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Whitehall’s Secrets and Captain Cook


Some people would probably describe as “courageous” my decision to reveal that Captain Cook told fibs.  Yet the evidence can be found in Cook’s own journals and charts: erasures, overwriting, contradictions and fabricated maps.  I discussed it all in a paper, “Political Captain Cook” published in 2014 in The Globe, the journal of the Australian and New Zealand Map Society.1 


The subject matter of this paper is Stewart Island, the third largest island in New Zealand, separated from the South Island by Foveaux Strait.  Cook discovered it in March 1770 during the Endeavour voyage, when he sailed south around it in a clockwise direction.  However, he did not penetrate the strait.  Initially, Cook described it as an island but, some days or weeks later, he changed his mind.  He re-categorized it as a peninsula, joined to the South Island by a narrow isthmus, and altered his journal and charts accordingly.  I believe that Cook’s purpose was to conceal its insularity from England’s rivals, who might use the unfortified island as a base and refuge. 


Historians have always agreed (or assumed, perhaps) that Cook’s error was due to a simple mistake; that he missed the strait; and that he honestly believed that Stewart Island was a peninsula.2  My view, however, is that Cook was characteristically accurate and confident in his initial delineation of its insularity.  He only changed his journal and charts, rather clumsily, when he later remembered the Admiralty’s policy of disinformation. 


The editor of Cook’s Log invited me to explain how I developed my hypothesis and to respond to some of the comments it has attracted, bouquets and brickbats alike. 


Some readers say that my paper contains nothing surprising.  They were not surprised to learn that Britain, like most maritime nations of the day, had a policy of concealing important discoveries; or that a low ranking officer like Cook was bound to follow Admiralty orders; or that a navigator of Cook’s ability did not, after all, fail to notice an obvious strait in clear weather.  Other correspondents regard my hypothesis as a conspiracy theory that unjustly criticizes Cook and the Admiralty.  I am grateful to those who have taken the time to send their notes and criticisms.  Many have raised stimulating issues that have helped me refine my ideas. 


It is interesting to compare the charts made in the ship before Cook changed his mind with those made afterwards.  The examples reproduced in my 2014 paper were made by Cook himself: Folio 16,3 the “before” example, and Folio 17,4 the “after” example.  The editor of Cook’s Log suggested that we display two other examples of “before” and “after” charts where, once again, the isthmus appears in the latter, but not in the former.


In the current article, the “before” example shows detail from a chart of New Zealand made in April 1770, by Robert Molyneux, master of Endeavour.  He has gone further than Cook by completing the imagined northern and southern shorelines of Foveaux Strait, whereas Cook, in his Folio 16, left blank these unobserved sections of coast.  Molyneux’s chart was never published by the Admiralty and was first reproduced in 1988 in Andrew David’s Charts and Coastal Views.5 


The “after” example shows detail from the official chart of New Zealand published in 1773 in Hawkesworth’s account of the Endeavour voyage.  The engraver, John Bayly, copied it from Cook’s second, revised chart, Folio 17.


The idea that the odd little isthmus was more than a simple error was sparked by an editorial footnote in Cook’s Journal.  It was written by J.C. Beaglehole, Cook’s editor, biographer and champion.  Commenting on Cook’s revised classification of the island as a “peninsula”, Beaglehole begins, a little ominously, “We have come to the question of the insularity of Stewart Island.  It is difficult to follow Cook’s reasoning here without knowing all that was in his mind.  On paper he is unconvincing”.6 


This comment looked interesting.  Cook’s loyal editor appears to suggest that the great navigator was being economical with the truth.  Delving further, I found another disbeliever—Robert McNab, lawyer, farmer, historian and politician.  He thought that the classification of “peninsula” was incredible, but went along with it because of Cook’s reputation, “Unless given us in Cook’s own words, it would be incredible that he could have made such a mistake—of concluding that it was part of the mainland”.7 


Image of map removed for copyright reasons
Before Captain Cook changed his mind.
Detail from a chart of New Zealand by Robert Molyneux dated April 1770.
© The National Archives of the UK. Ref. ADM 352/386.


Image of map removed for copyright reasons
After Captain Cook changed his mind.
Detail from Chart of New Zealand explored in 1769 and 1770 by Lieut. J. Cook Commander of His Majesty's Bark Endeavour. Engraved by John Bayly, 1772. Published in Hawkesworth’s account in 1773.
Reproduced with permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.


Mentioning two of Cook’s earlier, minor errors, McNab continues, “The mistakes at Kaikoura and Banks Peninsula were easily made, and were very different from calling Stewart Island a peninsula, after making three observations that it was an island.”


Beaglehole and McNab were both New Zealanders who knew their archipelago well.  They both felt that Cook had lied about the insularity of Stewart Island, but neither seemed to ask—nor could have answered—the next question: Why did he lie? 


McNab was born in 1864 and Beaglehole in 1901.  Both were educated men with strong views and independent minds, yet they were children of their generation, subjects of the empire.  Neither of them could imagine that the noble Cook or a senior agency of the proud British Empire would falsify maps.  In recent times we have become more cynical, and we accept that governments are not always transparent and sometimes peddle disinformation.8 


Equipped with a fresh perspective, I quickly realized that much of the evidence supporting my hypothesis was glaringly obvious.  For one thing, Foveaux Strait is virtually unmissable.  It is short, straight and broad, which is why Robert McNab was so incredulous.  He was born at Invercargill on its northern shore, and he knew that the ferry ride from his home to Stewart Island is about the same distance as the ferry ride from Dover to Calais across the English Channel. 


As Molyneux’s chart indicates, most of the men in Endeavour could see daylight between Stewart Island and the mainland.  Even Sydney Parkinson, the 24 year old artist employed by Joseph Banks, recorded it in his journal.  If that young landlubber did not miss the strait, then it is unlikely that James Cook did.


And for another thing, Cook was too good to fail, at least on a mission like this one.  He was a brilliant, curious, tenacious navigator with a superb mariner’s intuition.  He was ambitious and professional, and took nothing for granted.  He spent three days circling and observing Stewart Island to determine its status.  Cook did not have time to waste, but he had time to clarify its insularity, and would not have left the country until he had.


The Banks Peninsula Mistake


Although I have found only these two historians who explicitly doubted Cook’s belief in the bogus peninsula, others may have doubted implicitly.  That can be inferred from the different treatment given to Cook’s other, earlier and genuine mistake, namely his delineation of Banks Peninsula as an island.  Most commentators who mention this error rush to explain and excuse it.  They are right to do so because the neck of Banks Peninsula is very low-lying and it was an easy error for Cook to make.  However when, just three weeks later, Cook records Stewart Island as a peninsula, these same commentators make no attempt to explain or excuse this second “mistake”.9  They say nothing.  What can any cheerleader say about such an embarrassing display of poor judgment?


What then, was the role of the Admiralty in this subterfuge?  If it had a policy of disinformation, we are unlikely to find any direct documentary evidence of it.  Just as the British MI6 does not reduce such arrangements to writing, nor did the Admiralty in the eighteenth century.  So we must look to the circumstantial evidence.


One pointer is Cook’s own behaviour.  An independent marine surveyor is unlikely to falsify his discoveries.  However, a disciplined employee would, if so instructed.  Here is some evidence that Cook’s employer was pursuing a strategy of disinformation.


The need for Secrecy


Then there was the centuries old practice of cartographic secrecy, imposed for military, strategic or commercial reasons.  As Professor J.B. Harley wrote, maps were “appropriated as an intellectual weapon of the state system”.10  When Francis Drake sailed on his voyage round the world in 1577, he was given express orders that “none shall make any charts or descriptions of the said voyage”.11 


Captain Cook also was ordered to maintain secrecy on his return to England, take “care before you leave the Vessel to demand from the Officers and Petty Officers the Log Books and Journals they may have Kept, and to seal them up for our inspection and enjoyning them, and the whole Crew, not to divulge where they have been until they shall have Permission so to do”.12 


Fortunately, Cook himself was as secretive as the Admiralty could have hoped.  George Forster, the young naturalist who accompanied his father on Cook’s Second Voyage, complained, “It must be owned, however, that nothing could be more dejecting, than the entire ignorance of our destination, which, without apparent reason was constantly kept a secret to every person in the ship”.13 


Forster’s complaint was echoed by John Elliott, a young midshipman, who wrote that Cook “only smiled and said nothing, for he was close and secret in his intentions at all times, that not even his first Lieutenant knew, when we left a place, where we should go to next”.14 


Excessive secrecy leads to the falsification of maps.  As Harley observes, “The map image itself was becoming increasingly subject to concealment, censorship, sometimes to abstraction or falsification”.15  And again, “Contemporaries alleged the deliberate falsification of charts: it is easy to see how it could have come about in both Portugal and Spain”.16 


These allegations spread beyond the Iberian Peninsula.  During the Seven Years War the London Evening Post reported, “We are informed that the Sloops employed by Admiral Hawke to take the Soundings on the French Coast, found thirteen to fifteen Fathom Water in Places, where, according to the magnificent Collection of Sea Charts lately published at Paris, under the Title of Le Neptune, they were to expect only four or five.  Such Art do the French use to keep other Nations ignorant of their Coasts”.17 


The role of the French


Reciprocal accusations appeared in French publications, as we shall see.  It is hardly surprising.  Long before the fall of Quebec, naval charts were recognised as an essential arm of warfare and commerce and were treated as such.  La perfide Albion was unlikely to abstain from the Machiavellian arts while she believed that her old enemy across the Channel was concealing discoveries and fabricating false charts.  After all, there was a war on—well, a cold war.  The shooting may have stopped after Britain’s magnificent naval and colonial victories in the Seven Years War (1757-1763), but no one was fooling himself.


France had suffered a humiliating defeat in that war, and many Frenchmen counted the days until they would wreak revenge on England, which came a decade later in the American War (1776-1783).  Some Frenchmen did not want to wait for their government to act.  Louis-Antoine Bougainville had spent four years as a soldier in Canada.  He deplored the loss of France’s territorial empire in the northern hemisphere and decided to build a new one in the southern hemisphere.  The South Seas became the new theatre of Anglo-French rivalry. 


Bougainville’s first step was to take a leaf out of Admiral George Anson’s book.  In September 1763, he sailed to the Falkland Islands with some French-Canadian refugees and planted a colony whose chief purpose was to serve as a refreshment station for French ships.  Whitehall was caught napping but, on hearing of the French move, the Admiralty hastily despatched Captain John Byron to stake Britain’s claim.  Later, Bougainville was forced to sell his Falklands colony to Spain, but he pressed on round Cape Horn and entered the Pacific on 26 January 1768 (twelve months ahead of Cook) to pursue the next leg of his plan.  How much British intelligence knew of Bougainville’s intentions and activities, we don’t know.  But the Admiralty probably expected the worst.


So what was Cook to do with Stewart Island in March 1770?  Did it matter?  Map falsification should be reserved for significant discoveries and, in the opinion of some critics of my 2014 paper, Stewart Island has almost no significance at all.  But Captain Cook may have judged it differently in early 1770.  After all, Stewart Island is bigger than both Oahu (the home of Honolulu) and the Isle of Skye, in Scotland.


At that time, Cook knew nothing of Hawai`i, New Caledonia, the Great Barrier Reef or Norfolk Island, to mention just a few.  Stewart Island was close to New Zealand, to unexplored Van Diemen’s Land, to New Holland and to the fabulous Southern Continent, wherever it was, which promised valuable commodities and, more importantly, sophisticated customers eager to purchase Europe’s manufactured exports.  Furthermore, it lay within cooee of the Spanish colonies of Peru and Chile for the purposes of trade or war; and it was well-positioned in the southern fishery for those lucrative products—whale oil and fur seals.


Cook knew that Stewart Island would be attractive to a Frenchman who had been stripped of Canada and of the Falklands colony and was searching for a base for a new French Empire in the emerging market of the South Pacific.  Britain must not be caught napping again.  Cook decided that his best course was to conceal the island by saying it was part of the South Island, which Cook had claimed, as he had the North Island. 


Cook’s delineation of Stewart Island as a peninsula remained the Admiralty’s official position for the next four decades.  Foveaux Strait was re-discovered in 1804 by an American sealer, Captain Owen Smith, but years would pass before it was publicised.  When Smith returned to Sydney in 1806, he reported his discovery to the Governor of New South Wales, Captain Philip King.  However, regulations forbade whaling and sealing in these latitudes and so the information continued to be suppressed.  Eventually, the “discovery” was announced in 1809 by the new governor, Major Joseph Foveaux.  The news travelled to Europe where geographers filed it alongside that other recent discovery, Bass Strait, which separates Van Diemen’s Land and New Holland. 


In the following year, 1810, the French author and bureaucrat, Victor-Donatien de Musset-Pathay, published his book Historical Recollections, or a Glance at the Monarchies of Europe, and the causes of their Greatness and Decline.  In his chapter about England, he wrote, “It is known that in the last century the English performed many maritime expeditions, the object of which was the improvement of the astronomical, natural, and physical sciences, and principally the discovery of new countries.  In this respect, the learned world owes their gratitude for so laudable an undertaking; but this sentiment is eradicated by the well-defined certainty, that they wished to concentrate in their island the fruits of all their discoveries, and prohibited every kind of communication, even those relative to the sciences and arts, which all civilized nations never refuse, whether in peace or in war.  The privation of a good may be a positive evil; but the English have even gone farther.  Not content with prohibiting these communications to the continental powers, and wishing not to have the air of refusing them, they adopted a means which might occasion a real evil.  This was to print false accounts, and charts full of errors, of their voyages, and to hawk them on the continent.  When these charts were compared with those preserved in London, the fraud was discovered in all its blackness”.18 


Evidently the author, or his agent, had gained access to the original charts under wraps at the British Admiralty in Whitehall.  It was all too obvious that these hand-drawn charts differed very significantly from the engraved versions that the government had published with the official voyaging accounts of Hawkesworth thirty-seven years earlier.


Of course, the English reviewer of this French book described its author as a “repeater of this hundred-times-told falsehood [who] forgets to cite one fact or proof”,19 and the book itself as “this most malignant tissue of calumnies”.  Yet it is difficult to dismiss Musset-Pathay as a liar or a buffoon.  One scholar has written of him: “Dans tous ses ouvrages, il s’appuie sur une documenttation et des sources très précises”.20 


Margaret Cameron-Ash


  1. Cameron-Ash, Margaret.  “Political Captain Cook” in The Globe.  2014.  No. 75. Pages 1-10.  
  2. Skelton, R.A.  “Captain James Cook as a hydrographer” in Mariner’s Mirror.  1954.  Vol. 40.  Pages 92-119.
  3. A Chart of Newzeland.  British Library.  Add. Ms. 7085 f.16.
  4. A Chart of Newzeland.  British Library.  Add. Ms. 7085 f.17.
  5. David, A. (ed.).  Charts and Coastal Views of Captain Cook’s Voyages. Volume One: The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771.  Hakluyt Society.  1988.  Pages 168-169.
  6. Cook, James.  The Journals of Captain James Cook. Vol. I: The Voyage of the Endeavour, 1768 – 1771.  Edited by J.C. Beaglehole.  Hakluyt Society.  1955.  Page 263, n. 2.
  7. McNab, R.  Murihiku: a history of the South Island of New Zealand and the islands adjacent and lying to the south, from 1642 to 1835.  Whitcombe & Tombs.  1909.  Page 24.
  8. See Restless, a novel by William Boyd.  Bloomsbury.  2006.
  9. See the excellent documentary film, “Your most humble and obedient servant, James Cook”, made by the National Film Unit of New Zealand in 1970.  Duration 40 minutes.  Available online www.nzonscreen.com/title/your-most-humble-and-obedient-servant-james-cook/
  10. Harley, J.B.  The new nature of maps: essays in the history of cartography.  Edited by Paul Laxton.  Johns Hopkins University Press.  2001.  Page 88.
  11. Harley, op. cit.  Page 91
  12. Cook, op. cit.  Page cclxxxiv.
  13. Forster, George.  A Voyage around the World.   Edited by Nicholas Thomas and Oliver Berghof. University of Hawai`i Press.  2000.  Vol. 1.  Page 292.
  14. Cook, James.  The Journals of Captain James Cook. Vol. II: The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure, 1772-1775.  Edited by J.C. Beaglehole.  Hakluyt Society.  1961.  Page 315-6, n. 3.
  15. Harley, op. cit.  Page 88.
  16. Harley, op. cit.  Page 93.
  17. London Evening Post.  November 15-17, 1757.
  18. Musset-Pathay, Victor-Donatien.  Souvenirs historiques, ou Coup d’oeil sur les monarchies de l’Europe et sur les causes de leur grandeur ou de leur decadence.  D. Colas.  1810.  Page 111-112.  Extract translated and reproduced in Anti-Jacobin Review.  May, 1810.  No. 36.  Pages 496-506.
  19. Anti-Jacobin Review, op. cit.  Page 499.
  20. Magnant, Anne.  “Victor-Donatien de Musset-Pathay, éditeur et biographe fervent de Jean-Jacques Rousseau” in Bulletin de la Société archéologique, scientifique et littéraire du Vendômois.  2013.  Pages 129-140. 

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 4, volume 38, number 2 (2015).


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