Brian Hooker

New Zealand


Brian Hooker 2006.  NB. The text and the illustration of Dalrymple  may be copied without permission but an acknowledgement of the source would be appreciated.




Alexander Dalrymple New Zealand's debt to a

 little-known Scot


    Brian Hooker


The re-issue of Alexander Dalryrnple's book An Account of the Discoveries Made in the South Pacifick Ocean, provides an opportunity for New Zealanders and people interested in the history of discovery to reflect  on the achievements of a brilliant 18th-century geographer and hydrographer. (Alexander Dalrymple 1737-1808 - from an engraving.) The discoveries of James Cook were to a large degree the outcome of the theorising and scholarship of Dalrymple.


Few New Zealanders have heard of Dalrymple. He was born near Edinburgh in 1737 and from an early age took a keen interest in geography and travel. in later life he became a brilliant chart maker and the first Hydrographer of the Admiralty.

History books virtually ignore Dalrymple, and if he is mentioned at all it is usually in unkind terms, as he was known as an arrogant and self-opinionated individual. Yet, if he had not persisted with his belief in the existence of a great continent in the south Pacific, Cook would almost certainly not have been instructed to conduct a southern search in 1769 and Britain might never have claimed and settled the islands of New Zealand.

Dalrymple's support for an ancient theory

Although a number of Spanish, Dutch, and English expeditions had crossed the central Pacific before the middle of the 18th-century, little exploration had been carried out in the south Pacific. However, in a probe from the west in 1642-43, Abel Janszoon Tasman discovered part of the west coast of New Zealand and some of the Tonga and Fiji islands.

Some 17th- and 18th-century geographers, including Dalrymple, believed that Tasman's discovery of a section of New Zealand's west coast proved that a large continent extended eastward across the south Pacific. In fact, Tasman himself recorded in his journal that he thought it possible he had discovered a continent, which stretched as far as South America.

From ancient times in the Middle East, sages had theorised about large continents in the west and south, needed to "balance" the known land masses in the northern hemisphere. The discovery of America proved the east-west part of the theory and as far as Dalrymple was concerned, Tasman's discovery of a length of coastline was confirmation of the existence of a huge southern land mass. In fact, Dalrymple's obsession with the idea is reflected in his book where he refers to New Zealand as 'The Continent.'

Dalrymple thwarted in his plan to lead a Pacific expedition

In the early 1760s the Royal Society began preparations for making astronomical observations at Tahiti to study the transit of Venus across the disk of the sun in 1769. At the same time Dalrymple started a long campaign not only aimed at influencing the planning authorities to extend the object of the expedition to include a search for the southern continent but also to draw attention to himself. He wanted to take an active part in any proposed voyage. However, when it was proposed to the Admiralty that Dalrymple, a civilian, be given command of a Royal Navy ship, the Admiralty refused the request and handed the command to Lieutenant James Cook.

Withdrawing in a huff, Dalrymple wanted no part in the expedition if he was not going to be commander. But before the expedition left England, Dalrymple gave Joseph Banks, who accompanied Cook on the Endeavour, an advance copy of his book,
An Account of the Discoveries Made in the South Pacifick Ocean, which contains  a map of the south-west Pacific. In the book, Dalrymple expands on his theory about the large southern land, and even discusses the question of whether a passage existed where Cook Strait was later discovered.

Cook shatters the idea of a southern continent

When Cook returned from his first Pacific voyage, Dalrymple was shattered to learn that New Zealand consisted only of islands and that Cook had explored vast areas in the south seas without finding a continent. Dalrymple mounted a vicious campaign to discredit Cook but in two further Pacific voyages of exploration, Cook proved conclusively that no southern continent existed.

Cook rightly deserves the credit he has been given for the important part he played in Pacific exploration and discovery and in particular the first circumnavigation of New Zealand. However, Dalrymple also deserves to be remembered as a major contributor towards Cook's discoveries. □