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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Cook's Secret Orders

Cook's Secret Orders

The whole of the text of the “Additional Secret Instructions” which were handed, in a sealed packet, to Cook before he sailed from England in 1768 did not become known to the general public until over a century and a half afterwards. Cook was instructed not to open this packet until he had carried out his first set of “Secret Orders,” which merely instructed him to proceed to Tahiti, where he was to take observations in connection with the Transit of Venus. Wharton (Captain Cook's Journal: 1893) says: “The exact text of Cook's orders cannot be given. They were secret orders; but, curiously enough, although the covering letter which enjoined him to show them to nobody, and which is dated 30 July, 1768, is duly entered in the Admiralty records, the orders themselves, which should have followed in the letter-book, are omitted. They have never been published.”

It seems that Wharton overlooked the fact that the gist of the “Additional Secret Instructions” had appeared in the general introduction to Volume 1 of A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World, written by Captain Cook and George Forster, F.R.S., and published in Dublin in 1777. “I was further ordered,” Cook states, “to proceed directly to Otaheite and, after the astronomical observations should be completed, to prosecute the design of making discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean by page 24 proceeding to the south as far as the Latitude of 40 deg.; then, if I found no land, to proceed to the west between 40 deg. and 35 deg. till I fell in with New Zealand, which I was to explore and then return to England by such route as I was to think proper….”

In 1923, the Commonwealth Government purchased in London Cook's copy of the “Additional Secret Instructions.” It was, however, reluctant to release the whole of the text, as it intended to publish an official document on the subject. Some details—they did not amount to more than was published by Cook and Forster in 1777—were given to Professor G. A. Wood and Dr. J. A. Harrop in 1924. Further secrecy became futile when the Admiralty, in 1928, released its copy to Professor J. Holland Rose (Professor of Naval History at Cambridge University), who made the text known at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society in London on 17 December, 1928.

The full text appears in the Navy Records Society's Naval Miscellanies, Vol. 3, 1928, p. 343 et seq., and the salient points are as follows:

“Whereas the making of discoveries of countries hitherto unknown and the attaining of a knowledge of distant parts, which, though formerly discovered, have yet been imperfectly explored, will redound greatly to the honour of this nation as a Maritime Power, as well as to the dignity of the Crown of Great Britain, and may tend greatly to the advancement of the trade and navigation thereof.
“And, whereas there is reason to imagine that a continent, or land of great extent, may be found to the southward of the tract lately made by Captain Wallis in His Majesty's ship the Dolphin (of which you will herewith receive a copy) or of the tract of any former navigators in pursuits of the like kind; you are, therefore, in pursuance of His Majesty's pleasure, hereby required and directed to put to sea with the bark you command, so soon as the observation of the transit of the planet Venus shall be finished, and observe the following instructions:
“You are to proceed to the southward in order to make discovery of the continent above mentioned until you arrive in the latitude of 40 deg., unless you sooner fall in with it: but, not having discovered it in that run, you are to proceed in search of it to the westward, between the latitude before mentioned and the latitude of 35 deg., until you discover it or fall in with the Eastern side of the land discovered by Tasman and now called New Zealand.
“If you discover the continent above mentioned, either in your run to the southward or to the westward, as above directed, you are to employ yourself diligently in exploring as great an extent of the coast as you can…. You are also to observe the nature of the soil and the products thereof…. You are likewise to observe the genius, temper, disposition and number of the natives, if there be any, and endeavour, by all proper means, to cultivate a friendship and alliance with them, making them presents of such trifles as they may value, inviting them to traffic, and showing them every kind of civility and page 25 regard, taking care, however, not to suffer yourself to be surprised by them, but to be always upon your guard against any accident.
“You are also, with the consent of the natives, to take possession of convenient situations in the country in the name of the King of Great Britain; or, if you find the country uninhabited, take possession for His Majesty by setting up proper marks and inscriptions as first discoverers and possessors.
“But, if you should fail of discovering the continent before mentioned you will, upon falling in with New Zealand, carefully observe the latitude and longitude in which that land is situated and explore as much of the coast as the condition of the bark, the health of her crew, and the state of your provisions will admit of, having always great attention to reserve as much of the latter as will enable you to reach some known Port, where you may procure a sufficiency to carry you to England, either round the Cape of Good Hope, or Cape Horn, as from circumstances you may judge the most eligible way of returning home….
“Given &c the 30th of July, 1768, Ed. Hawke, Py. Brett, C. Spencer.”

It is quite clear that, if Cook had discovered a large land mass to the south of Tahiti, or to the east of New Zealand, he would not have been obliged to include New Zealand in his voyage. Seemingly, the British authorities knew (or believed) in 1768 that New Zealand was a small and separate land! As no continent lay in those portions of the South Pacific which Cook was required to examine, he set to work to chart the coasts of New Zealand. No fault could have been found with him if he had not completed that task, seeing that his instructions called upon him to desist should a continuation of the work appear likely to imperil his vessel or endanger the lives of those on board. He was not required even to touch at Australia.