Resentment History and Cook’s Last Secret

Michael Connor

Contributing editor

Terra nullius and Captain Cook are the Left’s founding grievances. In Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement, Henry Reynolds returns with familiar errors to undermine Australia’s sovereignty. He is serious and his book ends with threats.

The foundation of his history cum warfare begins with three pages on James Cook. In reclaiming our history it is worth returning to Cook’s Secret Instructions, which have been used to tarnish his reputation by people who have never read them, and are here again misused by Reynolds. 

The actual heading on the Admiralty document that has caused the problems is “Additional Instructions for Lt. James Cook”. The text runs over two and a quarter hand-written pages. The word Secret appears on the top left-hand corner of the front page. These are Cook’s instructions for the conduct of his voyage after observing the transit of Venus and leaving Tahiti. Though the text still holds a very big secret, they were never really completely secret. The week before the Endeavour sailed from Plymouth the London Gazetteer, August 18, 1768, revealed that after Tahiti Cook was “to attempt some new discoveries in that vast unknown tract, about the latitude 40”.

The Secret Instructions may have been prepared for Cook to share with Dutch and Spanish colonial administrators in colonies he touched on for supplies and used by him to assure them his expedition was predominantly scientific and lightly exploratory—nothing to upset European colonial rivals with their own geopolitical ambitions in the Pacific. After completing his scientific observations it surely seemed quite reasonable that he would search for the mythical Great Southern Continent that all Europe was curious about and then, if unsuccessful, circumnavigate New Zealand, which Abel Tasman had discovered the previous century, before returning home. The document gives precise directions for the search, nowhere near the colonial possessions of other European states.

Historians and activists are only interested in a single paragraph and the remaining parts are seldom referred to even though the Instructions are only ten paragraphs long. To brush away the lies that have grown up about the document it is important to see it as a whole, for it breaks naturally into two sections, the search for the southern continent and the remainder of the voyage, and then to look at two paragraphs that have so marked our history and racial politics.                

Paragraphs one to six discuss the Southern Continent. The first words of the first paragraph set out the objective, “Whereas the making Discovereys of Countries hitherto unknown …” Then, the opening words of each of the five following paragraphs show a connection with what has gone before: “You are to proceed to the southward … If you discover the Continent above-mentioned … You are also Carefully to observe the Nature of the Soil … You are likewise to observe the Genius, Disposition and Nature of the Natives, if there be any … You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take possession …” It is this last paragraph (six) which has received most attention from modern Australians.

Paragraph seven begins the second section with new objectives. It clearly marks a change of subject: “But if you should fail of discovering the Continent before-mention’d …” In this paragraph he is instructed to circumnavigate and chart New Zealand and then to return to England via the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn.

Paragraph eight is the real foundation of Australia’s modern history, not the one that begins with the “Consent of the Natives”. It is seldom mentioned by the historians, and never by activists: “You will also observe …”

Paragraph nine allows Cook some leeway for decisions in the case of emergencies or in dealing with matters not otherwise covered in the Instructions: “as upon advice with your Officers you shall judge most advantageous to the Service on which you are employed”.

Paragraph ten, the final instruction, orders Cook on arriving in England to send the scientific results of his observation of the transit of Venus to the Royal Society and all other documents on the voyage, including the personal papers written by the crew, to the Admiralty.

The two instructions for taking possession of territory are very different because they were written for different circumstances. The first instruction (paragraph six) was written specifically for use in dealing with the unknown and mythical Southern Continent, and this “Country” is specified twice. In his Truth-Telling transcription Reynolds has deleted the first reference to that “Country” which I have restored here between square brackets:

You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations [in the Country] in the name of the King of Great Britain; or, if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.

The second instruction (paragraph eight) deals with other territory not previously discovered by Europeans and is quite different. Note that it has been written to make these discoveries seem rather unimportant compared to the main task of discovering the Southern Continent. Reynolds has never mentioned the existence of this text: 

You will also observe with accuracy the Situation of such Islands as you may discover in the Course of your Voyage that have not hitherto been discover’d by any Europeans, and take possession for His Majesty and make Surveys and Draughts of such of them as may appear to be of Consequence, without Suffering yourself however to be thereby diverted from the Object which you are always to have in View, the Discovery of the Southern Continent so often Mentioned.

Cook’s journal account of the ceremony on Possession Island when he claimed Australia’s east coast for Britain is clearly based on the second instruction—this is why it was written. The matter may be even clearer when words that were written at the time and later crossed out (possibly censored by the Admiralty?) are restored here as marked by the underscores:

on the Western side [of New Holland] I can make no new discovery the honour of which belongs to the Dutch Navigators and as such they may lay claim to it as their property but the Eastern Coast from the Latitude of 38˚ South down to this place I am confident was never seen or viseted [sic] by any European before us and therefore by the same Rule belongs to Great Brittan [sic] …

Though Reynolds uses only a one-sentence paragraph from the Instructions, which he has edited, his readers could assume that they are being presented with the complete document: “The two parts of these instructions are quite different.” His discussion only deals with two parts of a sentence—the wrong one—and he never reveals that there are quite different directions for taking possession of discovered land which has nothing to do with obtaining the “Consent of the Natives” or whether or not it is inhabited.

No historian seems to have actually read these Instructions, but a contributor to Quadrant Online has. In July 2020, as historic statues were being attacked by vandals, Michael Dunn wrote of the ongoing madness in “James Cook, of Noble and Imperishable Memory”. In responding to the claims of an academic historian that Cook ignored his instructions in taking Australian land without Aboriginal assent, Dunn was succinct and absolutely correct and the sources he read are the same ones the historians claim to have used:

In fact, the instructions mention the need for consent only in connection with the “great southern continent”. They go on to permit claims of possession elsewhere, without mentioning the inhabitants’ consent. Eastern Australia was already known as New Holland, and nobody thought it was the undiscovered great south land.

In fact, Henry Reynolds does. In attacking Cook he mocked the idea that Cook’s “discovery” had “earned for Britain title over the ‘Great South Land’”.

For over thirty years Reynolds has misused the Secret Instructions. Even as he always abuses just one sentence he has never been able to cite it correctly—though it is the principal weapon he directs against Captain Cook. In The Law of the Land (1987) he ignored the wording of the actual text from 1768 and used instructions given to Cook for his third voyage in 1776—because in the later text there is only one direction for taking possession: with consent or if uninhabited. In Aboriginal Sovereignty (1996) he cited both the 1768 and later 1776 instructions but edited the earlier text, making slight word changes and truncating it—leaving out the last fifteen words. In Truth-Telling he uses the 1768 text but has deleted three essential words. This latest mutilation of a primary source is one of the strangest errors ever made by a leading Australian historian.

In The Invention of Terra Nullius (2005) I pointed out what he had done to the Secret Instructions to that point. The reason the “Consent of the Natives” paragraph so interests activists is the use they make of it to allege Cook was ordered to negotiate with the Aborigines and didn’t or that he falsely acted as if the land was uninhabited. In Truth-Telling Reynolds does exactly that with rhetorical questions and propositions supported by unnamed “many commentators” and an unpleasant and unjustified insinuation that Cook acted “wilfully”—presumably against the Aborigines:

Did Cook’s claim of possession dispossess the resident Indigenous nations? Many commentators have believed that it did …

Many commentators have argued that Cook wilfully disobeyed the injunction to gain the consent of the natives … 

Did Cook wilfully behave as though eastern Australia was uninhabited when he knew full well it wasn’t?

Hidden in the Secret Instructions is a final secret. They don’t mention New Holland or the Admiralty expectation that Cook would discover, chart and take possession of its east coast for Britain—even as they instructed him how to do it. Accept the complete document on face value and it does not make sense. The careful Admiralty planners have plotted Cook’s expedition halfway around the world to the point where the Endeavour is somewhere off the coast of New Zealand, then they simply advise its captain and officers to return home via the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. This opens up at least three options which it would be expected the document should put forward to lead the voyage towards its conclusion.

In London, or on the Endeavour with the charts spread out before him, the choices were clear. Cook could turn east and retrace his steps while looking for the southern continent. But what happens if he heads west? Does he retrace Tasman’s route to the south of Van Diemen’s Land? Or does he link with Tasman’s charts on the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land and then explore northwards?

It is the very obvious third possibility that is missing in the Secret Instructions. In his journal, Cook recounted the discussion on the Endeavour. The decision that was taken—in terms of geopolitics, in terms of common sense, in terms of adventuring discovery—was absolutely correct and surely either secretly envisaged or present as an option from the very beginning:

It was therefore resolved to return by way of the East Indies by the following rout: upon leaving this coast to steer to the westward untill we fall in with the East Coast of New Holland and then to follow the deriction [sic] of that Coast to the northward or what other direction it may take untill we arrive at its northern extremity, and if this should be found impractical than [sic] to endeavour to fall in with the lands or Islands discover’d by Quiros.

Discovering a southern continent was a possibility; discovering the east coast of New Holland was a certainty. This is the true secret of the Secret Instructions, an omission of a voyage objective intended to misinform unwelcome eyes. The reason (surely there must be a reason?) there are two different guidelines for taking hold of land in the Pacific in the Secret Instructions is that the first deals with completely unknown territory while the second deals with something known. When Cook annexed the east coast of Australia he was making a claim in European terms which had to be justified against the existing claims of other European nations.

If “Natives” were assumed to possess the Southern Continent this was not the case of New Holland, where Cook was presumably seizing territory from either the Dutch or the Spanish who had asserted territorial rights over the Pacific. When Cook annexed the coast he sailed past he was acting as the Dutch had done elsewhere and claiming territory as its first European discoverer—and he states this in his journal. His action was an offence to Spanish interests, for the Pacific Ocean had been under their sovereignty since the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494—so clearly also never a legal terra nullius (as I am sure Henry Reynolds would agree). The Aborigines would not be disturbed until 1788 when a small British settlement was made around Sydney Cove.

It has been conjectured that the ceremony on Possession Island never took place, partly because it is not mentioned in the writings of Joseph Banks or other expedition members. A simple reason for this may be that they were forbidden by Cook from recording the event in case the matter was prematurely found out by their colonial rivals. Writing to the Secretary of the Admiralty from Batavia on October 23, 1770, Cook did not mention that he had acquired territory for Britain and while pointedly assuring the recipient that the copy of his journal he was sending was written “with undisguised truth”, he disguised and protected the truth of his accomplishments from unintended readers: “Altho the discoveries made in this Voyage are not great, yet I flatter myself they are such as may Merit the Attentions of their Lordships.” Magnificent.

Dismissing Cook’s achievements, Reynolds refers to Cook’s “audacious claim”. An early nineteenth-century visitor to the British colony was equally disdainful of later claims by the British government. François Péron visited Sydney as a member of the French Baudin expedition in 1802. The secret memoir he wrote on the colony for an official in the Napoleonic administration has been translated and published by the State Library of South Australia. Reynolds is outraged by the actions of Cook in 1770, while Péron was concerned with actions after settlement which he judged in terms of European colonial interests:

They [the English] believed they could disguise their invasions by changing the name of the country. The audacity with which, in 1788, England defied the whole of Europe by appropriating, with a single stroke of the pen, all of these immense regions known as the Southern Lands and the Archipelagos of the Great Pacific Ocean is a phenomenon that is quite unheard of in modern history.

Péron was outraged on behalf of the Dutch and Spain—presumably he was writing before the French emperor waged war on them. He also provided Napoleon with a useful plan for invading Sydney. Never once in his objections or war plans did he mention the natives.

Truth-Telling is written to support the Uluru Statement by a historian who misuses history for partisan politics. It ends with threats. Mabo and the apology were not enough. The good that Australia thought it was accomplishing by granting vast tracts of land to Aborigines is, in Reynolds’s view, part of a subversive power-taking strategy in which land is a weapon. The historian believes that with the “First Nations” owning 32 per cent of the continent, including 93 per cent of the Kimberley, they have “control over lands and waterways of environmental importance. But they are also of even greater strategic significance—places like the Tiwi Islands and the Torres Strait Islands, and thousands of kilometres of vulnerable northern coastline.” He does not explain what he means by vulnerable—should we be learning Mandarin? When Keith Windschuttle discussed the “Hidden Agenda of Aboriginal Sovereignty” in The Break-Up of Australia he wrote of the activists’ desire for an Aboriginal state and commented, “to see a threat to national security in all this is obviously far-fetched”. Perhaps, this once, Windschuttle is wrong and Reynolds right.

The first steps towards the break-up Reynolds desires have happened, he says. Where we see Australians, his view is racist and strategic, for the First Nations have acted like an army of occupation and “repeopled the north”. As a child of the working-class Australian Labor left, if I had come across this book in the mid-1960s, in the atmosphere of protests over South Africa and Rhodesia, I would have classified it as extreme right-wing racism—with an appeal to break Australia apart on racial grounds. In his battle plan of racial politics, Reynolds says Aborigines have more rights than other Australians, for they “have a double claim on the land, firstly as Australian citizens and then as Indigenous people whose rights are based on international law and custom … [which] may be more persuasive in the long run than the first [as Australian citizens] in the world beyond Australia’s borders.” Blackmail is more important than the ballot box: “The time may come when the Australian state needs the First Nations as much as they need the state.”

Reynolds’s fellow historian Tom Griffiths praises this book as “a gift to his nation by one of our greatest historians”. The reality of Reynolds’s dream is an angry divided continent with internal borders, watch towers and barbed-wire fences. The final words in his book foreshadow this division and unending violence. Either Uluru Statement activists get their divisive way and create a divided nation or “the First Nations will become alienated from the domestic political system and increasingly look overseas in their search for both justice and respect”. This is the “truth-telling” endorsed with front-of-book praise by Aboriginal activists, a prize-winning author and historians—Marcia Langton, Mick Dodson, Kate Grenville, Tom Griffiths and Mark McKenna. Break-Up Australia Day has its historian—but you knew that.

Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement
by Henry Reynolds

NewSouth, 2021, 274 pages, $35

French Designs on Colonial New South Wales
by François Péron, translated and edited by Jean Fornasiero and John West-Sooby

The Friends of the State Library of South Australia, 2016, 396 pages, $35 Show your support Donate Now

Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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