Maritime Exploration of the Discovery Coast


Discovery Coast Exploration from 1770 to 1870


Lt. James Cook 1770


May 24, 1770 is one of the most important dates in the history of Queensland. It was the day when the British first set foot on what is now known as Round Hill Head at the present Town of Seventeen Seventy.


Much earlier, most of the coastline, apart from the east coast, of Australia (known as New Holland) had been mapped by the Dutch. They believed New Guinea was connected to Australia even though the Spaniard Torres had passed through the strait (which now takes his name) in 1606, without sighting Australia - Spain deliberately kept their voyages and discoveries secret for fear of their ships being seized by Drake or the other English bucanneers. The Dutch East India Company sent forth several expeditions with instructions to determine whether they were connected, but they failed because their sailors would not venture into unknown shoaling waters, or approach too close to lee shores because of the risks - due to the poor sailing ability of Dutch ships.


In 1642 Dutch explorer Tasman sailed east from Africa and made landfall at what is now Tasmania, which he named Van Diemans Land and supposed to be part of the mainland. He continued further east to sight and map part of the west coast of New Zealand (which he called Staaten Land). Although the east coast of Australia was still a mystery, this was to be the last voyage of discovery until nearly 130 years later.


In Britain, the Royal Society wanted accurate measurements, for the time taken by Venus to transit the Sun in 1769, as its orbit passed between the Earth and Sun. These measurements would allow the distance between the Earth and the Sun to be calculated, and then allow the distance between the Earth and other planets to also be determined. It would be another 105 years before the next opportunity so a memorial was addressed to King George III on February 15, 1768 suggesting that a vessel should be equipped to study the transit of Venus from one of the South Seas islands. Alexander Dalrymple, a well-known member of the Royal Society was selected as leader but he insisted he should have a brevet commission such as had been granted to Dr Halley. Sir Edward Hawke, the head of the Admiralty, refused the request on the grounds that Dalrymple was not a seaman and, on being pressed, he flatly refused to sign the commission because of possible/likely problems from Royal Navy officers refusing orders from someone who was not their superior officer.


Hawke said he knew a Mr James Cook who was well qualified for the position. Cook's meticulous charting of Newfoundland had been noted by his superiors and his observations of the eclipse of the sun in 1766 by scientific circles. Hawke recommended the Admiralty Board seek the opinion of Sir Hugh Palliser who was intimately acquainted with Cook's character and ability. Upon Sir Hugh's strong recommendation, Cook was appointed to lead the expedition.


Cook was then involved in the selection of a suitable vessel and on April 3, Mr Stevens of the Admiralty informed the Royal Society that a ship had been secured for the purpose of the voyage. This was the Earl of Pembroke, built at Whitby and previously owned by Thos Milner, and rechristened HM Bark Endeavour to avoid confusion with another of the Royal Navy's vessels named Endeavour.


At almost 40 years old, James Cook was promoted to Lieutenant in the Royal Navy on May 25, 1768 and took command of the Endeavour two days later.


At the expense of the Crown he was to carry out the observations of the transit of Venus from Tahiti, after which, if he thought fit, he was to proceed on a voyage of discovery in search of the supposed Great Southern Continent.


The Endeavour sailed from Spithead, Plymouth on August 26, 1768. Tahiti was approached from the east after rounding the tip of South America.


It proved much more difficult than expected to make an accurate measurement of the transit. The dark disc of Venus is about 1/30 th of the size of the sun and the transit takes approximately 6.5 hours. Cook and the astronomer Green (from the Royal Society) were concerned about the quality of their measurements (later found to be accurate), because of a haze surrounding Venus.


After successfully completing his assignment in Tahiti, Cook mapped the previously unknown Society Islands before following instructions to search for the “Southern Continent” at latitude 40° S. Finding empty sea there he made for New Zealand and spent 6 months (October, 1769 to March, 1770) mapping it meticulously and demonstrating it to be two great islands separated by a narrow strait.


Although they traded for pigs, fruit, etc. while in Tahiti, it was 19 months since the Endeavour left England with 18 months provisions and it would be necessary to replenish them soon. Of the possible options for returning to England, Cook decided to try to reach the reported locality of Tasman's discovery in Tasmania and then to steer north, mapping the coast as he went - if indeed, there should prove to be a continuous coastline. He believed that New Guinea was not connected to New Holland, and could hardly afford the extra distance and time to travel around New Guinea – besides running low on provisions he risked being delayed over the N-W monsoon season during which they would be unable to make the crossing to Africa.


Endeavour was blown north of their destination by heavy south-easterly gales and at daybreak on April 20, 1770, Lieutenant Zachariah Hicks was on watch and reported land on the western horizon. Cook named it Point Hicks (now Cape Everard) - nearly the most easterly point of what is now Victoria. Owing to the weather and danger of approaching an unknown lee shore in such conditions he did not attempt to land, but rounded Cape Howe and proceeded north, pursued by half a gale and looking for a port in which to shelter.


On April 29, 1770, after failing to make a landing near what is now Bulli, he entered a harbour that he subsequently named Botany Bay. This was the first and only landing made by Cook in the southern half of the continent. They explored the land about Botany Bay for eight days.


Still pursued by southerly gales, he sailed northwards cautiously, but meticulously mapping the coastline, and on May 16, 1770, he reached what is now the border between New South Wales and Queensland, named Point Danger and Mount Warning and hove to, for the night.


On May 17, he made sail again and in the afternoon was off the eastern coastline of Stradbroke and Moreton islands, which at a distance from the shore he took it to be the mainland and named it Moreton Bay.


Past the Glass Houses, Low Bluff (now Noosa Head), and Double Island Point, Cook coasted cautiously along Great Sandy Island (now Fraser Island), noting its outline, naming Indian Head, finally reaching the reef that stretches northerly for miles. He called it Break-Sea Spit because once inside it, he was protected from the surges of the southern ocean with which he had been battling ever since coming within sight of the coast.


On May 21, 1770, the Endeavour rounded the spit and changed course from north-west to south-west and entered Hervey's Bay.


At 8 am the next day land was seen to the westward from the mast-head in Latitude 24° 28' S (Bundaberg is 24° 53' S). At 4 pm, she bore up about six miles from the shore and continued northerly parallel with it. During that time Endeavour passed fairly close to the mouths of the Burnett and Kolan Rivers, and Baffle Creek. Mr. Pickersgill, the master's mate, described the land in his log as "making low and woody with some hills in the country appearing fertile and pleasant". The most southerly of these must have been the Sloping Hummock (named by Flinders in 1799) between Bundaberg and the sea. Mount Maria must also have been visible and the Gwynne Range behind Taronne lay due west.


The Endeavour was in unknown, shallow waters and at 7 pm the best bower anchor was let go in eight fathoms. This was the first occasion upon which Cook hand anchored the Endeavour since leaving Botany Bay. They weighed anchor at daylight next morning (May 23, 1770) and stood along the shore under sail at a distance of two or three miles making slow progress and sounding for depth all the way. About 5 pm they reached the south head of Bustard Bay (now known as Round Hill Head - Round Hill was named by Flinders in 1799 and from sea the headland can appear to be joined to Round Hill) and saw a large open bay on the further side. The yawl was sent ahead to sound for an anchorage. At 8 pm the Endeavour lay protected from all winds except from the north-east.


At 9 am on May 24, 1770, Lt. James Cook, with Mr. Joseph Banks and Dr. Daniel Solander in the pinnace and 2nd Lt. Gore in the yawl left for the shore and made their first landing in what is now Queensland. It was the second of eleven landings in Australia.




Cook wrote in his journal:


“In the A.M. I went ashore with a party of men in order to Examine the Country, accompanied by Mr. Banks and the other Gentlemen; we landed a little within the South point of the Bay, where there is a Channel leading into a large Lagoon. The first thing that I did was to sound and examine the Channell, in which I found 3 fathoms, until I got about a Mile up it, where I met with a Shoal, whereon was little more than one fathom; being over this I had 3 fathoms again. The Entrance into this Channell lies close to the South point of this Bay, being form'd on the East by the Shore, and on the West by a large Spit of sand; it is about a 1/4 of a Mile broad, and lies in South by West; here is room for a few Ships to lay very secure, and a small Stream of Fresh Water. After this I made a little excursion into the Woods while some hands made 3 or 4 hauls with the Sean, but caught not above a dozen very small fish. By this time the flood was made, and I imbarqued in the Boats in order to row up the Lagoon; but in this I was hindred by meeting everywhere with Shoal Water. As yet we had seen no people, but saw a great deal of Smook up and on the West side of the Lagoon, which was all too far off for us to go by land, excepting one; this we went to and found 10 Small fires in a very small Compass, and some Cockle Shells laying by them, but the people were gone. On the windward or South side of one of the fires was stuck up a little Bark about a foot and a half high, and some few pieces lay about in other places; these we concluded were all the covering they had in the Night, and many of them, I firmly believe, have not this, but, naked as they are, sleep in the open air. Tupia, who was with us, observed that they were Taata Eno's; that is, bad or poor people. The Country is visibly worse than at the last place we were at; the soil is dry and Sandy, and the woods are free from underwoods of every kind; here are of the same sort of Trees as we found in Bottany Harbour, with a few other sorts. One sort, which is by far the most Numerous sort of any in the Woods, grow Something like birch; the Bark at first sight looks like birch bark, but upon examination I found it to be very different, and so I believe is the wood; but this I could not examine, as having no axe or anything with me to cut down a Tree. About the Skirts of the Lagoon grows the true Mangrove, such as are found in the West Indies, and which we have not seen during the Voyage before; here is likewise a sort of a palm Tree, which grows on low, barren, sandy places in the South Sea Islands. All, or most of the same sort, of Land and Water fowl as we saw at Botany Harbour we saw here; besides these we saw some Bustards, such as we have in England, one of which we kill'd that weighed 17 1/2 pounds, which occasioned my giving this place the Name of Bustard Bay (Latitude 24 degrees 4 minutes, Longitude 208 degrees 22 minutes West); we likewise saw some black and white Ducks. Here are plenty of small Oysters sticking to the Rocks, Stones, and Mangrove Trees, and some few other shell fish, such as large Muscles, Pearl Oysters, Cockels, etc. I measured the perpendicular height of the last Tide, and found it to be 8 foot above low water mark, and from the time of low water to-day I found that it must be high Water at the full and Change of the Moon at 8 o'Clock.”


Banks wrote in his journal on the 23rd “(before landing):


“We plainly saw with our glasses that the land was covered with palm-nut trees (pandanus) which we had not seen since we left the islands within the tropics.


On the 24th he added:


“Wind blew fresh off the land, so cold that our cloaks were very necessary on going ashore. When we landed, however, the sun soon recovered its influence and made it sufficiently hot; in the afternoon it was intolerably so.”… “We landed near the mouth of a large lagoon … here we found a great variety of plants, several however, the same as we had ourselves before seen in the islands between the Tropics, and others known to the natives of the East Indies – a sure mark that we were on the point of leaving the southern temperate zone, and that for the future we must expect to meet plants some of which, at least, had been before seen by Europeans.”


Apart from the fresh water creek (non-existent after the swamp that fed it was reclaimed) near where they came ashore, Banks reported:


“Fresh water we saw none, but several swamps and bogs of salt water. In these and upon the sides of the lagoons, grew many mangrove trees, in the branches of which were many nests of ants, of which one sort were quite green. These, when the branches were disturbed, came out in large numbers and revenged themselves very sufficiently upon their disturbers, biting more sharply than any I have felt in Europe.


The mangroves had also another trap which most of us fell into. This was a small kind of caterpillar, green and beset with many hairs, numbers of which sat together upon the leaves, ranged by the side of each other like soldiers drawn up, twenty or thirty perhaps on one leaf. If these wrathful militia were touched ever so gently they did not fail to make the person offending sensible of their anger, every hair on them stinging much as nettles do, but with a more acute though less lasting smart."


The scientists were interested in the red and yellow gum exuding from many of the trees, and the mention of "gum trees" by Banks seems to be the first time the term was applied to eucalypts.


Banks went on to say:


"On the shoals and sand banks near the shore of the bay, were many large birds, far larger than swans, which we judged to be pelicans; but they were so shy that we could not get within gunshot of them." "On the shore were many birds; one species of bustard (of which we shot a single bird) was as large as a good turkey."


"The sea seemed to abound in fish, but unfortunately, at the first haul we tore our seine to pieces."


"On the mud banks under the mangrove trees were innumerable oysters, hammer oysters and many more sorts, among which were a large proportion of small pearl oysters. Whether the sea in deeper water might abound with as great a proportion of full-grown ones, we had not an opportunity to examine, but if it did, a pearl fishery here must turn out to immense advantage." "Pickersgill points out that there was a thick mass of dense black mud which he thought owed its colour, perhaps, to iron ore but which was a rich source of large mud crabs!"


Banks last reference reads:


"25th: at daybreak we went to sea. At dinner we ate the bustard we shot yesterday. It turned out an excellent bird, far the best we all agreed that we had eaten since we left England, and as it weighed 15 pounds, our dinner was not only good but plentiful."


By evening the Endeavour was well up the coast toward what is now Gladstone and as she sailed by during the night, Cook missed discovering one of the finest harbours on the whole east coast - Port Curtis, which was to become a major port for Queensland industry.


While the Dutch and other earlier explorers had dismissed all of New Holland as wild, barren and useless, Cook saw its possibilities and later remarked:


"The industry of Man has had nothing to do with any part of it, and yet we find all such things as Nature hath bestowed upon it in flourishing state. In this extensive country it can never be doubted but what most sorts of grain, fruit, roots, etc., of every kind would flourish were they once brought hither, planted, and cultivated by the hands of industry; and here is provender for more cattle at all seasons of the year, than ever can be brought into the country."




Matthew Flinders 1799 and 1802


Captain Matthew Flinders was the second great navigator to sail into Bustard Bay. On August 2, 1802, he charted the name Round Hill.


When Cook sailed on his last voyage, he had selected Bligh as master of the Resolution, having great confidence in his abilities as a seaman. Cook tought Bligh the finer points of navigation. Bligh in turn in turn passed this knowledge to Flinders who was painstaking and thorough with all his work.


In July 1799, Flinders, in the sloop Norfolk, corrected Cook's earlier chart by discovering and exploring the true Moreton Bay, which lay behind two large islands. Flinders transferred to it the name Cook had given their eastern seaboard, saying that the "Great Navigator would have done so" had not weather prevented him from recognising that they were islands (by coming closer westward) and not as he thought, part of the mainland.


Flinders landed in Pumice Stone Inlet and made his way overland to the Glasshouses (9 miles), climbed one, Beerburrum, but failed to climb Tibrogargan, then returned to his boat - the first European to penetrate inland in South Queensland.


Proceeding north to connect his shoreline map with Cook's, he reached Hervey Bay in August and sailed south beyond Big Woody and Little Woody, which he named Curlew Inlet, and then followed the coastline WNW to link up with Cook's observations.


At daylight on August 7, 1799, he saw the Sloping Hummock in 24° 50' S, but he was pressed for time and sailed away - to return 3 years later with H.M. Survey Ship Investigator was sailing in company with the Lady Nelson commanded by Lt. John Murray. A ship of 60 tons, she drew about four feet of water and Flinders thought she would prove useful for surveying harbours and rivers.


On August 2, 1802, Flinders reported:


"At daybreak we pursued our course along the shore at the distance of four or five miles in soundings between five and nine fathoms. The coast was low but not sandy; and behind it was a range of hills extending North Westward and like the flat country was not ill-clothed with wood. There was no remarkable projection till we came to the South head of Bustard Bay, and the night being then at hand we ran in and anchored on a sandy bottom, nearly in the same spot where the Endeavour had lain 32 years before.


The rocky South head of Bustard Bay from the survey between the preceding and following noons should be 24° 9' South, and the timekeepers (chronometers) place it in 151° 52' East, of 5' South and 10' East of Captain Cook's situation, nor did the form of the bay correspond to his chart. The variation (compass magnetic variation) observed a few miles from the anchorage was 8° 20' East with the ships head N.W. by N. or 6° 56' corrected. This is a full degree less than it was on the East side of Sandy Cape and Captain Cook's observations show a still greater diminution."


August 3, 1802. "At daylight we proceeded along the coast, but the wind being very light we were no more than abreast of the North head of Bustard Bay at noon and the ship drifted by the tide toward some rocks lying off the head. A boat went to sound amongst them for a passage, in the meantime an air sprung up at North and having got the ships head to the Eastward we stretched off from the rocks."


"This North head lies in latitude 24° 0' as laid down by Captain Cook and bears from the South head N. 44° W, 12 Miles; it is moderately high and behind it is a mass of hummocky barren hills which exztend far to the Westward. A reef lies out as far as 2 Miles from the North head but within the outer rocks above water our boatman had 14 fathoms and there was room for a ship to pass."


Continuing northward, Flinders name a conspicuous hill Mount Larcom and soon after sunset both ships were anchored near a projection which was later named Gatcombe Head. A port discovered a few days later, was named Port Curtis and the island  which protects it from the sea Facing Island.


Flinders reported that Port Curtis could be entered from the south by vessels of any size. There was good anchorage at Gatcombe Head and a small beach near which Lt. Murray found a rill of fresh water.


Of Bustard Bay on August 3, 1802, the log book of the Lady Nelson records:


"Fine weather. At 4 p.m. Bustard Bay bore W.N.W. distant 3 or 4 miles. On the point a very large fire was burning and numbers of natives were there. Anchored in 5 fathoms and sailed at 6 a.m."




"Yankee Whalers" 1816


Whaling boats operated out of Sydney (a valued market for whale oil) and mostly fished the sea between Tasmania and New Zealand. They discovered and used the passage to Hervey Bay between Sandy Cape and Breaksea Spit before Flinders sailed that part of the coast, who in a journal entry as he was sailing north noted:


"Saw a strange sail, believed to be one of the two whalers known to be operating on the Eastern coast".


The whaling ship Lady Elliot, from which the island of that name was discovered, sailed Bustard Bay in 1816 and was later wrecked about four miles from the shore of Hinchinbrook Island.


No records are know for any whalers anchoring in Bustard Bay or of any of the crew going ashore.




Captain Phillip Parker King 1819


King was ordered to carry out further surveys of the Australian coast in the Mermaid a cutter of 84 tons built in India. On the northern survey King sailed from Port Jackson on May 8, 1819, passing Breaksea Spit on May 28. He steered across Hervey Bay and, passing Lady Elliot Island, was off Bustard Bay at noon on May 29. King made no report as he did not think he could improve on those of Cook and Flinders.


He passed half a mile to seaward of the dry rock which is now known as Outer Rock. Some damage was caused by a shoal opening around the North head and a course was set for Port Curtis (were Gladstone is now) to repair the damage.


On the way, he discovered a considerable inlet. Working into it, the cutter took the ground on the south side of the port but got off without further damage. On the morning of May 30, King landed and climbed a hill on the west side of the bay. He found the bay to be large and full of shoals but it would afford shelter to medium sized vessels. He saw distinctly the dry rock at the North Head of Bustard Bay. The hills around the bay were rocky but "not deficient in wood or grass", the soil was shallow and the trees principally of stunted growth.


The port was named Rodds Bay and, after waiting out bad weather, the Mermaid sailed from there on June 1, to pass Cape Capricorn at 4 pm.




Captain Penson 1823


After circumnavigating Australia with Captain King in command for the second time, the Mermaid was used to survey Port Curtis in 1823 under Captain Penson.


In 1829 the Mermaid was wrecked on a reef east of Falkland Island, not far from the Endeavour River.




To be continued - please return later.