What Australians often get wrong about Captain Cook (2023)

With the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook's voyage to Australia, it is time to brush up on the history of our nation's most famous naval explorer.

Key points:

  • Many European voyages had previously visited and mapped parts of Australia
  • Cook was not surprised to sail into view of what he called the "east coast of New Holland"
  • Cook reported that he had "failed in discovering" an unknown southern continent

He's the one that discovered Australia, right?


The idea that Cook discovered Australia has long been debunked, and was debated as recently as 2017 when Indigenous broadcaster Stan Grant pointed to an inscription on statue in Sydney's Hyde Park.

"Discovered this territory 1770," the inscription reads.

Robert Blyth, senior curator at the British Maritime Museum, said it was not just the omission of the existence of Indigenous people that made this wrong.

"Obviously there were Indigenous Australians already there," Dr Blyth said.

"And of course other Europeans had encountered, charted, visited parts of Australia."

The first European record of setting foot in Australia was Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon in 1606 — his was the first of 29 Dutch voyages to Australia in the 17th century.

Cook wasn't even the first Englishman to arrive here — William Dampier set foot on the peninsula that now bears his name, north of Broome, in 1688.

Alison Page, a Walbanga and Wadi Wadi person of the Yuin nation, grew up in the Botany Bay area where Cook stepped ashore.

She recently travelled the east coast speaking to Indigenous people for a film about Cook's voyage, told from an Aboriginal perspective.

"In the lead up to this commemoration, we've only just started to hear the other side of the story, which is the story from the shore," Ms Page said.

"I grew up thinking Captain Cook was the bogeyman and that he was responsible for the displacement of my people and our culture."

What Australians often get wrong about Captain Cook (1)

As we sift through the ideas about who discovered Australia, Ms Page thinks we might find something unexpected in the commemoration of Cook's voyage to Australia.

"It's interesting this word 'discovery', because I think we are going to go on a journey of discovery," she said.

"But that discovery doesn't speak to England's discovery of new lands, but actually Australia's discovery of its own identity."

What Australians often get wrong about Captain Cook (2)

Did Cook claim he discovered Australia?

Cook named the land he encountered New South Wales in an effort to counter any Dutch interest in what they had long called New Holland.

The name Australia was popularised by Matthew Flinders following his circumnavigation of the continent in 1803.

Not only did Cook not claim he had discovered Australia, he wrote at the time that he knew he was destined for New Holland.

The main reason for his first voyage to the Pacific was to observe Venus moving across the face of the Sun from Tahiti.

"It was part of a European effort to work out the size of the solar system," Dr Blyth said.

It was in Tahiti that he was to open an envelope with secret orders to search for an unknown continent.

"Which was for him to try and discover the existence of Terra Australis Incognita — in other words, the 'great unknown southern land'," Dr Blyth said.

Cook sailed south and west from Tahiti, but upon finding nothing he made for New Zealand, which he knew Abel Tasman had visited almost 120 years earlier.

After mapping the New Zealand coast, Cook continued west knowing he was headed for New Holland.

"Steer to the westward until we fall in with the east coast of New Holland," he wrote in his journal.

After charting the east coast of Australia, Cook wrote that he had "failed in discovering the so-much-talked-of southern continent".

"What became clear was that Cook was essentially just joining the dots that had already been started by other European encounters," Dr Blyth said.

But when Australia adopted its modern name, what Cook perceived as a failure was reinterpreted as his great success.

Cook would search for Terra Incognita Australis during his second voyage, sailing further south than any known before him.

Although sea ice prevented the explorer from seeing Antarctica, he guessed it must be the unknown southern continent.

Was charting the east coast Cook's greatest achievement?

Charting the east coast of Australia was an extraordinary feat that highlighted Cook's skills in navigation and cartography.

"Cook had to engage in some pretty skilful seafaring to get through the Great Barrier Reef," Dr Blyth said.

Still, his ship was almost lost when it hit coral and only just made it to the mouth of the Endeavour River at what is now Cooktown.

But Cook has quite a list of other exploration achievements:

  • circumnavigated and charted New Zealand's North and South islands in 1769
  • he and his crew were the first to cross the Antarctic Circle
  • he was the first European to find the Hawaiian islands
  • he explored and charted the Pacific coast of North America in his search for the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean
What Australians often get wrong about Captain Cook (3)

Did Cook steal Australia from its traditional owners?

Cook sailed with orders to take possession of new territories in the name of the king of Great Britain "with the consent of the natives".

But he certainly did not have the consent of Indigenous people when he claimed New South Wales for the king, while landed on what he called Possession Island at the tip of Cape York, on August 22, 1770.

"Cook is an extremely skilled surveyor; he is also a man of his times," Dr Blyth said.

"And that leads us into all sorts of potential problems about his encounters with Indigenous populations and his behaviour in the Pacific."

What Australians often get wrong about Captain Cook (4)

Ms Page is sceptical that Cook even planted the flag on Possession Island, suggesting the event was perhaps invented for convenience.

The records are vague and traditional owners in the region told Ms Page it was virtually impossible to land on the island at the time of year Cook supposedly did.

But the real significance of Cook's claim was borne out when the First Fleet arrived under Arthur Phillip in 1788.

"That possession meant a hell of a lot in 1788 — that's when the really bad stuff happened," Ms Page said.

"It's interesting how mixed up most Australians get about 1770 and 1788."

Did Cook declare terra nullius?

The legal concept of terra nullius allowed British colonists to disregard Indigenous ownership of Australia, to regard Australia as an empty continent and to take the land without ever negotiating a treaty.

Terra nullius is often ascribed to Cook, but both Ms Page and Dr Blyth have found no record of this.

Not only did Cook write about the Indigenous inhabitants of Australia, Ms Page said he disputed William Dampier's view that Australian Aboriginal people were the 'miserabalist people in the world'.

"He said, 'The natives of New Holland, they may seem to be the most wretched people on Earth, but in fact they are the happiest people I have ever witnessed'," Ms Page said.

Cook wrote with admiration of the lives he had witnessed, relatively free of the oppressive hierarchy and work of European society.

"To have that understanding of Aboriginal cultural values, these are values that Australians today are only just starting to understand now," Ms Page said.

What Australians often get wrong about Captain Cook (5)

Was Cook even a captain?

It is not uncommon in a discussion about Captain Cook that someone will suggest that he was not even a captain when he charted the coast of Australia, that he was actually a lieutenant.

But the truth, as ever, is a little more complicated.

"He was a captain on his final voyage, lieutenant on his first voyage, and a commander on his second," Dr Blythe said.

"But because he's in overall command, he gets the courtesy title 'captain', so onboard he is the captain even if he is officially, in terms of naval rank, has a lower rank."

But Alison Page said the most important detail about Cook's voyage to Australia is that it marked the beginning of a relationship between two long-separated cultures.

"What we should remember about Cook is that this was a pivotal moment in our history where two different cultures, two different knowledge systems, came head to head," Ms Page said.

"Really it is around the reconciliation of those values, and those stories from both the ship and the shore, somewhere in that tidal zone in-between is the identity of modern Australia."

The National Museum has partnered with the ABC in an ABC iview series featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people sharing the original names of the places Captain Cook renamed on his voyage of the east coast.

Walking Together is taking a look at our nation's reconciliation journey, where we've been and asks the question — where do we go next?

Join us as we listen, learn and share stories from across the country, that unpack the truth telling of our history and embrace the rich culture and language of Australia's First People.


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