engraving in black and white of War canoe of New Zealand; figures with oars in the water sit and three figures with headdress and spears standing up. Canoe has tall wooden feature behind and the prow is intricately carved wood.
War canoe of New Zealand engraving by Sydney Parkinson April 1770

Understanding the instructions

Let’s look at the secret instructions in more detail.

  • The secret instructions told Cook to seek out the ‘Southern Continent’. The existence of this continent was based on the assumption there would be land in the Southern hemisphere to balance out the known land masses in the Northern hemisphere.

  • Once he located the continent, he was to explore its coasts and make navigational charts.

  • He was also to take samples of plants and animals, stones or minerals, and fruits, seeds or grains. This was not only for the benefit of science, it was to identify natural resources that could be exploited commercially or used as provisions for future voyages or settlements.

Secret instructions given to James Cook shows handwritten flourishing textAdmiralty Secret instructions, drawn from website National Archives of Australia

  • He was advised to make alliances with the ‘natives’, but also to guard himself against ‘accidents’.

He was instructed:

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.

Secret instructions given to James Cook shows handwritten flourishing textAdmiralty Secret instructions, drawn from website National Archives of Australia

  • Cook was further requested to chart the coast of Aotearoa/New Zealand. This land was already known to Europe through Abel Tasman’s earlier voyage.

The Admiralty noted that these activities were within national interests as a ‘Maritime Power’. They were intended to advance ‘trade and navigation’.

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Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in Museums and Public Spaces

National Maritime Museum