This theme explores the immediate and long-term environmental legacies of Cook’s voyages.

Although his Endeavour voyage was commissioned by the Royal Society of London as a scientific mission, Cook also carried a secret letter from the Admiralty when he set sail in 1768. In part of this letter, Cook was told to survey the natural resources:

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.

Dr Joy McCann is a historian specialising in environmental and cultural history. In the following address at the National Library, she discusses the environmental impacts on the southern oceans following the publication of Cook’s journals in 1777.

The ruthless approach described by McCann differs significantly from that of Indigenous Australians, who for thousands of years have fished in the rivers and at sea.

Tupaia (c.1724–1770), Australian Aboriginal People in Bark Canoes, April 1770, British Library, London, Add MS 15508, f.1.

This image was drawn during Cook’s 1770 voyage by Tupaia, a Polynesian who accompanied Cook on the voyage.

Along with the oceans, land-based environments faced profound environmental impact after Cook’s voyages. Bruce Pascoe, a Bunurong/Tasmanian Yuin man, has done extensive research into the natural environment in pre-colonial Australia. In this presentation at the Library, he outlines some of the damage caused to the landscape when sheep were introduced to the colony.


  • Joy McCann describes the harvesting of marine life in the Southern Ocean by seal gangs and whalers. At that time, there were no laws to control the harvesting of marine life from these remote islands and waters. Investigate the international laws and regulations that now govern marine environments, and evaluate their adequacy.
  • European colonists introduced plants and animals to Australia without knowledge of the impact they might have on the Australian environment. How did the agriculture and farming practices of the colonists differ in philosophy and approach from those of Indigenous Australians? Why might the colonists have chosen not to recognise or use the expertise of the original inhabitants?
  • Bruce Pascoe advocates for a return to Aboriginal land-management and farming practices, including periodic patch burning and greater use of native plants and animals. His ideas are shared by many conservationists and scientists. Identify the positive and negative economic, cultural, political and environmental implications of making such changes.
  • Outline the positive and negative legacies of Cook’s expeditions in relation to the Australian environment. What connections are there, if any, between the impacts of colonisation and the concerns of contemporary environmental activists?