Captain Cook’s voyages of exploration

Terra Australis Incognita – the unknown southern land. The existence (or not) of this mysterious, mythical place had been puzzled over since it was first hypothesised by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

James Cook

The Captain's log

"I now once More, hoisted English Colours & in the Name of His Maj.y King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern coast from the above Lat.de down to this place by the Name of New Wales together with all the Bays Harbours Rivers & Islands situate upon the same Coast"


Born in Yorkshire, England, James Cook (1728–1779) had been a seaman since the age of seventeen, when he joined the merchant navy in the coastal town of Whitby. He spent his apprenticeship and early career working on trading ships along the English coast and in the Baltic and, after ten years in the merchant navy, Cook entered the Royal Navy.

The young man displayed an aptitude for surveying, mapping and navigation, honing these skills in military conflicts against France. His talents were noticed by the Royal Society, who had bigger plans for him. Both the Royal Society and the British Admiralty were keen to send their ships to the Pacific for research and exploration purposes, and Cook, then forty, was the right man at the right time.

The State Library holds the copy of Cook’s log that he sent to the Admiralty from Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia). The copy was made by Cook’s clerk, Richard Orton, and differs from the holograph log (Cook’s original, now held at the National Library of Australia) because Cook substantially revised his own copy to include thoughts and impressions that came to him later, and to add detail to earlier sketchy accounts. Some scholars think that Orton’s copy represents a truer version of Cook’s original log, as it is sticks closely to the captain’s first recorded impressions. Cook himself borrowed quite a bit from entries in Joseph Banks' Endeavour journal, particularly in describing natural history and anthropology.

Although the log is almost entirely copied out by Orton, there are many instances where Cook himself has inserted words or phrases that Orton missed. Orton made another, more careful, copy after the Endeavour left Batavia, which was presented to the Admiralty when the expedition returned to the UK and is now in the UK Public Record Office. This third known copy is held by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

The selections below include Cook's description and naming of Botany Bay (originally named Sting Ray Harbour) and the raising of the British flag at Possession Island in the Torres Strait, Far North Queensland. Here Cook formally took possession of the entire east coast of Australia for King George III and called it New South Wales.

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Endeavour: Conservation of a Logbook

James Cook's voyage in Endeavour, 1768-1771, was the first European expedition to include scientific discovery as a major objective. When the Library’s fair copy of his logbook was brought to our conservation lab for examination, its binding had completely failed, and the deteriorated iron gall ink had significantly cracked and broken the paper. Its degraded state meant the logbook could not be used or displayed without causing further damage sparking a major research project that culminated in a comprehensive treatment to ensure its preservation.

Extensive microchemical and analytical testing identified the material composition and treatment history and a preferred treatment plan was developed. Library conservators also examined all other known copies of the logbook, visiting the National Library of Australia, The National Archives, Kew and The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Treatment of the logbook was completed by a team of seven conservators over a year and included aqueous washing and deacidification of the pages to remove harmful components and return strength and flexibility to the paper allowing it to once again be exhibited and accessed by researchers.

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This story has been developed with the support of the State Library of NSW Foundation.

We would like to acknowledge the generosity of the Bruce and Joy Reid Foundation.