The Evidence that Questions Cook's Discovery Claim

Did Lieutenant Cook proclaim the lands now known as Australia to be British Territory?

Portrait of James Cook
Portrait of James Cook by John Webber c1780
Gift of the New Zealand Government, 1960
(Museum of New Zealand)

The colonial story of it being “Australia was discovered by Captain Cook”, as if it was not there before, would not simply make it British Territory, especially since Cook referred to it as New Holland.

Cook’s secret Instructions which he was only supposed to open after the viewing of the Transit of Venus was completed, was to search for the long postulated in Europe, great south land, the mythic Terra Australis.

Alexander Dalrymple, Hydrographer for the British East India Company and member of the Royal Society, had long lobbied for such a search, but he was replaced as Captain of the ship to carry out these tasks for the Royal Society, by the Admiralty who had him replaced by Lieutenant Cook. Dalrymple was known to have gained copies of the Dieppe Maps, Portuguese and other Charts from the 1600s, but alas, he got excluded from the Voyage.

Anyway, in Instructions closely resembling Dalrymple’s notion that the western coast of New Zeeland, as mapped by Abel Tasman, was perhaps the western coast of some large land mass, soon after completing their astronomy in Tahiti, Cook sailed the Endeavour straight to New Zeeland, and proved it was two large islands, but not part of some large continent.

On March 31st, 1770, Cook’s Journal records, when about to leave New Zeeland, that he wanted to go back across the Pacific, but further south, to establish once and for all, whether some great south land existed, and finish the search as per his Instructions.

The rigging and sails were already in disrepair, and with winter approaching, the Officers on board agreed to not complete the search, but instead to head to Batavia (Java) for repairs.

Cook wrote that the agreed best route was to fall in with the east coast of New Holland, travel north, until they got to the strait that separated New Holland from New Guinea, and then on to Batavia.

We are now supposed to believe that when Cook got through that strait, that he turned around and made some big proclamation, claiming the east coast of New Holland for his King, when on a small island to get a better view of an ocean horizon, which would indicate them being in the strait. He’d already written about the inhabitants of New Holland, and the less than cordial reception they received at Stingray/Botany Bay. (Which Dalrymple late said was called Coste de Herbiages on the Dieppe Maps)

Cook’s Instructions were clear about claiming new lands. His 1768 "Secret Instructions" which were to be opened after the viewing of the Transit of Venus, Presumably, these Instructions were secret to hide the actions of Britain from it's European rivals.

In part, they say :

"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." [1]

For Cook to have claimed any territory of New Holland it would have been way outside his Orders.

An ambitious working class sailor would not risk his career by so blatantly contravening his Instructions.

Cook wasn’t even supposed to go anywhere near New Holland. The Proclamation at Possession Island just seems implausible. No wonder the diaries of Banks and others make no mention of any grand proclamation at Passage/Possession Island, which was later viewed as the major accomplishment of their voyage.

It seems that there was some sort of celebration of cannon shots, but as the unknown author of the first known book published about Cook's 1st Voyage wrote
Dated August 21st, 1770,

"a party landed from the ship, to examine the country; and from a small eminence discovered the Indian Sea ; upon which they fired several vollies, and were answered by a general discharge from the ship. We then took possesssion of the country, &c. in the name of his Britannic Majesty; and the next morning weighed anchor, and steering S.W. by W. sailed through the Strait, which separates New Holland from New Guinea" [2]

This reads as the "country" which is being claimed is that small rocky outcrop, the small 'supposedly uninhabited island' that Cook first called Passage Island, a name later changed to Possession Island.

The writer of this first published account, saw the cannon shots as a small celebration on believing that they were in that strait, and Batavia was not too far out of reach. By then, the ship needed additional repairs after hitting the reef near present day Cooktown.

On his way back to England, after repairs at Batavia, when at Mauritius, Cook writes that he heard rumours of the French explorer Bouganville making plans to start a colony on New Holland. That would certainly have ruffled feathers back in London.

Anyway, Cook got back to England pretty deflated, having failed to carry out his Instructions and having failed to discover any unknown continent. The Admiralty seized all the diaries and journals of the crew, and Cook was immediately ordered to set about organising everything needed for a 2nd voyage, so as to complete the search for the Great South Land and fully complete his (Secret) Instructions from the 1st voyage.

While Cook was away on this 2nd Voyage, a book was published, a book Commissioned by the Admiralty. It had the Possession Island Proclamation in it, which claims the east coast of New Holland for King George the 3rd, as well as naming the coast New South Wales, a naming out of character with any other places Cook gave an English name to. Never on any of the 3 voyages that Cook captained, did he name the place he "discovered" as some "New someplace else", like New Britain, New Zeeland or New Guinea, except for this attested naming of New South Wales.

The story of Cook's 1st Voyage became part of 3 volumes called, “An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His present Majesty for making discoveries in the Southern hemisphere, and successively performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret, and Captain Cook, in the Dolphin, the Swallow, and the Endeavour: drawn up from the journals which were kept by the several commanders, and from the papers of Joseph Banks, esq.” [3]

It’s a very long title to the 3 volume set, but the carefully crafted wording of it’s title would have left Cook with no option but to go along with it, once it was published, and to be considered a National Hero to boot.

Here's a link to the earliest known books published about Cook's 1st Voyage. The first (author unknown) published immediately after returning from the First Voyage makes no mention of any claim to the east coast of New Holland, nor of calling the lands New South Wales. [4]

It's noteworthy that the Admiralty seized all the Journals and Diaries of the Endeavour crew as soon as they got back to England after the First Voyage, and then commissioned their own version of what happened while Cook was away again at sea.

But things were very different for Cook after he got back from his 2nd Voyage, amidst the public and official acclaim, there would have been considerable pressure on Cook to amend his “Official Journal” which was held by the Admiralty, so that his Official Journal would be consistent with the account that the Admiralty had already had published. Cook had heard news of this new publication when he was returning from his 2nd Voyage, so was forewarned.

According to the Editor of the Captain Cook Society, Ian Boreham, in an article he says was originally published in Cook's Log, page 96, volume 3, number 4 (1980).

"Cook did not see a copy of Hawkesworth's book until he reached the Cape of Good Hope during the second voyage, but he had to defend himself over what was said. "Cook headed east and in late January came across the South Sandwich Islands that he again charted and then sailed on to Cape Town, arriving in late March 1775. He then headed across the Atlantic via St.Helena and Ascension Island (May), the Azores (July) and landed at Portsmouth on 30th July 1775:
On his return Cook became a national hero. He was presented to the King, made a member of the Royal Society and received its Copley Medal for achievement. Cook was promoted to post-captain of Greenwich Hospital and wrote up his account of the voyage. This did not mean retirement for Cook who went on his third and final voyage the following year." [5]

Because the Possession Island Proclamation is said to have been written by Cook's own hand in his Official Journal, this has been considered as proof that Cook actually made such a declaration, even though there are no First Nations' Peoples oral histories, nor any diaries of the crew members who were on board the Endeavour which support such a claim.

The most plausible explanation is that, on learning from Cook of French plans for a colony on New Holland, the Admiralty and Government wanted to ensure they had first dibs on some section of New Holland as well, so they found a convenient way to do so by fraudulently saying that Cook had claimed the whole east coast of New Holland for his King.

Note. The Possession Island Proclamation, even if Cook had actually made such a declaration, was only a claim to a coast and waters, giving Britain precedent claims to purchase, rent or treaty with the Native Peoples.

Applying the Doctrine of Terra Nullius happened later, in Instructions to Governor Phillip 1787.

It is convenient for The Crown however, for everything to be blamed on Captain Cook.

Research by Graeme Taylor


[1] Founding Documents (pdf) Cook's Secret Instructions
[2] National Library of Australia Voyage Around the World Journal
[3] Library of Congress, An account of the voyage of James Cook
[4] Captain Cook' Society 'Cook's journey published in the 18th century immediately after his voyages'
[5] Captain Cook Society Captain Cook and Mount Helena