Lieutenant James Cook’s first landfall on Australia’s eastern coasts in April 1770 has long been a matter of debate. Today, nearly 250 years after the event, there is a widespread belief that today’s Point Hicks, in far eastern Victoria, is the first feature on the Australian coast named by Cook. However, from the late 1700s onwards, most navigators and surveyors have taken a different view, based on their examination of evidence from Cook’s journals, logs and charts.
The essence of the navigators’ and surveyors’ argument is as follows. On the morning of 19 April 1770, the crew of Endeavour had their first sight of land on the Australian continent, a huge arc appearing to extend from NE by N to W by S. At 8 a.m., Cook named the southernmost land he could see Point Hicks after Lieutenant Zachary Hicks, who was the first to sight land. Cook’s southern-most land would have been the land at the western extent of the arc. The coordinates Cook records in his journal and on his chart (38S, 211.7W or 148.53E) place Point Hicks several miles out to sea. Many believed that Cook had mistaken a cloudbank for land, a meteorological phenomenon not uncommon in this area. After Cook, early navigators who visited the area appear to have realised his mistake, and Point Hicks does not appear on their charts.
Land surveyors Fowler (1907) and Barker (1933), and marine surveyors Ingleton (1970) and Hilder (1970), have each taken Cook’s data and plotted them on a modern chart, and all conclude that Cook’s Point Hicks is out to sea and does not exist as a land feature.1 The map prepared by Barker for the Commonwealth Department of the Interior shows the coast in the area as laid down on Cook’s chart, with the modern coastline superimposed. Endeavour’s estimated course is shown. There are minor variations among the Fowler, Barker, Ingleton and Hilder plots because of different allowances for currents etc., but their results are essentially the same.
From the 1890s, several influential historians led by Professor Ernest Scott, unable to believe that Cook could have made an error, vigorously maintained that today’s Point Hicks (initially named as Cape Everard in 1852) was what Cook saw. This eventually resulted in Cape Everard being renamed as Point Hicks by the Victorian Government in 1970 to commemorate the bicentenary of Cook’s Endeavour voyage.
The persistence of Scott’s view has not been challenged by any published analysis of his position since Fowler’s articles of a century ago. This article focuses on a re-examination of Scott’s arguments, shows that he misread Cook, and presents evidence that Cape Everard cannot be Cook’s Point Hicks. A more detailed examination of the Point Hicks Controversy has recently been published elsewhere.2
The Point Hicks controversy shows how historical evidence can be distorted by an unwillingness to accept that revered or eminent individuals – including in this case James Cook, Ernest Scott and J.C. Beaglehole – could have got things wrong.
In 1798, George Bass was the next navigator after Cook to visit this coast. He could not find Cook’s Point Hicks.3 Matthew Flinders does not place Point Hicks on any of his charts of the area, and it does not appear on his 1814 or 1822 maps of Australia. Flinders’ example was followed by later map makers, and the name Point Hicks appears on very few maps prior to 1970.
Next to survey this coast was John Lort Stokes in 1843 in HMS Beagle. Point Hicks is not on his chart and there is no mention of it in his journal.4 Today’s Point Hicks remained nameless until 1852 when it was given the name Cape Everard by George Smythe, a Victorian Department of Crown Lands and Survey surveyor.5 Many sources erroneously attribute this naming to Stokes but, as with Point Hicks, it does not appear on his charts or in his journal.
Had any of these navigators found Point Hicks, given its finder and its historic significance as Cook’s first named place on the coast of Australia, it would have appeared on their charts, as do Cook’s other place names. Later navigators, Philip Gidley King (1880) and Admiral W.J.L. Wharton (1893), also recognised Cook’s error, suggesting other possible sites for Point Hicks.6
Image of map removed for copyright reasons
Admiralty Chart 3164 with Lt. Cook's Coastline and Track of H.M. Bark Endeavour. L. Barker. 1933.
Two prominent historians of the 1890s concluded that Cook’s Point Hicks was “apparently” or “probably” Cape Everard (today’s Point Hicks). These appear to be the first published assertions that Cape Everard is Cook’s Point Hicks. Bladen’s and Macdonald’s views assume greater importance since historian Professor Ernest Scott, whose views have proved the most influential in this controversy, later relied on them as “evidence” that Cook must have seen today’s Point Hicks.7
So how did Bladen and Macdonald come to this conclusion? No published paper has been found and the source may have been a map or maps. A probable source is Skene’s Victorian Department of Crown Lands and Survey (VDCLS) map of Victoria 1872.8 It shows today’s Point Hicks as a clearly projecting cape which is labelled “Cape Everard” in bold, with “Pt Hicks” beneath, and beneath that “Cook”.
It was a fleeting appearance, as similar VDCLS maps published in 1875 and 1876 both show only Cape Everard. Dropping of the name suggests that placing the name Point Hicks on a map was controversial. Significantly, the name Point Hicks does not appear on any British Hydrographic Department chart of this era. Surveyors and map makers of the time may have been aware of the position experienced navigators since Flinders had taken on the matter. None of them had connected Point Hicks with Cape Everard.
However, the key question is who put Point Hicks on the 1872 map alongside Cape Everard and why? As with Cape Everard, this was probably a VDCLS initiative. Maps after 1852 often showed Cape Everard as a projection on the coast and anyone plotting Endeavour’s course onto a map at this time would quickly realise that it was the nearest point of land to, and north of, Cook’s 8 a.m. position. It would be easy on a quick misreading to conclude that Cook’s reference to “the Southermost point of land we had in sight” was a reference to Cape Everard. Indeed, that was precisely what many historians would later do. Without seeing the 1872 map, Bladen and Macdonald may, of course, have arrived at similar conclusions themselves or from an unknown third party.
Image of map removed for copyright reasons
Capt. Cook’s Australian Landfall. T.W. Fowler. 1907.
While many experienced naval surveyors had earlier realised Cook’s error, Fowler’s 1907 article, 137 years after the event, was the first to directly question the whereabouts of Cook’s Point Hicks.9 Fowler’s appears to be the first published chart to show Cook’s Point Hicks in the sea some miles south of the real coast. Searching for an explanation, he ventures “it would appear that the observation was faulty, the compass was in error, or that a bank of clouds was mistaken for land.”
Later (1911), Fowler was more definite on the matter, concluding that there must have been a compass error of some 30 degrees, “the only other alternative being that the great navigator mistook a bank of cloud for land, a supposition which, in view of his great experience, is very unlikely”.10 Reverence for Cook had influenced his conclusion. Fowler suggested that Cook must have seen and named the top of a hill well to the west of today’s Point Hicks.
Fowler’s three possible explanations for Cook’s Point Hicks being in the sea (observation error, compass error and a cloudbank) are all advanced by one or more protagonists. Though Fowler, a land surveyor, dismisses the cloudbank hypothesis, navigators before and after him appear to accept it as the explanation.
Observation error would result from either the position from which the observation was made being incorrect, or an incorrect statement of Point Hicks’ coordinates. The first is ruled out by the fact that we have, from Fowler’s plot, a fairly precise location for Cook at 8 a.m. (later confirmed by Barker, Ingleton and Hilder). The estimated coordinates of Point Hicks are the same in Cook’s journal, on his chart and in the journals of others aboard Endeavour. All this data puts Cook’s Point Hicks well out to sea.
The possibility of compass error cannot be entirely eliminated. Such errors can vary from place to place, from onboard and geomagnetic sources. However, Barker’s map shows that Cook’s chart places the line of coast fairly accurately with the exception of his Point Hicks. So it would be strange if Cook’s positioning of Point Hicks from south of Cape Everard produced a result so markedly different.
Fowler’s conclusions were robustly disputed by the eminent Australian historian Professor Ernest Scott (1912) whose views are central to the Point Hicks controversy. They have influenced the debate for more than a century and merit close examination. Scott summarises his argument as follows.
(Cook) 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 be 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.11
But Scott quotes Cook out of context. What Cook says, in Wharton’s edition of the journal on which Scott relies, is “The Southermost point of land we had in sight, which bore from us W ¼ S, I judged to lay in the latitude of 38.0 S and in the Long. of 211.7 W” (see Fowler’s map).12
Today’s Point Hicks would indeed have been the southernmost point of real land nearest to Cook’s position. It would have been N 20 degrees W of his position. But Cook would not have seen it, as he was too far away for this low-lying land to be visible. However, and most importantly, Cook clearly says the southernmost point of land he saw lay W ¼ S of his position at 8 a.m., not to the north as Scott insists.
Scott’s reverence for Cook is indicated by the following passage. He just could not believe it possible that Cook had got it wrong.
Mr Fowler’s suggestion that “a bank of cloud was mistaken for land” would be fantastic, even if the observer was an amateur; but he was James Cook, the greatest navigator of his age, and one of the greatest of all time, the idea that he mistook a clot of mist for a cape is staggering.13
Nevertheless, Scott does concede that Cook may have made a different sort of mistake.
The signal merit of Mr Fowler’s contribution to this subject is his exposition of the error in Cook’s reckoning [i.e. Fowler showing that Cook’s Point Hicks was out at sea]. The position latitude 38S, longitude 148.53E is, he shows, in the open strait in 50 fathoms of water and is over 12 nautical miles from the nearest shore... But due weight must be attached to Cook’s words “I judged it to lay in the latitude of”... There are scores of precise “observations”, but only this one guess. That the guess is wrong is abundantly plain from Mr Fowler’s demonstration. But the miscalculation does not vitiate the clearness of the description of “the southernmost point of land then in sight” which can be no other than Cape Everard - Point Hicks of our modern maps.14
So Scott accepts Cook’s positioning of Point Hicks as being offshore, but questions his use of the word “judged”, raising the possibility of an observational error. Fowler (1916) suggests that Cook used the word “judged” because he was only able to take one observation of the point he believed he had seen.15 Usually a feature would be fixed by two or more observations taken as the ship moved along a coast.
However, even if Scott was right, Cook’s “guess” would be very seriously out. Cook’s observation is just south of due west, when Scott would have the feature 76 degrees away at almost due north—surely not the sort of error “the greatest navigator of his age” would make. While Scott does not raise it, there is still the possibility of compass error. Fowler says it might explain “some discrepancy, but probably not of 30 degrees”, far less than 76 degrees.
Further, Cook estimated the distance of Point Hicks from his 8 a.m. position as 22 sea miles, whereas today’s Point Hicks is only 13½ sea miles. Cook’s chart shows the coast in the vicinity of today’s Point Hicks reasonably accurately, but his Point Hicks is shown not on the coast where Scott says it is, but more than 20 miles south-west of it (see Barker’s map).
Despite Fowler’s comprehensive refutation of Scott’s claims, Scott’s insistence that today’s Point Hicks is Cook’s Point Hicks has been repeated by subsequent historians. Hilder (1970), himself a very experienced Pacific navigator, observed,
Ernest Scott’s objections to Fowler’s proof by plotting are so much hot air... Had Cook himself passed through Bass Strait on one of his later voyages, he would have deleted it from the chart without hesitation.16
Scott’s view continued to be zealously promoted by historians for the next 60 years. It is remarkable that none of Scott’s successors seemed to take the trouble to examine his arguments, along with those of Fowler and the opinions of navigators since the time of Cook.
In 1924, historians K.R. Cramp, honorary secretary of the Sydney-based Royal Australian Historical Society, Professor E. Scott, and Professor G.A. Wood of Sydney University, persuaded the Commonwealth Government to erect a plaque at today’s Point Hicks. The plaque, asserting that this was the point Cook named, is still there.
Scott’s most influential successor was Professor J.C. Beaglehole, widely regarded as the most eminent of Cook scholars. Beaglehole agrees with Scott that the southermost land we had in sight “could not have been in the position Cook assigned to it”. In a note about Cook’s sighting of Point Hicks in the first volume of the Cook Journals (1955), Beaglehole writes,
The matter has been conclusively treated by Ernest Scott... The cape is there, says Scott; it was called Cape Everard by Stokes on his survey in 1843... and today there is a lighthouse on it.17
Who would dare to question the combined might of Scott and Beaglehole, two eminent and highly regarded historians? Their opinion was to become the conventional wisdom and influences the views of historians and their readers to this day.
Given the confusion caused by Scott and Beaglehole it is little wonder that, as the bicentenary of Cook’s voyage approached, the Government of Victoria decided in 1969 to officially rename Cape Everard as Point Hicks. The final decision appears to have been strongly influenced by L.J. Blake, President of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, and a member of the Cook Bi-Centenary Committee of Victoria.
The announcement of the renaming event reopened the debate in the press. Maritime historian Geoffrey Ingleton reaffirmed that Cook’s Point Hicks was out to sea and concluded that Cook saw a “cloud formation giving the illusion of land” and “the false Point Hickes was placed on Cook’s charts. Naturally, when the early Australian navi-gators began to traverse the coast, Cook’s mistake was readily understood and the false feature, ‘Point Hicks’ expunged from the charts”.18 Two hundred years after Cook, Ingleton was the first to state publicly that what Cook had seen was a cloud formation.
Ingleton’s and other last minute warnings were ignored. At the renaming ceremony, Sir Henry Bolte, Premier of Victoria, acknowledged the controversy, but announced “In 1770 Captain James Cook named the Point on which we stand Point Hicks”.19
L.J. Blake was invited to speak, explaining that,
Arguments of course have long been rife in connection with the naming and location of this particular headland. The exact location has been argued by historians and navigators, but Professor Scott, a long time ago, and Professor Beaglehole more recently, identify the land seen that morning as the land on which we are standing.
A century after Scott, it is difficult to find an accurate version of events at 8 a.m. on 19 April 1770. Examples of Cook biographers since Scott (and besides Beaglehole) who have fallen into Scott’s error are Alan Villiers (2001), Vanessa Collingridge (2003), Frank McLynn (2012) and Rob Mundle (2013).20 Examples of other historians and authors in error on the matter are Manning Clark (1962), Andrew Sharp (1963) and Thomas Keneally (2009).21 An internet search reveals that Scott’s is still the dominant view.
Cook, himself always a stickler for accuracy, deserves better than the treatment meted out to him by historians and governments. What better way to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage than to ensure that the topographical features which he named are in the right place on today’s maps, and that the correct story of his brief time on this coast is better known? Cook left three names on the coast of Victoria (Point Hicks, Ram Head and Cape Howe) and two of these are in the wrong place on today’s maps.22 Cook’s mighty achievements and small mistakes deserve our belated recognition.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 26, volume 38, number 2 (2015).
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