Endeavour’s movements near Point Hicks, 1770, plotted against the real coast line. Cook’s positions for Point Hicks, Ram Head and Cape Howe are shown. These reflect minor errors in Cook’s estimates of his position due to the limitations of the navigational technology of the time. Green lines show the extent of “land” seen at 6 am, 8 am and at noon according to Cook’s Endeavour journal entries. Approximate areas of the cloudbank, or illusions of land, are also shown.
For too long misunderstanding has surrounded the location of Point Hicks, the first place name that Captain Cook bestowed on the coast of Australia. As James Cook approached this coast for the first time at 8 am on 20 April, 1770, he named what he believed was a land feature out to the west as Point Hicks. Lieutenant Zachary Hicks was the officer of the watch, and had made this first sighting. Cook recorded his estimate of the position of Point Hicks as 38° 0′ S and 211° 07′ W, a point well out to sea from the actual coast. Later navigators assumed from their own experience that Cook had mistaken a cloudbank for land—Cook’s Point Hicks simply did not exist as a land feature.
However, two hundred and fifty years later, many people (including some well versed in Cook’s exploits) believe that Cook gave that name to a location on the actual coast to the north of his 8 am position, known from 1852 until 1970 as Cape Everard and, officially, since 1970 as Point Hicks.
This article, presented in two parts, explores why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, this belief still persists. Here, in Part 1, the evidence for the cloudbank hypothesis is examined. Disbelief that Cook could have mistaken a cloudbank for land has led to dismissal of the cloudbank hypothesis by some historians, fuelling the search for alternative explanations that will be examined in the second part of this article. Part 2 will argue that the “evidence” for Cape Everard being Cook’s Point Hicks results from an elementary misreading of Cook’s Endeavour journal. The eminent early twentieth century historian Ernest Scott was the key proponent for this idea. Despite the protests of navigators and surveyors, who I believe are the real experts in such matters, Scott convinced other historians, including J.C. Beaglehole, the well-respected Cook biographer and editor of Cook’s Journals. This published record has informed the views of governments and readers to this day.
The cloudbank hypothesis has received little previous analysis. Evidence is presented here that this was, and is, a common phenomenon, and that Cook’s own data strongly supports the hypothesis.
The idea of Cook mistaking a cloudbank for land might appear incredible to today’s lay person, as it did to the historian Ernest Scott more than a century ago. But there is plenty of evidence to support this hypothesis.
Responding to an earlier article by land surveyor Thomas Walker Fowler, Scott wrote, 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… we may be quite sure that when Cook named “a point of land” it was a point of land and not a meteorological freak.1
Fowler had pointed out that “banks of cloud close to the horizon do assume appearances resembling distant land that would deceive the most experienced”.2 He cited the journals of Captain Tobias Furneaux in Adventure in 1773 (during Cook’s Second Voyage), and Matthew Flinders and George Bass in Norfolk in 1798, to show that all were similarly deceived in the same area as Cook. Flinders recorded that the illusion persisted all afternoon, evidence that these were not necessarily fleeting deceptions. Early navigators were aware of this illusion, and recognised Cook’s error. Bass and Flinders could not find any land feature that met Cook’s description, so Flinders, and later John Lort Stokes, left Point Hicks off their charts.
Before Cook’s voyage, the search for a southern continent had led to a number of apparent sightings of land in the Pacific Ocean, exciting speculation that these were parts of the large land mass that some believed had to exist to balance the continents in the northern hemisphere. Alexander Dalrymple, a proponent of the existence of the continent, showed these on a chart that he presented to Joseph Banks before the Endeavour voyage. Shortly before Cook’s departure from Britain, Captain Wallis in Dolphin had returned having visited Tahiti, and observed apparent land, possibly the continent, to its south. Cook’s secret instructions charged him with investigating this sighting, so soon as the Observation of the Transit of the Planet Venus shall be finished and observe the following Instructions. You are to proceed to the southward in order to make discovery of the Continent above-mentioned until you arrive in the Latitude of 40°, unless you sooner fall in with it. But not having discover’d it or any Evident sign of it in that Run, you are to proceed in search of it to the Westward between the Latitude before mentioned and the Latitude of 35° until you discover it, or fall in with the Eastern side of the Land discover’d by Tasman and now called New Zeland.3
Cook duly sailed south from the Society Islands, then west, but found no land until he reached New Zealand. It seems that Wallis and Dolphin’s company had been deceived. In time the sightings that Dalrymple had recorded also turned out not to be land at all, or small islands. There was no Great South Land.
Sailors of Cook’s time were familiar with the illusion of clouds or fog being mistaken for land, and of its enduring nature. They referred to the phenomenon as “Cape Flyaway”. Joseph Banks joined in. On 5 October, 1769, as Endeavour approached the coast of New Zealand, he wrote, “Our old enemy Cape fly away entertained us for three hours this morn all of which time there were many opinions in the ship, some said it was land and other Clouds which at last however plainly appeard”.4
Similar occurrences from the Endeavour voyage are recorded by both Banks and Cook in their journals. On 9 January, 1769, Banks wrote, “Clouds to the westward appear so like land this morn that even our first Lieutenant who prided himself on His judgement in this particular was deceivd”. On 16 August, 1769, Cook wrote, “At 8 AM, saw the appearances of high land to the Eastward bore up to wards it, but at 10 we discover’d it to be only Clowds at which we haule’d our wind to the southward”. On the same day, Banks wrote, “Soon after we rose this morn we were told that land was in sight; it provd to be a cloud but at first sight was so like land that it deceivd every man in the ship, even Tupia gave it a name. The ship bore down towards it but in about 3 hours all hands were convincd that it was but a cloud”.
While historians and lay people may find it hard to believe that Cook could mistake a cloudbank for land, experienced early mariners Flinders, Stokes, and Philip Gidley King, all familiar with this coast, recognised Cook’s error. The twentieth century surveyors and navigators Thomas Walker Fowler, L. Barker, Brett Hilder and Geoffrey Ingleton have, apparently independently, plotted Cook’s data on a modern chart, and all conclude that Cook’s Point Hicks was a point out at sea far from actual land.5
As early as 1872, a Melbourne newspaper article about the location of Point Hicks recorded that, among geographers, “it has been assumed that Cook must have been deceived by optical illusion, due to some exceptional condition of the atmosphere”.6 Nearly a century later, Pacific navigator and hydrographer Captain Hilder showed “cloud-land” on his chart of Endeavour’s movements in the area,7 while maritime historian Geoffrey Ingleton reaffirmed that Cook’s Point Hicks was out at sea. Ingleton concluded that Cook saw “a cloud formation giving the illusion of land”.8 The same phenomenon is observed today in this area, as reported by yachtsmen at Mallacoota.
Close examination of Cook’s Endeavour Journal entries reveals further evidence that he was deceived by cloudbanks on this important day.9 While the focus of many writers has been on Cook’s first observation of the extent of apparent land at 6 am, the significance of two later observations has been overlooked.
Cook first observed the apparent coast “extending from NE to West at the distance of 5 or 6 Leagues” at 6 am (see accompanying map). His second observation was made two hours later, at 8 am, when he placed Point Hicks at “The Southermost Point of land we had in sight which bore from us W¼S”. He observed, “To the Southward of this point we could see no land and yet it was very clear in that quarter”. At the same time the ship “bore away along shore NE for the Eastermost Land we had in sight”. So, Cook’s observation of apparent land to the west persisted for two hours between 6 and 8 am, as did the apparent land to the north east. This duration is consistent with other records of the persistence of this cloud phenomenon.
Cook’s third observation was at noon, four hours later. From here, he wrote, he saw “extremes of the land extending from NW to ENE”. To the north west Cook was now observing the real coast, but his observation of “land” to the east north east (where there is no land) suggests that the cloudbank in this quarter, observed to the north east at 6 am, still persisted.
Cook’s observations at 8 am and at noon lend further credence to the cloudbank hypothesis. There are three observations of apparent, rather than real, land (at 6 am, at 8 am, and at noon), and the observations at 8 am and noon are consistent with the 6 am observations. Apparent land was seen on all three occasions, and in the same quarters in which it was first observed at 6 am. This consistency gives far greater certainty to what Cook actually saw—illusions of land to the west and north east. It also discounts the notion that he made a recording error at 8 am that might account for his Point Hicks being out at sea.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 33, volume 43, number 1 (2020).
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