As part of the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Encounters 2020 program to mark the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s charting of the east coast of Australia in 1770, Sydneysiders have the opportunity to see Cook’s copy of his secret instructions.

This important document, on loan for a limited time from the National Library of Australia, is displayed in the Museum’s Under Southern Skies gallery until the end of January 2021.

In 1767, the Royal Society of London petitioned King George III for a ship to send to the South Seas. They wanted to view the transit of the planet Venus across the sun, due to take place on 3 June 1769.

On 30 July 1768, the Lords of the Admiralty signed James Cook’s instructions for the voyage on the HMB Endeavour, and they were classified as secret. The instructions were in two parts, the second of which was sealed, to be opened only by Cook and only at the conclusion of the first task. The first orders instructed him to sail to Tahiti from where he and his crew were instructed to observe the transit of Venus.

Once that task was complete, Cook then opened his ‘sealed’ orders – which instructed him to search for the supposed Great South Land that was thought to lie in the southern ocean.

‘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˚, unless you sooner fall in with it.’

When Cook was unable to find this land, he continued to New Zealand, charted both islands and took notes on the people and their way of life. He then sailed west, whereby he became the first European to chart the east coast of New Holland (Australia).

The instructions detail the tasks he was expected to carry out; observations of the land and rivers, flora and fauna and to collect as many specimens as could be collected.

Most tellingly, the instructions state that Cook should ‘with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain’.

Kevin Sumption, Director and CEO of the Australian Maritime Museum said, ‘Volumes have been filled and will continue to be written as we hear more about Cook’s voyage from the dual perspectives of from the ship and the shore. One thing is certain though, these orders mark a pivotal moment in Australian history, and it is fitting to have them at the museum on loan from the National Library of Australia for the people of Sydney to view in this 250th year.’

‘We invite Sydneysiders to come to the museum and see this hugely significant original document for themselves, and importantly, to explore all our exhibitions over the summer that share multiple perspectives on this period in our history.’

These exhibitions are Under Southern Skies, Ship and Shore, Paradise Lost: Daniel Solander’s Legacy, HERE: Kupe to Cook (until November 25) and Defying Empire (opens November 26).