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Captain Cook in Google Earth: Cape Weymouth to Cape York

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James Cook was still in two minds whether or not to sail out into deep water through the passage by which they had returned to the Great Barrier Reef system. By staying among the reefs they would have to negotiate the endless shoal water with the attendant risk of hitting submerged rocks, but with the greater possibility of finding a passage between Australia and New Guinea. To pass outside the reef, with a favourable wind, and to stand off a safe distance would have been easier and faster sailing, but with a reduced chance of understanding the geography.

The fact that they might have to wait some time for a favourable wind to get outside the reef, with supplies running low, allied to Cook’s determination to answer this question of a passage separating New Guinea and Australia, led to the decision to sail north-west from their anchorage near Cape Weymouth, in other words to stay within the reef.

I now came to a fix’d resolution to keep the mainland on board, let the consequence be what it will, and in this all the officers concur’d.

Anchoring off Forbes's Isles on 19Aug1770

Anchoring off Forbes's Isles on 19Aug1770

So began the remainder of Cook’s survey of the land and sea between Cape Weymouth and Cape York (which of course wouldn’t be called that until he named it on 21Aug1770). The approach seemed to be to head for the islands that were in sight to the north and west and to dodge around the shoals that were in the way. Constantly they had one or other, and often both, of the pinnace and yawl ahead of the ship sounding, or flanking the sides of any channels they found.

Writing about their present circumstances when passing an island, Cook commented:

This island is about a league in circuit and of a moderate height, and is inhabited; to the north-west of it are several small, low islands and keys, which lay not far from the main, and to the northward and eastward lay several other islands and shoals, so that we were now incompassed on every side by one or the other, but so much does a great danger swallow up lesser ones, that these once so much dreaded spots were now looked at with less concern.

Rounding Cape Grenville on 19Aug1770

Rounding Cape Grenville on 19Aug1770

The ship rounded Cape Grenville on 19Aug1770. Cook named Sir Charles Hardy’s Isles as those lying 27 miles east of Cape Grenville, and those lying just off the cape the Cockburn Isles. Note: the Borders and Labels layer of Google Earth seems to confuse these islands, or they have been renamed since.

Bird Isles on 20Aug1770

Bird Isles on 20Aug1770

The power to name objects and places often goes to the maker or the discoverer. Sometimes it must be difficult to choose a suitable name; why else is there an innominate bone in the human body or a short alley called Extra Place amid the New York grid system of Avenues and Streets? Here is Cook at his least imaginative:

On the isles we saw a good many birds, which occasioned my calling them Bird Isles.

It has not always been easy when animating this leg of the voyage to plot the ship’s position throughout each day. The journal includes far fewer ranges and bearings than usual to significant headlands. I’m fairly confident that the following screenshot shows the position of the ship at about 0900 on Tuesday, 21Aug1770:

Having got round the south-east point of the shoal we steer’d north-west along the south-west, or inside of it, keeping a good lookout at the masthead, having another shoal on our larboard side; but we found a good channel of a mile broad between them, wherein were from 10 to 14 fathoms.

Picking a channel through the shoals on 21Aug1770

Picking a channel through the shoals on 21Aug1770

Later that day, they discovered that the northernmost lands in sight were islands (Mount Adolphus Islands) and not part of the mainland. Evidently there was a passage between these islands and the coast they were sailing past. It was too soon to be excited about discovering a strait between New Holland and New Guinea and, following the normal routine, they brought the ship to while the longboat and pinnace went ahead. The strong flood tide carried them through the passage and it soon became evident that they had reached the northernmost tip of New Holland.

Cape York on 21Aug1770

Cape York on 21Aug1770

The cape was named in honour of of his Royal Highness Edward Augustus, Duke of York, being the late brother of King George III.


Today, I added this leg of Cook’s exploration of the Australian coast to my Google Earth tour which presents his first voyage round the world. If you load this tour into Google Earth you will see that I have also uploaded the final tour in this series which presents the discovery of Endeavour Strait and the landing on Possession Island, but more of that in the next post.

Copyright © Colin Hazlehurst, 2012
Images of Earth © Google and others

If you would like to follow Cook’s voyage, you will need to install the latest version of Google Earth on your computer; then go to the Captain Cook blog  and click on the links on the right-hand side of the page, under the ‘Google Earth’ heading. After the animation is loaded in Google Earth, you need to expand an entry in the Table of Contents. You will see a ‘Play’ icon which you double-click to start the animation. Don’t forget to enable your speakers to hear the spoken journal.

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