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Brian Hooker

New Zealand


James Cook's secret search in 1769




         Brian Hooker      

The text that follows is copyright. Published here by courtesy of the Editor, The Mariner's Mirror (Vol. 87, No 3 - August 2001). Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review, no part may be reproduced without prior permission from the publisher of  Mariner's Mirror.



The purpose of this article is to offer a solution to a previously unrecognised navigational puzzle. That James Cook, in command of the Endeavour, searched for Cook Strait, from the east, is not mentioned in any of the journals kept during the first circumnavigation of New Zealand. Nor have the editors of Cook's journals or Cook's biographers realised the significance of the aborted southward exploration in October 1769. Cook's explanation for reversing his course off Cape Turnagain was that he thought there was no likelihood of meeting with a harbour or any Valuable discovery. [fn.1. See J.C. Beaglehole (ed.) The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery - I - The Voyage of the Endeavour, 1768-1771 (Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society, Extra Series No XXXIV, 1968)  p. 179.]


This smokescreen was almost pierced by Beaglehole who comments in discussing Cook's options:


To the attentive reader of Tasman was presented a supplementary problem, whether a strait ran through it  [New Zealand].  [fn. 2. Ibid., p. cxlviii.]

Cook finally found and traversed the strait from the west in February 1770.

The first demonstration of a possible passage in the Cook Strait area came from Abel Janszoon Tasman who discovered part of New Zealand's western littoral in 1642-43.

Tasman believed it was possible that he had discovered the west coast of a great continent stretching across the South Pacific to join with Staten Island near the south-eastern tip of South America. [fn. 3. See Andrew Sharp, The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968). p. 124.]

However, he had an open mind on the question of a passage to the east in the Cook Strait area. An entry in Tasman's journal for 24 December 1642, records (in part):

. . . and received the officers of the Zeehaen on our ship [Heemskerck]  and have proposed to them since the flood comes from the South east: so that there might indeed be a passage, whether it would not be best as soon as weather and wind will permit, to inquire into the Same; ...  [fn. 4.  Ibid., p. 134.]

After his return to Batavia (Jakarta), Tasman was criticised for not following up his discoveries. [fn. 5. See J.C. Beaglehole The Voyage of the Endeavour,  p. lxii.]

In discussing Tasman's problem in the Cook Strait area, Beaglehole remarks:

Possibly, with ships of a better design, they might have got through and found open the desired passage to Chile [fn.6. Ibid., p. lx.]

 Charts previous to Cook's voyage


A number of manuscript charts of part of New Zealand associated with Tasman's voyage of 1642-43 are extant.


A chart of part of the western littoral bound in with the "State Archives Journal" portrays a continuous coastline in the Cook Strait area but three important charts, the "Huydecoper Chart" (see Plate 1 in "Explorers Charts - Section A via Contents above or below.), the "Vingboons" and the "Eugene" all display a gap in the coastline. [fn. 7. These charts are also illustrated and discussed in Sharp, Voyages of A. J. Tasman.]


 The charts mentioned in this paragraph served as models in the New Zealand area for a large number large number of printed world and Pacific maps published after 1644.


Most maps published as wall maps or in atlases in The Netherlands, France, England, and other European countries portray part of the western littoral without a gap but there are some important exceptions. One is the world map published at Amsterdam  by Joan Blaeu in his Atlas-Maior, in 1662. [fn. 8. The map is illustrated in, Rodney Shirley, The Mapping of the World (London: Holland Press, 1984), Plate 315.]


Other printed maps showing a gap and stemming from the "Huydecoper Chart" were published by the Dutch cartographers Frederik de Wit,  Dirck Davidszoon,  and Pieter van der Aa. [f n.9. These maps are also reproduced in Shirley, Mapping of the World.]


The gap is in the area of 40 degr. South. Atlases in which these maps are included were widely circulated throughout Europe.


  Cook's knowledge of Tasman's discoveries      

Cook was acquainted with details of Tasman's discoveries but there is no direct evidence that he had studied maps showing the gap in the coastline. Considering his interest in cartography and astronomy, it is virtually certain that he consulted a number of atlases and printed charts before setting out for the Pacific in 1768. Tasman's journal entry for 13 December 1642 contains his uncertainty about a strait. (See Tasman's journal - go via Contents above or below and click on Tasman's journal under Section B.)

The various journals kept during the voyage do not reveal the full extent of the library on the Endeavour. But collectively the journals of Cook, Banks, and Parkinson contain references that throw considerable light on the volumes that were Cook's sources of data relating to Tasman's voyage.

In his journal, Cook refers to the abstract of Tasman's journal in "Dirk Rembrantse." [fn. 10.  See Beaglehole, Voyage of the Endeavour, p. 299.] This is a reference to the second volume of Dirk Rembrantszoon van Nierop's  work,  Eenige Oefeninger In God-lijeke, Wis-Konstige, en Natuerlijcke dingen, published at Amsterdam, in 1674.  But Cook is not referring to the original Dutch edition. The Endeavour carried an abbreviated English version of van Nierop's account  in volume one of John Narbrough's book, An Account of Several Late Voyages and Discoveries to the South and North, published at London, in 1694. [fn. 11. A second edition was published in 1711.]  An introduction to Narbrough's version explains that the text is from  "Dr. Hook's Collections". [fn.12. See John Narbrough, An Account of Several Voyages to the South & North (London: Smith & Walford, 1694 - Reprint ed. N. Israel, Amsterdam, 1969) p. 131.]  All the data relating to Tasman referred to by both Cook and Banks in their journals are in the short Hook translation in Narbrough's book.

Cook also mentions the two-volume treatise by Charles de Brosses, Histoire des Navigations aux terres australes,  published at Paris in 1756.  The  reference  to  Tasman  in  this work  also derives from van Nierop. [fn. 13. See Charles de Brosses, Histoire des Navigations aux Terres Australes, 2 vols (Paris, 1756 - Reprint ed. N. Israel, Amsterdam, 1967)] pp. 457-59, vol 1.] The French cartographer, Robert de Vaugondy, provided a series of maps to accompany de Brosses' work; two of the maps portray part of New Zealand with names.

Alexander Dalrymple published his book, An Account of the Discoveries Made in the South Pacifick  Ocean Previous to 1764, in 1769; the volume includes charts and illustrations. According to Fry this book had been printed in 1767 and Dalrymple gave a copy to Banks to take with him on the Endeavour. [fn. 14. Howard T. Fry, Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808) & the Expansion of British Trade (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1970) p. 271.] That data in Dalrymple's  book proved useful for Cook during the voyage is confirmed through entries in both Banks' and Cook's journals. [fn. 15. See for example Beaglehole, Voyage of the Endeavour, p. 289,  also see J. C. Beaglehole (ed.) The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks 1768-1771 (2 vols) (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1963) p. 16, vol 2.]

Obsessed with the notion of a great southern continent, Dalrymple wrote that he believed Tasman's New Zealand was the west coast of this hypothetical southern continent. But as McCormick points out Dalrymple was still prepared to admit there were possible objections to his theory. [fn. 16. See E.H. McCormick, Tasman & New Zealand (Wellington: Alexander Turnbull Library, 1959, 26).

If the flood comes from S.E. it would seem this land was not Continent but Islands. Dalrymple noted the significance of Tasman's observations in the Cook Strait area and commented:fn. 17. Alexander Dalrymple, An Account of the Discoveries Made in the South Pacifick Ocean, Previous to 1764 (London: A Dalrymple, 1767) p. 64. - A facsimile of this book together with a 32-page introductory essay by Andrew Cook was published in May 1996 by Horden House in association with the Australian National Maritime Museum.]


The Endeavour reaches the east coast and heads south

After leaving the Society Islands Cook followed his instructions, which were to search for the supposed southern continent, but if he failed in this discovery he was to fall in with the eastern side of New Zealand. Cook's main direction, in regard to New Zealand, was to "explore as much of the Coast as the Condition of the Bark will admit of; "   [fn. 18.  J.C. Beaglehole, The Journals of Captain James Cook - The Life of Captain James Cook (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1974),  p. 149.]

By 6 October 1769 as the Endeavour approached the meridian coinciding with Tasman's reckoning of longitude for New Zealand's west coast, Cook sounded frequently without finding ground. On 7 October land was sighted and Cook corrected his longitude.

After landing at Poverty Bay but unable to obtain fresh water or supplies, Cook headed south. Part of an entry in Cook's journal for 11 October reads;

  My intention is to fowlow the direction of the Coast tp
the Southward as far as the Latitude of 40 degr. or 41 degr. and then to return to the northward in case we meet with nothing to incourage us to proceed farther. [fn. 19. Beaglehole, Voyage of the Endeavour, p. 173.]

Following the coast which bore southwest from Poverty Bay, the Endeavour reached latitude 40 degr. 34' South on 17 October. Cook's dilemma at 40 degr. 34' South. Cook was faced with a dilemma for several reasons after the Endeavour reached latitude 40 degr. 34' South. According to Cook's reckoning of longitude he was charting the east coast of a land close to the western littoral of New Zealand as charted by Tasman. Cook knew that Tasman's latitude figures were likely to be reasonably accurate even if his longitude figure were unreliable. [fn. 20. Considerable advances were made in the science of determining longitude at sea between 1642 and 1769 even though Cook was without a chronometer on his first Pacific voyage. Tasman's error in longitude at Cape Foulwind was about one degree forty-nine minutes  too far east. Cook's error at Cape Turnagain was zero degrees. 26' too far east. Tasman's latitude figures place coastlines slightly too far south.]

This was the approximate latitude that Cook expected to link with the area of Murderers Bay (Golden Bay) shown in Tasman's charts if indeed there was a passage through this narrow land. (See the accompanying map - Tasman's track in 1642 is shown as a dotted line and Cook's track in 1769  as a dashed line.)


There can be little doubt that the deep indentation in the coastline depicted in Tasman's chart beckoned Cook as a tantalizing challenge.

The most baffling puzzle was the sight of the Tararua Range extending southwards as an  obviously impenetrable barrier. And if visibility was reasonable the peak of Mount Adams in 41 degr. 19' South was visible. Almost certainly Cook viewed the coastline as far as the area of Castlepoint in 40 degr. 55' South which is further south than the 40 degr. 50' South reference figure provided by Narbrough and de Brosses for Tasman's anchorage at Murderers Bay. [fn. 21. See Narbrough, Account of Several Voyages, p. 134, vol 1, and  de Brosses, Histoire des Navigations, p. 458, vol. 1.]

The situation must have appeared confusing for Cook and impossible to solve from the east. In a journal entry for 17 October Cook confirms that land could be seen stretching for at least ten or twelve leagues south-west by south which is as far south as the southern limit he had set after leaving Poverty Bay. [fn. 22. Beaglehole, Voyage of the Endeavour, p. 179.]

  An earlier entry for the same day records (in part):

. . .  Seeing no likelyhood of meeting with a harbour and the face of the Country Vissibly altering for the worse I thought that the standing farther to the South would not be attended with any Valuable discovery, but would be loosing of time which might be better employ'd and with a greater probabillity of Success in examining the Coast to the Northward; . . .   

The ridge of Mountains before mentioned extends to the Southward farther than we could see and are every where chequer'd with snow. [fn. 23. pp. 17Ibid., 9-180.]

Although almost as secretive as Cook about the search for Cook Strait from the east Banks acknowledges that it was Tasman who provided the idea. In an entry in his journal for 22 January 1770 Banks records  (in part):

   . . .  While Dr Solander and Myself were botanizing the captn. [Cook]  went to the top of a hill and in about an hour returnd in high spirits, having seen the Eastern sea and satisfied himself of the existence of a streight communicating with it, the Idea of which had Occurd to us all from Tasmans as well as our own observations  [fn. 24. Beaglehole The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks  pp. 457-8, vol. 1.]
Later, in March 1770 Banks records:
Tasman certainly was an able navigator: he saild into the mouth of Cooks streights, and finding himself surrounded in all appearance with land observd the tide of flood to come from the SE, from thence he conjecturd that there was in that place a passage through the land, which conjecture we provd to be true and he himself had certainly done . . . [fn.25. Ibid.,  p. 1, vol. 2.]




The facts reviewed in this article may be considered to create a strong presumption that Abel Tasman through his belief in the possibility of a passage in the Cook Strait area played a considerable role in influencing Cook's search for the Strait. Cook's failure to find the passage from the east had little or no impact on his subsequent circumnavigation of New Zealand but it is interesting to speculate that had he penetrated the gap and sailed north he may have discovered some of the harbours he failed to find during his visits to New Zealand.



Acknowledgment: I wish to express my thanks to the Hydrographer, Royal New Zealand Navy, for the supply of photographs and a report on observations carried out from a RNZN vessel off Cape Turnagain.