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“We pay our respects and dedicate the Unsettled exhibition to the people and other Beings who keep the law of this land; to the Elders and Traditional Owners of all the knowledges, places, and stories in this exhibition; and to the Ancestors and Old People for their resilience and guidance.
We advise that there are some confronting topics addressed in this exhibition, including massacres and genocide. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be advised that there may be images of people who have passed away.”
Laura McBride and Dr Mariko Smith, 2021.
Not a discovery voyage
The HMB Endeavour’s voyage was originally commissioned as a scientific mission. The Royal Society in London had tasked Lieutenant James Cook with leading an expedition to the Pacific to observe the 1769 Transit of Venus in Tahiti. It was hoped that by observing the planet Venus moving across the Sun, observers could determine the distance from the Earth to the Sun.
When the British Admiralty (Royal Navy) found out where Cook was going, they took advantage of the opportunity to expand the British Empire’s interests in the Pacific. In light of the fierce competition between the imperial powers of Europe for global dominance, they issued Cook with sealed secret orders instructing him to take possession of any unoccupied lands.
Secret Instructions for Lieutenant Cook
Listen to an excerpt from the secret instructions for Lieutenant Cook, as read by actor Charles Mayer
Lieutenant Cook, we, the Lords of the Admiralty, commanding His Majesty’s Royal Navy, having been advised that the Royal Society expediting you to the Pacific, identify an advantage in joining this venture and will assign secret orders conducting you to seize opportunities to augment Great Britain’s maritime power and territories. Following your observation of the Transit of Venus in Tahiti, you are to open a sealed part of your instructions.
They will contain directions as to the making discovery 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 Captain Wallis in His Majesty’s Ship The Dolphin.
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.
Secret Instructions for Lieutenant Cook, Appointed to Command His Majesty’s Bark the Endeavour, [excerpt] 1768 
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. Secret Instructions for Lieutenant Cook, 1768 
Cook was permitted to formally unseal his secret instructions from the Admiralty once the Transit of Venus had been observed in 1769. He would then take the HMB Endeavour through the islands of the Pacific towards Aotearoa (New Zealand) and then westward across the Tasman Sea.
It was not unusual in this period to be given an additional set of official orders like this; agents of the Crown were often instructed to make preliminary claims of territorial possession should an opportunity present itself. However, Cook failed to follow these instructions to the letter, since he was told to gain the consent of the ‘Natives’ when making his claim of possession, and as detailed in the Unsettled exhibition’s Recognising Invasions section he did not obtain permission from any Aboriginal people. Australia’s East Coast was already inhabited by sovereign First Nations Peoples, as evident by the lighting of Signal Fires along the vast eastern coastline. It is upon this duplicity that Australia claims its foundations, with the convenient narrative that Aboriginal peoples were supposedly too cowardly and passive to resist.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples dispute this colonial representation of them.
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. Secret Instructions for Lieutenant Cook, 1768 
Map of documented voyages to Australia Before Cook 1606-1770
Many Australians think that Lieutenant Cook was the first European to discover Australia, but these lands have known many people before his “discovery”. First Nations peoples have been here for hundreds of generations. Clans and Nations in northern Australia and the Torres Strait engaged in international trade and marriage. This map shows that other earlier European voyages took place on northern, southern and western coastlines before Cook and the HMB Endeavour.
Cook’s charting of the east coast of Australia and his claim of possession in 1770 have, particularly from the late 1800s, become an essential part of the colonial narrative of the foundation of Australia as it shows a physical act of possession. Debunking this foundational myth has been at the heart of social and political movements leading to Land Rights and Native Title.
Did you know?
Cook himself never claimed that he was the first European to discover Australia. In his journal entry for 22 August 1770, he acknowledged the name of “New Holland” and how “…on the western side I can make no new discovery, the honour of which belongs to Dutch Navigators.” 
Tony Albert, Girramay, Kuku Yalanji
Sand blasted commemorative plate.
Australian Museum Collection.
Presented as a commemorative plate responding to the 250th anniversary of Cook’s East Coast voyage and act of possession, the skull and crossbones motif against an image of a European ship speaks to the symbolism of what this event represents to many First Nations peoples. When viewed through this lens, Cook’s actions could be seen as an act of piracy, with warnings of danger and death. It directly questions romanticised tellings of Australian history, particularly around Australia’s foundation as being built by Europeans taming the land which also omit the presence of First Nations peoples. Read an article about Piracy here.
- National Library of Australia,
- See Contested Possession
- ORIMA Research, 2019: referred to in Gapps, S. and Riethoff, S.
(2019-2020). Mythbusting Cook, Signals, 129, 16-19.
- Behrendt, L., Miller, R., Ruru, J., & Lindberg, T. (2010). Discovering indigenous lands: The doctrine of discovery in the English colonies. Oxford University Press; ORIMA Research, 2019: referred to in Gapps, S. and Riethoff, S. (2019-2020). Mythbusting Cook. Signals, 129, 16-19.
- National Library of Australia, Trove, https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/awa/20120321150747/http://southseas.nla.gov.au/journals/cook/17700822.html