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Cook’s Point Hicks: Reports from the 1870s

 

In a previous article about Point Hicks, the first name that Cook bestowed on the coast of Australia, I presented evidence that the feature shown on today’s maps and charts as Point Hicks is not Cook’s Point Hicks, and that what Cook saw and named was not a land feature but a cloud bank.1 

 

I now report on recent research showing that it was popularly believed before 1853 that today’s Point Hicks was what Cook saw and named, despite the fact that Matthew Flinders and John Lort Stokes appear to have recognised Cook’s mistake and did not show it on their charts.  I have also found a published source from 1872 claiming that what Cook saw and named as Point Hicks must have been an optical illusion.  It predates Thomas Walker Fowler’s article of 1907, previously thought to have been the first publication to claim that Cook’s Point Hicks did not exist as a land feature. 

 

Historian Ernest Scott, in his influential 1912 article about English and French Navigators on the Victorian Coast,2 supports his argument that Cook’s Point Hicks is actually Cape Everard by citing two prominent historians of the 1890s.  F.M. Bladen and A.C. Macdonald both had made qualified statements to this effect.  Bladen said the point was “apparently identical” with that known as Cape Everard, while Macdonald said it was “probably identical”.

 

In an article in 2014,3 I concluded that, since no published paper had been found, Bladen’s and Macdonald’s source may have been a map—Skene’s Victorian Department of Crown Lands and Survey map of Victoria of 1872.  This map shows today’s Point Hicks as a clearly projecting cape labelled “Cape Everard” in bold, with “Point Hicks” beneath, and beneath that “Cook”. 

 

Further research now suggests that it was widely accepted from at least 1870 (and probably locally before 1853), that Cape Everard was Cook’s Point Hicks, and this belief was reflected in the naming on Skene’s map.  Cape Everard appeared earlier on John Arrowsmith’s “Map of the Province of Victoria” in 1853, following a land survey of this coast made by George Douglas Smythe, a Victorian Department of Crown Lands and Survey surveyor, in 1852.  It appears that Smythe added new names, including Cape Everard and Little Rame Head, to his survey map.  Arrowsmith, the leading London map publisher of the time, would have been aware that there was some doubt about the existence of Point Hicks as a land feature, and that Flinders had omitted it from his charts.  On this basis it seems likely that he had accepted Smythe’s naming of Cape Everard.

 

Controversy about the naming of Cape Everard surfaced in 1870, at the time of the centenary of Cook’s arrival on the coast of Australia, in the local newspaper The Gippsland Times.
It is not generally known that on the 19th of the present month it will be exactly one hundred years since Captain Cook appeared on the coast of New Holland. The first land touched by the illustrious navigator was Point Hicks, on the Ninety Mile Beach, between Cape Howe and the Snowy River. It is difficult to understand why the name was changed from Point Hicks to Mount [sic] Everard, a change which has needlessly thrown into obscurity the seaman who sighted land, and whose name appears on many of the charts to this day.4

 

The above statement, which predates publication of Skene’s map in 1872, appears to refer to the Map of the Province of Victoria of 1853, and suggests that Cape Everard had been regarded locally as Cook’s Point Hicks prior to 1853.  Surveyor Smythe was not from this area, and was probably unaware of its links with Cook.  Anyone plotting Cook’s course on a map at that time would quickly realise that Cape Everard was the nearest point of land to, and north of, Cook’s 8 am position on 19 April, 1770.  A quick misreading of Cook’s reference to “the Southermost land we had in sight” (which concluded “which bore W 1/4 S”) might lead to the conclusion that he had named Cape Everard as Point Hicks.  This error was the one that was later made by Scott and other historians.

 

Other newspapers in Sydney, Melbourne, and Ballarat (which gave the issue several airings) picked up the story in 1870.  Here are two examples.

There can be no doubt that the land thus sighted was what is now known as Gipps Land, in the colony of Victoria; and this point of land which Cook named after his first lieutenant is unquestionably identical with what is now marked as Cape Everard on the maps.5

The Point Hicks of Cook by some unaccountable contrivance has come to be known as Cape or Mount
Everard, an injustice to the original discoverer and designator that nothing whatever can justify.  We suggest that the Government Hydrographer be instructed to rename the landmark as Point Hicks as a recognition of the intention of the great navigator, and as an act of justice to one who shared largely in the duties and risks of the important enterprise.
6 

 

Several other newspaper articles from the 1870s to 1905 assert that Cape Everard is Cook’s Point Hicks.  The publication of Skene’s 1872 map, more than two years after the Cook centenary, elicited a measured review in a Melbourne newspaper.  I have been unable to identify the author.
Point Hicks had, however, silently dropped from the maps in consequence of the difficulties in the way of a satisfactory identification.  The compilers of this map, however, profess to identify it with Cape Everard, but it is not difficult to upset this theory in a very few words.  Bass, in his journal of his open boat voyage, put into the third person by Flinders, under date 31st December, 1797, says: “The furthest land seen by Cook is marked at 15 leagues from the Ram Head, and called Point Hicks”; but at dusk Mr. Bass had run much more than that distance close along the shore, and could perceive “no point or projection that would be distinguishable from a ship”.  This statement was accepted by geographers, and it has been assumed that Cook must have been deceived by optical illusion, due to some exceptional condition of the atmosphere, as there is no land within 90 miles of his position at 8 a.m. in the direction indicated by him; and Cook, a thoroughly practical and scientific navigator, was not likely to make such an important error… it is too much to ask us to believe that a point of land which, as the map before us shows, only bore N. 17° W. 12 miles from his position at 8 a.m., was set down by him as bearing W. 1/4 S, 24 miles.7

 

This item may be the first published attempt to demonstrate that Cape Everard was not Cook’s Point Hicks, and that Cook might have been misled by an optical illusion.  It predates by 35 years the article by land surveyor Thomas Walker Fowler that challenged the notion that Point Hicks was Cape Everard, and prompted the debate with Ernest Scott.8  Scott’s advocacy ultimately resulted in the erroneous renaming of Cape Everard as Point Hicks by the government of Victoria to commemorate the bicentenary of Cook’s 1770 voyage in 1970.

 

It is apparent that in the 1800s it was widely held that the feature Smythe named in 1852 as Cape Everard was in fact Cook’s Point Hicks.  This view seems likely to predate the publication in 1853 of John Arrowsmith’s map showing Cape Everard, but was widely accepted in press articles in 1870 and later.  As professional historians, Bladen and Macdonald are likely to have been aware of the dominant view, but in the 1890s both decided to make qualified statements, suggesting that they were aware that the matter was controversial.  It is now clear that the cause that Ernest Scott adopted in 1912 was not a recent one but had first been espoused at least 60 years previously.

 

Trevor Lipscombe

References

1.Cook’s Log, page 26, vol. 38, no. 2 (2015).

2.Scott, Ernest.  “English and French Navigators on the Victorian Coast” in Victorian Historical Magazine.  1912.  Vol. 2, no. 8.  Pages 145-176. 

3.Lipscombe, Trevor.  “The Point Hicks Contro­versy - the Clouded Facts” in Victorian Histori­cal Journal.  2014.  Vol. 85, no. 2.  Pages 232-253. 

4.The Gippsland Times.  Saturday, 16 April, 1870. 

5.Evening News.  Sydney.  Monday, 18 April, 1870. 

6.Ballarat Star.  25 April, 1870.  “News and Notes”. 

7.The Argus.  7 September, 1872. 

8.Fowler, Thomas W.  “Captain Cook’s Australian Landfall” in Victorian Geographical Journal.  1907.  Vol. 25.  Pages 7–12. 


Originally published in Cook's Log, page 36, volume 41, number 3 (2018).

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