Editor's Column

Captain Cook and the Great Game

In 2018 I reviewed in these pages a new book by Margaret Cameron-Ash titled Lying for the Admiralty: Captain Cook’s Endeavour Voyage, an account of the founding of the British origins of Australia more illuminating than anything I had read for years. After decades of leftist myths about Australian history produced by our universities it was a refreshing light emerging from a dark tunnel. Cameron-Ash rightly placed Cook’s voyage not as some rapacious zeal for colonising the natives or a heartless search for a place to dump convicts but as part of the great imperial rivalry between England and France for maritime power in the Pacific, a long-term strategic battle which the British eventually won.

The book originally appeared under the banner of the small Sydney firm Rosenberg Publishing. Their edition sold out at about the same time as Cameron-Ash became an author with Quadrant Books with her now best-selling work Beating France to Botany Bay: The Race to Found Australia. So Quadrant offered to produce our own new edition of Lying for the Admiralty as a companion volume, a proposition that eventually led to last month’s addition to our expanding book list.

This column appears in November’s Quadrant.
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Lying for the Admiralty is both a compelling take on the political climate behind the founding of Australia and an exciting, impressively researched, page-turning work. Cameron-Ash shows that Cook was an active player in what Rudyard Kipling later called the Great Game of spying and deception in the geopolitical rivalry among the European powers for supremacy. Cook’s discovery of the Australian continent’s east coast, and the information he kept secret about it, were critical manoeuvres in this rivalry.

For Australian readers, her most dramatic claim is that, rather than barely noticing the existence of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) on his way north from Botany Bay—recording in his journal that he sailed straight past its heads while two to three miles out to sea—Cook actually explored it closely over several days. He immediately recognised its strategic value and a magnificent prize for the British Empire. Apart from a select few officers who shared the finding, Cook kept its existence entirely to himself and the Admiralty.

After the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763) which divided Europe into two opposing coalitions, Britain and France continued their rivalry around the globe, from India to the Americas and the Pacific. Empire building became an arms race. In September 1763, Louis XV sent Louis Antoine de Bougainville to establish a colony on one of the two Falkland Islands, the last site where Pacific-bound expeditions could then stop to take on fresh water and supplies, a strategic necessity for those vying for power in the South Seas. Advised by one of his Versailles spies of France’s plan, the British secretary of the admiralty, Philip Stephens, sent Captains John Byron and Samuel Wallis on two ships to plant a colony on the other Falkland Island, and to then explore the Pacific to find the legendary Great Southern Continent. Byron did his duty on the Falklands but then circumnavigated the globe without further success. Wallis, however, went on to discover the islands of Tahiti.

Cameron-Ash calls Tahiti the pivotal discovery in Pacific exploration. No longer would navigators have to race across the ocean like Byron in fear of running out of food, water and wood. Tahiti was a base where ships could fill their barrels with fresh water and local foodstuffs, and ships could be repaired.

The French thought the same. In April 1767, just ten months after Wallis’s discovery, Bougainville dropped anchor in Tahiti too. The French embassy in London had bought the plans for Wallis’s voyage from two of his crew for 150 guineas and sent Bougainville after him. The British did not know he had reached Tahiti until James Cook got there the following year and was told by local chiefs.

The public purpose of Cook’s expedition was to make a scientific record of the transit of Venus. Most of the expeditions to the Pacific at this time were made by ships laden with astronomers and naturalists ostensibly on Enlightenment-inspired scientific expeditions, but also with instructions, mostly secret, to take possession of those Pacific territories useful for trade and navigation and to keep searching for the increasingly questionable Great Southern Continent.

Like Byron and Wallis, Cook had reason to distrust the loyalty and obedience of his crew to keep sensitive information confidential. Cameron-Ash says Richard Orton, Cook’s clerk and the very man who made copies of his journal for the Admiralty, later sold details of Cook’s voyage to East India Company captains. Moreover, an American midshipman aboard the Endeavour, James Matra, published an unauthorised account of the voyage, giving away many details. The Admiralty itself did not allow publication of Cook’s journals at all, only a bowdlerised version written in 1773 by James Hawkesworth.

To prevent the French from repeating their previous tactics of occupying Newfoundland and the Falkland Islands to inhibit British ambitions in the adjacent regions, Cook hid his discoveries of both Foveaux Strait in New Zealand and Bass Strait in Australia. He misled readers by drawing maps that treated both Van Diemen’s Land and Stewart Island not as distinct domains but as peninsulas of the land to their north.

The biggest secret the Admiralty kept to itself, Cameron-Ash argues, was the naval value of Sydney Harbour, which she thinks Cook must have revealed in an interview with Admiralty Secretary Stephens after he returned home. She did not find this in any of Cook’s or Stephens’s papers but says the information was revealed by Arthur Phillip in letters to the Home Office before leaving Britain with the First Fleet in May 1787. Phillip said that if he found Botany Bay suitable he would locate his settlement there but, if not, he would “go to a Port a few Leagues to the Northward, where there appear’d to be a good Harbour, and several islands”. Phillip said that if the natives decided to burn the grass around the settlement, as had happened to Cook in far north Queensland, he would corral the cattle on one of these several islands.

Now, the only way anyone could be so confident there were islands in Sydney Harbour was to either enter it by sea and go well inside, at least as far as Bradley’s Head, or else walk around the hills above its shoreline. None of its islands is visible from outside the heads of the harbour, let alone from the Endeavour two or three miles out to sea, the sole vantage point in Cook’s journal.

In a chapter she acknowledges is largely conjecture, Cameron-Ash argues that during the eight days he spent at Botany Bay, Cook’s journal is uncharacteristically vague about his own movements. She argues it would have been easy for him and a few companions to walk several times along the six miles of Aboriginal tracks to Sydney Harbour. From high points on Bellevue Hill, Bondi Junction or Pyrmont Peninsula, he could have seen from the Heads to the Parramatta River.

Once he found what he wanted—better than even the famed harbour of Trincomalee in Ceylon—Cook set sail for home up the east coast of New Holland. He would definitely not show off his prize for his crew to see. Until Britain could protect it by planting a garrison on its shores, he would conceal it by omitting it from his charts. He never stopped to investigate any of the other fine harbours he later passed in the habitable temperate zone up the coast: Broken Bay, Newcastle, Port Stephens, Port Macquarie. “They surely required investigation after the shortcomings of Botany Bay,” Cameron-Ash says, but the Endeavour never entered any of them.

It struck me long ago that in January 1788 Arthur Phillip was surprisingly hasty in abandoning Botany Bay and relocating to Sydney Cove. As soon as he arrived, after an eight-month voyage from England, and a cursory two-day survey of the bay, Phillip set off to inspect Sydney Harbour. He returned three days later, his mind made up. Phillip made his real motives clear in May 1788 in his first despatch to Lord Sydney: “We got into Port Jackson early in the afternoon, and had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line [battle ships] may ride in the most perfect security.”

Pretty obviously, this was what Phillip expected to find all along. The only source that could have informed him was the Admiralty, who got it from Cook.

Nonetheless, lacking a telling document from either Cook or Stephens, Cameron-Ash will have a hard job convincing everyone else she is right, Some more document finds would enhance her case. But her account already fits better than any other with what we now know about the historical forces driving the race for imperialism in the Pacific that eventually founded our nation.

10 thoughts on “Captain Cook and the Great Game

  • Farnswort says:

    “Cameron-Ash rightly placed Cook’s voyage not as some rapacious zeal for colonising the natives or a heartless search for a place to dump convicts but as part of the great imperial rivalry between England and France for maritime power in the Pacific, a long-term strategic battle which the British eventually won.”

    Alan Frost also makes quite a compelling case in “Botany Bay: The Real Story” that the foundation of the New South Wales colony was part of a broader British strategy to establish bases in the Pacific and Indian oceans and contain France.

    The colonisation of the Australian continent was inevitable in the age of sail. It was simply a matter of which power would be the first to establish a foothold.

    • cbattle1 says:

      If Britain or France did not take possession of “New Holland” back in the 17 or 1800s, it would inevitably have been a contest between the Pacific powers of USA, Russia and Japan. When Lefties deride and mock the suggestion that Cook and Phillip were products of “The Enlightenment”, have they considered the reality of the inevitable colonisation of Australia by one of the three alternatives?

  • Farnswort says:

    Keith Windschuttle back in 2011 on Alan Frost’s groundbreaking research: https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2011/03/chronicle/

    It’s a real pity that Frost’s work hasn’t had more of an impact.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Thanks Keith. Cook did a great job for us all, a real giant and Governor Phillip after him, and also Captain Wallis.
    Those were the days of wooden ships and iron men alright, and one only has to read the journal of Commodore Anson’s epic voyage around the world some decades earlier to take the Manila Galleon, to get a feel for just how iron like these men really were.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    A high priority for the First Fleet colonists of 1788 were the establishment of additional colonies in Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land) and on Norfolk Island, which had been discovered by Captain Cook in 1774, on his second voyage to the Pacific on HMS Resolution. It had extensive coverage of Norfolk Island pines, which Cook had judged as excellent timber for the making of ships’ masts. The prior sources in North America were uncertain due to the Independence War of 1776 and the French interest in Quebec. New Zealand also had excellent mast timber, but it could only be secured for the British Navy after the defeat of the Maoris in the Maori Wars yet to come. Norfolk Island had the advantage of being totally uninhabited.
    So within three weeks of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove, HMS Supply was despatched under the command of Henry Lidgbird Ball to take possession of Norfolk Island. On the way back to Sydney Cove, they also took possession of the (then uninhabited) jewel of the Pacific, and named it Lord Howe Island. The spectacular Ball’s Pyramid is close by.

  • maxpart27 says:

    You can read Cook’s journal day by day. Lots of description of his time in Botany Bay. I think your book is a bit of wishful thinking to do a Pascoe on our history.

  • Paul W says:

    Maxpart27, the issue is that it contains virtually nothing about Port Jackson or other ports. Either Cook was incompetent or he was hiding something (or a mix of both).

  • maxpart27 says:

    Paul W, presumably you read his journal. You have no doubt read about Cook and know that he was extremely competent, having joined the navy as a seaman at 27 and risen to captain a ship. He saw the entrance to the harbour. To assume he should have entered it is not credible as he was plotting the coast. For Quadrant to join the ranks of the history rewriters is disappointing.

  • Paul W says:

    Hello Max. Cook is one of history’s greatest explorers. I don’t consider this to be history rewriting because it is only placing him in the context of imperial rivalry in which keeping secrets and deceiving opponents is necessary. Cook stayed for several weeks at Botany Bay, did he really never see Port Jackson while he was there? Don’t you think it strange that Arthur Phillip seemed to find it very quickly?

  • maxpart27 says:

    Hello Paul, Cook was in Botany Bay from 28/04 1770 to 06/05/1770.
    Phillip was on his way to check out Broken Bay, which Cook had named on 07/05/1770 on his way north, when he took a look at Port Jackson.

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