Resentment History and Cook’s Last Secret

Terra nullius and Captain Cook are the Left’s founding grievances. In Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement, Henry Reynolds returns with familiar errors to undermine Australia’s sovereignty. He is serious and his book ends with threats.

The foundation of his history cum warfare begins with three pages on James Cook. In reclaiming our history it is worth returning to Cook’s Secret Instructions, which have been used to tarnish his reputation by people who have never read them, and are here again misused by Reynolds. 

The actual heading on the Admiralty document that has caused the problems is “Additional Instructions for Lt. James Cook”. The text runs over two and a quarter hand-written pages. The word Secret appears on the top left-hand corner of the front page. These are Cook’s instructions for the conduct of his voyage after observing the transit of Venus and leaving Tahiti. Though the text still holds a very big secret, they were never really completely secret. The week before the Endeavour sailed from Plymouth the London Gazetteer, August 18, 1768, revealed that after Tahiti Cook was “to attempt some new discoveries in that vast unknown tract, about the latitude 40”.

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The Secret Instructions may have been prepared for Cook to share with Dutch and Spanish colonial administrators in colonies he touched on for supplies and used by him to assure them his expedition was predominantly scientific and lightly exploratory—nothing to upset European colonial rivals with their own geopolitical ambitions in the Pacific. After completing his scientific observations it surely seemed quite reasonable that he would search for the mythical Great Southern Continent that all Europe was curious about and then, if unsuccessful, circumnavigate New Zealand, which Abel Tasman had discovered the previous century, before returning home. The document gives precise directions for the search, nowhere near the colonial possessions of other European states.

Historians and activists are only interested in a single paragraph and the remaining parts are seldom referred to even though the Instructions are only ten paragraphs long. To brush away the lies that have grown up about the document it is important to see it as a whole, for it breaks naturally into two sections, the search for the southern continent and the remainder of the voyage, and then to look at two paragraphs that have so marked our history and racial politics.                

Paragraphs one to six discuss the Southern Continent. The first words of the first paragraph set out the objective, “Whereas the making Discovereys of Countries hitherto unknown …” Then, the opening words of each of the five following paragraphs show a connection with what has gone before: “You are to proceed to the southward … If you discover the Continent above-mentioned … You are also Carefully to observe the Nature of the Soil … You are likewise to observe the Genius, Disposition and Nature of the Natives, if there be any … You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take possession …” It is this last paragraph (six) which has received most attention from modern Australians.

Order Michael Connor’s The Invention of Terra Nullius here

Paragraph seven begins the second section with new objectives. It clearly marks a change of subject: “But if you should fail of discovering the Continent before-mention’d …” In this paragraph he is instructed to circumnavigate and chart New Zealand and then to return to England via the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn.

Paragraph eight is the real foundation of Australia’s modern history, not the one that begins with the “Consent of the Natives”. It is seldom mentioned by the historians, and never by activists: “You will also observe …”

Paragraph nine allows Cook some leeway for decisions in the case of emergencies or in dealing with matters not otherwise covered in the Instructions: “as upon advice with your Officers you shall judge most advantageous to the Service on which you are employed”.

Paragraph ten, the final instruction, orders Cook on arriving in England to send the scientific results of his observation of the transit of Venus to the Royal Society and all other documents on the voyage, including the personal papers written by the crew, to the Admiralty.

The two instructions for taking possession of territory are very different because they were written for different circumstances. The first instruction (paragraph six) was written specifically for use in dealing with the unknown and mythical Southern Continent, and this “Country” is specified twice. In his Truth-Telling transcription Reynolds has deleted the first reference to that “Country” which I have restored here between square brackets:

You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations [in the Country] in the name of the King of Great Britain; or, if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.

The second instruction (paragraph eight) deals with other territory not previously discovered by Europeans and is quite different. Note that it has been written to make these discoveries seem rather unimportant compared to the main task of discovering the Southern Continent. Reynolds has never mentioned the existence of this text: 

You will also observe with accuracy the Situation of such Islands as you may discover in the Course of your Voyage that have not hitherto been discover’d by any Europeans, and take possession for His Majesty and make Surveys and Draughts of such of them as may appear to be of Consequence, without Suffering yourself however to be thereby diverted from the Object which you are always to have in View, the Discovery of the Southern Continent so often Mentioned.

Cook’s journal account of the ceremony on Possession Island when he claimed Australia’s east coast for Britain is clearly based on the second instruction—this is why it was written. The matter may be even clearer when words that were written at the time and later crossed out (possibly censored by the Admiralty?) are restored here as marked by the underscores:

on the Western side [of New Holland] I can make no new discovery the honour of which belongs to the Dutch Navigators and as such they may lay claim to it as their property but the Eastern Coast from the Latitude of 38˚ South down to this place I am confident was never seen or viseted [sic] by any European before us and therefore by the same Rule belongs to Great Brittan [sic] …

Though Reynolds uses only a one-sentence paragraph from the Instructions, which he has edited, his readers could assume that they are being presented with the complete document: “The two parts of these instructions are quite different.” His discussion only deals with two parts of a sentence—the wrong one—and he never reveals that there are quite different directions for taking possession of discovered land which has nothing to do with obtaining the “Consent of the Natives” or whether or not it is inhabited.

No historian seems to have actually read these Instructions, but a contributor to Quadrant Online has. In July 2020, as historic statues were being attacked by vandals, Michael Dunn wrote of the ongoing madness in “James Cook, of Noble and Imperishable Memory”. In responding to the claims of an academic historian that Cook ignored his instructions in taking Australian land without Aboriginal assent, Dunn was succinct and absolutely correct and the sources he read are the same ones the historians claim to have used:

In fact, the instructions mention the need for consent only in connection with the “great southern continent”. They go on to permit claims of possession elsewhere, without mentioning the inhabitants’ consent. Eastern Australia was already known as New Holland, and nobody thought it was the undiscovered great south land.

In fact, Henry Reynolds does. In attacking Cook he mocked the idea that Cook’s “discovery” had “earned for Britain title over the ‘Great South Land’”.

For over thirty years Reynolds has misused the Secret Instructions. Even as he always abuses just one sentence he has never been able to cite it correctly—though it is the principal weapon he directs against Captain Cook. In The Law of the Land (1987) he ignored the wording of the actual text from 1768 and used instructions given to Cook for his third voyage in 1776—because in the later text there is only one direction for taking possession: with consent or if uninhabited. In Aboriginal Sovereignty (1996) he cited both the 1768 and later 1776 instructions but edited the earlier text, making slight word changes and truncating it—leaving out the last fifteen words. In Truth-Telling he uses the 1768 text but has deleted three essential words. This latest mutilation of a primary source is one of the strangest errors ever made by a leading Australian historian.

In The Invention of Terra Nullius (2005) I pointed out what he had done to the Secret Instructions to that point. The reason the “Consent of the Natives” paragraph so interests activists is the use they make of it to allege Cook was ordered to negotiate with the Aborigines and didn’t or that he falsely acted as if the land was uninhabited. In Truth-Telling Reynolds does exactly that with rhetorical questions and propositions supported by unnamed “many commentators” and an unpleasant and unjustified insinuation that Cook acted “wilfully”—presumably against the Aborigines:

Did Cook’s claim of possession dispossess the resident Indigenous nations? Many commentators have believed that it did …

Many commentators have argued that Cook wilfully disobeyed the injunction to gain the consent of the natives … 

Did Cook wilfully behave as though eastern Australia was uninhabited when he knew full well it wasn’t?

Hidden in the Secret Instructions is a final secret. They don’t mention New Holland or the Admiralty expectation that Cook would discover, chart and take possession of its east coast for Britain—even as they instructed him how to do it. Accept the complete document on face value and it does not make sense. The careful Admiralty planners have plotted Cook’s expedition halfway around the world to the point where the Endeavour is somewhere off the coast of New Zealand, then they simply advise its captain and officers to return home via the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. This opens up at least three options which it would be expected the document should put forward to lead the voyage towards its conclusion.

In London, or on the Endeavour with the charts spread out before him, the choices were clear. Cook could turn east and retrace his steps while looking for the southern continent. But what happens if he heads west? Does he retrace Tasman’s route to the south of Van Diemen’s Land? Or does he link with Tasman’s charts on the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land and then explore northwards?

It is the very obvious third possibility that is missing in the Secret Instructions. In his journal, Cook recounted the discussion on the Endeavour. The decision that was taken—in terms of geopolitics, in terms of common sense, in terms of adventuring discovery—was absolutely correct and surely either secretly envisaged or present as an option from the very beginning:

It was therefore resolved to return by way of the East Indies by the following rout: upon leaving this coast to steer to the westward untill we fall in with the East Coast of New Holland and then to follow the deriction [sic] of that Coast to the northward or what other direction it may take untill we arrive at its northern extremity, and if this should be found impractical than [sic] to endeavour to fall in with the lands or Islands discover’d by Quiros.

Discovering a southern continent was a possibility; discovering the east coast of New Holland was a certainty. This is the true secret of the Secret Instructions, an omission of a voyage objective intended to misinform unwelcome eyes. The reason (surely there must be a reason?) there are two different guidelines for taking hold of land in the Pacific in the Secret Instructions is that the first deals with completely unknown territory while the second deals with something known. When Cook annexed the east coast of Australia he was making a claim in European terms which had to be justified against the existing claims of other European nations.

If “Natives” were assumed to possess the Southern Continent this was not the case of New Holland, where Cook was presumably seizing territory from either the Dutch or the Spanish who had asserted territorial rights over the Pacific. When Cook annexed the coast he sailed past he was acting as the Dutch had done elsewhere and claiming territory as its first European discoverer—and he states this in his journal. His action was an offence to Spanish interests, for the Pacific Ocean had been under their sovereignty since the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494—so clearly also never a legal terra nullius (as I am sure Henry Reynolds would agree). The Aborigines would not be disturbed until 1788 when a small British settlement was made around Sydney Cove.

It has been conjectured that the ceremony on Possession Island never took place, partly because it is not mentioned in the writings of Joseph Banks or other expedition members. A simple reason for this may be that they were forbidden by Cook from recording the event in case the matter was prematurely found out by their colonial rivals. Writing to the Secretary of the Admiralty from Batavia on October 23, 1770, Cook did not mention that he had acquired territory for Britain and while pointedly assuring the recipient that the copy of his journal he was sending was written “with undisguised truth”, he disguised and protected the truth of his accomplishments from unintended readers: “Altho the discoveries made in this Voyage are not great, yet I flatter myself they are such as may Merit the Attentions of their Lordships.” Magnificent.

Dismissing Cook’s achievements, Reynolds refers to Cook’s “audacious claim”. An early nineteenth-century visitor to the British colony was equally disdainful of later claims by the British government. François Péron visited Sydney as a member of the French Baudin expedition in 1802. The secret memoir he wrote on the colony for an official in the Napoleonic administration has been translated and published by the State Library of South Australia. Reynolds is outraged by the actions of Cook in 1770, while Péron was concerned with actions after settlement which he judged in terms of European colonial interests:

They [the English] believed they could disguise their invasions by changing the name of the country. The audacity with which, in 1788, England defied the whole of Europe by appropriating, with a single stroke of the pen, all of these immense regions known as the Southern Lands and the Archipelagos of the Great Pacific Ocean is a phenomenon that is quite unheard of in modern history.

Péron was outraged on behalf of the Dutch and Spain—presumably he was writing before the French emperor waged war on them. He also provided Napoleon with a useful plan for invading Sydney. Never once in his objections or war plans did he mention the natives.

Truth-Telling is written to support the Uluru Statement by a historian who misuses history for partisan politics. It ends with threats. Mabo and the apology were not enough. The good that Australia thought it was accomplishing by granting vast tracts of land to Aborigines is, in Reynolds’s view, part of a subversive power-taking strategy in which land is a weapon. The historian believes that with the “First Nations” owning 32 per cent of the continent, including 93 per cent of the Kimberley, they have “control over lands and waterways of environmental importance. But they are also of even greater strategic significance—places like the Tiwi Islands and the Torres Strait Islands, and thousands of kilometres of vulnerable northern coastline.” He does not explain what he means by vulnerable—should we be learning Mandarin? When Keith Windschuttle discussed the “Hidden Agenda of Aboriginal Sovereignty” in The Break-Up of Australia he wrote of the activists’ desire for an Aboriginal state and commented, “to see a threat to national security in all this is obviously far-fetched”. Perhaps, this once, Windschuttle is wrong and Reynolds right.

The first steps towards the break-up Reynolds desires have happened, he says. Where we see Australians, his view is racist and strategic, for the First Nations have acted like an army of occupation and “repeopled the north”. As a child of the working-class Australian Labor left, if I had come across this book in the mid-1960s, in the atmosphere of protests over South Africa and Rhodesia, I would have classified it as extreme right-wing racism—with an appeal to break Australia apart on racial grounds. In his battle plan of racial politics, Reynolds says Aborigines have more rights than other Australians, for they “have a double claim on the land, firstly as Australian citizens and then as Indigenous people whose rights are based on international law and custom … [which] may be more persuasive in the long run than the first [as Australian citizens] in the world beyond Australia’s borders.” Blackmail is more important than the ballot box: “The time may come when the Australian state needs the First Nations as much as they need the state.”

Reynolds’s fellow historian Tom Griffiths praises this book as “a gift to his nation by one of our greatest historians”. The reality of Reynolds’s dream is an angry divided continent with internal borders, watch towers and barbed-wire fences. The final words in his book foreshadow this division and unending violence. Either Uluru Statement activists get their divisive way and create a divided nation or “the First Nations will become alienated from the domestic political system and increasingly look overseas in their search for both justice and respect”. This is the “truth-telling” endorsed with front-of-book praise by Aboriginal activists, a prize-winning author and historians—Marcia Langton, Mick Dodson, Kate Grenville, Tom Griffiths and Mark McKenna. Break-Up Australia Day has its historian—but you knew that.

Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement
by Henry Reynolds

NewSouth, 2021, 274 pages, $35

French Designs on Colonial New South Wales
by François Péron, translated and edited by Jean Fornasiero and John West-Sooby

The Friends of the State Library of South Australia, 2016, 396 pages, $35


19 thoughts on “Resentment History and Cook’s Last Secret

  • Daffy says:

    BTW, how does one get a copy of “The Invention of Terra Nullius”? If out of print, any e-copies?

  • bomber49 says:

    Hey, your average Aussie doesn’t give a toss about Cook’s instructions from the Admiralty. The facts are that the land was inhabited, albeit sparsely and the British took possession of the east coast. Perhaps the best of a bunch of colonial bastards. My Irish ancestors were happy it turned out the way it did and were thankful to move to a new land under British rule.

  • restt says:

    I have written to the National Library who repeated this lie in their digital classroom. They changed it. I found it repeated in another classroom … and they refused to change it.
    Last year The Museum of Democracy repeated this lie on their website. I wrote to them explaining they had it wrong and they refused to change it saying it had renowned historians who had verified the information. Mick Dobson is one of them.
    From there I wrote to the Ombudsman office who refused to intervene saying it was a matter of interpretation. Simple factual orders … public servant education may be lacking.

    However checking now it has been changed from requiring the consent of natives to:”The Instructions confidently assume that these varied interests could be made compatible with a respect for the native populations in those countries so identified.”

    And one last one – at the Australian Museum their is an Aboriginal propaganda exhibition called Unsettled .. the lie is repeated again in the exhibition. Looks like I am writing again. As you walk into the Museum their is a plaque saying we are on Gadigal land … the only thing is I thought that native title was extinguished over 240 years ago so I am completely lost on that one also

  • ChrisPer says:

    The posture of juvenile rebellion by Marxist academics looked cool when they were 20 years old. Their values assumed malfeasance and illegitimacy of previous legitimate and well-intentioned adminstrations.

    Now they are in their sixties or eighties, and their values have been repeatedly applied with dishonest readings of primary sources to validate the status of what has become an ossified academic and cultural hegemony,.

  • Adam J says:

    @ bomber49,
    The average Aussie doesn’t care because the average Aussie doesn’t know or care about history, including Australian history. And that is a very big problem.
    You can’t take your country seriously without taking its history seriously.
    That is exactly why Western countries get into trouble. History is not some incidental thing that ‘just happened’. It is why we exist the way we do with our language, laws, institutions, values, and so on. You can’t separate a modern society from the history that made it.
    Historical ignorance is just as disgraceful as illiteracy and innumeracy. Those without historical knowledge cannot properly appreciate our society and its value. That is why neo-Marxist managers fight in the History Wars.

  • Michael says:

    The Uluru Statement from the Heart is fundamentally a claim to a special status for Australians of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestry.

    To, “I am, you are, we are Australian,” the Statement from the Heart wants to add, “but some are more Australian than others.”

    There is no way I will support enshrining in the Constitution special privileges for a group of Australians defined by ancestry. No way. No!

    It is wrong on fundamental principles and it is a political delusion to think it could be successful at a referendum.

    Australian is Australian!

  • Claude James says:

    My views on the British arrival and its antecedents and consequences include these:
    1) The arrival of the British gave Aborigines the best opportunity in their history to advance towards greater human flourishing than they had achieved in isolation.
    2) The reasons why only a small proportion of Aborigines have taken advantage of these boons and benefits would be worthwhile exploring and given public attention.
    3) The insistence by anti-British and anti-European persons that British and other Europeans who came to Australia did not act in accord with the (supposed) high moral standards of anti-British and anti-European ideology (and/or the standards of naive idealism), is not to be considered a serious matter.
    4) Nett nett, there have been vast benefits and boons to all the world’s peoples by way of British, and especially the English, innovations in governance, administration, economic productivity, education, science, engineering, and associated technologies.
    5) Australia, Africa, India, most of the rest of Asia, North America, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and most of the European continental countries, have all benefitted mightily, all things considered, from English practical ingenuity across the board.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    The 19th Century anthropologists recognised three distinct ‘races’, ‘ethnicities’, call them what you will, in the Australian Aboriginal population. These were 1. the Tasmanians, 2. the Murrayans and 3. The Carpentarians. Each of these was found in distinct populations centred on the location suggested in its generic name, and the fact that these could be so assigned indicated that they were also genetically distinct. So there had not been much interbreeding over the millennia.
    Presumably, the Tasmanians were into Australia first, and once had the entire continent to themselves: The modern term for that landmass is ‘Sahel’. Once, humans could walk from present-day West Papua to the southern coast of Tasmania completely overland, save for river crossings. Sahel was also then heavily rain-forested, which suited the Tasmanians’ small physique.
    The incoming Murrayans would have pushed them south, and then the more ‘gracile’ Carpentarians did the same to those Murrayans.
    Following the glacial maximum, steadily rising seas eventually separated New Guinea and Tasmania off from the Australian continental landmass. So by the Reynolds yardstick, those of Aboriginal descent today unless pure Tasmanian, should be all telling themselves that they do not have a valid historical claim and do not ‘belong’ here. And to ‘go back to where you came from.’
    But there is a further complication: ‘Full-blood’ Aborigines are a distinct minority within the modern Aboriginal population. If it had not been for the likes of Cook and Phillip, the European component of their ancestry would never have arrived, and they would not be here. Either.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    Once again the Left deploys noble-cause corruption to support their politics, in this case Aboriginal sovereignty and the Uluru Statement. The use of selective quotes, with omissions clearly designed to mislead, indicates that the truth is irrelevant to Reynold’s argument. We’ve seen this from Reynolds before of course, exposed in “The Fabrication of Aboriginal History” by Keith Windschuttle. The aim, again exposed by Windschuttle in “The Breakup of Australia: The Real Agenda Behind Aboriginal Recognition” remains the same. Given that Reynolds arguments are made via a similar methodology as those of the notorious fantasist Bruce Pascoe, one can only view his title “Truth-Telling” as particularly ironic.

  • mgldunn says:

    Saints, heroes and heroines show us what a full life may be and to what end it may be dedicated. To tear them down, or not to know them, demoralises and impoverishes our community. Thank you for acknowledging my essay.

  • J. Vernau says:

    ‘… Reynolds says Aborigines have more rights than other Australians, for they “have a double claim on the land, firstly as Australian citizens and then as Indigenous people whose rights are based on international law and custom … “ ‘
    Surely Mr Reynolds is right, at least in respect of those persons belonging to groups that have been granted native title, often over sufficient territory to provide, as well as a place to live, sustenance through hunting, fishing and gathering. They are also entitled to various pensions and other Social Security payments at rates adequate for life in the bigger cities.
    This double entitlement has in many cases been the cause of social disaster. Could there be a more effective way to rob a people of their self-reliance?

  • Patrick McCauley says:

    Brilliant. Yet the revolution is not known to the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal people – it is not an ‘Indigenous’ revolution – it is a revolution of ‘Ideology’ – A black communist state …

  • Brian Boru says:

    I am with both bomber49 and adamj. We have to deal with what is not what might have been. Here is my welcome to OUR country.

    We are a land of migrants, from the very first in their canoes or who even walked here. Those who came in chains, those who fled famine, those who fled or survived genocide and war and it’s consequences. To those who came by jet plane yesterday. We acknowledge that in our past, as in most nations, bad things have happened. But we strive to be one people, equality of opportunity for all, no privilege by birth, truly one people. Welcome to you all.

  • Stephen says:

    I could say a lot about this but I’m a bit short of time today. So let me just note that there was always going to be some foreign power coming to Australia. The fact that it was the British was the best available outcome. If the British hadn’t come it would have been the French which would have been worse. The Spanish would have been much worse. For the Aborigines the worst possible outcome would have been for the Maoris to have found their way here. If that had happened the Aborigines would very likely be extinct. Just ask the Chatham Islanders.

  • Brian Boru says:

    Yes Stephen.
    I am always puzzled when I consider how disparate groups of about 300,000 Aboriginals could have been expected to maintain their hold on Australia which has now been demonstrated as able to sustain 25 million people. This in the face of people throughout the world who were literally starving.
    I note that not one bleeding heart has addressed this question nor shown how the populating of Australia could have been better managed in the circumstances of the time.

  • Adam J says:

    @ Brian,
    It seems to be a case of Aboriginal exceptionalism.

  • Keith Windschuttle says:

    Hello Daffy, we have some stock of Michael’s book The Invention of Terra Nullius, which we have now made available through Quadrant Online. If you want to buy it, you can do so here:

  • john.singer says:

    Reynolds and others of his mind-set like to apply modern thinking and law to older events and thereby distort history and its understanding.

    Native Title in Australia was established by the ill-considered legislation of the Keating Government arising out of the decision of the High Court in the Mabo (no2) Case on 3 June 1992 and following from the decision in the Mabo (no1) Case on the 8th December 1988. These cases converted what was a Usufructory use of land into a Native Title. In giving it a modern legal status it did not (and could not) change the actual use (if any) to which the land had been put.

    It has been left to Reynolds and an army of activists and their bevy of authors to attempt to convert a Usufruct (fruits of the land) use of land into something else to justify their claims of invasion.

    Well let us apply some modern thought to Native title. Up until 1961 a building although occupied by separate families or people could not have separate ownership of the area (on ground or in the air) all they could do is hold shares in a Company which claimed ownership of the whole and permitted them in conjunction with a shareholding in the undivided building with a right to occupy a notional area within the building (later known as stratum within strata). Because this form of “ownership” was almost impossible to finance there were movements were afoot to create a title allowing a higher form of ownership. The Conveyancing (Strata Title) Act was enacted in 1961 and was made more flexible by the Stata Titles Act assented to on the 18 October 1973.

    In essence the above laws gave, possibly for the first time, the ability to define the title in land usage (vested in an occupier) not only on the surface of land but also in in subterranean regions and in its “air rights”. The High Court did not apply its thoughts nor was directed to these modern developments in land law even though they predated their decision.

    To date the concepts of strata have not attached to Native Title but leave the field open (particularly to the mining and aviation industries) to bring further matters before the High Court.

    (ps this is the opinion of a retired Valuer not a Lawyer)

  • Lonsdale says:

    john.singer You mean Native Title is company title – compared with strata title? Sorry if I have misunderstood, but could Native Title be converted to individusl strata title?

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