This Open Education Resource (OER) draws on the traces left by European explorers, and examines what they can tell us about the past. These documents are not simple records of facts, they are rich interpretations of extraordinary events. The exploration of Australia and the Pacific was not a simple matter of investigating unknown regions and recording them for the future; rather, the explorers entered peopled places and their records contain glimpses of the societies they encountered. Explorers’ records also illuminate their own preconceptions and those of the societies they represented.

When explorers entered the Pacific, the region was not a blank expanse. The ideas explorers carried with them shaped their vision. Those ideas, and their hopes, had led to their very presence in the region. Explorers were not disinterested observers, even those who made scientific records. Most came expecting to find what they were looking for. The rigours of their journeys meant they were often sick, desperate for supplies, anxious, and fearful. Their vision was already clouded by expectation and distress, and the records of their experiences and actions are further distorted by their need to please their patrons and funders.

Explorers did not just shape the records that would inform history, they also shaped the futures of the regions they visited. They acted as probes for interested states and organisations; they were forerunners of empire throughout the Pacific, and of settler colonialism in Australia, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Hawai’i. The definition of explorer used in this OER (explicated in the introduction) reflects the strength of connection between explorers and Europe.

Determining quite what makes an explorer an explorer (and not simply a traveller) is difficult. Attempts to identify explorers by their connections with written records and publications are partly successful but gather in many travellers and exclude some people recognised as explorers. Such a definition risks excluding Sir Francis Drake, whose journal was lost by Queen Elizabeth I (an account was later written by his nephew and published nearly half a century after his return). And such a definition excludes the explorers who first located Aotearoa (the stories of Maui and Kupe were not committed to writing, and were published only much later as myths). Rather than being identified by their relationship with publishers, explorers can be identified by their strong links to their home societies which supported their endeavours, and which they in turn informed of new places and opportunities.

That connection to their home societies means that European explorers are problematic figures in the present. They are tarred by their association with colonial expansion, by their willingness to resort to violence against local people, and by the cartographic problems they left in their wake as they assigned new names to geographical features. These issues may disrupt previous interpretations of explorers as heroes, but they make explorers more interesting to students of history.

And explorers and their records are very interesting to students of history. Explorers’ journals are both windows and mirrors, offering distorted visions of the societies they encountered and glimpses of their own. Modern scholarship has proved the value of explorers’ journals as records of Pacific societies at the time of contact with Europeans. Recreated vessels draw on images created by the artists associated with explorers. And hidden in unassuming details we can detect elements of exploration that did not seem worth recording at the time, including the presence of other species and the significance of the vessels themselves.

The figure of James Cook is widely familiar in Australia, but his history is less well known. He is an important figure in the exploration of the Pacific, but he is important as an example of shifting European approaches to the region. The technology available to him, his skill in using it, and his methodical approach to navigation and record keeping mean that he can be used as an anchor for the explorers who went before him, and who came after him. He may have mapped the Pacific (although he left Matthew Flinders to fully map Australia), but nowhere was he the first human to make landfall. For Europeans, he placed some new regions on the map, but more importantly he removed phantom islands, a drifting continent, and an iced-over strait. Cook marked the start of accelerating European engagement with the Pacific Ocean and then the Australian continent, and he forms part of a long and intriguing history of culture contact across a huge portion of the planet. Placing him firmly in the broader history of Pacific and Australian encounter, and engaging with the myths that surround the process of exploration, allow us to appreciate the records explorers have left for us, and to read them against the grain to learn new things about the past.


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Beyond Cook: Explorers of Australia and the Pacific Copyright © 2022 by Claire Brennan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.