© 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
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
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. □