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The rise of the British empire - Australia
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Instructions given to Captain Cook in 1769 on his voyage to Australia
(Catalogue ref: ADM 2/1332)
  • This document was produced in 1769 and shows a small sample of the instructions given to Captain James Cook when he set out to map Australia.
  • Cook sailed in his ship Endeavour in 1769 and reached Australia in 1770. Although he was a navy captain in a Royal Navy ship, most of his instructions came from the Royal Society. The Society's main aim was to advance scientific knowledge and understanding. The instructions were top secret.
  • Cook did not discover Australia. Aboriginal people had already settled Australia long before. Also Europeans knew Australia existed because the western half of the continent had already been mapped and called New Holland.
  • However, no Europeans had sailed to the other side of Australia. This was Cook's achievement. His main priorities were to map the land and to claim it for Britain if possible (if it was uninhabited or if the local people agreed).
  • Cook was also told to make accurate observations of the stars and planets. Like many gentlemen of the 18th century, Cook was extremely interested in science. He applied scientific methods to looking after his crew (good diets, clean decks) and had a lower death rate than other captains.
  • Science, technology, wealth and power were often seen as being linked in the 18th century. The Royal Society was supported by King George III in order to improve scientific knowledge. The King also supported it because he believed the knowledge brought wealth through improvements in farming, trade and industry.
  • This explains why a Royal Navy ship and its captain were being given detailed and secret instructions by the Royal Society.
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