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On the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook's discovery of the east coast of Australia its worth asking ... what was Cook doing here? He certainly wasn't looking for Australia (or New Holland as it was then known) as Europeans had known it existed since the 1500's.  Like many other Europeans before him, Cook was searching for the fabled land of Terra Australis.

The Phoenicians (based in modern day Lebanon) were brilliant sea-farers across the Mediterranean from 1500-300BC. One crew circumnavigated Africa in around 550BC. It was a one off trip as no-one else did it for another 2,000 years.  But when those Phoenicians returned they reported that the sun was in a different position when they sailed around Africa.  That knowledge prompted the learned Greeks to correctly calculate that the world is a sphere. But the Greeks also made an error and that little error, more than anything else, explains modern Australia.

The Greeks speculated that this round world must have an equal amount of land in the southern hemisphere as there is in the northern hemisphere to keep things in balance. Therefore there must be a continent somewhere in the south as large as Eurasia.


When the Romans conquered the Greeks militarily in around 148BC the Greeks conquered the Romans intellectually. To their credit the Romans happily embraced Greek learning including the idea of a southern continent and they named it Terra Australis (Latin for South Land).

The myth of Terra Australis bubbled along for centuries but it was seemingly confirmed as a certainty when Europeans discovered North and South America. The two continents were calculated to be of equal size in both hemispheres.  Terra Australis existed and now the race was on to find it. As time when on the myth of Terra Australis was embellished - it was now a vast land of great wealth with merchants eager to trade.

The Portuguese had reached the Indian Ocean in 1488 and thereby opened up a sea route to the exotic riches of India and Asia. Endless ships went back and forth between Europe and Asia ... and plenty bumped into western and northern Australia. But clearly this land wasn't Terra Australis - it was too barren and offered no opportunity for trade. Terra Australis therefore must be further south.

By the mid 1600's the Dutch had established a powerful presence in today's Indonesia ... and so their finest explorer Abel Tasman set off from modern day Jakarta in 1642 to find Terra Australis.  He sailed south west to modern day Mauritius (off the African coast) and then headed deep down into the Southern Ocean. He found nothing so before it got too cold and icy and remain low but headed due east.


After many months of nothing but wild ocean Tasmania bumped into land that today bears his name.  Unlike the north-west of New Holland Tasman must have thought that lush Tasmania was a serious candidate for Terra Australis ... but then it was soon revealed to be an island so he departed and kept heading east. He then found New Zealand but it too was an island so Tasman gave up and decided to return to base in Jakarta. He could have sailed back to Tasmania and then head north along the east coast of New Holland but thankfully he didn't.  He sailed due north from New Zealand (discovering Fiji) and then sailed up around the north coast of New Guinea and back to base.

The next year Tasman set off again ... this time to find the east coast of New Holland.  The north, west and much of the south of New Holland had been explored but not the east (the best bit).  Tasman sailed along the south coast of New Guinea but when he got to the shallow waters of the Torres Strait he weirdly miscalculated New Guinea and Cape York to be a single landmass – it was an extraordinary error but if Tasman hadn’t made it the Dutch would no doubt have colonised the east coast.  But the error was made and Tasman mapped the Gulf of Carpentaria, headed west, returned to Jakarta.

At that point Tasman gave up and so did the Dutch. So twice in two years Tasman missed (just) the glorious 4,000 km fertile east coast of Australia. But it wasn't just the Dutch who missed it - so had the Spanish, the Chinese, the French, the Polynesians and everyone else bar the Aborigines who had been here for an astonishing 50,000 years plus in splendid isolation.

When Captain James Cook set off in 1768 his mission was to go to Tahiti to observe Venus passing before the sun. Cook’s mission was one of three missions sent at the same time to observe the transit of Venus and it was hoped their data would help calculate the precise distance of the sun from earth.  But Cook was also given sealed instructions to be read only after his Tahiti stopover. When he read them Cook was told to sail south in the hope of discovering Terra Australis. He did so (with the navigational assistance of a Tahitian priest) and they (unlike Tasman) fully mapped New Zealand and then (250 years ago today) he bumped into coastal Victoria. He knew it wasn't Terra Australis because it was obviously eastern New Holland and since no-one else had mapped it Cook gave up on Terra Australis and decided to head north. He took careful notes, popped into modern day Sydney and when he got to the top of Cape York he claimed the east coast for Britain first naming it New Wales (the South was inserted later).


Cook returned to England & then set out for two other great voyages of Earth's largest geographical feature - the Pacific Ocean. He sailed across the deep south of the Pacific Ocean and all the way up to Alaska and In the process Cook gave us the Pacific Map.  Cook’s efforts also debunked once and for all the myth of Terra Australis. But the ancient myth lives on in the glorious name of Australia which provides this country with a very real link with the greatest civilisation of the antiquity – Rome.

There was a helluva a lot of luck that shielded the east coast of Australia from earlier discovery ... but what fabulous luck. This continent was inevitably going to be colonised and none could have done so much with it as the British.  Thank you Captain Cook.

Footnote: Thank you John for a great history lesson. Maybe our kids could benefit from this amazing insight into our great Nation.  


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