selkirk, a crew-member on Dampier’s voyages.[5]
  • His reports on breadfruit led to William Bligh’s ill-fated voyage in HMS Bounty.
  • He is cited over a thousand times in the Oxford English Dictionary notably on words such as ‘barbecue’, ‘avocado’, ‘chopsticks’ and ‘sub-species’. That is not to say he coined the words, but his use of them in his writings is the first known example in English.
  • His travel journals depicting Panama influenced the undertaking of the ill-fated Darien Scheme, leading to the Act of Union of 1707.
  • His notes on the fauna and flora of northwestern Australia were studied by naturalist and scientist Joseph Banks, who made further studies during the first voyage with Captain James Cook. This helped lead to the naming of and colonization of Botany Bay and the founding of modern Australia.
  • He is mentioned in the Gabriel García Márquez short story The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship.
  • Jonathan Swift explicitly mentions Dampier in his Gulliver’s Travels as a mariner comparable to Lemuel Gulliver.
  • He is believed to have influenced the writing of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

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The 1640’s mark somewhat of a turning point in our story of discovery of Terra Australis. So far discovery has been either driven by logic (Aristotle) or the accidental visit driven by a quest for wealth from the Spice Islands. Now, however, at least one of the participants becomes serious – the Dutch. So while the accidental tourist will remain a part of the future exploration, we now move to a period where the Southern Land is more deliberately quested for, and then its coast mapped (but the interior by no means explored at this time).

This quest commences with a lad named Able Janzoon Tasman who is born in the meadows of Luytjegast in Holland in 1603. Little is known of this boy’s early life prior to 1634 other than he comes form humble stock and takes to sea at an early age and eventually becomes deeply involved in the spice trade in the East Indies.

By 1635 we learn that Tasman has quickly risen from a simple seaman to “Commandeur Abel,” leading a fleet of small vessels that jealously guard the VOC’s monopoly from foreign intrusion, as well as no doubt harass ships of hostile European rivals.

Tasman quickly becomes known as an experienced and “able” skipper, familiar with the great trade routes from Europe to India. He is also experienced in the waters of the Eastern Archipelago, and navigation of the China and Japan seas. By the end of the 1630’s he has ventured beyond the limits reached by any previous European navigator into the unknown and mysterious North Pacific Ocean.

It is therefore of no surprise that in 1642 the Dutch East India Company selects Able Tasman to lead its quest for the Unknown Southland. This search by the Dutch is primarily a commercial venture, not driven by a thirst for scientific knowledge or adventure. Tasman is instructed by the authorities to journal the full particulars of the productions of the countries he visits, describe the sort of goods available for trade, and what they may take in exchange. For this reason the ships that eventually set sail are laden with a great variety of articles of merchandise to potentially trade during the voyage.

It is also important to note there is at this time a clear distinction in the minds of the Dutch between the Known Southland (visited by Dirk Hartog, the Leeuwin in 1622, and the Gulde Zeepart) and the Unknown Southland. The Unknown Southland is still very much shrouded in mystery and legend involving the writings of Marco Polo who described a mysterious land of Beach, where “gold was so plentiful that no one who did not see it could believe it”. The location of this mysterious land at this time is thought to be somewhere south of the Solomon Islands. And it is this Unknown Southland that is being sought by Tasman and the Dutch. As the song goes, “Money, Money, Money”!

In 1642 Tasman sets sail on this voyage of commerce and trade and heads first to Mauritius. From there he turns south to the Unknown Southland. On the 18th of November they pass the longitude of Nuyts Land (Great Australian Bight), the furthest known extension of the Discovered South Land. However, not all goes well. They have to contend with strong westerly gales that push them further west. It was then, on the 24th November they sight their first land, which they call Antony van Diemen’s Land, after the Governor-General. They have reached modern day Tasmania, the large island south of Australia.

On the 3rd of December Tasman’s two boats (the Heemskerck and Zeehaen) make for a bay now known as Prince of Wales Bay. Tasman quickly launches the Heemskerck’s longboat to try and make shore, but the surf is too treacherous, preventing him from landing. Instead the ships carpenter (no doubt a volunteer!! Or perhaps the only person who could swim) swims through the surf, and plants the Prince’s flag on the shore. Tasman, on behalf of the VOC takes formal possession of the newly discovered country.

From there Tasman sails west and goes on to visit the South Island of New Zealand, then he moves on to the Tongan archipelago and the Fiji Islands. It ends up being a true voyage of discovery.

The trip, however, from a commercial point of view is a disappointment to his Dutch masters. Tasman did not discover any rich gold or silver mines, or indeed any rich trade for the Company at all. All he could boast of was that he had circumnavigated New Holland, or “Compagnies Nieuw Nederlandt” and had a damn good story to write about.

But it is not over for the Dutch or Able Tasman.

In 1644 Tasman is commissioned for a second voyage by resolution of the Governor-General. The ships Limmen and Zeemeeuw with the little tender Braek (carrying only 14 men) are commissioned for the voyage. In all a total of 111 hands are provisioned for an eight-month journey of discovery focusing on a northerly approach to the Unknown Southland via Papua New Guinea. Unfortunately Tasman’s journals of this voyage are lost, but Tasman did add to the knowledge of Terra Australis by carefully charting the west and north coasts of Australia, including the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The Great Southern Land is finally taking shape. But to the commercially focused Dutch this land is a disappointment. It was not turning out to be a land of gold and silver.

Perhaps now is a time for others, more “willing and able” to step forward into our story…

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