Chapter 3 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter III

Dampier and Cook

Cessation of Dutch explorations — Policy of Dutch East India Company — Dampier’s first voyage to Australia in the Cygnet — His voyage in the Roebuck — Cook’s voyages — Discovery of New South Wales — Botany Bay — Voyage of the Resolution — Popularity of Cook’s Voyages.

The Dutch having achieved so much, how was it that they did not complete the discovery of the whole of Australia? Why did the spirit of investigation which had animated Van Diemen flicker out when he was no more? The great Governor-General died in 1645, the year after Tasman’s second voyage. The explorer himself lived on till 1659, but he was not again employed in discovery work, nor did he live to see his own brilliant exploits eclipsed by others of his nation.

The answer is that further voyages of discovery were discouraged by the managers of the East India Company, because they were expensive and did not produce immediate profits. Though the Dutch nation stood at the back of the Company, and though its managers and principal officers were appointed by the Government of the Netherlands, these managers themselves were commercial men. ‘Merchants being at the helm, merchandise was accounted a matter of State,’ wrote a contemporary.

Indeed, had Van Diemen lived a few months longer, he would have received a letter from the managers administering to him a chilling rebuke for the expense he had already incurred. Voyages to discover new lands did not increase the Company’s profits. They cost money, and brought in no return. Van Diemen had hoped to pay for them by discoveries of gold and silver. There was plenty of both in New Holland, Van Diemen’s Land, and New Zealand — mountains of silver and shimmering masses of gold, more than Solomon, Croesus, the Pharaohs, and the Grand Mogul together had ever dreamt of. But it had to be found; it was not lying among the pebbles on the beaches; and the black and painted savages who inhabited these countries knew nothing about it. They were not people with whom profitable business could be done. They were too low down in the scale of civilization even for barter. Why, then, bother about these remote and unremunerative countries? asked the commercial gentlemen in Amsterdam. There was sure profit, and plenty of it, to be made out of the nutmegs of Amboyna, the cloves of Ceylon, the rice of India, the pepper of the Moluccas, the cinnamon of Java, the silks of China, and all the other rich merchandise of the abounding East. Discovery was all very well, but it yielded simply nothing per cent.

Van Diemen would perhaps have been very angry — certainly he would have been sorry — if he had read the letter which came from the managers shortly after they received the news of Tasman’s voyage of 1644; but he was dead before it reached Java, and was spared the knowledge of this official censure. ‘We see that your worships have again taken up the further exploration of the coast of New Guinea in the hopes of discovering silver and gold mines there,’ wrote the Company. ‘We do not expect great things of the continuance of such explorations, which more and more burden the Company’s resources, since they require increase of ships and sailors. Enough has been discovered for the Company to carry on trade provided the latter be attended with success. We do not consider it part of our task to seek out gold and silver mines for the Company, and, having found such, try and derive profit from the same; such things involve a good deal more, demanding excessive expenditure and large numbers of hands. These plans of your worships somewhat aim beyond our mark. The gold and silver mines that will best serve the Company’s turn have already been found, which we deem to be our trade over the whole of India.’

There can be no doubt that some of the choice and ardent spirits among the Hollanders, in Europe as well as in the East, deeply regretted this relinquishment of all effort that did not bring in gain. Witsen, the principal director of the Company at the end of the seventeenth century, said in a letter: ‘It is money only, not learned knowledge, that our people go out to seek over there, the which is sorely to be regretted.’ But he and his like could not change the general disposition of his colleagues and countrymen. For the Dutch, henceforth, New Holland was simply a land which they sighted in voyaging to and from the East Indies. The vast coastline may have excited their curiosity, but did not prompt them to investigate the resources of the country. They never saw the coasts which were most inviting in appearance, those of the south and the east. They only looked upon the west and the north, and carried away impressions of sterility.

In 1688, while King James II was still reigning in England, the shores of Australia received a visit from a company of buccaneers who included an Englishman with a talent for picturesque writing and an inborn love of adventure — William Dampier. He and his companions on the Cygnet (Captain Swan) had been pursuing a career of sheer piracy in the China seas. They had stolen the very ship in which they sailed, and had committed such offences as would have justified the Spaniards, if they had been caught, in giving each of them sufficient rope with a noose at the end of it, and sufficient yard-arm accommodation, to end their most nefarious courses. But it would have been a pity if Dampier had met with that fate, since it would have deprived posterity of a very delightful book of travels. There were quite good reasons why the Cygnet should for a while get out of the way of ships which might be looking for her; so her company determined to sail to the quiet region of New Holland, ‘to see what that country would afford us.’

Dampier’s experience of Australia was not considerable on this voyage. The ship dropped anchor on the north-western shore, somewhere near Melville Island, and stayed there for some weeks to enable her to be careened. His picturesque pen gives a lively account of the natives whom he and his companions encountered. It was found to be impossible to ‘allure them with toys to a commerce,’ nor had they any kind of provisions to supply. There was no valuable plunder to be had here, and the pirates were glad to get away after cleaning the ship, mending the sails, and taking aboard fresh water. Dampier, even on this expedition, showed himself many degrees superior to his companions. He was ever an inquirer, and the making of maps and drawings had a continual fascination for him. ‘I drew a draft of this land,’ he tells us; but he lost it with other papers when a boat was capsized later.

A very strange mistake was made by Dampier about the name of the Land of The Eendracht, which he found upon Dutch charts. As we have seen, the name was that of a ship. But Dampier, in common with most seamen of his period, believed the legends which were current as to there being coasts of lodestone which mysteriously drew ships towards them. In his first volume of Voyages, therefore, Dampier referred to the fact that ‘the Dutch call part of this coast the land of the indraught,’ because it ‘magically drew ships too fast to it.’

The importance of this first acquaintance of Dampier with Australia lay in the schemes which he evolved as the result of it. When he returned to England he published an account of his travels, which evoked a large amount of interest, and made him a person of some consequence. Leading men of affairs were glad to converse with him, and he used his opportunities to promote a voyage of discovery to New Holland under his own command. He had influential patrons, the Admiralty were convinced that there was advantage in the project, and in 1699 the ship Roebuck was placed at his disposal for the purpose.

In this vessel Dampier made his second and more extensive acquaintance with Australia. Had he carried out his original intention of approaching the country by the route round the Horn and through the Pacific, he would have discovered the east coast, and the importance of the Roebuck’s voyage would have been enormously increased. But Dampier himself dreaded the cold of the Horn passage — he had been accustomed to warm seas — and his crew grumbled about having to sail that way. So he chose the route round the Cape of Good Hope, which brought him on to the western coasts of the continent, where the Dutch had been before him.

He made land on August 6 at Shark’s Bay, which he so named because his men caught and ate shark there — ‘and they took care that no waste should be made, but thought it, as things stood, good entertainment.’ The description which Dampier gave in the book published after his return was the best account of New Holland made available up to his time. True, he did not find the country in any way attractive. ‘If it were not for that sort of pleasure which results from the discovery even of the barrenest spot upon the globe, this coast of New Holland would not have charmed me much.’ The natives were utterly repellent. They were black, ugly, fly-blown, blinking creatures, the most unpleasing human beings he had ever encountered, ‘though I have seen a great variety of savages.’

Dampier was four months on the west and north-west coasts, which he traversed for a thousand miles, but he did not see anything encouraging. Then, ‘it being the height of the dry season, and my men growing scorbutic for want of refreshments, so that I had little encouragement to search further, I resolved to leave this coast.’ The end of the voyage was unfortunate, for the ship, a thoroughly rotten old craft, was wrecked on the way home, and the commander had nothing to report to the Admiralty that was likely to induce the making of colonization experiments in Australia.

After Dampier, Australia remained in obscurity for nearly three-quarters of a century. The Dutch had no use for it, and the English betrayed no more than a languid curiosity concerning it. A few romancers allowed their imagination to weave fantastic fables about it. The best-known example is that of Swift, who printed a map with Gulliver’s Travels showing the position of ‘the country of the Houyhnhnms,’ where Gulliver was put ashore, corresponding precisely with the south-west coast of Australia. Swift copied his map from Dampier, and makes Gulliver say that he was a cousin of that adventurous buccaneer.

The veil is lifted again by the appearance in these seas of one of the great navigators of history, James Cook.

In the year 1769 there would occur an astronomical event of which the Royal Society of London desired that careful observation should be made. The orbit of the planet Venus would cross the face of the sun, and the phenomenon could be watched in particularly favourable circumstances in the south seas. The Society therefore requested the Admiralty to furnish a ship to go south, equipped with trained observers and instruments, to watch this interesting transit of Venus. The request was granted, a collier called the Earl of Pembroke, 370 tons, was bought for £2,800, she was renamed the Endeavour Bark, and was refitted for the special service for which she was commissioned.

James Cook, who was selected to command the expedition, had already won the confidence of the Admiralty by some excellent charting work which he had done in the St. Lawrence, at Newfoundland, and at Labrador. His rank in the Navy when he made this famous voyage was lieutenant, though he will always be known as Captain Cook; and the vessel was officially entered as the Endeavour Bark to distinguish her from another ship of the Navy called the Endeavour, though history knows but one of that name. The voyage evoked unusual interest; the poet Goldsmith referred to it in the prologue to a play:

In these bold times when Learning’s sons explore
The distant climate and the savage shore;
When wise astronomers to India steer,
And quit for Venus many a brighter here.

Cook’s instructions directed him to sail to Tahiti, in the Pacific, to enable the transit of Venus to be observed, and then ‘to prosecute the design of making discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean by proceeding to the south as far as the latitude of 40 degrees.’ That meant that he was to search for the supposed Terra Australis Incognita, the great continent which some believed to extend round the pole. If he found no land there, he was to sail to New Zealand, explore it, and then return to England ‘by such route as I should think proper.’ So that he was not expressly instructed to explore New Holland. He was given a free hand to make such investigations as might seem to him to be advantageous, after completing the specified programme.

The voyage commenced on August 26, 1768, and the transit of Venus was successfully observed on June 1, 1769. It is from that point that Cook’s movements become historically interesting. He ran south to look for the supposed continent, but, finding no land, made for New Zealand, where he remained, charting and exploring, for nearly six months. Cook demonstrated that that country consisted of two large islands, divided by a strait, and he charted the whole of it, doing this work so well, despite the difficulty of surveying a rough coast from a ship like the Endeavour, that a later French navigator, passing along the coast with Cook’s chart in hand, confessed that ‘I found it of an exactitude and of a thoroughness of detail which astonished me beyond all power of expression.’ His circumnavigation of both islands demolished the theory which many had entertained before his time, that the land discovered by Tasman would be found to be a fragment of a great antarctic continent.

After leaving New Zealand, on March 31, 1770, Cook decided to sail for the east coast of New Holland, that east coast which the Dutch had never explored, and which was not laid down upon any mariner’s chart. Cook knew that there was original work to do there. Obviously, as the west coast of New Holland had been so well known to navigators from the Netherlands, there must be an east coast also. Cook was certainly unaware of the existence of any maps suggesting the possibility that the Portuguese had been upon this coast more than two centuries before. Nor is it true that his discovery was a happy accident, as has sometimes been represented. His own words prove that his purpose was deliberately shaped. He resolved to sail westward from New Zealand ‘until we fall in with the east coast of New Holland, and then to follow the direction of that coast to the northward, or what other direction it might take us, until we arrive at its northern extremity.’ The plan could hardly have been laid down in clearer terms.

At six o’clock in the morning on Thursday, April 20, Lieutenant Hicks, who was on watch, sighted the coast of New Holland. The date given in Cook’s log and journal is April 19, but it must be remembered that, Australia having been approached by sailing west from Europe, round Cape Horn, ship’s time was behind Greenwich time, and Cook had not so far made a correction. He did not correct his time till he arrived at Batavia. Moreover, he dated events in the nautical manner of reckoning, and the nautical day began at noon. The date given in his log is therefore a day behind the civil almanac.

There is also some doubt about the exact locality of Cook’s Australian landfall. He named the ‘southernmost point of land we had in sight,’ Point Hicks, because ‘Lieutenant Hicks was the first who discovered this country.’ But unfortunately Cook stated the latitude and longitude of his Point Hicks incorrectly. He wrote that he ‘judged’ the point to lie where as a matter of fact there is no land at all, but only open ocean. We have therefore to infer what Cook’s Point Hicks was from his descriptive words. The ‘southernmost point’ in sight of the Endeavour at the time was that which figures on Admiralty charts as Cape Everard.

Rounding Cape Howe, the Endeavour sailed north along the east coast, and on Sunday, April 30 (April 29 by Cook’s log) anchored in Botany Bay at three o’clock in the afternoon. There was a tradition in Cook’s family that the first to land was his wife’s cousin, Isaac Smith, who sailed as a midshipman. The lad went in the boat from the ship to the shore, and as the prow ran up the beach, Cook said, ‘Now then, Isaac, you go first.’ The name originally given to the place was Stingray Harbour, but afterwards, in consequence of the number of new plants collected by the botanists, it was called Botany Bay; and it appears under that name in Cook’s charts. Joseph Banks, who, with the professional botanist Solander, was responsible for these collections, recorded that they were ‘immensely large,’ and they evoked so much interest in Europe that the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus wrote that ‘the new-found country ought to be called Banksia.’ A stay of a week was made in the harbour. The ship then continued her voyage northward, past the entrance to Port Jackson (which was marked down and named after George Jackson, an Admiralty official), and so on for nearly four months of difficult navigation along a totally unknown coast which Cook was confident no European had ever seen before.

Cook did not claim that he accomplished a feat of discovery when he took his ship through Endeavour Strait. The authentic record of Torres’ voyage was found in the Spanish archives at Manilla in 1762; but, though Cook had not seen a translation of it at this time, he knew that the matter of the separation of New Guinea was by many regarded as uncertain. So he cautiously wrote that ‘as I believe it was known before, but not publicly, I claim no other merit than the clearing up of a doubtful point.’ After threading his way through the labyrinth of reefs and islands, and getting into safe water, Cook landed at Possession Island on August 23 (by the log August 22), and ‘took possession of the whole eastern coast by the name of New Wales,’ or, as he wrote in a letter and as appears in two copies of his journal, ‘New South Wales.’

During his next voyage in the Resolution (1772-4) Cook paid another visit to New Zealand, but did not on this occasion approach the coast of Australia. He was inclined to settle the question whether Van Diemen’s Land was an island or part of the mainland. But he was deterred from so doing by the advice of Furneaux, the commander of the Adventure, which accompanied him on this voyage. Furneaux had become separated from the Resolution during rough weather, and, in making for Queen Charlotte’s Sound, New Zealand, which had been fixed upon as a rendezvous, had actually sailed in the eastern entrance of the strait which divides Australia from Tasmania. But he reported his conviction that New Holland was not divided at that point, and Cook, believing him, was deprived of the honour of discovering the southern coasts of Australia, as he would undoubtedly have done had he acted on his own impulse.

The Voyages of Captain Cook were the most popular books of the kind ever published up to his time. The freshness of the scenes described, the wonder of the discoveries made, the fulness and clearness of observation displayed, the vital and attractive personality revealed by the writings, made the volumes delightful for youthful and mature minds alike. They were translated into many languages. Kings and cabin-boys came under their spell. Louis XVI of France and Napoleon the Great read them, in common with poor lads who could only borrow them for a few hours’ enchantment. It has often been written that Cook ‘discovered Australia,’ and the statement is not infrequently repeated nowadays, when there are so many reasons for knowing better. Literally, of course, it is not true; but in a deeper sense it is. The Dutch had indeed found and mapped portions of the continent, but all their reports about it were repellent. Cook’s, however, were alluring. He saw the country in what he truly described as a pure state of nature. ‘The industry of man has had nothing to do with any part of it, and yet we find all such things as nature hath bestowed upon it in a flourishing state. In this extensive country it can never be doubted but what most sorts of grain, fruit, roots, etc., of every kind, would flourish were they once brought hither, planted, and cultivated by the hands of industry; and here is provender for more cattle, at all seasons of the year, than ever can be brought into the country.’

So that Cook not only discovered the entire east coast of the continent — and that was a larger piece of geographical discovery, made at one time, than has ever been achieved by one navigator before or since — but he discovered its abounding possibilities as a place for the habitation of civilized mankind. That was the most splendid result of his great voyage of 1770.



Source:
Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 27-38

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