Secret Instructions

Not many people are aware that James Cook’s famous Endeavour voyage was originally commissioned by the Royal Society of London as a scientific mission. When the Admiralty (Royal Navy) became aware that the Society was planning to commission a sea journey to the Southern Hemisphere to collect scientific data, its members saw an opportunity to become involved. However, their motivations were very different to those of the Royal Society.

The Admiralty’s interest lay in preserving and increasing the power and prestige of the British Crown. The discovery of new and efficient routes of navigation and commercial trading opportunities would increase the advantages held by Britain as a maritime power. A journey such as that proposed by the Royal Society would provide great opportunities to achieve this aim. The Royal Society and Admiralty agreed on a joint venture in which the latter’s territorial ambitions could be concealed behind the more benign exploratory goal of expanding knowledge of the world.

On 30 July 1768, the Lords of the Admiralty signed Cook’s instructions for the Endeavour voyage, and they were classified as secret. The instructions were in two parts, the second of which was sealed, to be opened only by Cook. The first task was to sail to Tahiti from where Cook and his crew were instructed to observe the transit of Venus. The document includes the request that:

When this service is perform’d you are to put to Sea without Loss of Time, and carry into execution the Additional Instructions contained in the inclosed Sealed Packet.

The sealed instructions held the Admiralty’s reasons for supporting the voyage: in addition to observing the transit of Venus, Cook was commanded to find the Great South Land, a ‘Land of great extent’ that was thought to exist in southern latitudes:

You are to proceed to the Southward in order to make discovery of the Continent above-mentioned until you arrive in the latitude of 40º, unless you sooner fall in with it.

The second page instructs Cook ‘with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain’. With these directives, Cook was authorised to place any Indigenous inhabitants of the Great South Land under the rule of the King of England.

On reaching the southern oceans, Cook followed the coast of New Zealand, thereby proving that it was separate from the southern continent. He then turned west, reaching the southern coast of New South Wales on 20 April 1770, and sighting land at what we now know as Point Hicks, in Victoria. He then turned north, landing at Botany Bay one week later, before continuing north to the tip of Queensland. There, on Possession Island, just before sunset on Wednesday 22 August 1770, Cook declared the continent a British possession.

More than simply laying claim to the new territory, Cook was instructed in the secret orders to explore the continent in as much detail as time allowed:

You are also instructed to observe the Nature of the Soil, & the products thereof; the Beasts & Fowls that inhabit or Frequent it, the Fishes that are to be found in the Rivers or upon the coast & in what Plenty & in case you find any Mines, Minerals or valuable Stones, you are to bring home Specimens of each & also such Specimens of the Seeds of the Tree fruits & grains as you may be able to collect.

Cook followed his orders zealously. His observations along the New South Wales coastline on his first voyage formed the basis for Britain’s decision to establish a colony at Botany Bay. His meticulous charting of the coast contributed to the Admiralty’s charts of Australian waters that were prepared 20 years after his voyage along the eastern coast.


  1. Cook’s instructions from the British Admiralty were issued to him in secret. What motives might the Admiralty have in keeping these instructions a secret? What advantages might there be to Cook or the Admiralty carrying out exploration of the ‘south land’ in secret?
  2. Cook claimed land for Great Britain despite his observations it was inhabited. How might the geopolitical circumstances of the British Empire at the time influenced his decision to do so?
  3. The Admiralty instructed Cook to take possession of the Australian continent ‘with the Consent of the Natives’. Discuss the concept of consent in this context of pre-contact Indigenous societies. Do you think it would have been possible for Cook to have obtained such consent?
  4. Mark McKenna describes the action of taking possession without consent as the ‘fundamental grievance’. What were the consequences for Indigenous people? How does this historical action relate to issues now commonly thought of as contemporary—including land rights, constitutional recognition and calls for a treaty?
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