Cooktown …

There was a time when every Australian child knew that Captain Cook discovered Australia. Not exactly true, of course, but quite possibly more than today’s school children know about the early days of the European influx that led to our modern society.


James Cook was born at Marton in Yorkshire in 1728. He was a bright lad of humble origins. The family moved to Great Ayton where his father became a farm manager. His father’s employer paid for young Jimmy to go to school.

Cook’s career at sea began in the merchant navy as an apprentice on a coal carrier. He studied diligently those subjects that he would need to take charge of his own ship, mathematics, navigation and astronomy, and at the end of his three year apprenticeship passed his exams. Three years later he was promoted to mate. Soon after that he passed up the chance to take command of a collier to join the Royal Navy.

That was a move that saw him starting at the bottom all over again. In 1755 Able Seaman Cook joined HMS Eagle. By 1757 Cook was master of The Pembroke. This was a time of war. The Seven Years War (1755 – 1764) has as good a claim to being a world war as any subsequent war. It pitted Britain against France with virtually all of Europe aligned with one side or the other and dragging in their colonies notably Canada.

It was during this war that General Wolfe surprised and defeated the French on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City, a pivotal moment in Canadian history. To put the troops in position to launch the attack it was necessary to navigate up the tricky St Lawrence River. A three month siege preceded the battle during which time Cook on The Pembroke surveyed and mapped the river. And it was Cook that led the troop carrying flotilla into place.

Cook went on to survey and map the Newfoundland Coast.

By the conclusion of the war Cook’s talent as a map maker combined with his obvious competence put him in good stead with The Admiralty. Meanwhile the Royal Society was urging a voyage of exploration in the direction of the much anticipated Terra Australis (necessary to balance the great land mass of the Northern Hemisphere and keep the globe from toppling off its axis). They proposed that Alexander Dalrymple, a noted geographer, be in command. The First Lord of the Admiralty’s response was that he’d rather cut a hand off than have a civilian in charge of a navy ship. Cook was acceptable to both these august bodies.

First step was Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus. Which was duly observed on a clear night on June 3rd 1769. After which our James opened a sealed envelope revealing the rest of his super secret instructions, essentially search the Pacific.

Early October saw him arrive in New Zealand, the first European visit since being discovered by Abel Tasman in 1642. Cook mapped the entire coastline, discovering in the process that the North and South Islands are separated by what is now known as Cook Strait. One of his few errors was not recognising that Stuart Island is similarly separated from South Island.

Having completed his task in New Zealand Cook had a problem. He could discover nothing by heading north west and returning home via The Cape of Good Hope. It was late autumn, his ship was not fit to take a southerly route to round Cape Horn. He outlined his thinking in his Journal and determined …

… upon Leaving this Coast to steer to the Westward until we fall in with the East Coast of New Holland, and then to follow the direction of that Coast to the Northward

Europeans had been bumping into the north and west coasts of Australia aka New Holland since 1606 (Janszoon on The Duyfken). For almost all the rest of the century the Dutch pretty much had a monopoly on the place accumulating quite a list of discoveries. It was 1699 before the poms got involved, William Dampier exploring the west coast and collecting the first botanical specimens to reach the scientific establishment.

The north east extremity of Australia is Torres Strait. That was put on the map in 1606 by Luis Váez de Torres who wrote of “very large islands, and more to the south“. The south east extremity was put on the map by Tasman in 1642. Cook set out to join the dots.

Landfall was well south on the coast on Friday 20th April. Cook named it Point Hicks after the his Lieutenant (a Stepney lad and therefore a cockney like me). Proceeding north Cook discovered Botany Bay and Port Jackson, subsequently the place where Sydney was founded, (according to Melbournians the largest of Cook’s mistakes). Then even further north to the Great Barrier Reef and after bumping into that off Cape Tribulation to the mouth of Endeavour River where he repaired his ship.

The repairs took seven weeks. While they were in progress the scientists went collecting. One of the most important things they brought back was a word garnered from the local aboriginal people, gangurru, which we spell a little differently these days.

This is the place where Cooktown now stands, which is where you can find the statue shown above.

It is a small tropical town, only recently discovered by tourists and not overly commercialised. It is a delightful place to visit just as it is but for me it ranks as one of the most significant historical sites that we have.

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