IAN ROBINSON. What has Captain Cook ever done for us?

The Prime Minister is intent on making a big fuss about James Cook. He is even promoting, at great expense, a circumnavigation of the continent by a replica of Cook’s ship Endeavour. This is an insult to Matthew Flinders who actually did circumnavigate the continent, who made a much greater contribution to our nation than Cook, and who, moreover, gave us our name. Forget Cook. Let’s give Flinders his due.

There seems little doubt that Cook was one of the greatest seafarers that Great Britain has produced. He made three trail-blazing scientific voyages into the Pacific Ocean, each of well over two years in duration, and his career was tragically cut short when he was killed in Hawaii in February 1779.

During those three voyages he charted large parts of the world’s largest ocean and he and his teams of scientists made lasting contributions to geography, natural history, astronomy, oceanography and philology. He also made practical contributions to seamanship, keeping his crew alive during those long voyages by promoting cleanliness, providing ventilation and implementing a healthy diet, which included sauerkraut and an extract of citrus fruit.

But what has Cook to do with Australia? He was not the first European or even the first Englishman to set foot on the continent. He was the first to explore our east coast, but this was a minor part of his total activity and not really what his fame rests upon. We tend to exaggerate his significance to us in Australia, perhaps because he is a good hero to be able to claim, but of the time he spent doing the things for which he later became famous, he actually devoted very little of it to our continent. Out of the nearly nine years in total he spent on his three famous Pacific voyages, Cook spent only about three months, that is, about 3% of that time, exploring the coast of what he called New South Wales. He spent very much more time in New Zealand, which indeed he did circumnavigate.

After he ‘discovered’ our east coast, Cook returned to the Pacific Ocean twice more on extended voyages, but he never again set foot our continent. So how important was he really for Australia? Or Australia for him?

The recommendation of Botany Bay to the British authorities as a suitable site for a convict settlement came from the botanist Joseph Banks, who had travelled with Cook, not from Cook himself.

Also, we need to remember that while Cook’s voyage was indeed remarkable it was not unique. Between 1764 and 1795, at the height of the Enlightenment, there were 24 similar voyages of scientific discovery made by European nations to various parts of the world. As every schoolboy knows, a French scientific expedition sailed into Botany Bay only a few days after the arrival of the First Fleet there in 1788. Moreover, during the same period there were inland expeditions conducted, such as that of Alexander Humboldt in South America, of at least equal significance.

If Cook was a sail-in/sail-out tourist, Matthew Flinders came to New South Wales armed with a work permit and a desire make a significant contribution to the new colony. He had joined the Royal Navy after being inspired to become an explorer by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and his first journey to the Pacific was as an apprentice to another Australian colonial icon, Captain William Bligh.

When he arrived in New South Wales in 1796 he immediately set about exploring the coasts adjacent to Port Jackson in a small boat, often with his surgeon friend George Bass. Given command of the sloop Norfolk, he further explored the coast north and south of Sydney and circumnavigated Tasmania to prove it was an island.

He then returned to England hoping to mount a more extensive naval exploration of New Holland, as the western part of the continent was then known. He gained the support of Joseph Banks, now President of the Royal Society, and even King George III and was given command of the 334 ton vessel HMS Investigator.

Flinders set sail again for New Holland in 1801 and after landfall in what is now Western Australia, proceeded gradually eastward, charting and exploring the southern coast of the continent, including the Great Australian Bight and Spencer Gulf and Kangaroo Island in what is now South Australia. It was there he had his famous meeting with the French explorer Baudin in the inlet he called ‘Encounter Bay’. After sighting Mt Gambier and entering Port Phillip, where he climbed to the top of Arthurs Seat, he eventually arrived in Sydney on 9 May 1802. 

He refitted and provisioned Investigator, and in July 1802 set off north up the Queensland coast, where he amended Cook’s charts, and sailed around Cape York into the Gulf of Carpentaria which he spent November to February 1803 surveying.

Unfortunately his ship was found to be leaking and close examination revealed its timbers were so rotten it would not stay afloat for long. Flinders was determined to finish his circumnavigation, but reluctantly had to abandon the time-consuming costal survey work. With fingers crossed, he travelled west, then south down the Western Australian coast, then east again, and finally reached Sydney on 9 June 1803, the first to circumnavigate the continent.

Flinders would have undoubtedly added many more exploratory exploits to this catalogue had the Napoleonic Wars not broken out, leading to his long imprisonment in the French colony of Mauritius, where he had called in on the way back to England.

Unlike Cook who was briefly on our east coast just once, Flinders devoted most of his working life to the exploration and charting of our continent and spent important time in every Australian state. Not only that, but on his circumnavigation voyage he took with him the indigenous man Bungaree, who thus became the first First Australian to circumnavigate Australia. So Flinders has a connection with aboriginal Australia as well.

And perhaps even more significantly, although he didn’t coin the term, Flinders was the person who first seriously proposed naming the new continent ‘Australia’. Up till that point, the eastern half of the continent was called New South Wales and the western half New Holland. Flinders’ support for the more inclusive name was decisive in the Admiralty decision to designate the continent Australia.

Cook may have been a hero, but he was not our hero. Charting part of the coast of New South Wales was a minor aspect of his achievement. The Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for him is misplaced.

Exploring and surveying Australia’s coast was Matthew Flinders’ life’s work. If anyone deserves to be honoured by a replica sailing vessel circumnavigating Australia it should be Matthew Flinders, and his ship Investigator, who actually did it. And who did so much more besides.

Ian Robinson has been a tutor in political philosophy at the University of Melbourne, a lecturer in philosophy and educational theory at Coburg Teachers College, and head of Professional Writing and Editing at Chisholm TAFE. His articles have appeared in The Age, The Australian Rationalist (which he also edited for a number of years), Free Inquiry and Philosophy Now. His full-length plays The Process and Godot: The Wait is Over recently had successful seasons at La Mama in Melbourne. 


This post kindly provided to us by one of our many occasional contributors.

This entry was posted in Indigenous affairs, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to IAN ROBINSON. What has Captain Cook ever done for us?

  1. Avatar Conrad Drake says:

    Such a Sydney-centric view of Australian history!

    Clearly you were never taught about Willem Janszoon and the Duijfken; Dirk Hartog; William Dampier; Abel Tasman; the Leeuwin; nor Willem de Vlamingh.

    All of whom visited and charted the Australian and New Zealand coasts long before Cook was born.

  2. Avatar Stjepan Bosnjak says:

    er both men were not Robinson Crusoe on their ships. They had entire crews. Should the workers not also be celebrated for their achievements?

  3. Avatar Jim Anthony, PhD says:

    White Australians are entitled to debate Cook’s worth to Australia as much as they might wish. To level the playing field a wee bit I think we ought to also hear what the first people of Australia have to say about Cook.

    At Kealakekua, Hawaii Cook made a fatal mistake. In a confrontation with native Hawaiians Cook’s ‘fatal flaw’. his white arrogance, cost him his life. When Cook first came to Hawaii, Hawaiians believed that he was the god Lono. When Cook left and returned shortly after he had left, Hawaiians became suspicious. When a Hawaiian warrior threw a spear at Cook and drew blood Hawaiians immediately knew that Cook was not a god for the simple reason that Hawaiians believed that gods do not bleed. Cook had come ashore to retrieve a dinghy allegedly “stolen” by native Hawaiians. In the melee that followed the spear incident, Hawaiian warriors then finished Cook off. It was the first and last revolutionary act that Hawaiians can claim genuine credit for.

    Far too much credit is heaped on Cook for being a great seaman, an explorer, a navigator. Hawaiians and other native people of the pacific, it might be plausibly argued, were greater navigators in their own right. There is a growing literature on this subject. And native Hawaiians, among others, have replicated ancient voyages of their ancestors as recently as within the last five years–without instruments.

    Much of Cook’s “glow” is in no small part, a bit far fetched. Some of the “greatness” attributed to Cook borders on a falsification of history.

    • Avatar John Boyd says:

      One could argue the case indefinitely, but I am sure that Cook, like most such mariners, was very good at reading the sea condition as a guide to navigation. I recall many years ago reading in his log of his southern voyages that he declined to proceed further south because of the danger of ice floes, but was convinced from the condition of the sea and the clouds that there was a land mass further to the south, the investigation of which was part of his instructions. It turned out the he was about 100 miles north of Cape Adare, in Antarctica.

  4. Avatar John Boyd says:

    Like Ian Robinson, I admire these navigators for their skill and dedication. Approaching Port Philip from the south many years ago, the captain pulled out the Admiralty chart Approaches to Port Philip which bore the acknowledgement ‘As surveyed by Lt M Flinders RN …as amended’. In those days the charts were beautiful steel engraved sheets, with engravings of sketches of views of prominent coastal features to help with one’s approach. In fact the entrance is quite hard to pick from outside. The ‘amendments’ did include such things as the oil rigs in Bass Strait.

  5. Avatar Max Bourke AM says:

    If, and I am not arguing for it, the colonisation project was to be celebrated with credit given where credit is due then of course Joseph Banks FRS was THE man! On 19 June 2020 it will be 200 years since his death.

  6. Avatar Bernie Stack says:

    “What has Captain Cook ever done for us?” Well there’s a good question! I suppose we could start by mentioning that Cook actually got Banks to the place he recommended as a possible Penal Colony, so without Cook no start to the UK’s colonisation and what became Australia would probably be French or even German. Certainly it would be unrecognisable as what is today Australia.
    Cook’s three month holiday cruise up the coast of in his words, “New South Wales” resulted in the nation we eventually became.
    I would think we owe Cook and also Banks a great deal!

Comments are closed.