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When the HMB Endeavour set sail from England under the command of Lieutenant James Cook on 26 August 1768, it did so with the aim of achieving three objectives.

The first was to set up an observatory in Tahiti to record the 1769 transit of Venus. The second, led by Joseph Banks, was to record natural history during the expedition. And the third was a secret.

The ship’s crew was unaware, on 30 July 1768, the Lords of the British Admiralty had signed instructions for the voyage with a sealed section that could only be opened by Cook. This classified objective turned out to be no small undertaking—it was to go in search of the “Southern Continent”.

Secret instructions

The secret instructions were explicit about what Cook should do if he located the Great Southern Land. Tasks included charting its coasts, observing its people—should there be any—cultivating their friendship and annexing any convenient trading posts in the King’s name with their permission.

‘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. 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.’

If there were no inhabitants, Cook’s instructions were equally clear:

‘Or; if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors’.

The secrecy did not end once the crew became aware of the new expedition which would keep them at sea for many more months and see several lose their lives. When the HMB Endeavour returned to England, Cook was required to locate and seal all logs and journals from the voyage and give them to the Admiralty. The crew were under strict instruction not to divulge where they had been until given permission to do so.

Secret Instructions to Lieutenant Cook 30 July 1768 (UK)
Secret Instructions to Lieutenant Cook 30 July 1768 (UK)

Charting the east coast

After leaving Tahiti, Cook failed to find a new continent east of New Zealand. He spent several months charting New Zealand—debunking Abel Tasman's theory that it formed part of the great southern land—before setting sail for ‘New Holland’.

The HMB Endeavour reached the southern coast of ‘New South Wales’ on 19 April 1770 and sailed north, landing at Botany Bay a week later and then continuing to the Torres Strait. By mapping the east coast, Cook confirmed New Holland was not part of the great Terra Australis, nor did it connect to New Guinea.

Some 20 years after the voyage, Cook’s meticulous charting formed the basis for the British Admiralty Charts of Australian waters.

Bedanug - Possession Island

On Wednesday 22 August 1770, just before sunset, it is said Cook hoisted the British colours on a small island off the coast of northern Queensland and claimed ownership of the entire eastern coast of Australia in the name of King George III.

‘Notwithstand I had in the Name of his Majesty taken posession of several places upon this coast I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took posession of the whole Eastern Coast from the above Latitude down to this place by the Name of New South Wales together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the same said coast after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were Answerd by the like number by from the Ship.’

Located near the tip of Cape York, the most northerly point of mainland Australia, the island was known to the local Kaurareg peoples as Bedanug. It was named Possession Island by Cook.

During the voyage north, Cook made notes in his journal about the number of fires along the coastline which indicated people were living there. Various members of the crew also recorded interactions with Aboriginal people when they went ashore. Clearly, this was not an ‘uninhabited Country’.

Given the explicit instructions Cook had received from the Admiralty, it remains a mystery why he decided to claim possession for the British Crown of the lands he had charted. Other concerns have been raised such as why Cook chose a small island well removed from the mainland to make the claim; and why Banks — given his usual attention to detail — did not mention the proclamation or a ceremony involving cannon fire in his journal on this day.

Many lost stories and unknown chapters of Australia’s more recent past have surfaced over the past few decades. There may never be definitive answers but we will create a richer version of history by asking questions and sharing stories in the quest to better understand the shared journey of two cultures that began 250 years ago.

In 2001, the Kaurareg people successfully claimed native title rights over Bedanug (Possession) Island and other nearby islands.

Title: Captain Cook taking possession of the Australian continent on behalf of the British crown, AD 1770, under the name of New South Wales/drawn and engraved by Samuel Calvert (1828-1913) from the great historical painting by Gilfillan in the possession of the Royal Society of Victoria.
Title: Captain Cook taking possession of the Australian continent on behalf of the British crown, AD 1770, under the name of New South Wales/drawn and engraved by Samuel Calvert (1828-1913) from the great historical painting by Gilfillan in the possession of the Royal Society of Victoria.

A pivotal decision

It has been suggested the secret instructions given to Cook represent Britain’s first official expressions of interest in Australia. Certainly, the observations by Cook and others during the expedition voyage appear to have played a significant role in the subsequent decision by Britain to establish the colony at Botany Bay in 1788. It was a decision that had a lasting impact that continues to this day.