Cook’s First Voyage of Discovery

In 1768 The Royal Society and the  British Admiralty commissioned Lt. James Cook to undertake a voyage to the South Seas to view the transit of Venus from Tahiti and then to  look for the “mythical” Southern Continent.


Cook carried with him “Secret instructions” from the British Government detailing the management of the expedition including the route of the voyage, proscribed the activities he and his men were  to undertake, policy on interactions with indigenous people and the claiming of land, and the manner in which he was to report his progress. They revealed the true plans for the voyage above and beyond its quest for scientific discovery – to discover exploitable natural resources and to expand Britain’s commerical interest by establishing a colony in the South Pacific to gain control of strategic trading posts around the globe.

COOK’S Secret Instructions from the British Government:
  • You are therefore in Pursuance of His Majesty’s Pleasure hereby requir’d and directed to put to Sea with the Bark you Command so soon as the Observation of the Transit of the Planet Venus shall be finished and observe the following instructions:
  • Proceed to the southward until you arrive in the Latitude of 40°, unless you sooner fall in with it (the unknown continent). But not having discover’d it or any Evident signs of it in that Run, you are to proceed in search of it to the Westward between the Latitude before mentioned and the Latitude of 35° until you discover it, or fall in with the Eastern side of the Land discover’d by Tasman and now called New Zealand.
  • If you discover the Continent, You are to employ yourself diligently in exploring as great an Extent of the Coast as you can; carefully observing the true situation thereof both in Latitude and Longitude, the Variation of the Needle, bearings of Head Lands, Height, direction and Course of the Tides and Currents, Depths and Soundings of the Sea, Shoals, Rocks, &ca and also surveying and making Charts, and taking Views of such Bays, Harbours and Parts of the Coast as may be useful to Navigation.
  • You are also carefully to observe the Nature of the Soil, and the Products thereof; the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the fishes that are to be found in the Rivers or upon the Coast and in what Plenty; and in case you find any Mines, Minerals or valuable stones you are to bring home Specimens of each, as also such Specimens of the Seeds of the Trees, Fruits and Grains as you may be able to collect, and Transmit them to our Secretary that We may cause proper examination and experiments to be made of them.
  • 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 on your guard against any Accident.
  • 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; or, if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.
  • But for as much as in an undertaking of this nature several Emergencies may Arise not to be foreseen, and therefore not particularly to be provided for by Instruction before hand, you are in all such Cases, to proceed, as upon advice with your Officers you shall judge most advantageous to the Service on which you are employed.
  • You are to send by all proper Conveyances to the Secretary of the Royal Society Copys of the Observations you shall have made of the Transit of Venus; and you are at the same time to send to our Secretary, for our information, accounts of your Proceedings, and Copys of the Surveys and drawings you shall have made. And upon your Arrival in England you are immediately to repair to this Office in order to lay before us a full account of your Proceedings in the whole Course of your Voyage, taking care before you leave the Vessel to demand from the Officers and Petty Officers the Log Books and Journals they may have Kept, and to seal them up for our inspection, and enjoyning them, and the whole Crew, not to divulge where they have been until they shall have Permission so to do.
Additional instructions from THE ROYAL SOCIETY:
  • To exercise the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the Natives of the several Lands where the Ship may touch.To check the petulance of the Sailors, and restrain the wanton use of Fire Arms.To have it still in view that sheding the blood of those people is a crime of the highest nature:- They are human creatures , the work of the same omnipotent Author, equally under His care with the most polished European; perhaps being less offensive, more entitled to His favor…
  • …As resistance may in some emergencies become absolutely necessary for self defence:- Training the men to fire at a mark, as was practised during one part of Lord Ansons voyage, and giving premiums or conferring some mark of distinction upon those who are most adroit, might have good effect, if it raised only emulation, without animosity. The last by all means should be carefully avoided…
  • …From the reports handed about concerning some of the late Expeditions, it should seem that upon one or two occasions, some of the Natives had been wantonly killed without any just provocation:- Particularly, a single man, who was killed in attempting to Swim towards one of the Boats. -If this account be true there was not the colour of a pretence for such a brutal Massacre:- A naked man in the water could never be dangerous to a Boats Crew.
  • Ships of so small a rate, not being furnished with Chaplains, it were to be wished that the Captain himself, would sometimes perform that Office, and read prayers, especially on Sundays, to the Crew; that they may be suitably impressed with a sense of their continual dependance upon their Maker, and all who are able on board, Passengers and others should be obliged to attend upon those occasions.
  • The primary object of the Expedition is to take a correct observation of the Transit of Venus on the 3rd of June. – No time therefore should be lost in getting to the station fixed upon for that purpose, there being many preparatory operations absolutely requisite, which may take up six weeks, or two months, previous to the day of the transit.

The ‘Secret Instructions’ provided that, in the event that he found the Continent (Terra Australis Incognita), he should chart its coasts, obtain information about its people, cultivate their friendship and alliance, and annex any convenient trading posts in the King’s name. Cook followed the coast of New Zealand (thereby debunking Abel Tasman’s theory that it formed part of the southern continent), then turned  west, reaching the southern coast of New South Wales on 20 April 1770. He sailed north, landing at Botany Bay one week later, before continuing to chart the Australian coast all the way north to the tip of Queensland. There, on Possession Island, just before sunset on Wednesday 22 August 1770, he declared the coast a British possession.


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