When did Captain Cook land in Australia? And did any changes in the International Date Line lead to a change in dates in Australia?

Captain Cook’s Monument at Kurnell

Captain Cook’s Monument at Kurnell in Sydney photographed by the Sydney firm of Charles Kerry & Co, probably between 1892 and 1917. The plaque on the monument states that Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay was on 28 April 1770. Is this correct? Image courtesy of Powerhouse Museum

Mary asks

Cook in 1770 sailed around the South Pacific, after having taken the observations of the Eclipse etc… So at some stage during those several years of sailing, he was technically on the eastern side of the IDL and at other times he was on the western side.

His log book does not seem to make adjustments for the changing back and forth across the IDL. He sailed from London, down around Sth America and then into the Pacific.

So, my fundamental question is : When his log records the date as say 28 April 1770 (he was in Botany Bay) what was the actual date …. 28th April 1770 or 29th April 1770.

I am trying to find out WHEN the IDL was introduced to the NSW Calendar. I realise that in 1770, it was not yet drawn on maps etc. I believe it was ‘invented’ in the 1840’s.

I am trying to sort out in my own way …. if my relatives born and raised in NSW in the early part of the 19th C, ie when Gov Macquarie ruled (1810-1821) experienced any adjustment to their calendar during their lifetime…. Or if that happened during the life of their children or their grandchildren etc etc etc. … Or perhaps it was an adjustment made to the calendars of those on the EASTERN side of the IDL ….

As any Australians who have travelled to the United States would be aware, when crossing the International Date Line (IDL) flying east we gain a day and on the return journey flying west we lose a day. Officially the IDL came into existence after the conference in Washington DC in October 1884 that agreed on Greenwich in the UK as the zero longitude. As a consequence the IDL was 180° from Greenwich, across the Pacific Ocean. However, British seamen had been using charts based on Greenwich from the late 1700s and so for them there was no change in the location of the IDL after the Washington Conference.

Like other Royal Navy captains of his time, Cook did not take the IDL into account when recording dates, even when sailing west across the Pacific. An extra complication in interpreting dates in his log is that he was using nautical time that began at noon and was 12 hours ahead of the civil day. Thus in his journal he recorded his landing at Botany Bay on the afternoon of Sunday 29 April 1770. In civil time that was the afternoon of 28 April and that is the time inscribed on the Captain Cook monument at Kurnell. However, as Cook did not add the extra day on crossing the IDL it is now usual to correct his date to 29 April. These messy corrections are discussed in authoritative detail on the Canadian Archives & Collections Society website.

Fortunately, Captain Phillip’s First Fleet sailed eastwards to Australia without crossing the IDL and hence there was no ambiguity about the dates that he introduced to his infant Colony. In any case, the astronomer with the First Fleet, Lieutenant William Dawes, recorded the longitude of Sydney in the modern fashion of 10 hours 5 minutes and 24 seconds east of Greenwich, so that he was clearly aware that the Colony was on the west side of the IDL.

Any changes to the IDL by other countries, such as the Philippines that moved itself from the east side of the IDL to the west at the end of 1844, had no effect on the people of NSW. Neither do changes by Samoa that will occur at the end of 2011. Since the arrival of the First Fleet they knew which side of the Date Line they were on and had no need to make any shifts in the calendar dates.

Mary, you can rest easy, whatever hardships your ancestors experienced in New South Wales in the time of Governor Macquarie, having to lose a day due a shift in the location of the International Date Line was not one of them.

24 responses to “When did Captain Cook land in Australia? And did any changes in the International Date Line lead to a change in dates in Australia?

  • If Cook failed to establish that New Zealand was the Great Southern Land and decided to go home via’ New Holland,’ mapping its Eastern Coastline in the process, then when did Cook’s discovery (of Australia)
    become accepted in popular thinking? Which year was it and or was it merely Imperialist proper gander? (That he suddenly discovered Australia) Cook when he arrived back in England after his Voyage was hardly lauded as this Great Discoverer. Banks made many contributions to Botanical and Naturalist knowledge at least in England. But Cook only added accurate Mapping of New Holland’s East Coast to go with Maritime Maps of the rest of New Holland which were already in existence. Also, when did the term Australia become popular as opposed to New Holland or Terra Australis?

    • Robert, The Captain Cook Society (link in my reply below) may be able to answer. I have read historical accounts from the early 1900s that clearly don’t use the term ‘discovered’, recognise the land was already occupied and portray Cook as the first European to sight the east coast. So the simplification must have come later in the 20th centuary.

      In 1801-1803 Matthew Flinders circumnavigated, & mapped parts of, the continent. He later drew up a map with “Australia” written across it and stated that he preferred that name. The National Museum of Australia has a concise page about Flinders and concludes with “In 1817 Governor Macquarie received a copy of [Flinder’s book] A Voyage to Terra Australis and used the term ‘Australia’ in his correspondence from then on. Britain formally named the continent Australia in 1824 and by the end of that decade it was in common usage.

  • I very much enjoyed the original post by Mary and the subsequent comments and input from others, especially that which describes the technical nature of the ITL, civil and maritime time. My contribution cannot comment on the ITL issues but better reflects some of the other input about Cook, dates and purpose.

    I have found a number of books quite helpful in understanding the feats and background to the colonization of the east coast of Australia. Also, it is sad that words such as “discovered” are bandied around so carelessly. Captain Cook, (as he was the Captain of the Barque Endeavour, (ranking of Lieutenant) was the first of the known major navigation nations to encounter the east coast of Australia. Countries such as Great Britain, Spain, Holland, France, Purtugal and maybe even Venice Genoa were all major scientific / navigation countries looking around the world. So of these, it is understood that James Cook was the first to “discover” the east coast of Australia.

    However, the “discovery” of the east coast of Australia was almost a by-product of the greater scientific goals of the voyage. That being the sighting of the transit of Venus across the sun and the collection of fauna and flora from all places visited by the Endeavour. Cook, Banks and Solander were essentially tasked to interact with indigenous people wherever they went and there are numerous texts on these experiences. For me, two of the more accessible texts on the issues I have read in this blog are “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes and “Captain James Cook” by Rob Mundle.

    From these two texts, the background is clearly defined as to why both Cook and Philip were in the southern hemisphere. They both detail issues of purpose, dates, experiences and interactions. Institutions such as The NSW State Library have excellent online access to Cook’s Journals. These are highly illuminating. There are further texts that come from Journals of other crew that provide quality data on these very interesting times.

    There is no doubt that Captain Cook had a thorny personality and was somewhat arrogant in many ways. In 1770, people with the stature of Cook and Banks were not trained in attitudes of inclusiveness, empathic engagement nor equality. They were individuals who were brought up in an environment of extremely harsh conditions, social injustice and a focus on achieving discoveries and exploration of the unknown. Their ability to “command” was based on harsh discipline and an intense faith in ones own abilities.

    I would recommend reading The Rob Mundle book first followed by The Fatal Shore to best understand the reasons why the British and other nations were in the Pacific. They clearly define time lines, scientific experiences, describe the personalities of all major players and set forth descriptions of situations and circumstances without the influence of latter day political filters.

    By any measure, Captain James Cook was possibly one of the world’s greatest navigators and cartographers. He was amongst the first seafarers to value nutrition at sea as well as regular exercise on board. His mathematical skills and observational skills of the stars were at a level many of his naval and maritime successors sought for decades.

  • My Birthday happens to be April 28th , so it would mean a lot if Lieutenant Cook ( not Captain ) landed on this day and not the 29th . Can anyone confirm or deny this fact .

    • Richard, Is this not explained in the post? It was the 29th by the modern calendar and by Cook’s journal. It could only have been the 28th if Cook had used the civil calendar and ignored any correction for an International Date Line – this he did ignore because it didn’t exist at the time and (as the linked page explains) it was customary at the time not to correct for loss/gain of a day until a circumnavigation of the globe had been completed. So I guess you can take your pick and make your day:)

  • I always thought it was when Captain Cook discovered Australia 26th January. I will have a look to see when that Venus transit across the Sun was because that was why he was down this way to watch the Venus crossing the sun transit.

    • Elisa, Cook first sighted the east coast of Australia in 1770 on Thursday April 19 (or Friday April 20!). For January 26th, please see the comment from Gabrielle below and Dr Nick’s answer. Yes, one of Cook’s tasks was to observe the Transit of Venus in 1769.

    • 26th January is the date the First Fleet landed at Port Jackson after they left Botany Bay. It is effectively the date that the colony of NSW was started and since then NSW has hoodwinked the rest of the country in to believing it was the founding of Australia. Lieutenant Cook (as he was at the time) landed on 29th April 1770 and that would be a more appropriate date if you exclude 01Jan when Australia officially came in to being in 1901.

  • fantastic conversation and explanation for a difficult subject. So interesting. Love the detail of Cook and Mr. Green working on their calculations from Cook’s log. That is the heart of historical research –
    looking at the source documents and combining with other relevant material and seeing where it all fits. Thank you all.

  • I am interested in when the first fleet moved from Nautical time ( can we first confirm they were using that first on the trip ) to Civil time. I note quite a few early settlement dates have conflicting dates.

    • Thanks Ben. I am pleased to hear that. We try to be a reliable source of interesting and useful information.

  • I thought Cook corrected the calendar date when he arrived in Batavia (‘first’ civilisation) on the 11th October 1770, where he stopped to repair the Endeavour (for ten weeks) after nearly shipwrecking it on Endeavour Reef in now  northern Queensland. He says he reached South Africa on the 14th March which was the same date as Greenwich.
    To me the 29th April is incorrect as the dateline issue did not exist in Cook’s time. The problem would have been quite obvious using the astronomical almanac (ephemeris) (Cook  called; “Nautical Almanack and Astronomical Ephemeras”), whose predictions of the moon phases or Jupiter’s transits and occultations of his moons, would have been out by a day. Clearly from his logged observation (below), the longitude measured is +180 degrees, meaning the ‘time’ was ALWAYS based on the same time at GreenwichSaturday, 21st April 1770. (Three days after sighting land again.);“The shore under the foot of the Mountain forms a point, which I have named Cape Dromedary, over which is a peaked hillock. At this time found the Variation to be 10° 42′ E. Between 10 and 11 o’Clock Mr. Green and I took several Observations of the Sun and Moon, the mean result of which gave 209° 17′ W. Longitude from the Meridian of Greenwich. By observations made yesterday we were in the Longitude 210° 9′. West 20′ gives 209° 49′ the Longitude of the Ship today at noon per yesterday’s observation, the Mean of which and to-day’s give 209° 33′ W., by which I fix the Longitude of this Coast. Our Latitude at Noon was 35° 49′ S.; Cape Dromedary bore S. 30° W., distant 12 Leagues. An Open Bay wherein lay 3 or 4 Small Islands, bore N.W. by W., distant 5 or 6 Leagues. This Bay seem’d to be but very little Shelter’d from the Sea Winds, and yet it is the only likely Anchoring place I have yet seen upon the Coast.”Cook was using an early kind of Universal time, then, where at midnight at Greenwich, the whole world changed day on the calendar. This only changed in 1840s to the use of the dateline. That is the way I see it.Interesting story and problem though.Note: My on-line article “The Dawn of Australian Astronomy” [ http://homepage.mac.com/andjames/Page031a.htm ] I deliberately avoided stating the landing date of Cook at Kurnell for this very reason!

    • Thanks Andrew for your thoughtful and detailed comments. As you indicate Cook considered that he was around 209° west of Greenwich when he reached the Australian coastline. That is equivalent to being 14 hours behind London time. The important point is that to convert to time in London, or more precisely to Greenwich Civil Time, Cook would have added 14 hours while we would add a day and subtract 10 hours and reach exactly the same answer.

      Whether Cook in 1770 was familiar with the concept of an International Date Line is unclear, but according to the Canadian Archives & Collections Society website, by his second voyage of 1772-75 the charts by the master of the Resolution, James Gilbert, went from 0° to 180° E. and W. of Greenwich.

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