Captain James Cook – a towering figure in the Australian and New Zealand history. You may remember from school when he sailed into the vast, unknown Pacific Ocean and discovered new lands for the British to civilise.

Well, he did – his first voyage was a publicised scientific mission, including astronomical observation; the instructions to explore lands suitable for colonisation were confidential.

And unknown Pacific Ocean? Never mind that the Spanish had sailed across the Pacific regularly for over a century in their famous Manilla Galleons, trading with China and Southeast Asia via the Philippines and Latin America. Just a year before Cook’s voyage, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, French navigator, explored these waters (and almost encountered the east coast of Australia) during his circumnavigation of the world.

Cook was instructed to observe the transit of planet Venus from Tahiti. He sailed there without trouble. Not only had Spanish and French navigators sighted some of the islands in this group, but the British Royal Navy was active as well. The frigate Dolphin circumnavigated the globe twice in 1766 under the command of John Byron, and in 1767 under the command of Samuel Willis, on both occasions calling at Tahiti.

It was Willis who recommended Tahiti for astronomical observation. He also made an acquaintance with the native nobleman, priest, shrewd politician, diplomat and navigator, Tupaia (c. 1725–1770). Through some manoeuvring in local politics Tupaia’s position became difficult. Cook had the good sense and incredible luck to engage this English-speaking gentleman as interpreter and guide. His knowledge and skills were extraordinary. Tupaia could always point in the precise direction of Tahiti, without the use of any charts or instruments.

According to Joan Druett, an author of book ‘Tupaia’ he was the greatest know Polynesian navigator of the 18th century. He assisted in navigation as well as gathering geographical and ethnographic knowledge beyond what standard textbooks on Captain Cook want us to believe.

The 1879 statue of Captain Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park.
The 1879 statue of Captain Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park. Image: Stan Florek
© Australian Museum

While Cook was exploring and mapping the Society Islands and heading south-west to New Zealand, Tupaia produced his own map of this region. This extraordinary document looks like an attempt to visualise on paper what normally was a ‘mental map’ developed by experienced and skilled Polynesian navigators. The map is difficult to understand in European cartographic context – the islands and their positions on paper reflect not exactly distance measured in miles but other, perhaps more dynamic sailing attributes, such as winds, currents and speed.

Tupaia was extremely helpful in communicating with the Islanders, including many encounters with Maori people (they spoke closely related languages), But Cook would find his way to New Zealand himself. The Dutch navigator Abel Tasman mapped a sizable portion of the west coast of New Zealand in 1642-43.

Furthermore, apart from its east coast, New Holland (Australia) was placed on the map, with the tip of Cape York as well as the southeast outline of Tasmania. From New Zealand Cook sailed towards Tasmania, however stormy weather made him change course and subsequently reach the Australian mainland at what is now Point Hicks in Gippsland, Victoria.

Cook was an extremely good navigator, ‘cartographer’ and intelligent enough to utilise the experience of others, including extraordinary Polynesian sailors who only a few centuries earlier discovered and settled in New Zealand, Easter Island and Hawaii. This is why on his second voyage Cook engaged another Tahitian guide Omai. Cook was not exploring in a vacuum, but in a region which Europeans were mapping for centuries and Polynesians knew intimately and were able to share their knowledge.

Additional information:

Cook could not know that about half a century before him another Dutch ship, attempting exploration of New Zealand sunk near Kaipara Harbour(less than 100km north-west of Auckland).