September 10 - 16, 2023: Issue 598


Lying for the Admiralty: The true facts about Capt. James Cook’s first voyage …
by Allan Porter

Painting by Samuel Atkins (1787-1808) of Endeavour off the coast of New Holland during Cook's voyage of discovery 1768-1771. Inscription on reverse of painting indicates it relates to the grounding of the Endeavour on the Great Barrier Reef in June 1770. courtesy National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an5921609

I was very happy recently to be invited to review the latest book, Lying for the Admiralty, by author, Margaret Cameron-Ash about Captain James Cook. 

While there are hundreds of books that have been written about the famous navigator, this is the first to answer the critical questions raised by his seeming ‘errors’ – which weren’t errors at all, but deliberate fabrications made for strategic reasons. 

It is a scholarly portrayal that presents the explorer as someone with an ambition corresponding to the defining spirit and mood of the time, of exploration for pride and nation, of a committed navigator dedicated to bringing the new world of discovery to England, guarding information and the secrecy that goes with it. 

Cook excelled in being economical with the truth in his reporting, knowing much but recording less to prevent closer detailed information becoming the stuff of talk in the public houses in England by a crew glad to be home, thirsty for a drink and within earshot of those who were agents of other nations always eager to know more. 

Cook and the Secretary of the Admiralty, Philip Stephens understood each other very well – that a written plan was one thing but the verbal plan in confidence was the essential part for the success of any mission. 

There’s information that Cook on departing Botany Bay, knew of a far greater protected waterway than was Botany Bay, namely what became Port Jackson and Sydney Harbour, but revealing its existence would be too much of an attraction for others to further investigate so best kept quiet until home. And this modus operandi was applied to other places during the voyage. The ‘first discoverer’ and the ‘occupiers’ of new lands could be very different with contrary claims being made so always best to leave the evidence to a verbal report once home.

This is a book of intrigue, of managing a plan and recording it so it could be all turned to advantage revealing that these so-called errors were in fact subterfuges, part of Cook’s strategy (and the Admiralty’s) to prevent others of learning of discoveries which they could turn to advantage. It prompted me to repeat the words that have been said before in critical situations in history, that sometimes ‘truth has to be attended by a bodyguard of lies’. 

Lying for the Admiralty by Margaret Cameron-Ash is a recommended read. Hard copy Abbey’s Bookshop Sydney. Online Lying for the Admiralty: Captain Cook's Endeavour Voyage by Margaret Cameron-Ash at Abbey's Bookshop | 9780648996132 | Hardback (

Margaret Cameron-Ash has been a lawyer in Sydney and London, and a visiting fellow at the University of NSW. As well as legal practice, her research interests include early Australian history. She is also author of Beating France to Botany Bay: The Race to found Australia (2021)

Capt Allan, the Ancient Mariner.
(Allan Porter)