Hints offered to the consideration of Captain Cook

Preserved in the National Library of Australia’s Manuscripts Collection, along with Cook’s handwritten journal, are another set of instructions. These were ‘hints’ provided to Cook by the president of the Royal Society, James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton. These hints related to how the people of the lands that Cook and his crew encountered should be treated.

In these hints, Cook is told to ‘exercise the utmost patience and forbearance’ when dealing with the local people. He is exhorted to remind the crew that it is their moral responsibility to do no harm to the Indigenous inhabitants they might encounter while on the Endeavour expedition, and to respect Indigenous land occupation.

Cook took these instructions to heart. He did indeed treat the people he encountered with a level of respect and fairness that was unusual at the time. He also passed these instructions on to his crew, ordering them to ‘endeavour by every fair means to cultivate a friendship with the Natives and to treat them with all imaginable humanity’.

Morton’s instructions—like the Admiralty’s secret instructions—encouraged Cook to search for ‘a Continent in the Lower temperate Latitudes and if successful, be vigilant to note any valuable resources in the form of agricultural possibilities or minerals that might be evident’.

Morton requested that Cook take particular care with the plant specimens he brought back, providing detailed descriptions of how best to mount each one. He asked Cook to record the exact location in which each plant grew, including ‘observing which part of the Plant fronts the South’. Vegetables were to be sought, particularly those which had medicinal qualities or could be used as dyes.

Morton was Scottish, a peer and product of the Enlightenment. Like other Enlightenment figures, he elevated reason and science as the most rational method for achieving understanding. In keeping with this, Morton was committed to the philosophy of securing greater autonomy and freedom for ordinary people. He was president of the Royal Society from 1764 until his death, a few weeks after the Endeavour set sail from Plymouth.

In taking possession of the east coast of Australia in the name of the English Crown, Cook contradicted the advice offered by Morton. By doing so, he proved that his primary duty was to King George III and the colonial ambitions of the British government and Admiralty.

Morton’s hints advise ‘the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the Natives of the several Lands where the Ship may touch’. They continue with a set of recommendations that firmly assert Indigenous occupants’ ownership rights to such lands:

To check the petulance of the Sailors, and restrain the wanton use of Fire Arms.

To have it still in view that sheding the blood of those people is a crime of the highest nature:—They are human creatures, the work of the same omnipotent Author, equally under his care with the most polished European; perhaps being less offensive, more entitled to his favor.

They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit.

No European Nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent. Conquest over such people can give no just title; because they could never be the Aggressors.

Cook also had clear instructions from the Admiralty that he was only to take possession of advantageous positions with the ‘Consent of the Natives’. Nonetheless, he took possession of the entire east coast of Australia above 38° south, calling it New South Wales, in the name of King George III.

Activities

  1. The instructions from Lord Morton were ignored by Cook, who adhered more strongly to the secret instructions from the Admiralty. As a class, discuss the ramifications of the decision taken by Cook to ignore Morton’s assertion that ‘Conquest over such people can give no just title; because they could never be the Aggressors’.
     
  2. Reading his instructions, it could be said that Morton was ahead of his time as far as intercultural relations are concerned. What motives might have been behind the writing of these hints?
     
  3. Cook was effectively serving two masters. On one hand, he was the commanding officer of a ship belonging to the King, under the control of the Admiralty. On the other, his expedition was commissioned and funded by the Royal Society, under the presidency of the Earl of Morton.

    Both organisations gave Cook goals to reach on his first voyage. In your opinion, how well did Cook serve two masters? Did he ignore one in favour of the other? Did he address both missions concerned equally?

  4. Appraise Cook’s achievements with reference to the mission from the Admiralty and the hints from Lord Morton.
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