The Way Paved for the Founding of Two New Nations
Not only that, although she might have lost the greater, and certainly the most important, part of her empire of white colonists, she had become a dominant sea-power, and this rule she could not discard except by default. This was most unlikely, for few nations could boast such a sea-minded people, nor one so attracted by commerce.
When the American colonies seceded and declared their independence in 1783, many foreign observers believed that the event marked the end of Britain as a great power. Indeed, many in Britain held similar views. But the great difference between the disruption of the old empire and the decline in the imperial power of Holland, Spain or Portugal, for example, was that whereas in the latter cases the causes had been the fundamental ones of lost vigour and over-strained resources, Britain’s vigour was unimpaired; had, indeed, never flagged; and her resources were still considerable.
Sea-power and commerce were a formidable combination when it came to directing the energy of a nation. The development of commerce inevitably and automatically led to the development of sea-skill, and by the middle of the eighteenth century the science of navigation was already greatly advanced and the necessary equipment for the undertaking of voyages of discovery at a fraction of the risk run by da Gama was available.
With the advantage of hindsight, it can clearly be seen that the new expansion was inevitable. Not only did the merchants require it, but with British rule in India firmly established by this time, a focal point of order and security had been created which was to direct British attention to the East. Yet at the time the expansion was unforeseen and uninvited.
Even before the loss of the American colonies Captain James Cook had opened the way. As one historian has described it he “called a new world into existence which in due course was to redress the balance of the old”. The earliest navigators of the Pacific, because of their unseaworthy ships and unscientific and scanty aids to navigation, had perforce to keep to the shortest routes across the great ocean from California to Manila, and these routes lay hundreds of miles to the north of Australia and New Zealand, so that they remained undiscovered when the existence of the rest of the world was known.
In the previous century Tasman had sailed round Australia, it is true, but he had gone in too wide a sweep and so remained ignorant of the eastern side of the continent. William Dampier, an Englishman, had landed on its western coast in 1688 and 1689, but in 1763 opinion was still divided as to whether or not Terra Australis Incognita extended unbroken to the South Pole.
Between 1764 and 1768 Commodore John Byron and Captains Wallis and Carteret had discovered a number of Pacific islands. But it was to be the greatest navigator of this new age of discovery who was to solve the riddle.
James Cook was the son of an agricultural labourer of the Cleveland district of Yorkshire, who had run away to sea. In this he was not remarkable, for many boys have run away to sea. He was unlike the great majority of the others, however, in the endowment of scientific gifts and tremendous industry which he undoubtedly possessed; for the boy of thirteen who joined the crew of a collier had somehow or other by the age of thirty risen to be the navigator of one of the King’s ships.
He was with the fleet during the siege of Quebec and was given the difficult and dangerous task of taking soundings in the channel of the St Lawrence directly opposite the French encampment, and he was so outstandingly successful that the admiral commissioned him to chart the river below Quebec.
Though there is no evidence as to how the labourer’s son acquired this highly specialized knowledge, he presumably gained it during his four years with the Royal Navy. But whether anyone taught him, or how he found the time, or who provided the books, is unknown. His natural aptitude must have been as extraordinary as the tireless industry which was the other outstanding feature of the character of this tall, thin, serious man of austere habits, explosive temper, who was both feared and trusted by his crews.
He sailed on his first voyage of discovery in 1768. The primary object of the expedition was to make it possible for Sir Joseph Banks, the great British naturalist who had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at twenty-three, and a number of other scientists to observe the transit of the planet Venus from a Pacific island. But the patrons of the expedition had added to Cook’s instructions that when Venus had been observed he was “to prosecute the design of making discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean”. These commands he faithfully carried out.
Sailing from the island on which the observations had been made, he set course first for two large islands whose existence had become known to Europeans more than a century earlier, when Tasman had marked them on his charts of the South Pacific in 1642. But Tasman had also reported that the natives of the islands of New Zealand were fighters and cannibals, and the most intractable race he had encountered in his wide wanderings.
This description of the Maoris had held back other Europeans from visiting New Zealand, and Cook was the first to do so when he circumnavigated both North and South Island in 1769, making the first accurate chart of their coastlines.
his undertaking completed, he took a westward course, and on 30 April, 1770, he reached the east coast of Australia, on which no European had hitherto set sight. On 23 August he noted in his log: “I took possession of the whole of the eastern coast by the name of New Wales,” or, as he called it in a letter later, New South Wales. Banks, whose main scientific interest was botany, was so much impressed by the fertility of the country enclosing the bay in which they anchored that he suggested it should be called Botany Bay, to which Cook agreed. Banks had also made up his mind that the British must one day colonize this land.
From April to August, 1770, Cook sailed northward for two thousand miles along the coast of eastern Australia, charting it accurately as he went. He then passed through the Torres Strait, which separates Australia from New Guinea, thereby proving that the two were distinct islands. No other explorer on a single voyage before or since has added so much new territory to the known world.
Cook now returned home, but in 1772 he set out on his second voyage. In three successive summers he penetrated into the most southern parts of the Pacific, coming up to the great ice-wall. By doing so he destroyed the myth of a Southern Continent, Terra Australis Incognita, an allegedly earthly paradise inhabited by a highly civilized people, in which many of the most learned of European scholars had believed.
In 1776 he embarked on his third voyage, this time sailing for the North Pacific. He discovered the Sandwich group and charted new islands, and all the time he methodically recorded in his journal the manners and customs of the strange peoples he encountered. He explored the Alaskan coast and sailed through the Bering Strait, but reached the conclusion that there was little hope of a passage through it to the Atlantic. Next summer, however, he intended to return to probe deeper into the Strait, and returned to the Sandwich Isles to winter. But before next summer came he was dead, killed in a stupid quarrel with the Sandwich islanders who had first believed him to be a god.
Besides being the first explorer to reach and chart the eastern coast of Australia, Cook had at once appreciated, as Banks had done, the fertility and promise of the country. The Dutch had long ago reached and mapped the western parts and had reported that they were barren and useless for settlement. Here in the eastern parts, Cook was convinced that he had found a new habitation for civilized mankind.
‘In this extensive country”, he wrote in his journal, “it can never be doubted but what most sorts of grain, fruits, roots, etc., of every kind would flourish were they once brought hither… and here is provender for more cattle, at all seasons of the year, than ever can be brought into the country.”
These views of Cook’s became quickly and widely known, for his Voyages became the most popular travel-book ever published. They were translated into many languages, and read by both Louis XVI and Napoleon. Yet it was not until eighteen years after Cook had first sailed into Botany Bay that New South Wales, the first Australian settlement, was founded, and the reasons why this was done when it was done sprang directly from events that had taken place in the other New World.
When the American colonies declared their independence and this was recognized by Britain, not all the colonists wished to remain associated with them. The Empire Loyalists, as they called themselves, therefore returned to the Mother Country in large numbers with the withdrawing British armies. Most of the Loyalists arrived destitute, having sunk their all in their property in America, and were in need of support and work.
This was one reason. The second was that the new States of North and South Carolina refused to receive any more British convicts sentenced to transportation, and in 1779 Sir Joseph Banks recommended to a Committee of the House of Commons that convicts should be sent to Botany Bay. Like most recommendations made to the House of Commons, this one was sat on for several years, and in the meantime Admiral Sir George Young put forward yet another idea, why not send Empire Loyalists to Australia as well as convicts? They were experienced colonists and they would undoubtedly be able to make for themselves there the new life which they were failing to make in England.
But Pitt had no notion of founding a new nation, and though he did eventually agree to the convict project, he did not consider it equitable or just to coerce free men to go to the other side of the world, however destitute and wretched they might be on this side. And yet he must have had some subconscious vision of what the future held, for when Captain Phillip sailed in 1787 with the first expedition of 1,100 persons, of whom 750 were convicts, he was given instructions to annex the entire eastern half of Australia and the adjacent islands to the British Crown.
It is doubtful whether the convict settlement at Botany Bay would have survived but for the kind of man Captain Phillip, its first Governor, was. “The gentleman, the scholar and the seaman are combined in Captain Phillip,” wrote a friend, while another, Captain Fortescue, declared to the padre who accompanied the expedition, “Upon my soul, Butler, I do believe Almighty God made Phillip on purpose for the place.”
Phillip had planned and equipped his expedition well, and to this planning a great measure of the success eventually achieved must be credited. His greatest problem was the human material with which he had to work. Many of the convicts “have been brought up from infancy”, he reported, “in such indolence that they would starve if left to themselves”.
When he arrived in Botany Bay, the place did not appear to Phillip to be a suitable one for the founding of a settlement, and a week after reaching it, on 26 January, 1788, he broke the British flag in “the finest harbour in the world in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security”. He named the place Sydney, after Lord Sydney, the Secretary of State responsible for the expedition.
Here he set about the difficult task of transforming his mob into a reasonable community. This he did with tact and observation. Though his discipline was strict, and his punishments could be “prompt and terrible”, yet his humanity shone through all he did and was recognized by his convict charges, who frequently called him “our good Governor”.
When, four years later, he was compelled to retire through ill-health, the little community had still many dangers to overcome, but they had already surmounted the worst, yet in 1800 the British (Government were seriously considering abandoning it, and were only dissuaded from doing so by Sir Joseph Banks, who once again put forward the project of allowing in free settlers. When this was done, the settlement never looked back. Coal was discovered north of Sydney, and John Macarthur imported and bred a strain of sheep which bore excellent wool. Soon New South Wales had become the leading wool-producer of the world, and by 1820 the population of the settlement had risen to twenty-three thousand, and gradually the name Australia came into general use.
As time went by, other settlements were founded, Tasmania was annexed and New Holland, and outposts set up in the west. A constant stream of settlers arrived almost monthly, and the discovery of gold in 1850 brought about a “second colonization”.
So the colony grew, and by the end of the first hundred years a new nation had come into being; a new nation which, in the mid-twentieth century, has still not revealed its full potential.
And while this nation was coming to birth, in New Zealand a similar event was taking place, which, though it was characterized by a slower start, was nevertheless to achieve a success commensurate with Australia’s.
In the first twenty years after Cook’s third visit in 1777, British, French and Spanish ships arrived, but none stayed; at least, not for long. The first British to attempt to settle there were refugees from the more recalcitrant of the Australian convicts, who either killed one another or went native. The first serious attempt at colonization, in. 1824, also failed, but in 1840 Wellington was founded, and Captain Hobbs proclaimed the sovereignty of Queen Victoria.
Other settlements followed in the next decade at Nelson, Auckland and elsewhere. From this time progress was rapid, and as in the case pf Australia was much stimulated by the discovery of gold. With the pacification of the native Maoris between 1860 and 1870, this new people, too, was well set on the path to nationhood.
Probably no man’s dream has been so completely fulfilled as James Cook’s has been. Certainly his estimate of the potentials of the great countries of the South Pacific have been fully justified; and in the coming decades will undoubtedly be exceeded, for a great future still faces New Zealand and Australia.
- Captain Cook Society
- Captain Cook historic plaque, Halifax
- “Explorer, navigator, coloniser: revisit Captain Cook’s legacy with the click of a mouse”. The Conversation. 29 April 2020. Retrieved 29 April 2020.