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 placename that Captain Cook bestowed on the coast of Australia. As he approached this coast on 20 April, 1770, he named what he believed was a land feature out to the west as Point Hicks. Many people believe that Cook gave that name to a location on the actual coast to the north, known from 1852 until 1970 as Cape Everard, and officially since 1970 as Point Hicks.
This article, presented in two parts, explores why this belief persists.
Part 1 of this article argued that, since many people could not believe that Cook could have mistaken a cloudbank for land, they had searched for other explanations.1 Evidence was presented that cloudbanks giving the appearance of land were, and are, a common phenomenon, and that Cook’s own data strongly supports the hypothesis that he, and others in Endeavour, were deceived by cloudbanks appearing as land from 6 am until noon on that day.
Part 2 of the article examines why many people still believe that the former Cape Everard is Cook’s Point Hicks.
Over the years since 1770, explanations have been sought for Cook’s positioning of Point Hicks out at sea. Before 1800, George Bass and Matthew Flinders had concluded that Point Hicks did not exist as a land feature and, based on their own experiences, it seems likely that they concluded that Cook had been deceived by cloudbanks. Failure to find Cook’s Point Hicks led to a range of theories to explain what had occurred:
Given the evidence Cook left, this idea seems highly unlikely. In the Endeavour Journal, Cook gave his estimated position at 8 am, the bearing from this position to Point Hicks, together with its coordinates. Records from the ship’s log, his soundings and chart of the coast provide further data. Each piece of this information is consistent with the other pieces, and correlates with Endeavour’s earlier and later track on that day. It is also consistent with his recordings of the extent of “land” seen at 6 am, at 8 am, and at noon.2 Importantly, it also accords with Cook’s usual precise recording of his observations.
As recorded in the Endeavour journal, Cook had checked the variation of the ship’s compass that morning, and found it to be 8 degrees 7 minutes east. We can discount gross compass errors on the basis of earlier and later observations made in the area on that day. Modern plotting of Endeavour’s track also demonstrates that Cook’s minor errors in estimating his position (due to the limitations of navigational technology at that time) are broadly consistent. Both Ram Head and Cape Howe, named in the next few hours, show similar errors as that for Point Hicks.
What features on the actual coast could Cook have seen at 8 am, and could one of these be the Point Hicks he named? Hills near the real coast would have been visible before the low-lying coastline was seen, and it has been suggested that one of these was what Cook saw and named. Various theories have been put forward over the years.3 All of them rely on the notion that Cook’s coordinates for Point Hicks were recorded incorrectly, and the evidence above indicates otherwise.
Margaret Cameron-Ash, a lawyer by training, has recently put forward an explanation for Cook’s Point Hicks being out at sea.4 She sets out a case that he deliberately did so under orders from the Admiralty, to create the impression that there was land there, his aim being to disguise the existence of Bass Strait, and dissuade the French from colonising Tasmania. Part of her case rests on historian Ernest Scott’s notion that Cook could not possibly have mistaken a cloudbank for land. Her evidence for this thesis is circumstantial, and has been critically examined elsewhere.5
From earlier than 1850 the current Point Hicks (the former Cape Everard) was assumed, by some local people at least, to be the feature Cook saw.6 It was the nearest land to, and almost due north of, Cook’s 8 am position, and Cook had recorded Point Hicks as the “Southermost Point of land we had in sight”. It was assumed that this land must have been what he was referring to. By the early 1900s, historian Ernest Scott had put forward the same explanation, and had begun a campaign to have Cape Everard renamed as Point Hicks. It seems that Scott was aware of what he refers to as “the traditional view” that had prevailed from at least 1850.7 As shown in the first part of this article, Scott’s reverence for Cook would not allow him to accept the cloudbank hypothesis, leading to his espousal of this earlier assumption. [Cook] 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.8
Scott is right, the southernmost point of real land nearest to Cook’s 8 am position was, and is, Cape Everard. This fact is at the heart of the error—it seems on the face of it to be a plausible explanation. However, there are several fundamental errors in Scott’s proposition.
First, he misquotes Cook who recorded, “The Southermost Point of land we had in sight which bore W¼S I judged to lay in the Latitude of 38 o0′ S and in the Longitude of 211 o 07′ W”. This puts Point Hicks just south of west, and several leagues from, his 8 am position, a long way from where Cape Everard lies almost due north. Secondly, Thomas Walker Fowler notes that Cook puts Point Hicks 22 nautical miles from his 8 am position,9 while Cape Everard is about half that distance. Thirdly, because of the curvature of the earth, Cook would have been too far away to be able to see the low-lying point at Cape Everard from his ship’s position at 8 am. Fourthly, Cook’s purpose in naming coastal features was for the guidance of future navigators. Hence these features needed to be prominent and distinctive so as to be readily recognisable from out at sea. Cape Everard does not meet this criterion, so it is very unlikely that Cook would have named it, even if he had been able to see it.
It is important to note Scott’s words, “We therefore have to infer what Cook’s Point Hicks was from his descriptive words”. Scott’s reasoning is constructed on an inference. Despite a published debate extending over several years, the expert opinions of Fowler, a well-regarded surveyor, were shouted down by the far more eminent Scott, despite Scott’s complete lack of any maritime or surveying experience.10
It seems remarkable that none of Scott’s successors seemed to have taken the trouble to examine Scott’s arguments, along with those of Fowler, and the opinions of other people who were navigators.
In its turn, reverence for eminent historian Scott resulted in the acceptance of his views by other leading historians of his day, including the highly regarded J C Beaglehole.
In Beaglehole’s 1955 edition of Cook’s Endeavour journal, he commented Some confusion and controversy have arisen over Point Hicks, and even its existence… ‘The Southermost Point of land we had in sight’, however, could not have been in the position that Cook assigned to it, for that was in the open sea in 50 fathoms of water and over twelve nautical miles from the nearest shore. The matter has been conclusively treated by Ernest Scott, ‘English and French Navigators on the Victorian Coast’, in the Victorian Historical Magazine, II (1912) pp. 146-51. The cape is there says Scott.11
Many years later, in his biography of Cook, Beaglehole wrote at 6 Hicks saw the land, extending from north-east to west five or six leagues off. The ship had been heading towards Bass Strait; she was held on this western course for two hours more, and then Cook bore away for the easternmost land in sight, calling the southernmost point of land he could at that time see Point Hicks. It is now known as Cape Everard.12
Later historians accepted Scott’s and Beaglehole’s views as authoritative. As a result, the published record of this event to this day still largely reflects Scott’s perspective. Perhaps this situation is understandable. As Scott himself wrote in his Preface to “Terre Napoleon” in 1910 however much disposed one may be to form one’s opinions on tested facts apart from the writings of historians, several lifetimes would not be sufficient for a man to inquire for himself into the truth of a bare fraction of the conclusions with which research is concerned.13
A century after Scott it is difficult to find an accurate version of what was seen and named when the Australian east coast was first sighted by those aboard Endeavour. There are many Cook writers who have fallen into Scott’s error.14
Scott’s views have also influenced governments. In 1924 distinguished historians, including Scott, combined to persuade the Commonwealth government to erect a plaque at Cape Everard claiming that it was Cook’s Point Hicks. The plaque is still there.
In 1970, to commemorate the bicentenary of Cook’s voyage the government of Victoria was persuaded, again by historians, and despite protests by navigators, to rename Cape Everard as Point Hicks, a name it still bears.15
This fake Point Hicks, therefore, appears on all modern maps, charts, and satellite navigation screens. In the current absence of any information on the ground to the contrary, today’s visitors to this land feature may well conclude that they are visiting the first land feature on the Australia coast named by Cook. There is little apparent interest by the public authorities in the State of Victoria in recognising and correcting this error.
Historians write books, but sailors seldom do. The expert views of experienced mariners Flinders, John Lort Stokes, Philip Gidley King, as well as twentieth century surveyors and navigators Thomas Fowler, L. Barker, Geoffrey Ingleton and Brett Hilder, have received far less public exposure and consideration.16 It is only recently that more detailed analysis of the Point Hicks controversy has revealed the chain of events leading to the current widespread misunderstanding.17 Captain Brett Hilder, a very experienced Pacific navigator and hydrographer, who provides the most elegant proof of Endeavour’s track near today’s Point Hicks, wrote despairingly, “academics tend to believe the printed word of previous scholars rather than the printed charts of practical men who are the real experts in the matter of charting a coastline”.18
After 250 years of error it is important to the memory of Cook, a stickler for accuracy, that there is a better understanding of what he really saw and named on the coast of Australia in 1770. Should today’s Point Hicks revert to its pre-1970 name of Cape Everard? It is perhaps ironic that those who have opposed that renaming have in most cases supported its retention. However, there are good reasons for the retention. Hilder’s view is that today’s Point Hicks was “certainly part of the land first seen by Hicks and I think should be left bearing his name to perpetuate the historic landfall”.19 Historian Robert Haldane has a similar view, “Cook’s intention to name the area of his first landfall after Zachary Hicks has been fulfilled”.20
Today’s visitors and future generations should be under no illusions about what Cook named and why today’s Point Hicks is where it is. An appropriately worded commemorative plaque at today’s Point Hicks would serve this purpose and should point out the importance of Cook’s Ram Head.21
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 8, volume 43, number 2 (2020).
your email address will not be published