This Open Education Resource (OER) seeks to place the experiences of James Cook in their proper context. In Australian society, Cook is disproportionately famous. While his Endeavour voyage made a significant contribution to European knowledge of the Pacific region and mapped a portion of the coast of the Australian continent, he was neither the first nor the last European explorer to travel through the region and record his observations. Putting Cook in his place allows his experiences to come into focus and raises questions about his prominence in popular histories of Australia.

In its examination of Australian and Pacific exploration beyond Cook, this OER is divided into five parts. The first part examines who the Europeans who reached the Pacific were, and how they came to be there. It looks at the imaginings of the region that European peoples held before their explorers reached the Pacific Ocean, it identifies the first Europeans to visit this already inhabited region, and it raises questions about how the rivalries between European states influenced European behaviour in the Pacific.

The second part of this OER engages with the ways in which the Pacific has infiltrated European thought. The Pacific informed European ideas about the structure of the world and became a place of intense scientific scrutiny. Some Pacific Islands (particularly Tahiti and Hawai’i) are widely known despite being small, remote, and only able to support limited populations. These places have fired imaginations in Europe, and later worldwide. Our imagined Pacific Island paradises result from Europeans using the Pacific as a laboratory, first for thinking about European societies, then for understanding the physical world. Cook takes his place in this section dealing with European ideas projected onto an imagined Pacific, and his achievements and his legend are examined side by side.

Australia lurks at the edge of the Pacific, and the third part of this OER turns to this continent. The continent’s first European name was New Holland; after Cook’s Endeavour voyage, the east coast carried the name New South Wales. This section of the OER examines the process of turning those two coastlines into the continent of Australia. While this section of the OER sets off overland it continues to explore familiar themes: what were the experiences of contact between explorers and the people who already knew the regions being explored, what opportunities did the explorers represent for Indigenous people who wished to travel, how did the preconceptions held by European explorers influence their behaviour, and how were European rivalries played out on the far side of the world?

The fourth part of this OER raises questions about the structure of exploration by looking at the groups who were excluded. Logistical requirements made exploration of the Pacific and Australia largely a project of governments: the ships which charted the Pacific belonged to large national companies or navies, the expeditions which crossed the Australian continent were largely funded by colonial governments. As a result, organised exploration generally excluded those who were not white and not male. Despite this deliberate exclusion, the presence of Pacific Islander voyagers, women travellers, animal companions, and the influence of the ships themselves can be detected within official records, despite their systemic marginalisation.

The fifth part of this OER examines stories of the original human exploration of the Pacific and Australia. European explorers of the Pacific recognised the cultural connections that spanned Polynesia, and that an extraordinarily large region of the planet had been settled by a single group of people. Unearthing the processes that allowed successful exploration of the world’s largest ocean excites archaeologists, and since the late twentieth century the success of the Pacific’s first navigators has prompted justified pride among their descendants. In Australia in the twenty-first century, the depth of human presence on the continent is being explored by archaeologists and historians. Recognition of Aboriginal knowledge and ownership of country is an important project in a nation seeking to come to terms with its colonial history.

Each section of this OER includes links to original (primary) sources, to video material that offer other views on the topic being addressed, and to secondary sources. This OER introduces intriguing aspects of exploration and encounter in Australia and the Pacific, but rather than simply answering questions it seeks to provide readers with ways to explore topics further. At the end of this OER there are discussion items with questions for each chapter, to promote the reading of sources in ways that cast new light on the past. The journals written by explorers remain fascinating documents: the text of this OER seeks to guide engagement with the journals and maps which are now freely available online. The journals themselves, when read with some sense of their historical context and what they might reveal of their authors as well as of their subjects, unfold in intriguing ways. The maps linked to this OER are things of beauty and offer insights into European preconceptions, the difficulties of exploration, and the ways in which explorers often worked at the very limits of the technology of the time.

I hope you enjoy exploring Beyond Cook.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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.