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Captain Cook - Cook Claims New South Wales

Video clip synopsis – After spending some time observing an Aboriginal tribe, Cook commits the most controversial act of the voyage: he claims the entire east coast of New Holland for Britain, without permission from the local inhabitants.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 3min 4sec
Tags - aborigines, Australian History, Captain Cook, DIY Doco, exploration, Indigenous Australia, invasion, terra nullius, see all tags


Captain Cook - Cook Claims New South Wales

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About the Video Clip


Captain Cook – Cook Claims New South Wales is an excerpt from Beyond Speculation, the third episode of the 4 x one-hour series Captain Cook – Obsession and Discovery, produced in 2007.

Captain James Cook FRS RN (October 27, 1728 – February 14, 1779) was an English explorer, navigator and cartographer. Cook made three epic voyages around the world.

In this excerpt Cook spends some time observing and interacting with the Guugu Yimithir Aboriginal tribe on the east coast of Australia after he pulls in to make repairs to the Endeavour. Through his skills in diplomacy Cook has avoided a major confrontation with the tribe, and of possibly being killed himself, after violence erupts between his crew and the aborigines.

Scenes in the clip dramatising Cook’s journal entries of this time focus on his admiration for their easy lifestyle and enjoyment of life. Dr Penelope Edmonds from the University of Melbourne explains that this makes sense, given that Cook had come from humble origins and had to work his way up through Britain’s structured society. Another commentator, Professor John Maynard from the Wollotuika School of Aboriginal Studies, stresses that Cook was impressed by the seeming equality amongst the aborigines.

However, these entries comparing British society unfavourably with Aboriginal culture were edited from the published version of Cook’s diaries. Vanessa Collingridge points out that the establishment would not want to make it known that in Cook’s opinion the aborigines were happier than the British.

After setting sail again and navigating his way out of the Great Barrier Reef, described as an astonishing feat of sailing, Cook landed and claimed the east coast for Britain, naming it New South Wales. Cook’s secret orders contained two conditions that would allow him to claim land for Britain: if the land was unihabited, which it wasn’t, or if the native peoples gave their consent, which they had not.

Professor John Gascoigne from the University of NSW points out that as a servant of the British Empire Cook was bound to do this to steal an advantage over rival countries.

Captain Cook – Obsession and Discovery is a Film Australia National Interest Program. A Cook Films, Ferns Productions, South Pacific Pictures and December Films production. Produced with the assistance of New Zealand On Air, the Canadian Television Fund and Film Victoria, in association with History Television, ZDF in co-operation with ARTE and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. An Australia – Canada Co-production.

Curriculum Focus


Knowing and understanding historical events.
Using evidence to assist in the drawing of conclusions and understanding of the past.
Demonstrate and understanding of motivation, causation and empathy to assist one in drawing conclusions about the past.

Background Information


“I had ambition not only to go farther than any man had been before, but as far as it was possible for a man to go.” James Cook

In the series, best selling British author Vanessa Collingridge, a Geographer and Cook expert tells the story of the explorer James Cook. The series traces him from his origins as son of an English farm labourer, at the very bottom of Britain’s class-bound 18th Century society, through his rise as the best cartographer of the 18th Century, to his incredible voyages of discovery which resulted in Cook describing more of the globe than any other man.

The series relives what it was like to navigate uncharted and unknown waters in search of a legendary 'Great Southern Continent’ and then a North West passage through the Arctic ice; as well as to be among the first Europeans to visit exotic Pacific islands like Tahiti. The harshness and danger of life on the sea is depicted graphically as well as the rigid social structure of the time. The series includes direct descendants of the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Hawaii who Cook met 240 years ago and the men of the Endeavour, Resolution, Adventure and Discovery, particularly the famous gentleman botanist Joseph Banks and the young William Bligh.

All of Cook’s major achievements are dramatised and analysed including his discovery of Hawaii, sailing the uncharted coast of New Zealand, proving it isn’t part of the ‘Great Southern Continent’ and the landing at Botany Bay as he claimed Australia for king and country, to death on a beach on the far side of the world.

A hero to some, a villain to others, Cook is depicted from different points of view: as an historic figure of the great stature to the British Royal Navy of the 18th Century and contemporary western culture, and as an exploiter of the Indigenous peoples he came across.

Classroom Activities


Understanding Terra Nullius

  1. Britons often believed that the ‘great southern land’ was terra nullius. What does this term mean?
  2. This clip reveals Cook’s reactions to the indigenous people. What did he notice about them?
  3. Do you think that Cook’s attitude was typical at the time? How do the historians account for why he had this attitude towards them?
  4. Why do you think that his observations of the local indigenous people were not included in his official report? What does this suggest about the nature of historical evidence?
  5. Extension Activity: Dividing the class into groups, students could ‘story board’ the Cook landing at Endeavour River. Try to show or view the whole episode. Ask each group of students to storyboard the event from a different viewpoint:
  • Cook
  • An assistant to Cook
  • An aboriginal male
  • An aboriginal child

The storyboard should be no longer than five frames. Each group would have to:

  • Describe what you saw.
  • Explain the means by which communication would occur.
  • Describe your understanding of that communication. How would you convey this?

Present your story boards to the class. Discussion which follows might include the following:

  • What does this exercise, the telling of the story from different viewpoints, tell us about the nature of historical evidence?
  • What do you think was the biggest obstacle for Cook?
  • Can we find ‘the truth’ in historical documents? What is ‘the truth’?
  • Mind map what obstacles we face when trying to uncover the truth – especially from historical ‘documents’.
  • Write 1–2 paragraphs addressing the difficulties faced by the historian when trying to investigate the past. You must refer to at least three types of evidence that the historian might use.
    • What were the secret orders issued to Cook? Why do you think that they were ‘secret’?
    • Which act is seen as ‘controversial’?
    • Class Debate: ‘That Cook’s claim to New South Wales was illegal’

Preparation for Debate
Teachers could collate/create several small extracts from both sides of the argument and present them to students to work in groups.

Further Resources


National Library of Australia: Gateways – Who Got to Australia First?

The British Empire

Tony Horwitz, author of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before