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On New Year's Day 1798, George Bass sailed his open whaleboat along Victoria's south coast, searching for Point Hicks which Captain Cook had found in 1770. Bass could not find it and wrote in his journal that it was "a point we could not at all distinguish from the rest of the beach" (Bass, 1895 p.321). Nor did Matthew Flinders manage to chart Point Hicks during any of his four visits to Bass Strait between 1798 and 1803. In fact, no one could find the elusive headland and this soon lead to the name being omitted from most maps until 1970. Then, to commemorate the bicentenary of Captain Cook's Endeavour voyage, the Victorian government re-named a nearby coastal promontory as "Point Hicks" (Lipscombe, 2015). The modern Point Hicks lies on dry land, about 22 nautical miles (41 km) northeast of Cook's phantom Point Hicks, where it preserves the story of Cook's first landfall in Australia.

Why did Captain Cook place a land feature at 38[degrees]0'S and 148[degrees]53'E, a point which lies several miles out to sea and under 50 fathoms of water? Was it a mistake--to be blamed on a compass error or a cloud bank? No. James Cook, the greatest navigator of his day, did not make such errors. So what happened?

During the Endeavour voyage (August 1768-July 1771), Cook was on a mission to keep secret any strategic discoveries he made, such as new sea lanes and off-shore islands. He had recently spent five summers in Newfoundland, dealing with the aftermath of Britain's decision to cede the tiny islands of St Pierre and Miquelon to France following the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Consequently, after the Endeavour finished circumnavigating New Zealand in March 1770, Cook decided to conceal his discovery of Foveaux Strait and the insularity of Stewart Island by censoring his own records of the country.

First, he amended his journal by erasing the seven lines describing Foveaux Strait, then over-wrote them with a statement declaring that Stewart Island was joined to the mainland. Next, he provided corroborating evidence by drawing a second chart showing New Zealand's South Island and Stewart Island joined together by a fabricated isthmus (Cameron-Ash, 2014 & 2018). This was Cook's first attempt at disinformation and it was clumsy. His journal entries were contradictory and his dotted isthmus was comical. But Cook learnt from these mistakes and his next fabrication would be almost undetectable.

By the end of March 1770, Cook was preparing to sail for New Holland (Australia), where the great question for Europe's armchair geographers was whether any of its three outliers--Van Diemen' s Land (Tasmania), Quiros's Land (Vanuatu) and New Guinea--were joined to it. The talented, diligent and ambitious James Cook was the ideal man to sort this out. Before leaving England in mid-1768, Cook had done his homework. He was well versed in the sailing accounts of the Spanish, Dutch and English navigators who had preceded him into the Pacific. In particular, he had studied the trailblazing voyage made by Abel Tasman in 1642-43 and the maps made in his wake by Joan Blaeu, the official cartographer of the VOC. Copies of most of these reference books, charts and other publications were carried on board the Endeavour (Carr, 1983).

As a result of his research, Cook was fairly sure that Van Diemen's Land was an island, and now he wanted to confirm his deduction. Upon leaving New Zealand, Cook's initial plan, as Joseph Banks records, was to reach "Van Diemens Land as near as possible to the place where Tasman left it" (Banks, 1962 v.2 p.42). This was Eddystone Point (Schilder, 1976 p.170) and, from this place, Cook would start his northward survey of the east coast.

But Cook soon changed his mind. He knew that if he touched at Eddystone Point, he would have to include that section of coast on his chart. If Van Diemen's Land proved to be an island (which he intended to conceal) then he would have to draw some sort of isthmus joining it to the mainland. Not surprisingly, Cook had no wish to repeat the silly, awkward dotted bridge that he had placed across Foveaux Strait on his New Zealand chart. Therefore, he altered his course and took a more northerly route to New Holland, avoiding Van Diemen's Land entirely. The Endeavour crew never saw Tasmania. It lay below the horizon, far to the south.

After a fortnight at sea, the ship was approaching Bass Strait but its northern shore was invisible because of the squally weather. Then, in the pre-dawn light of 19 April 1770, the second-in-command, Lieutenant Zachary Hicks, cried out 'Land ho' when he saw "land making high" away to the north east. It is not known which hill or mountain Hicks glimpsed in the interior of New Holland, but Cook would soon reward Hicks as the "first discoverer" by naming some other piece of the coast after him (Cook, 1955 p.299 n.1).

While the crew rejoiced at making landfall, Cook quietly continued westward. He had the mainland coast off to starboard, Van Diemen's Land away to the south, and the wind in his teeth. He believed he was in a passage, but wanted to make certain. He maintained this westerly course for two more hours before he was satisfied and then, at 8 a.m., he quickly turned the ship around. He did not want to advertise the strait to his crew for any longer than was absolutely necessary.

Cook had settled the question of the insularity of Van Diemen's Land. As soon as he returned to London, he would hurry to Whitehall and tell Philip Stephens, secretary of the Admiralty, about his discovery. Meanwhile, he would remain silent. After the fiasco in New Zealand surrounding Foveaux Strait, Cook would not mention this new strait to his crew, nor would he create a documentary record of it. Neither his j ournal nor his chart would give any hint that New Holland and Van Diemen' s Land were separated by a passage. Still, when Cook wrote up his journal, he could not yet bring himself to tell an outright lie. So he composed a riddle instead:

[I am] doubtfull whether they are one land or no: however every one who compares this Journal with that of Tasmans will be as good a judge [as] I am, but it is necessary to observe that I do not take the situation of Vandiemen's from the prented Charts but from the extract of Tasmens Journal published by Dirk Rembrantse (Cook, 1955 p.299). [1]

Cook's cryptic journal entry was clever, but the design of his coastal chart was ingenious. Titled "A Chart of the Sea Coast of New South Wales or the East Coast of New Holland" (Fig. 1.), it was a masterly survey, but the composition is strangely unbalanced and truncated. At the top of the map, Cook left a generous space between Cape York (at the northern tip of the mainland) and the upper edge of the map. He filled this space with several features which provide a geographical context, including Torres Strait, part of New Guinea, part of Timor and the track of the Endeavour towards Batavia. He also pencilled in the entire coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Cook never saw this coast, of course, but he copied it from the Dutch charts, as indicated by his perimeter note: "This part of the coast is taken from the old charts".

Cook could have done the same thing at the bottom of the map. He could have left a space between the southern point of his survey and the lower edge of the map. He could have filled this space with geographical context by pencilling in the Dutch outline of Van Diemen's Land and showing the final leg of the Endeavour's track from New Zealand towards New Holland. But he did not.

Instead, he chopped all that from his chart by making the 38th parallel of latitude the bottom edge of his map. He left no room on the page to show the south coast of the mainland, or the strait, or Van Diemen's Land, or even a dotted isthmus. Then he drew a short diagonal coastline from Cape Howe at the south-east corner of the continent (37[degrees]30'S), down to the bottom of the chart at 38[degrees]S. The upper section of this coastline is correct, but after Ram Head, the angle should change. At Ram Head the real coast turns west, tracking horizontally along 37[degrees]47'S for more than 60 miles (96 km). However, Cook did not change the angle. His diagonal coastline continued to the bottom of the chart, travelling over water, not land. Cook has falsified his coast from Ram Head to the bottom--a distance of 41 nautical miles (76 km), based on his logged co-ordinates.

Having chosen the 38th parallel as the southern limit of his chart, Cook needed a placename to mark the starting point of his east coast survey from that line. So he concocted a mythical promontory, called it "Point Hicks", invented its co-ordinates and wrote in his journal:

The Southernmost Point of land we had in sight which bore away from us W%S I judged to lay in the Latitude of 38[degrees]0'S and in the Longitude of 211[degrees]07W [148[degrees]53'E] from the Meridion of Greenwich. I have named it Point Hicks, because Leuit Hicks was the first who discover'd this land (Cook, 1955 pp.298-299).

When this alleged sighting was made, the Endeavour was, according to Cook's log, positioned at lat. 37[degrees]58'S, long. 149[degrees]21'E, about 30 nautical miles (56 km) west of the longitude of Cape Howe. From here, he writes, he scanned the western horizon (probably from the masthead) and saw a point of land, lying slightly to the south, which he named Point Hicks. However, no-one could have seen such a land feature, because there is nothing but water in that direction for about a hundred miles.

We know that Cook chose the exact, whole figure of 38 degrees latitude (without any 60th minutes to show a proper calculation) for Point Hicks, because he wanted it to frame the bottom of his chart. However, his uncharacteristic language did not go unnoticed by Professor Ernest Scott:

This phrase, "I judged it to lay", which is in the journal, but not in the logs, clearly represents a guess, probably made when writing up the journal afterwards ... I cannot find anything so indefinite as "I judged it to lay" elsewhere than in this particular sentence (Scott, 1912 p.150).

Cook's "guess" was indeed made afterwards, but it was no mistake. His mythical Point Hicks is the lynchpin of a brilliant ruse. With a stroke of his pen, Cook drew a curtain across Bass Strait, hiding a large tract of water and shoreline (Fig. 2). By concealing these western waters that signalled the entrance to a passage, Cook reinforced the notion the Van Diemen's Land was joined to New Holland, for years to come.

We are left with the impression that Cook saw only the east coast of Australia. He never mentions his landfall on the "south coast" of the continent, referring only to his visit to the "east coast of New Holland". His falsified chart confirms this impression, even though at 8 a.m. on that first day the Endeavour was well inside Bass Strait, some 30 nautical miles (56 km) west of Cape Howe.

The Admiralty evidently approved of Cook's truncated map and even improved on his work when preparing the chart for publication in Hawkesworth's account in 1773 (Hawkesworth, 1777 v.3 p.480). The authorized charts often differed from the manuscripts (Helman, 2013 p.198). Just as Cook omitted geographical context from the south of his manuscript chart, the Admiralty's engraver also removed it from the north and west of the chart (Fig. 3). This official version shows Cape York at the far northwest corner of the page, leaving no room for Torres Strait or the Gulf of Carpentaria as seen on Cook's chart. In the result, some balance has been restored to the composition, so that Cook's truncation was less obvious, and less likely to provoke questions. Meanwhile, Cook's manuscript chart (Fig. 1.) would not be published for more than one hundred and fifty years.

No one outside the Admiralty ever guessed that the great navigator had found Bass Strait in 1770. But secrecy came at a cost. The question of the insularity of Van Diemen's Land continued to dog Cook on his next two voyages. On both occasions, instead of entering the Pacific via Cape Horn as he had in the Endeavour, he travelled the other way--round the Cape of Good Hope and east under New Holland. In order to avoid the risk of the crew seeing the strait, the Admiralty never instructed him to revisit Australia as he brushed past it. Yet, each time Van Diemen's Land was visited and each time Cook was again forced to be economical with the truth.


[1] Cook is probably jesting here, as "Dirk Rembrantz" is very brief. However, the Endeavour library also held the more illuminating Valentyn, F., (1724-26), Oud en nieuw Oost-Indien, 5 vols, J. van Braam, Dordrecht.


BANKS, J., (1962), The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks: 1768-1771, J.C. Beaglehole (ed.), 2 vols., Trustees of the Public Library of NSW in association with Angus & Robertson, Sydney

BASS, G., (1895), "Journal in the Whaleboat", Historical Records of New South Wales, v.3, pp.312-333, Govt Printer, Sydney.

CAMERON-ASH, M., (2014), "Political Captain Cook", The Globe, 75:1-10.

--, (2018), Lying for the Admiralty: Captain Cook's Endeavour Voyage, Rosenberg, Sydney.

CARR, D., (1983), "The Books that Sailed with the Endeavour", Endeavour, New Series, 7(4):194-201.

COOK, J., (1955), The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery: vol. 1. The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771, J.C. Beaglehole (ed.), Hakluyt Society/Cambridge Uni. Press, Cambridge.

HAWKESWORTH, J., (1773), An Account of a Voyage round the World, 1768-1771, by Lieutenant James Cook, Commander of his Majesty's Bark the Endeavour; vv.2 & 3, Strahan and Cadell, London.

HELMAN, S., (2013), "Little remains now to be done", in Mapping our World: Terra Incognita to Australia, National Library of Australia, Canberra, pp.192-199.

LIPSCOMBE, T., (2015), "Cook's Point Hicks: Error that just won't go away", Cook's Log, 38(2):26-32.

SCHILDER, G., (1976), Australia Unveiled : the share of the Dutch navigators in the discovery of Australia, transl. Olaf Richter, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Amsterdam.

SCOTT, E., (1912), "English and French Navigators on the Victorian Coast", Victorian Historical Magazine, 2(4): 145-176.

Margaret Cameron-Ash (1)

(1) Margaret Cameron-Ash is a lawyer, a former visiting fellow at the University of NSW and the author of Supreme and District Courts Practice (1982, Law Book Co). After working as a lawyer in Sydney and London, she widened her area of research to include early Australian history in the politics of Europe, with a special interest in cartography. Her most recent publication is Lying for the Admiralty: Captain Cook's Endeavour Voyage (2018, Rosenberg Publishing).

Caption: Figure 1. James Cook, "A chart of the Sea Coast of New South Wales or the East Coast of New Holland, 1770". [ms.] Chart XX from chart portfolio accompanying The Journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery, J. C. Beaglehole (ed.), 4 vols., Hakluyt Society/Cambridge Uni. Press, Cambridge, 1955-74. (National Library of Australia.

Caption: Figure 2. Sketch map of Bass Strait and parallel 38[degrees] South, showing the waters and context that Cook omits from his truncated chart of the East Coast. Graphic by D. Fraser, @CartoDavid. (Reprinted from Cameron-Ash, 2018, p. 152.)

Caption: Figure 3. James Cook (surveyor) & William Whitchurch (engraver), A Chart of New South Wales, or the East Coast of New Holland ... MDCCLXX, published in Hawkesworth (1773). (National Library of Australia MAP T325, online at obj-232572777)
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Author:Cameron-Ash, Margaret
Publication:The Globe
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2018

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