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Captain Cook sights Australia

This Day in World History

April 19, 1770

Captain Cook sights Australia


“What we have as yet seen of this land appears rather low, and not very hilly, the face of the Country green and Woody, but the Sea shore is all a white Sand.” Thus James Cook concluded his log entry for April 19, 1770 — the day Europeans first sighted the eastern half of the continent of Australia.

Cook, a naval officer and the most famous oceangoing explorer of the eighteenth century, had been sent from Britain in 1769 to carry a party of scientists from the Royal Society to the Pacific Ocean. His apparent goal was to carry the scientists to Tahiti, where they could observe the passing of Venus across the face of the sun. He also carried secret orders that he opened at sea to look for the long-suspected but as-yet-elusive Terra Australis — the supposed southern continent.

Captain James Cook by William Hodges. Source: National Maritime Museum, London

Cook and the scientists sailed on H.M.S. Endeavour, a coal-ship outfitted for the journey. Officers, crew, and scientists totaled 94 men. Heading the scientific party was Joseph Banks, a wealthy and respected botanist intend on learning more about the plant life of the Pacific islands.

After leaving Tahiti, Cook explored the rest of the Society Islands, of which it is a part, and then set out to the southwest. He explored New Zealand — which had been sighted on a previous expedition — discovering that it consisted of two islands. While taking six months to chart their coasts, he claimed the islands for Britain.

From there, Cook sailed to Australia. He made the landfall nine days after first sighting land, entering a body of water he called Botany Bay (south of modern Sydney) for its rich plant life. Cook sailed north along the Great Barrier Reef, where coral ripped a hole in Endeavour’s hull. Makeshift repairs kept the ship afloat until it could be beached for more thorough reconstruction. With the ship at sea again, Cook traced 2,000 miles of Australia’s coast before heading home. Before leaving, he claimed the land for Britain.

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