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2020 was going to be a big year of celebrations marking the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s first sighting of Australia, but thanks to the coronavirus most of the events (including a circumnavigation of the country by a replica of Cook’s ship the Endeavour) have been cancelled. Perhaps they’ll be postponed till later. Who knows? In the meantime, it’s a great subject to explore with kids aged about 8–14, who are being home-schooled.

 Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, painted by E. Phillips Fox in 1902.

Although Cook was the first European to lay eyes on the East Coast of our continent, he didn’t discover Australia. In fact he had a map of Australia on board the Endeavour. It was relatively accurate – except for the east coast. Cook never described himself as the discoverer of Australia. He knew that other navigators had been sailing along (sometimes crashing into) its western, northern and southern coasts for nearly 200 years.

My latest book is called Putting Australia on the Map, and it tells the story of how the map that Captain Cook had with him was put together, piece by piece like a puzzle, by many intrepid sailors – most of them from the Netherlands (Holland).

Cook got his first glimpse of Australia about 6am on the morning of 20th April 1770. But although he was the first European to lay eyes on the East Coast of our continent, Cook didn’t discover Australia. In fact he had a map of the country on board the Endeavour. It didn’t look like the map we know today. Tasmania and New Guinea were joined on to the mainland, and the east coast was just guesswork. Other navigators had been getting to know the western, northern and southern coasts for nearly 200 years.

Lovely Dutch illustrated map of the world from 1594. There is no sign of Australia.

Putting Australia on the Map is illustrated with full colour pictures of gorgeous maps of the world over the centuries. It also includes the map that Cook himself charted as he sailed up the East Coast. 

There are teachers notes for Putting Australia on the Map, if you would like some guidance on how to engage your students at home.

If you want more visuals, you can find videos about the Endeavour and its most famous voyage on the Australian National Maritime Museum website.

What I really love to do when I’m researching a historical event, is to see if I can find original sources of information – things that were written or drawn at the time of the event. It’s like time travel! You can do that with Cook’s voyage. You can see every page of his journal online. The actual words he wrote. Check out how he altered the wording. Compare his record of these events with those of Sir Joseph Banks and others on board the Endeavour.

You can also read the secret instructions that the Royal Navy gave to Cook, which he wasn’t allowed to open until he’d finished the Endeavour’s main mission (observing the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the Sun). Did these instructions say “chart the East Coast of Australia”? No they did not.

Early map makers didn’t like blank spaces! If they didn’t know anything about a particular place, they used their imagination. They populated this map of northern New Holland (an early Dutch name for Australia) with palm trees, deer and an elephant!

Cook officially took possession of what he called New South Wales (ie the east coast of Australia, not the whole country) for the British Government on 22nd August 1770. It was a simple affair, but over the years, artists decided to make it more of an event. You can compare how Cook described this important event in his journal to the picture in an Australian magazine 100 years later. (See illustration Putting Australia on the Map p. 28.)

If you would like to buy a copy of Putting Australia on the Map, first check if your local bookshop can deliver it to you. (They need your support!). If not, an Australian online bookshop such as Booktopia or Readings or Dymocks will be able to help you. 

Schools and public libraries can order an ebook.

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