Lying for the Admiralty: Captain Cook’s Endeavour Voyage.
It is an arresting title for an arresting book.
In 1955, John Cawte Beaglehole published his edition of Cook’s holograph Endeavour journal, with his learned and witty annotations.1 It was the first time an unexpurgated edition of Cook had appeared in print, 184 years after the conclusion of the voyage, and it revolutionised Cook studies.
But even Homer nods and Beaglehole, as erudite and meticulous as he was, was puzzled by some of Cook’s actions and his reasoning as recorded in his journal. An explanation eluded him and the myth of Cook’s errors took hold. For example, how could a man of Cook’s diligence have possibly sailed past Port Jackson? Surely that was a dereliction of duty when he had been specifically instructed to investigate such openings.
This book demonstrates that these so-called errors were in fact subterfuges, part of Cook’s strategy (and the Admiralty’s) to prevent others, and particularly the French, learning of discoveries which they could turn to their advantage.
Before the author comes to these conclusions, though, she contextualizes the voyage of the Endeavour in a way not done hitherto, or at least not done so clearly and elegantly, providing new information and fresh points of view.
The first European country to find the Great South Land, the mythical continent of reputed great natural wealth, and trade with it or annex it, would be enriched beyond the dreams of avarice. The race was on.
By the mid-18th century with the Spanish and the Dutch declining as powers, the race had narrowed mainly to two contenders who had been rivals, and sometimes bloody rivals, for centuries: Britain and France. The author quotes Napoleon’s comment, a little later in 1803, “We have six centuries of insults to avenge”. And so they did—or at least thought they did. French nerves were particularly raw at the time of Cook owing to France’s recent humiliation in the Seven Years’ War and her loss of North America—which was a potent reason for France a little later to support the American revolutionaries. Cook cut his teeth in Canada on survey work precisely to prevent the uppity French coming back. His charting of the St Lawrence had enabled General James Wolfe to take Quebec.
It was paramount from the British point of view that the glittering prize of the Great South Land should not go to France. The French should be stopped at all costs. As the British politician William Pitt the Elder said regarding a North American fishery, he would rather lose the use of his right hand than allow France back into it.
It was not only foreigners which Britain had to guard against. There were rats in the ranks. I had always been rather puzzled why Alexander Dalrymple, who was first put forward by the Royal Society to lead the Endeavour expedition, was sacked by the Admiralty with the cock and bull excuse that not being a naval man he could not captain a ship. Not only was this factually incorrect, which members of the Royal Society would have known, but the Admiralty had known of this appointment for months before without raising the alarm.
Dalrymple had worked for many years for the East India Company and was very loyal to it. The Company, a private venture, held a monopoly over the Pacific and did not want to give this up even though the Company did nothing with it. If Dalrymple led the voyage, information on new discoveries and new trading opportunities would be passed to the Company. This was not paranoia on the part of the Admiralty. Later, Richard Orton, Cook’s clerk, who had complete access to Cook’s journal, would sell information to the Company. As an aside, it was Orton who on the voyage, while in a drunken stupor, had parts of his ears cut off—a crime that has never been solved. It would have been truly Shakespearean if his ears had been removed after his treason rather than before.
A captain could not be sure that there were no spies on his ship and, even if there were no spies, loose lips not only sink ships but they also sink one’s hopes of colonising the Great South Land. Certain types of information had to be limited to as few people as possible.
The British, of course, were just as active in spying as the French, and we recall that NSW Governor Arthur Phillip had a distinguished career spying against the French. That was one of his qualifications for being chosen as first Governor of New South Wales. He spoke French so well that no one ever twigged he was not a native.
The British spymaster-in-chief was Philip Stephens, whose day job for over 30 years was permanent secretary to the Admiralty. He ran the show whatever his Minister may have thought. Cook was in many ways his protégé. Naming Cape Stephens at the western end of Cook Strait in New Zealand returned the compliment.
This is the world in which the Endeavour voyage took place. A cold war between Britain and France, as our author calls it, with the usual accompaniments of espionage, deception and outright lying. The voyage of the Endeavour was intensely political.
And now we come to the heart of this book—Cook’s so-called errors, which have blotted his copybook for nearly 250 years.
Cook has been accused of shoddy work in not realising that Stewart Island was separated from the South Island of New Zealand by Foveaux Strait. How could the great hydrographer miss this? However, he did not miss it. In fact, he first wrote in his journal that it was an island and his map indicated it. However, he then changed his story and his map, writing that it was a peninsula. He altered his journal account, but not without leaving traces of his earlier view. His justification for this turn-around gobsmacked Beaglehole, “It is difficult to follow Cook’s reasoning here without knowing all that was in his mind. On paper he is unconvincing”.
Cook had indeed bungled his subterfuge by neglecting to remove permanently too much evidence to the contrary. As Cameron-Ash says, “He forgot to delete his three observations of Stewart Island’s insularity; the erasure of his seven-line description of the strait is clearly visible; and the logs of the other witnesses contradict him”. This would not happen again. Cook learnt from this, and covered his tracks much better in the future.
But why bother to hide the fact of Stewart Island’s insularity? The author very lucidly explains this. An island off the coast of a British territory (which Cook hoped New Zealand would become) could lead to a French occupation of that island. Cook had first-hand experience of this and the trouble it led to in North America. It was when Pitt made that celebrated comment about preferring to lose the use of his right hand.
The mystery of Possession Island to the west of Cape York, Australia, is also clarified. Why take possession of the east coast from an island in the Gulf of Carpentaria to which of course the Dutch had a claim? The answer is the possession ceremony did not occur and was later invented by Cook when, at Batavia on the homeward journey, Joseph Banks learnt that the French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville had been near the east coast of Australia, and may have indeed landed. It was to forestall a French claim.
The author also demonstrates that Cook did sail into Bass Strait, and went to elaborate lengths to hide this. His journal entry for the period is a riddle that has baffled subsequent historians and Cook’s subsequent chart was, in the words of Cameron-Ash, a “masterpiece of disguise”. Obfuscation would also be an appropriate word. Cook invented a phantom cape (Point Hicks) that would have actually been in the middle of the ocean had it existed, as the southernmost point of land in sight when he started his east coast survey. It has always been quoted in the history books as the place where Cook first saw the coast but no subsequent navigator (including Matthew Flinders) could ever find it. No wonder it never appeared on the map until 1970. Today’s Point Hicks was plucked from thin air by the Victorian Government for the Cook celebrations in that year, placed on the map, and bears no relation to anything.
Tobias Furneaux’s unfortunate (from Cook’s point of view; Cook was separated from Furneaux’s ship at the time) discovery of Bass Strait on Cook’s Second Voyage had to be suppressed, and it does not appear in his published narrative where Tasmania is described as a peninsula. This led to subsequent criticisms of Furneaux’s abilities from historians, including the great Beaglehole. Cook wrote in his journal of the Second Voyage that it was highly probable that Tasmania was part of New Holland, and Beaglehole annotated it, “Here again it is rather difficult to follow Cook’s reasoning”.
No wonder Cook on his Second and Third Voyages did not receive instructions to clarify Bass Strait. The Admiralty already knew it existed.
The author demonstrates that Cook did in fact see Sydney Harbour by walking from Botany Bay overland. Cook, since boyhood, had always climbed hills to survey the topography. Hills there were from which he could gain a splendid view—Bellevue Hill for example. There is written evidence that Governor Phillip knew there were multiple islands in Sydney Harbour. This information could only have come from Cook’s voyage, and the islands cannot be seen from a ship while passing the entrance. Further, Cook’s journal is very hazy on what he actually did for the eight days he was at Botany Bay, but he tells us he made many excursions around the bay and into the countryside. Given Cook’s habits, and given that Botany Bay was hopeless as a port, it would have been remarkable if Cook had not journeyed to the nearest hill to survey the land, seeking something better. Having found Port Jackson (which he named), just the superb port for which the British were looking, it is entirely explicable that Cook wasted no further time on investigating openings as he journeyed up the east coast of Australia.
In these cloak and dagger matters we see the limits of archives. Not everything is written down and sometimes what is written down is done so in order to mislead. Thus, it ever was and will be. Written evidence can take us close to the truth, but what is needed is an assessment of the documents in the light of their context. In this, the author succeeds brilliantly. We will never find, for example, a document which clearly says that Cook saw Sydney Harbour. But we can come to a position, if not actually beyond reasonable doubt, then one on the basis of “the comfortable satisfaction of the court”, on which a conviction can be made.
The voyage of the Endeavour was a scientific voyage, yes—that was Joseph Banks’s great contribution. But from Cook’s point of view it was a political expedition—to find new territory that might be useful to Britain and correctly chart it. Cook emerges from Cameron-Ash’s study as not only a superb navigator and chart maker, but a man alive to the political dimension of his task and the need to protect what was basically Britain’s intellectual property. He was a diplomat, and we all know that a diplomat is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.
This book is the most significant contribution to Cook studies since Beaglehole’s edition of the journals, which it in some senses completes.
- Beaglehole, J. C. The Journals of Captain James Cook. Volume I. The Voyage of the Endeavour, 1768-1771. Hakluyt Society. 1955.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 42, volume 42, number 2 (2019).