Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The English Explorers

Although Captain James Cook is the most famous of the English sailors to have landed in Australia, he was not the first. Cook’s 1770 voyage was preceded by that of the British ship the Triall, or Tryell, which in 1622 was wrecked on rocks that were probably to the north of the Monte Bello Islands, Western Australia. A number of survivors made it to Batavia (Jakarta) and described their harrowing experience, although their directions failed to turn up the rocks that caused the wreck, or the ship itself. In 1681 the London also approached New Holland’s west coast, but there is no evidence it landed near where the captain was able to draw the Abrolhos Islands, the location where the Batavia mutineers had held their rebellion in 1629.

Almost 100 years prior to Cook, in 1688, the Englishman William Dampier, often described as a reluctant pirate or buccaneer but also acknowledged as a knowledgeable naturalist (Wood 1969, Kenny 1995), was sailing with a group of pirates who had snatched the Cygnet and left its captain behind on a stopover in the Pacific. After visiting Southeast Asia, the pirates needed to avoid both Dutch and English ships and thus sailed to the east of the Philippines, south into Indonesia, and finally to Timor, where they turned south and landed in Australia (Wood 1969, 220).

In 1699 after the publication of a best seller based on his first journey, Dampier set sail again for the South Pacific, this time with the backing and legitimacy of the English Admiralty and Royal Society. Scientific exploration was the raison d’être of his mission, but what exactly he was expected to achieve was left vague: “He was told to discover ‘such things’ as might tend to the good of the nation and not to annoy the King’s subjects or allies” (Kenny 1995, 23).

His new ship, the Roebuck, sailed for New Holland at the start of 1699 and landed at Shark Bay, near Dirk Hartog Island, in July. He sailed north for about 994 miles (1,600 km) over the next five weeks, exploring all along the way. The results of this journey did not add significantly to what was known about the world at the time, as remained the case until 1770 when Cook finally made his way to the east coast of Australia, but did provide important descriptions of the continent’s unfamiliar plant and animal life, as well as judgmental descriptions of Aboriginal life (see Wood 1969, 221). Upon his return to Britain, Dampier penned his second best seller, A Voyage to New Holland, in which he described not only his Australian adventures but also time spent in New Guinea, Timor, and Brazil.

For 71 years between William Dampier’s second journey to New Holland and James Cook’s historic landing on the east coast, European activity in New Holland was extremely limited. Even the Dutch sent only two expeditions, in 1705 and 1756, which resulted in almost no new information about the imposing southern continent. After their final expedition, under Lt. Jean Etienne Gonzal, the VOC gave up on their large find in the South Pacific and left it to the Aboriginal people and occasional shipwreck victims.

This changed in 1768, when the British, following their victory over France and Spain in the Seven Years’ War in 1763, began thinking about expanding their colonial holdings and their scientific knowledge in the Pacific. James Cook’s first journey to New Holland in 1770 was motivated by these twin ambitions. His publicly stated task, given by the Royal Society, was to be in Tahiti on June 3, 1769, to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun, which previous British teams had failed to do during the transit of 1761.

The Royal Society, anxious to ensure its second attempt did not fail, approached the king and government with a request for £4,000 and a ship to send a scientific expedition to the South Seas for the express purpose of observing the transit. When the king agreed to the sum, the navy provided Lieutenant James Cook, who had had significant experience in North America, to command the ship HMB Endeavour and co-observe the transit with Charles Green, a Royal Society astronomer. The expedition was to observe the transit, chart new territory, gather as many specimens from the natural world as possible, and provide drawings, journals, and maps upon their return. As such the Endeavour carried a number of the best English scientific minds of the time, including Joseph Banks, an Oxford-trained botanist and later Cook’s good friend. Cook was also secretly directed by his superior officers to search the South Seas for sites that might yield financial gain, specifically in New Zealand, which had been “discovered” by Abel Tasman in 1642.

The expedition, by most accounts, was a success. As a result of the scientific explorations of Banks, Daniel Solander, and the others, about 1,400 new plant species and 1,000 animals were taken back to London. The one fairly significant failure on the scientific front, however, was the observation of the transit of Venus: Cook and Green’s observations differed by 42 seconds (Phillips 2008).

Despite the failure of the expedition’s stated mission, when Cook, Banks, and the others returned in 1771, they received a warm welcome in London due to their other accomplishments, scientific and other-wise. In political terms, certainly the most important was the claiming for England of New Zealand in 1769 and New South Wales in 1770. In New Zealand this event happened at Mercury Bay and in Australia at Possession Island, off the Cape York Peninsula, which Cook also named. Cook had actually landed on the eastern Australian coast four times, starting with Botany Bay, before he took possession of the land for King George III in August. In addition to New South Wales, Cook provided the newly “discovered” continent with many other placenames. The first was Point Hicks on the northern Victorian coast, named for the Endeavour’s first lieutenant, Zachary Hicks, the first to see this outcropping of land.

A replica of Captain James Cook’s ship HMB Endeavour, during his first voyage to Australia. Cook’s home harbor of Whitby, Yorkshire, England. (George Green/Shutterstock)

In addition to the vast number of scientific specimens and amount of knowledge they gathered, Cook and his crew provided the backdrop for Britain’s later colonization of its new possession. It was actually the ship’s head botanist, Banks, who in 1779 suggested to the Pitt government in London that Botany Bay might be a suitable place to deposit criminals who had been sentenced to transportation. The American colonies had been used for that purpose for many decades; about 50,000 people were sent there between 1650 and 1775 (Morgan and Rushton 2004). For a few years after the American Revolution stopped this practice, convicted felons in England served their sentences in the hulls of prison ships, until transportation began anew in 1788, commencing a whole new chapter in Australian history.

Before this initial settlement, however, in 1772 Cook and Captain Tobias Furneaux sailed again for the southern ocean to continue English exploration of the new continent. Although Cook never returned to Australian waters, Furneaux, in the HMS Adventure, used the opportunity to survey Van Diemen’s Land. While he explored much of the region, he was badly mistaken in his report to Cook that Van Diemen’s Land was connected to the New South Wales mainland. Cook had no reason to doubt his second in command and thus never returned to the region to investigate it for himself.

The last important English explorer of Australia’s unknown coastlines was Matthew Flinders. Together with his childhood friend Dr. George Bass and William Martin, Flinders began in 1795 by exploring the intricate coastline around Port Jackson in their tiny, six-foot boat, the Tom Thumb. Their expertise led the second governor of the new colony, John Hunter, to provide them with a real ship in which to clarify the status of Van Diemen’s Land as an island or peninsula. The three explorers returned to Port Jackson in 1798 having circumnavigated the island and thus were able to confirm its separation from the mainland. After journeying to England to gain support for his plan to circumnavigate Terra Australis, in 1801–02 Flinders was the first to chart the entire southern coast of the continent, from Cape Leeuwin in the far southwest, across the Bight, into Port Phillip Bay in Victoria, and north to Port Jackson. In July 1802 Flinders began his 11-month journey around the continent, which he called Australia, thus proving to all that New Holland and New South Wales were the same landmass. Unfortunately, after completing this journey, Flinders never returned to Australia again. On his way back to England he was held prisoner in Mauritius from December 1803 through June 1810 because of the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France and died at the age of 40 after completing his massive work, A Voyage to Terra Australis, published just one day before his death in July 1814 (Cooper 1966).