Lieutenant James Cook


In Australia, James Cook (27 October 1728 – 14 February 1779) is a household name. While the name, the man and his actions can be polarising, his voyage on the HMB Endeavour 250 years ago is a significant part of Australia’s history and has had a lasting impact on all Australians.

Much is known of Cook and his Endeavour voyage—but what was it about this man that made him stand out among his peers? Three particular aspects of his story may provide the answer.

Star student

James Cook never stopped learning. His dedication to his profession, desire to always do better and drive to learn more paved his way to captaining voyages and charting distant lands.

Cook was born in Marton, North Yorkshire, England on 27 October 1728. He was a farmhand’s son and, unlike many other labourers’ children at the time, received schooling until he was 12.

Cook’s love of the ocean and ships began during his time working in a general store in the coastal town of Whitby. He started a sailing apprenticeship in the merchant navy at the age of 18 and decided to volunteer as an able seaman in the Royal Navy in 1755.

Cook soon became known as a competent sailor and commander. He contributed to Great Britain’s success in the Seven Years’ War against France and commanded the Grenville for five years after the war ended. He was eventually chosen by the Royal Society to captain the HMB Endeavour on his first Pacific voyage from 1768–1771.

Image of a portrait of Captain James Cook.
Captain James Cook. William Ridley. Engraved print on paper, published by J. Gold, 1803. Source: National Library of Australia

Bringing science to the sea

James Cook charted and changed the map of the world. He also brought a scientific approach to sailing and navigation that had never been seen before.

Cook’s innovation was the result of lifelong curiosity. From a young age, he was keen to learn new and complex subjects. As an apprentice, he studied mathematics by night. During the Seven Years War he learnt and mastered the art of surveying. In his spare time he escaped into the world of astronomy, among other disciplines.

This combination of skills meant he brought an added dimension to surveying. Not only did he chart the land but he also charted the sea, helping identify safe passage through previously treacherous waters. People were willing to pay for detailed maps, particularly for trade purposes and this won him the attention of the Royal Society.

No surrender to scurvy

Cook was different to other naval captains and commanders of his time.

He was not born into wealth like many other Royal Navy captains, which meant he understood and interacted with his crew differently. He was dedicated to their wellbeing. Having seen the impact scurvy could have on a ship’s crew, Cook insisted on high standards of cleanliness and ventilation on all his ships and was particular about the crew’s diet.

He made sure the crew ate as much fresh food as possible and was particularly fond of sauerkraut as the best option to keep scurvy at bay—to the point the Endeavour was stocked with nearly three and a half tonnes of it for the voyage.

Cook led by example, and in order to make his seamen crew eat the sauerkraut on the voyage, he had “some of it dress’d every day for the Cabin Table, and permitted all the Officers without exception to make use of it” (Cooks Journal 13 April 1769). This method was so effective that Cook had to put a limit on how much the men could have per day because the moment they saw a value in it, it became the “finest stuff in the World”.

Owing to Cook’s insistence on cleanliness and diet, not one man on the Endeavour died of scurvy over the four year voyage.

Did you know?

  • Cook wore a glove on his right hand to conceal scars he obtained after an accident in 1764 when a gun powder horn he was holding exploded.
  • Cook married Elizabeth Batts in 1762. Although he was at sea for more than half their marriage, the couple had six children. Elizabeth survived her husband by 56 years. Sadly, she also survived all her children, eventually passing away in 1835.
  • Cook died on 14 February 1779 in Hawaii during his third Pacific voyage, this time as Captain of the Resolution. Cook sailed around the Hawaiian Islands for approximately three months, but had to return to Kealakekua Bay for repairs to the ship. By this time, relationships with the Hawaiians were not very amicable. After one of Cook’s small boats was stolen, he decided to retaliate by attempting to kidnap and ransom the King of Hawai’i, Kalaniōpu’u. This led to an altercation, which saw Cook hit over the head and stabbed by the King’s men. After initially being carried away by the Hawaiians, his remains were returned and formally buried at sea a week later.
  • Cook never actually held the rank of Captain. On the Endeavour he was Lieutenant. On his return to England in 1771 he was promoted to Commander and in 1775 he was promoted to the rank of Post-Captain. Nevertheless, anyone in charge of a ship was referred to as a Captain, so he is known as Captain James Cook.

Terra Australis Incognita


The notion of Terra Australis Incognita — the Great or Unknown Southern Land — came about in the fourth century BCE.

Greek philosopher Aristotle thought a great land mass must exist south of the equator to balance the weight of the lands in the north:

"...there must be a region bearing the same relation to the southern pole as the place we live in bears to our pole..."

Although the idea of a vast southern continent always had its followers and detractors, it was largely discounted during the Middle Ages before once again gaining favour in the 15th century.

It was a time of expanding global exploration and long maritime voyages. Growing numbers of European explorers set out to map uncharted oceans and lands drawing on the work of the world’s earliest and greatest cartographers Claudius Ptolemy (c100CE-c170CE).

Ptolemy’s maps — rediscovered after more than 1000 years — showed a southern land mass that counterposed the northern continents.

This land mass was thought to centre on the South Pole and cover the entire southern end of the globe, up to about latitude 60° S.
Typus orbis terrarum. Abraham Ortelius, c 1570. Reproduced courtesy National Library of Australia.

One of the many and varied maps during the Age of Exploration showing the hypothetical location of Terra Australis, the unknown southern continent. 

Many explorers sighted and began to map the southern lands and, at various times, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea were each proposed to be part of Terra Australis.

By 1768, when the HMB Endeavour set sail these theories were in doubt.

Searching for Terra Australis

After observing the Transit of Venus in Tahiti, Captain James Cook opened a set of secret orders from the British Admiralty. In those orders, Cook was tasked with trying to find Terra Australis and to lay claim to it on behalf of the British Monarch.

His instructions were to look for the Southern Continent in the South Pacific Ocean. He was to move south to latitude 40° from the previous search coordinates, then head west until he reached New Zealand at latitude 35°. If he could not find a land mass, he was directed to further explore New Zealand.

Having failed to find a new continent east of New Zealand, Cook thought he had made no great discoveries.

After charting New Zealand he progressed on to Australia well aware it was already known to the Dutch as New Holland.

By mapping the east coast, Cook confirmed New Holland was not part of the great Terra Australis, nor did it connect to New Guinea — although Cook felt he was just clarifying what was already suspected.

As per his orders, Cook claimed British possession of the east coast of Australia and called it New South Wales. The continent was then known by two names — New Holland in the west and New South Wales in the east.

The land beyond the ice

On his second voyage, Cook set out even further south to continue the search for Terra Australis. He saw and was thwarted by solid sea ice, which he proposed surrounded a polar continent, but he never saw the land he had long sought.

It was not until 1820 that Antarctica was discovered and another southern land was confirmed. It was not the vast, habitable, land mass that had been imagined for close to two millennia and the existence of a great Terra Australis Incognita was finally put to rest.

By that time explorer Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) had mapped the Great Southern Land and named it ‘Australia’.

Naming the Great Southern Land

In 1803, Flinders became the first British person to circumnavigate the continent accompanied by Aboriginal explorer Bungaree, a Kuringgai man who provided guidance and interpretation during the voyage.

Flinders said that to extend either ‘New Holland’ or ‘New South Wales’ to cover the entire land mass would be a disservice to either the Dutch or the British. His proposition was to find a general name for the whole continent and he initially favoured a return to Terra Australis, which it was believed to have been a part of for so long.

In 1804, Flinders wrote both Terra Australis and Australia on his hand drawn map of the continent which accompanied his book A voyage to Terra Australis.

Image of a map of Australia by Matthew Flinders.
General chart of Terra Australis or Australia: showing the parts explored between 1798 and 1803 by M. Flinders Commr. of H.M.S. Investigator, 1814. Matthew Flinders. Print on paper, 1804. Source: National Library of Australia

Publication of the book and chart were delayed until 1814 and, for a time, both Terra Australis and Australia were used to refer to the Great Southern Land. But, by the end of the 1820s, ‘Australia’ was more commonly used as the continent’s name.

Navigating history - Endeavour voyage stamp collection


Australia Post is marking the 250th anniversary of the HMB Endeavour voyage with a new collection of stamps.

The new stamps, called Navigating History—250—Endeavour Voyage, were designed by Niqui Branchu and Indigenous artist Jenna Lee. They highlight cultural and scientific elements, including Indigenous artefacts, botany, and the shared use of constellations for navigation.

The designs aim to evoke curiosity and share the story of the peoples and cultures that had thrived in Australia for more than 60,000 years before the arrival of Captain James Cook and the HMB Endeavour.

The stamps also explore the Endeavour story through 5 themes—navigation, travel, arrival, science and the journey onwards. Depictions of Captain James Cook and the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander sit alongside Indigenous icons, such as a red dilly-bag, a map of Australia with traditional trading lines and ancestors holding artefacts lost in encounters with the ship.

Stamps will be available online and from participating post offices from 29 April 2020.

Image of Navigating history stamp collection


Visit the Australia Post website

Find out more about the creation and designers of Navigating History collection at the Australia Post Collectables website


First Encounters – Colliding worlds


Colliding worlds

250 years ago the HMB Endeavour voyaged along the east coast of Australia. This moment, seeing each other from ship and shore, was the first of many encounters between the crew and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Nations of Australia – a collision of cultures and ways of knowing.

The perspective of the people on board the Endeavour is well known, but the experience from the shore has been a missing chapter for most people.

The oral histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities are important to the conversation about their encounters during Cook’s voyage to Australia.  It is appropriate and respectful to consider those oral histories. The descendants of those who encountered the voyages are telling the stories as they have been passed down to them over generations.

Encounters with the Endeavour were communicated between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Nations right up the east coast of the continent, each group having their own experience and story. Their descendants still share these stories today.

Gweagal encounter

In the journals of Cook and others on board the Endeavour, it is written that Cook and his landing party came to the shore of Kurnell and were met by two Gweagal warriors. After attempting and failing to communicate with the men, Cook fired his musket and wounded one of them. It has been recorded in the journals that one warrior responded with spears and a rock, and further shots were fired.

Dr Shayne T. Williams, a Dharawal man, recounts the same encounter through an Aboriginal cultural lens.

“If you look at this same encounter from our perspective you would understand that two Gweagal men were assiduously carrying out their spiritual duty to Country by protecting Country from the presence of persons not authorised to be there. In our cultures it is not permissible to enter another culture’s Country without due consent. Consent was always negotiated. Negotiation was not necessarily a matter of immediate dialogue, it often involved spiritual communication through ceremony.”

Dr Shayne T. Williams - to read more visit An indigenous Australian perspective on Cook's arrival.

Yuin encounter

The Endeavour voyagers did not realise that the continent had a very sophisticated system of living and management, foreign to their ways of understanding knowledge. Nor did the voyagers know what the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island nations believed them or their ship to be.

Djiringanj Yuin knowledge-holder Warren Foster has shared the story of seeing the Endeavour as it passed off the coast. See Warren Foster tell the story on This Place: View From The Shore.

To the Yuin people it was like a great pelican, something out of the Dreamtime and a symbol of greed. This was a reflection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, which is intrinsically connected to place, through natural systems and order.

Guugu Yimithirr encounter

Cook made contact with local people, travelling further north. The ship ran aground on a reef, now known as Endeavour Reef, and to repair it the crew beached the Endeavour at Waalumbaal Birri on the country of the Guugu Yimithirr peoples. The Endeavour journals record that the crew spoke with the Guugu Yimithirr, that they traded, had conflict and found resolution.

Alberta Hornsby, Guugu Yimithirr traditional owner and historian, explains that the Waalumbaal Birri is traditionally a neutral zone, where disputes are settled and cultural ceremonies are celebrated. Their law required that the Guugu Yimithirr people could not war in Waalumbaal Birri. She states,

“Without our story, and without the cultural and spiritual beliefs that governed our people - the Guugu Yimithirr people and the people that surrounded the Endeavour River - Captain Cook would not have had a successful first voyage.”

Alberta Hornsby - see Alberta Hornsby speak Continuing languages of the Pacific: Guugu Yimithirr peoples, Waalumbaal Birri – Digital Classroom: Alberta Hornsby.

By exploring the oral and written histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had contact with the Endeavour’s voyage along the coast, we can understand the experience from the shore, what happened and what it means for us today.