English Maritime Explorers

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook undertook three Pacific voyages during his service with the Royal Navy. The first voyage was a joint venture between the Royal Society and the Admiralty, and its stated aim was to expand the scientific knowledge of the world – an altruistic and worthy cause, reinforced by the name of his ship: the Endeavour. However the Admiralty had also given Cook Secret Instructions, (for his eyes only) which laid out certain tasks he was to perform in order to identify the potential for expanding Britain’s power and prestige in the Pacific.

Cook left Plymouth in August 1768 on the Endeavour, sailing via Madeira, Rio de Janeiro and Tierra del Fuego, to reach Tahiti in April 1769, where he set up a fortified camp in preparation for observing the transit of Venus across the Sun on 3-4 June.

Once this was accomplished, and he had mapped the islands around Tahiti, he set out in August to see if he could find any evidence of Terra Australis Incognita (undiscovered southern land). By October he had headed west, circumnavigating and mapping New Zealand and then sailing up the east coast of New Holland, again charting the coastline. While he would have been aware of Van Diemen’s Land, given the publication of Abel Tasman’s discoveries in the 17th century, he did not go far enough south to include it on his charts.

A year after his return in 1771, the Admiralty sent Cook on his second voyage to resume the search for the Great South Land. He left Plymouth on 13 July 1772 in the Resolution, accompanied by Tobias Furneaux in the Adventure. During 1773 and 1774 both ships criss-crossed the Pacific Ocean in their quest, with the Resolution sailing below the Antarctic Circle three times. At one stage, after becoming separated from the Adventure, Cook did consider sailing north to see whether Van Diemen’s Land was the southernmost tip of New Holland, but the winds were not kind and he sailed east in the hope of reuniting with Furneaux. However, Cook was convinced that the Royal Society’s predictions about possible locations for a great southern land mass to balance the land round the North Pole were baseless, though he did think that there was probably an Antarctic land beyond the ice barriers that prevented his sailing any further south.

Cook’s final and last voyage aboard the Resolution along with Charles Clerke in the Discovery was a further cloak and dagger exercise. The Admiralty was keen to find a passage from the North Pacific to the North Atlantic to provide a shorter sea route for trade between Britain and the Pacific. However they did not want this to become public knowledge, so they announced that the expedition was to return Omai, the first Polynesian to visit Britain, to his homeland in the Pacific.

On his voyage to the Pacific Cook stopped off at Adventure Bay, in Van Diemen’s Land, on 26-29 January 1777, establishing friendly contact with the natives. He left a plaque nailed to a tree, inscribed “Cook 26 Jan” 1777”. For a timeline of Cook’s three voyages see the British Library’s The Voyages of Captain Cook.

Tobias Furneaux

Furneaux, who accompanied Cook on his second voyage in the Adventure became separated from the Resolution in Antarctic waters and set sail for Van Diemen’s Land on his way to a pre-determined rendezvous in New Zealand should the two ships lose contact with one another. He explored much of the south and south east coast of Van Diemen’s Land. His charts are the earliest by an English mariner  but unfortunately contain some errors, some of which were later correct by Cook on his third voyage.

On 9 March 1773 he sighted what was probably South West Cape, and eventually found a good anchorage in Adventure Bay where he stayed for five days, gathering wood, replenishing water and overhauling the ship’s rigging, but made no contact with the natives. Like Cook he sailed north with the intention of proving if Van Diemen’s Land was an island. However, as the winds were unfavourable, he changed course and set sail for New Zealand.

Sketch of Van Diemen’s Land explored by Captain Furneaux


William Bligh

William Bligh, who had accompanied Cook on his final voyage, returned to Adventure Bay as Captain of the Bounty in 1788. He saw the trunk of a dead tree, inscribed AD 1773, (a relic of Furneaux’s visit); and planted fruit and plantain trees, vines and a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds in what appeared to be fertile country. Again there was friendly contact with the local natives and he even recognised one whom he had met in 1777. After leaving Adventure Bay and setting course for Tahiti, the crew mutinied in April and put Bligh into an open boat, along with 19 sailors. After a remarkable 3,600-mile voyage to Timor and thence home to England, he was given command of a second expedition with two ships, the Providence and the Assistant; again this was to transplant bread-fruit trees at suitable locations.

Bligh visited Adventure Bay for a third time, anchoring on 9 February 1792 and remaining till the 24 February. They found one apple tree from his previous trip and planted more trees. He almost discovered the Derwent River but Furneaux’s misleading charts sent him to a series of wrongly names places and though his men caught glimpses of the entrance to the Derwent, they thought it was Frederick Henry Bay.

He did eventually sail up the Derwent some 17 years later, after being removed as Governor of New South Wales by the officers of the notorious Rum Corps. He managed to sail to Hobart, where he was out of the reach of the mutineers, and still be able to interfere in the affairs of the Government, as well as becoming a thorn in the side of Lieutenant Governor David Collins.

John Henry Cox

The Wikipedia article paints a picture of a colourful character, an adventurer, a merchant, an opportunist. He flits briefly across the pages of maritime history in Van Diemen’s Land before his death in 1791. On the lookout for possible trade areas, Captain John Henry Fox in his armed brig Mercury, struck land around South West Cape on 3 July 1789. Blown north by a storm he found himself in a sheltered bay on Maria Island which he called Oyster Bay. He and his crew also established friendly relations with the natives and made similar observations on their way of life, as had previous explorers.

John Hayes

Lieutenant John Hayes was an adventurer and trader in the service of the East India Company. After failing to find a cargo of nutmegs in New Guinea he sailed south with two small ships, the Duke of Clarence and the Duchess of Bengal. He arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on 24 April 1793 and stayed to 9 June. While many of his explorations covered areas already charted, he did make his own map of the Southern Extremity of New Holland (see left). He sailed up the river that Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux had named River du Nord as far as New Norfolk. He renamed it the Derwent River as it reminded him of the geographical features of Derwentwater and the Derwent River in the Lakes District of his native Cumberland.

Impressed by an area in the lower reaches of the Derwent, he named it Risdon Cove after William Bellamy Risdon, second officer of the Duke of Clarence. It is likely his favourable account may have influenced Lieutenant John Bowen to choose it for the first European settlement in 1803.

George Bass and Matthew Flinders

It is an interesting fact that all the explorers mentioned so far who visited Van Diemen’s Land, had sailed along the south and south eastern coastlines. None had sailed far enough north or north west to see it was possibly an island and not the southern extremity of New Holland,

However Governor Hunter, of New South Wales, was of the opinion that Van Diemen’s Land was an island and in December 1797 provided George Bass, surgeon and explorer, with a six-oared whaleboat to test his theory. By 18 January 1798, having reached as far as Western Port but being short on provisions, Bass was forced to turn back. While he had failed to pass through the Strait, he was certain that Van Diemen’s Land was an island.

Governor Hunter, eager to follow up the discovery, provided Bass and Lieutenant Matthew Flinders with the sloop Norfolk instructing them to sail through the Strait. Once this was accomplished the pair proceeded to circumnavigate the island. Flinders named two mountains on the west coast after two of Tasman’s ships, the Heemskirk and Zeehan.


Flinders and Bass corrected many of the remaining inaccuracies in previous charts for the south and south east, and arrived back in Sydney on 12 January 1799 – a journey of just over three months.

Route taken by Bass and Flinders

English maritime exploration was now complete in the Island. The next phase would be the arrival of Lieutenant John Bowen and Lieutenant Governor David Collins to establish settlements, both free and convict.

About dashea2014

A Law Librarian with extensive experience in general legal and court libraries. Editor of the Australian Law Librarian for 4.5 years (2008-2012) and active member of Law Libraries Tasmania. Special topics - Tasmanian legislation and case law. A passion for maintaining access to print resources.
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