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Captain Cook - Great Southern Continent

Video clip synopsis – In his first great voyage of discovery, James Cook is chosen to find and explore the 'Great Southern Land'.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 1min 46sec
Tags - Australian History, Captain Cook, discovery, DIY Doco, documentary, empire, historical maps, representations, see all tags


Captain Cook - Great Southern Continent

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About the Video Clip


Great Southern Continent is an excerpt from A Likely Lad, the first 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.

This excerpt marks the most significant turning point in Cook’s life, his selection as Captain of the Endeavour to embark on a voyage of discovery for the British Royal Navy. This was one of the British Empire’s first great scientific expeditions, to study the Transit of Venus in the Pacific Ocean and chart the ‘Great Southern Continent’. The narrator of the series, Vanessa Collingridge, describes the 18th Century legend of the ‘Great Southern Continent’ and why Cook was chosen to find and chart it. Cook had emerged as a superb navigator, one who could best be relied upon to find any southern lands as he was an outstanding cartographer and would be able to map it accurately.

In the excerpt, Professor John Gascoigne from the University of NSW describes the thirst for land and power that had increased greatly in the 18th Century. Gascoigne explains how Britain hoped to reap the riches of the legendary southern continent just as Europe had already secured with the discovery of America. The choice of Cook, who at the time was just a ships’ master, was a calculated one based on his skill rather than patronage. The excerpt reveals the fortuitous choice of Cook’s ship the Endeavour, a Whitby cat with a flat-bottomed keel, only 35 metres long (equivalent to the length of 7 family cars). The Whitby cat had traditionally been used to carry coal from Whitby to the Thames and back loaded with timber. Cat is an acronym of “coal and timber ship”. This type of ship had been Cook’s “classroom of the sea” where he had learnt the seaman’s trade.

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 an understanding of motivation, causation and empathy to assist one in drawing conclusions about the past.

Teachers and students should consult their state’s curriculum and learning programs.

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

  1. The clip refers to the idea that the unchartered southern continent was a mystery. Often, the term ‘terra incognita’ is used on maps before the 19th Century. What does ‘terra incognita’ mean?
  2. Using the internet, locate 3 ancient world maps, before 1700AD. The exact word search “ancient world maps” will help you greatly. Don’t forget the “ “ !
    1. Identify the author and date of each map.
    2. Using the three maps you have chosen, describe the way that Ancient cartographers (map makers) saw the world.
    3. Place your maps on an Aonline timeline such as at (this is a free web-based tool). You can add to this timeline in this unit.
  3. What does John Gascoigne identify as the benefits to explorers of the ‘great southern land’?
  4. What does the term ‘El Dorado’ mean? Why is that term used to describe new lands?
  5. When was America discovered? Locate an appropriate ‘ancient’ map and add this into your timeline.
  6. Teachers could read the article by Derek Nelson called The Age of Unreason. This article examines some of the myths depicted in historic maps. Teachers could retell some of these legends and then divide students into groups to examine some of the legends and the way they were depicted on maps.
  7. Why was Cook chosen as the man to unlock the ‘Great Southern Land’?
  8. Up until this point, what experience did Cook have? See digital resource Captain Cook Joins The Navy.
  9. Imagine you are a newspaper journalist who is breaking the news that the government has decided to send an expedition to the ‘Great Southern Land’. How would you inform your readers? What information would they need to know? How would you make it an exciting article to read?

Extension Activity: The British Empire
Create a visual History of the British Empire 1500 – 1900.
Create a visual presentation, either on project paper or online of the way The British Empire grew over the period 1500 – 1900. You must present no more than four major graphics in your presentation. Your presentation must cover:

  • identification of lands making up the Empire
  • dates when the lands were discovered
  • key resources offered by the new lands
  • your conclusion as to what the Admirality hoped to find in the ‘Great Southern Land’ using the knowledge that you have gained from your research.

Further Resources


Ancient Maps

David Rumsey Historical Map Collection