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Boat People: Captain Cook in Context

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 06 Jan 2014

The British exploration of the Australia-Pacific region in historical perspective.

Captain Cook - Statue: Hyde Park, Sydney B

Stan Florek © Australian Museum

Boat People is the blog series containing stories about people and cultures whose life and survival is closely related to sea, river or lake.

In 1770 the Endeavour commanded by Captain Cook arrived in Botany Bay after sailing across the Pacific, from the Magellan Straits via Tahiti and New Zealand.

Ever since Ferdinand Magellan traversed the Pacific in 1520 on his voyage around the globe (although he was killed in the Philippines) Europeans began entering this region. Since much of this early exploration was not well documented or published, and some probably kept secret for commercial and political reasons, we tend to underestimate the speed of events and the body of accumulated knowledge.

By 1770 it was 200 years after the Spanish began exploring and then attempting to colonise the Solomon Islands; and more than a century since they commenced a regular trade between Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco in Mexico (then New Spain). This trade in spices and Chinese goods such as porcelain and silk was so important to the Spanish that they built, in the Philippines, the largest galleons of that time, some able to carry up to a thousand passengers. Also, the Portuguese had been exploiting the resources of Timor, just 600 km across the sea from Australia, for 250 years. And for a few centuries the fishermen from Makassr (south Sulawesi) had been coming to fish and stay for some months in northern Australia where they processed sea cucumber for the Chinese market.

While Cook was an outstanding navigator and highly accomplished surveyor he was not exploring completely uncharted ocean. But the Pacific is vast and New Caledonia and Hawaii was left for him to discover – it is quite likely the Spanish knew of Hawaii but considered it commercially unimportant. And Cook, famously, charted the east coast of Australia. But he was not the first in the region and how much of the knowledge of previous navigators he knew and used still awaits historical studies.

Some glimpses of this knowledge accumulated in the early decades of the Pacific exploration are reflected in French maps published between 1535 and 1560 which were based on various charts and secondary sources – most likely Portuguese and Spanish. These Dieppe Maps – as they are called – show a large land in the southern hemisphere, which could be interpreted as Australia.

Some 30 years after Cook, Matthew Flinders - our best marine surveyor of the pre-modern era - assessed these maps for their historical relevance rather than as a practical aid in navigation. His comments are important because Flinders had surveyed Australian coasts with navigation instruments and methods better, but not vastly different from those used a few centuries before. He asserts that what is depicted on these maps as Java la Grande (Great Java), with its projection as well as houses and animals ‘painted upon the shores’ had been ‘partly formed from vague information and conjecture by the early Portuguese navigators.’ This suggests that the interior was unknown but it was assumed its character was similar to other Southeast Asian lands.

But Java la Grande agrees nearer with the position and extent of Terra Australis, than with any other land; and the direction given to some parts of the coast, approaches too near to the truth, for the whole to have been marked from conjecture alone.’ He also asserts that ‘a part of the west and north-west coasts, where the coincidence of form is most striking, might have been seen by the Portuguese themselves, before the year 1540.’

Cook is rightly credited with refining cartographic, scientific and ethnographic knowledge of the Australian-Pacific region, but his voyages mostly herald the more determined entry of Great Britain and the United States of America into commercial and colonial exploitation of the region. British colonisation of New Holland (Australia) and New Zealand within two decades after Cook’s entry into Botany Bay exemplifies this assertive move into, formally, Spanish domain.

Explanation:

galleon is a large sailing ship with multiple decks used primarily by Europeans in 16th-18th centuries.