High on the east coast of England where the Yorkshire Moors meet the sea the steep and rocky coastline means there are very few towns or villages. The ancient port of Whitby is the exception, and it is from here that a young boy named James Cook (1728-79), coming from a family with no nautical traditions, first went to see. It was a decision that was to lead to him being responsible for solving one of the last mysteries of the unmapped world. He had a varied and successful career as a naval officer and in 1768 was put incharge of a scientific expedition. Sponsored jointly by the Royal Navy and the Royal Society, its brief was to head to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun, a task that was being undertaken from a number of locations. The dataobtained would be of scientific interest in its own right but would have practical benefits in terms of assisting navigation. Thiswas a worthy and commendable task, which Cook completed meticulously. But it was at this point that the expedition took a different course. Together with the orders to observe the transit of Venus, Cook had also been given a second set of orders that were sealed and marked secret. He had been instructed not to open these until the astronomical task had beencompleted.
As he opened the letterbook marked ‘Secret Instructions to Lieutenant Cook 30 July 1768′ it is not difficult to imagine him feeling a combination of excitement and apprehension. It read,’there is reason to imagine that a Continent or Land of great extent, maybe found to the Southward….80 n the east coast of England where the Yorkshire Moors meet thesea the THE QUEST FOR RICHES You are to proceed to the Southward in order to make discovery of the Continent’. The belief that there was a vast southerncontinent was widely held by the European nations in the eighteenth century.It had been deemed ‘a logical necessity’ to balance the known continents in the northern hemisphere and had featured on many maps. The reasons for ordering Cook to undertake this mission were also included, ‘…will redound greatly to the Honour of this Nation as a MaritimePower’, Following bis ‘secret instructions9 (above),Captain but it is clearfrom theorders James Cook (facing page), became the first European that more than this was hoped to survey the coastline of eastern Australia. for as it continued:
You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country inthe Name of the King of Great Britain: Or:if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up proper Markes and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors. Cook followed hisorders almost to the letter and after sailing around New Zealand and thus establishing that the two islands were not part of a larger southern continent, he pointed his ship due west. OnThursday,19April 1770 the crew sighted the southern tip of the eastern coast of Australia. They were the first Europeans to visit this side of Australia. As the Endeavour sailed northwards along the coastline Cook kept a detailed log. He wrote of how they made spasmodic contact with the indigenous population, made notes on the countryside,took soundings and drew navigational charts. In the process,Cook gave Englishnames to the physical features of the bays,rivers, mountains and islands visited and seen.
A reference to any modern map of New SouthWales will show that the names Cook gave tothe topographical features in his log continue in use today. Seeming to overlook the provisosin his orders relating to ‘consent of the natives’andthe place being ‘uninhabited’, Cook’s entryof 22 August1770 reads: …the Eastern Coast from the Lat. Of38°S. down tothis place, IamonceMore was never seen or Visited by any European before us…. I nowonce More was never seen or Visited by any European before us…. I nowonce More Third took possession of the whole Eastern coast…by the Name of New THE EAST COAST OF AUSTRALIA 81 Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours, Rivers, and Islands, situated upon the said Coast; after which we fired 3Volleys of smallArms,,,The following day, 23 August, the Endeavour sailed through the Torres Strait that separates New Guinea from Australia on the journey that would eventually take them home.
His mission was complete, although he seemed totally unaware of its significance,concluding that ‘the discoverys made in the Voyage are not great’,and further that ‘the Country itself, so far as we know,do not produce any one thing that can become an Article in Trade to invite Europeans to fix a settlement upon it’. Once he returned to England and the expeditionon’ records and charts were collated,the real significance of this voyage became apparent. When the First Fleet arrived less than a decade later the British Empire, quite literally, stretched right around the globe. Over the next nine years Cook was to undertake two further major expeditions in the Pacific Ocean confirming once and for all that the mythical southerncontinent was no more than that. He died anuntimely death on the third voyage while visiting Tahiti, where he was stabbed to death trying tor esolve a dispute over a stolen boat.