Today’s visitor to the coastal end of the border between the Australian States of New South Wales and Queensland is confronted with the largest memorial to James Cook on the Australian coast.
It was placed in the town of Coolangatta, QLD, to commemorate the Cook Bicentenary in 1970, marking the site then believed by some to be Cook’s Point Danger. However, Cook’s Endeavour Journal precisely locates his Point Danger at today’s Fingal Head, several kilometres further south.
Given the detailed and precise description that Cook gave of the location of Point Danger, it is very hard to understand why there has been so much controversy over its location for so long. Winds southerly a fresh gale with which we steerd North along shore until sun-set at which time we discovered breakers ahead and on our larboard bow, being at this time in 20 fathom water and about 5 Miles from the land. Hauld off east until 8 oClock at which time we had run 8 Miles and had increased our depth of water to 44 fathoms. We than brought too with her head to the Eastward and lay on this tack until 10 oClock when having increased our soundings to 78 fathom we wore and lay with her head in shore until 5 oClock AM when we made sail. At day light we were Surprised in finding our selves farther to the southward than we were in the evening and yet it had blowen strong Southerly all night. We now saw the breakers again within us which we passed at a distance of 1 League, they lay in the Latde of 28º8′ and stretch off East two Leagues from a point under which there is a small Island, there situation may always be found by the peaked mountain before mentioned which bears SWBW from them and on this account I have named [it] Mount Warning. It lies 7 or 8 Leagues inland in the latitude of 28º22′ S, the land is high and hilly about it but it is conspicuous enough to be distinguished from everything else. The point off which these shoals lay I have named Point Danger.1
On 16 May, 1770, Cook was sailing smartly northwards under the influence of a fresh southerly gale. It was sunset, and ahead of him he saw breakers ahead stretching six miles out to sea from the land. It was a projection or reef, a serious hazard even though he was then in 20 fathoms (about 120 feet) of water and five miles offshore. He ordered a change of course out to sea to the east as darkness was falling, not at all sure what hazards lay ahead. By 8 pm he had sailed a further eight miles offshore, and was 13 miles from land. He was relieved to find that the depth of water beneath the ship was now 44 fathoms, and by 10 pm it had increased to 78 fathoms. He was safe for the night. Here he waited until daylight, when he found that the ship was 17 miles further south than the previous evening, despite a southerly gale raging all night. We now know it was the result of the south-flowing East Australian Current that is strongest off Cape Byron, just to the south. Cook again saw the breakers on the reef between the ship and shore. They were passed, as Endeavour sailed north, at a distance of about three miles.
Recognising that the reef represented a considerable hazard to ships, as it ran so far off shore at six miles, he took considerable pains to describe its location, and emphasised the threat in his naming of both Point Danger and Mount Warning. Cook's intentions are also clearly expressed in the larger scale charts he made which include Point Danger. He described the breakers as stretching off six miles from “a point under which there is a small island”, naming this point as Point Danger. To confirm the position of the breakers he gave a bearing from them to Mount Warning.
Today’s Point Danger lies about three miles north from the breakers, and from it Mount Warning is on a different bearing. There is no island or reef in the vicinity of today’s Point Danger. Today’s Fingal Head lies near the town of Tweed Heads, New South Wales. From it Mount Warning is on the bearing that Cook gave. A small island lies just less than half a mile north east of Fingal Head. It is known today as Cook Island. Cook’s purpose in naming Point Danger was as a warning to mariners. This purpose would not have been served had he named the feature that currently bears that name.
How did Point Danger come to be in its current position? Careful research by Rupert Gerritsen has traced the history of the error, and identified an 1831 chart as the initial source of today’s misplacement.2 In 1823, the surveyor John Oxley explored this area, and reported Fingal Head as being Cook’s Point Danger. In 1822 it had been similarly identified by Captain William Edwardson in Snapper. In 1827 Phillip Parker King also concurred with this view.
In 1828, William Johns, Master of Rainbow, produced a chart (published in 1831) showing Point Danger in its current position, though it is unclear how he reached this conclusion. He shows the nearby river as the Clarence, whereas Oxley had named it in 1823 as the Tweed, suggesting that Johns may not have been aware of Oxley’s work.
Land surveyor Robert Dixon in his 1840 survey chose to follow Johns’s positioning of Point Danger rather than Oxley’s, though he followed Oxley rather than Johns by naming the river as the Tweed. It seems possible that the small scale of some of Cook’s charts of the area may have led Johns and/or Dixon to assume that Cook was naming the most prominent point in the area. Neither of them seems to have read Cook’s Journal. Whatever the reason, Point Danger remains misplaced on maps and charts to this day.
The decision to erect a Captain Cook Memorial and Lighthouse in 1970 brought a move by Thomas Grant of Kingscliff, New South Wales, to have Fingal Head declared by the New South Wales Geographical Names Board as the real Point Danger.3 It was not a mere matter of names. A far more serious issue was that the mis-identified Point Danger forms part of the official border between New South Wales and Queensland, and to move the border would have serious bureaucratic repercussions. In 1971 the Board decided, little doubt exists that the feature named Point Danger by Captain Cook was in actual fact the feature now known at Fingal Head. However, as the name has been known in its present position for over 130 years and having in mind the wording of the letters Patent of 6 June, 1859, in which the position of the QLD-New South Wales border is linked with Point Danger, the Board is not prepared to assign the name to any feature or position other than that to which it is currently associated.4
Despite this decision, the question of Point Danger continued to be raised. The Geographical Names Board authorised a historical re-enactment of Cook’s voyage in November 1989. Following examination of the area from the sea, Acting Chief Surveyor Ron Benjamin concluded that, “From the re-enactment voyage, I now have no doubt that Captain Cook’s, ‘point of land under which lies a small island’… was intended to be today’s Fingal Head”.5 Other senior surveyors aboard concurred.
However, in 1998, the New South Wales Geographical Names Board adopted a different view, concluding, From an analysis of Cook’s Private Log, the Official Log of the ‘Endeavour’, Cook’s Journal and the journals of Cook’s Officers, and relating the analysis to modern nautical charts and maps of the area, it is suggested that the following conclusions may be drawn: It seems reasonably certain that Fingal Head was not considered by Cook to be Point Danger; or any part of his Point Danger… It is the opinion of the Geographical Names Board Committee therefore that the present Point Danger is correctly designated… However, even if the wider interpretation of Cook’s Point Danger… is accepted, it still comes down to the fact that the present Point Danger is only part of Cook’s Point Danger on the coastline… It is the opinion of the Geographical Names Board Committee therefore that the present Point Danger is correctly designated. However no claim is made that this analysis ‘proves’ these facts… The controversy continues, but there is agreement that the two landmark names, Point Danger and Fingal Head should remain as they are currently named.6
Despite this pronouncement, the debate continued. Gerritsen explained, Following representations made by Ken Gold in 2007, which included the presentation of expert opinion from Dr Nigel Erskine of the Australian National Maritime Museum, the Geographical Names Board considered the matter yet again and informed him that: “The Board advised that the records for Point Danger and Fingal Head be changed to reflect both the historical versions of the naming of Cooks Point Danger. The Board stated that no change will be made to the legal status of either of these names nor the plaques at either headland”. Shortly after, Mr Chris Hartcher informed the Parliament of New South Wales of this, on 9 April 2009.7
Despite all of the primary source evidence and expert opinion, the New South Wales Geographical Names Register still describes today’s Point Danger as follows. Description: A rocky point of land extending into the Coral Sea, on the border between New South Wales and Queensland. Origin: Named by Lt. James Cook - who charted Point Danger on 16.5.1770. The Board acknowledges strong evidence & support for interpretation of Cook’s Point Danger being applied to Point Danger or Fingal Head. The passage of time since Cook’s voyage and differing opinions precludes a definitive view. History: Whilst acknowledging 2 accepted origins the Board has resolved that the two landmark names should remain as they are currently named.8
The entry for Fingal Head contains the same acknowledgement.
The Queensland Place Names Register is less equivocal about today’s Point Danger: Named by Lieutenant James Cook RN (1728-1779) navigator on 16 May 1770, because of the reefs east of Cook Island (named later). Refer J.C. Beaglehole. The voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771. Cambridge (UK), 1968, p.317.9
It is disappointing that, despite the clear primary source evidence, these inaccurate and conflicting official views still persist 250 years after Cook’s naming. While renaming would present difficulties, is it too much to ask that naming authorities amend their historical notes to correctly represent Cook’s intentions, and that plaques be erected in both places explaining the naming error?
Fingal Head, Cook’s Point Danger, is worth visiting today for its views of the reef, the dangers of which Cook took such pains to alert future mariners. Had he arrived in this area an hour or two later, and after nightfall, it might have been where his voyage ended—running into this long projecting reef, a lava flow from the time when Mount Warning was an active volcano. Cook’s Island can also be viewed from the Fingal Head lighthouse where, looking inland, the summit of Mount Warning can just be seen. Take a compass and you will find that it is on the bearing that Cook records.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 25, volume 43, number 4 (2020).
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