On this day: Captain James Cook sets sail

  • BY Julian Swallow |
  • August 24, 2011

Almost 250 years ago, Captain James Cook sailed on the voyage where he discovered Australia.

ON 26 AUGUST 1768, The HMB Endeavour set sail from England's Plymouth Harbour, under the command of Captain James Cook, an accomplished astronomer, navigator and surveyor. The ship's company of 94 men were instructed to make for Tahiti, where they would observe and record the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun.

However, Cook also carried instructions from the Admiralty ordering him to explore the Southern Ocean in search of Terra Australis incognita – the unknown southern land.

Cook was born in north-east England in 1728, and entered the merchant navy in his late teens, where he worked on ships along the English coast and the Baltic Sea. In 1755, he joined the navy, seeing action in Canada and surveying the St Lawrence River, which resulted in the British capture of Quebec.

Captain James Cook

After the war, Cook's skills were put on further display when he mapped the coast of the Canadian island of Newfoundland. Under commission from the Royal Society, the Endeavour entered the South Pacific via Cape Horn, reaching Tahiti in April 1769 where the crew observed the transit of Venus on 3 June.

Cook's instructions next took him south, where he was to determine the existence of a southern continent. The Endeavour circumnavigated and mapped New Zealand before travelling west, where on 19 April 1770 Cook spotted and claimed the east coast of Australia for the Crown. He named it New South Wales.

On 22 April he made his first recorded direct observation of Aboriginal Australians, writing in his journal that they "were so near the Shore as to distinguish several people upon the Sea beach they appear'd to be of a very dark or black Colour but whether this was the real colour of their skins or the clothes they might have on I know not."

Sir Joseph Banks

The Endeavour followed the coastline northward, making landfall on 29 April in Botany Bay, which received its name after the expedition's naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks, collected a range of plants. 

Continuing north, the Endeavour charted a dangerous course through the Great Barrier Reef, where on 11 June it ran aground, leading the crew to throw guns and provisions overboard in an attempt to pull it off the reef. The Endeavour eventually limped to shore, where she underwent repairs in the Endeavour River, putting the expedition back seven weeks.

Cook rounded Cape York in August 1770 before making for Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. The Endeavour and its crew finally reached England on 13 July 1771, having been away for almost three years.

Cook undertook two further voyages in 1772-75 and 1776-79, circumnavigating the globe and mapping much of the Pacific. It was while exploring the Hawaiian archipelago in February 1779 that Cook was killed by locals during a disagreement stemming from the theft of a small boat.

Australian history

Cook's first voyage succeeded in charting over 8000km of coastline throughout Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. While some of these territories were already known to Europeans, the accuracy and extent of his maps were impressive for the time, according to Dr David Andrew Roberts of the University of New England.

David says Cook was "part of a great age of exploration…who became a national hero," but "there has been a tendency to overplay his role in the establishment of Australia."

"Like all explorers," says David, "perhaps his greatest legacy is more symbolic than tangible."

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