Captain James Cook (1728-1779) looms large in Australia’s historical narrative as a valiant explorer. He was competent navigator and skilled marine surveyor. His first voyage to the Pacific (1768–71) had political intention, well combined (or disguised) with astronomical observations (transit of Venus) and the company of a nobleman-botanist, Joseph Banks.

Cook’s voyage did not happen in a political or geographical vacuum. From Western perspective the Pacific was Spanish, if not exclusively in practice and never unchallenged, for about 200 years. By the time of Cook’s expedition, the British were nibbling at Spanish and Dutch colonial interests in the Pacific and Southeast Asia (East Indies). Spanish, Dutch and diminishing Portuguese were there for commerce – briskly trading with China and the legendary Spice Islands (in what is now Indonesia). True to the capitalist principal, they positioned themselves at the most advantageous points to exploit, control and monopolise (if possible) production and distribution of the highly desirable goods such as pepper and other spices as well as porcelain, ivory, lacquerware, silk cloth and other valuable items.

Officially Cook was sent to Tahiti to observe a transit of Venus. Tahiti was firmly on the map, visited by British and French navigators in the 1760s, but encountered by other Europeans much earlier. Tahiti was made up into a false but an iconic image of the Pacific Paradise which persisted in Western consciousness for a remarkably long time. The astronomical observation was accomplished on 3 June 1769 and Cook turned his mind to other matters. Secret instructions from the Navy directed him to leave the island after the transit was observed and "search between Tahiti and New Zealand for a Continent or Land of great extent."

What became known later as Australia and New Zealand were large islands by any standard. The first was named New Holland by Dutch navigator Abel Tasman in 1642. It was not formally claimed, although Tasman “planted” a flag of the Dutch East India Company, in little less than dignified manner, on the shore of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) – the Dutch possession of New Holland was tentative but broadly respected even when the British colony of New South Wales was later established in 1788.

The west coast of New Zealand was also mapped by Abel Tasman in 1642. By the time of Cook’s voyage there were two major lands firmly placed in the geographical knowledge of the southern hemisphere. Except the east coast of both lands was not charted. They were named, like twin brothers, after two Dutch provinces most involved in maritime trade and exploration – Holland and Zealand.

Cook dedicated nearly five months to circumnavigating and mapping New Zealand. He thought the islands would be a desired colonial “acquisition” – despite them being sternly guarded and boldly defended by their Maori inhabitants.

From New Zealand, Cook sailed to New Holland, aiming – as it could be inferred from his journal and contemporary maps – to reach Van Diemen’s Land. It would be logical to commence his survey of the east coast of New Holland from the southernmost extremity of its recorded position. It appears two factors made him change his plan. In the last days before spotting land (20 April), which he named Point Hicks (East Gippsland, Victoria), Endeavour encountered strong stormy winds, leading the captain to speculate if Van Diemen’s Land was connected to the land in front of him – a good intuition of an experienced navigator. Cook turned northward. He was to examine Van Diemen’s Land personally on his third voyage in January 1777.

The next point of destination was the northern tip of the east coast of New Holland, also recorded on contemporary maps. Cook’s discovery of the east coast was a survey, not free from unwanted accidents, between two established extremities, which he conducted in four months, from 20 April through to 22 August 1770. A large part of this time, seven weeks, was taken up repairing the barque Endeavour at the mouth of Waalumbaal Birri (Endeavour River) in Guugu Yimithirr country.

Cook was pleasantly impressed by the east coast of New Holland – it was not a barren and dismal country as reported by Dutch explorers who visited predominantly the western coast. He described the land around Botany Bay in very positive terms as well watered, fertile meadows. His reports influenced the British government decision to later establish a penal colony. On 22 August 1770 at tiny Possession Island near the tip of the Cape York Peninsula, Captain Cook claimed the east coast of New Holland for Britain, naming it New South Wales.

Endeavour in Tahiti - 1769
Illustration 'Natives of Otaheite trading with Captain Cook' from The Voyages of Captain James Cook, published by William Smith, London 1842. Image: unknown
© Public Domain

On their way from Tahiti to Batavia (now Jakarta in Indonesia) Cook and Banks were accompanied by Tupaia, a native navigator and arioi (kind of priest) and his assistant. Tupaia was a superb navigator, able to orientate himself in the ocean like most other people in their local village. He was a gifted artist who produced some of the earliest images of Tahitians, Maori and Aboriginal people of east Australia by an indigenous artist, executed in Western convention. And he produced a wonderful map of central Pacific (between Tahiti and New Zealand) which was misunderstood by Captain Cook and many cartographers since. It is an attempt to visualise on paper not precise distances and positions of islands, but rather dynamic attributes of sailing, such as winds, currents and speed.

Tupaia offers us glimpses of indigenous Polynesian perspective on the Cook’s voyage, but they are not oral or written narratives; they are conveyed mainly in pictorial form. And perhaps some of his thoughts or intentions could be inferred from comments about him and episodes of interactions penned down by Endeavour’s officers. Reading between the lines of contemporary journals it is hard to avoid an impression that Tupaia joined the Endeavour crew for his own journey of exploration and learning.

Tupaia died, sadly, from dysentery or malaria in Batavia in November 1770 along with several other members of the expedition including scientist Herman Spöring, astronomer Charles Green, and the illustrator Sydney Parkinson.

Additional Information:

Jacob Roggeveen (1659–1729), Dutch navigator, visited Easter Island, Samoa, Tuamotu Archipelago, and some of the Society Islands (to which Tahiti belongs) in 1722.

Polynesians discovered New Zealand at least 500 years before James Cook and the Aboriginal ancestors settled in "New South Wales" more than 40 millennia earlier.

James Cook used the nautical date in his log and journal, which assigned the same date to all ship's events from noon to noon; thus, his dates are not fully coordinated with calendar dates.