In previous articles in Cook’s Log I have identified coastal features named by James Cook in 1770, on the coasts of Victoria and New South Wales, Australia, that appear in the wrong place on today’s maps and charts.1 Cape St George and Long Nose at Jervis Bay, south of Sydney, New South Wales, are two more of these misplaced capes. Considerable confusion still exists about what Cook saw and named here.
By the time Endeavour reached Australia’s eastern shores her company had been at sea for nearly two years and were “sighing for roast beef”. Cook had no time for a close survey of this unexplored and uncharted coast. With speed the essence, the safety of the ship required sailing well out to sea to avoid running on to unknown inshore shoals or a lee shore. Hence most of the features that Cook described and named are elevated and distinctive, standing out from the wooded coast and hills of the hinterland. Lack of appreciation of the distance Cook was sailing from the shore has been a major reason for the later misplacement of the features he named at Jervis Bay. A secondary reason has been ambiguity arising from Cook’s use of the word “point”.
On 24 April, 1770, Cook wrote in his journal
being then by obsern in the Latde of 35 degrees 10 minutes S and Longde 208 degrees 51 minutes W. A point of land which I named Cape St George we having discover’d it on that Saints day, bore West distant 19 Miles2
The next day, Cook recorded
About 2 leagues to the northward of Cape St George the Shore seems to form a bay which appeard to be shelterd from the NE winds but as we had the wind it was not in my power to look into it… The north point of this bay on account of its figure I named Long Nose, Latitude 35 degrees 4 minutes S.3
The most distinctive feature of the entrance to Jervis Bay is the northern head, a sheer cliff face more than 80m high meeting the bay at today’s Point Perpendicular. Cook’s chart and journal show that he was three or four leagues offshore, between 16 and 22 km. From that distance he would have been able to clearly see Point Perpendicular but not today’s Longnose Point, a low peninsula about three kilometres to its north west. Point Perpendicular is the feature that Cook saw and named as Long Nose.
Today’s Cape St George is at much the same latitude as Cook places it, 35o 10′ S. It is a low grassy point about 40 metres above the sea. Cook puts it at 19 nautical miles due west of his noon position on 24 April, 1770, which was 35o 10′ S.
However, if Endeavour was 19 nautical miles east of today’s Cape St George, the cape would barely have been visible because of the curvature of the earth. Assuming the cape was viewed from 18 metres up in the rigging of the ship, and the ship was 19 nautical miles from the cape, the first 31 metres of the 40 m cape would be below the horizon.4 Cook could not have seen today’s Cape St George from 19 nautical miles.
So what did Cook see and name as Cape St George? There seems little doubt to me that it was a feature marked on today’s maps as Steamers Head. This lies about two kilometres south west of today’s Cape St George. A high and distinctive cliff with a sheer golden sandstone face, it would have stood out as a feature on this otherwise relatively low lying coast where trees and scrub run down to the shore. Indeed this is the highest sea cliff on the New South Wales coast at 135 m, and far higher than the coast to either side of it. From 19 miles out to sea it would appear as a 100 m cliff.
How did Cape St George and Long Nose come to be in the wrong place on today’s maps, and where did today’s St Georges Head, still regarded by some as Cook’s Cape St George, come from?
Confusion about the whereabouts of Cape St George and Long Nose begins with the earliest explorers after Cook, and today’s errors have their origins before 1800. Some of these misplacements may be explained by Cook’s use of the term “point of land” which suggests a projection or peninsula, but the term could also be construed as a place, as in “a point on the route”. This has not stopped people going in search of projections or peninsulas to which to attach Cook’s names.
Following his whaleboat voyage along this coast in 1797-8, George Bass decided that today’s Longnose Point was the Long Nose of James Cook. Bass wrote
it must be readily granted by any one who has seen the place that when to the southward of the bay, which was Capt. Cook’s situation when he speaks of Long Nose as forming its northern extremity, then Point Perpendicular has no visible appearance of a projection or point, but seems to be in a line with the rest of the cliffs; whereas Cuckold’s Point, as Capt. Bowen has called it, is so conspicuous as not to fail of being remarked as a point, notwithstanding its being some distance within the entrance of the bay. It may therefore, I imagine, be fairly concluded that the Cuckold’s Point of Capt. Bowen is the Long Nose Point of Capt. Cook5
Bass’s Long Nose Point (note that he has added “point” to Cook’s name) is indeed a point, but it is very low lying, and could not have been seen from Cook from his position far out to sea. Bass’s error was perpetuated on Admiralty charts by Flinders6 and Stokes,7 and has appeared on hydrographic charts to this day.8 The few modern accounts by historians of the area that mention the feature also accept Bass’s placement of Cook’s Long Nose.9
Over the years Cape St George has appeared on maps in a variety of places and guises, as Cape George, St Georges Cape, St George Head and St Georges Head. Today’s maps show both Cape St George and St Georges Head, and both are still advanced as the location Cook named. He named neither of them.
Cook’s use of the word “point” may also have influenced the naming of St Georges Head, a point or peninsula about four kilometres south west of Steamers Head and the eastern point of Wreck Bay. It first appeared on land maps following European settlement of the area in the 1830s, and seems likely to have resulted from land-based exploration—Cook had written of a point, Cape St George was not a point, so this must be it. This feature is certainly a point at the end of a peninsula, but it is very low lying, and would not be visible at any distance from the shore.
Along with Cape St George, Stokes first placed it on Admiralty charts in 1851, where it remains today.10 The National Trust of Australia (ACT) in their book The Heritage of Jervis Bay assert that Cook “gave the name St George Head [the official name is now St Georges Head] to the northern point of the bay to the south, later named Wreck Bay”.11 That 1988 book is one of very few published accounts of Jervis Bay’s history and heritage, and is still an important source of information.
The Australian Government’s Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development website page on Jervis Bay history, apparently using the National Trust publication as their source, describes Cook’s 1770 sighting as “Captain Cook sighted Jervis Bay and named St George’s Head”.12 However this website correctly describes Point Perpendicular as being Cook’s Long Nose.
George Bass, to his credit, was the first to record that today’s Steamers Head was Cook’s Cape St George, though he did not realise this until he returned from his voyage
at about the distance to the southward of Jervis Bay which Capt. Cook fixes his Cape George, there is a high mountainous point or cape that forms the northern extreme of the bight at the back of which the Pidgeon House is situated. About 2 miles to the southward of this cape I had an observation which gave latitude 35.14, but I then had no idea of its being Cape George13
This describes Steamers Head in terms of both its physical appearance and its position on the coast. Bass’s observed latitude is not two but about three and a half nautical miles south of Steamers Head. Bass’s latitudes are understandably approximate as his observations were taken from a small pitching vessel, and his estimation of the distance is a qualified one. Unfortunately Bass’s placement of Cape St George at Steamers Head has never influenced maps or charts.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 30, volume 41, number 2 (2018).
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