Volume 7

James Cook in the Coromandel

Roger Strong

This had been witnessed before on at least six previous occasions beginning in 1631. So far the coast had offered few opportunities as no suitable harbour or safe anchorage had presented itself. He had to find a safe place and a fine sunny day for the observations.

James Cook in his ship the Endeavour, a converted coal carrier from the English east coast was in the unique position of being on a coast for which he had absolutely no maps and where he had to rely completely on whatever he had already on the ship to guide him safely. Moreover the natives who he had so far encountered had greeted him with threats to kill him and his crew should he set foot on their land. He knew that this is what they said because he carried with him Tupaia, a Tahitian, who was able to communicate with the Maori they encountered. He discovered quite quickly that most of the threats made were bluster and that Maori were keen to trade.

Local Maori thought Cook and men were ‘goblins’ who could remove their skin (clothes) and scalp (hats) and who must have eyes in the back of their heads as they rowed backwards. Trade seems to have centred around food such as the excellent lobsters described by Joseph Banks the wealthy botanist on board, large quantities of fresh fish which the seamen no doubt enjoyed and any surplus was salted down. The Europeans were also interested in Maori items such as weapons and clothing and in turn Maori quickly saw the possibilities of items such as nails and woven cloth.

The Endeavour at first moored close in but late in the afternoon of the 4th of November she was shifted to a safer anchorage some one and a half miles off what is now Cook’s Beach. Trade continued but on the next occasion when Cook was ashore First Lieutenant Gore who was in charge attempted to exchange some cloth for a dog skin cloak only to have the cloth taken without the cloak being given in exchange. In anger he fired a musket loaded with round shot killing the Maori trader. Although Cook on his return was annoyed that this had happened, local Maori seemed to accept that the trader had been at fault and trading continued on most fine days of their visit to Mercury Bay.

Cooks Beach, Whitianga where Cook observed the transit of Mercury on 10 November 1769. Photo taken from Shakespeare Point looking at Lonely Bay with Cook's Beach behind. Purangi River is on the far left of the photo.
Photo taken from the same place at Shakespeare
Point looking NE to Middle Island (now called
Motukorure Island).
The Purangi River entrance from Cook's beach
at the eastern end of Cooks Beach.

Cook’s astronomer Charles Green and Cook with a party went ashore at 8 am on November 9th, 1769 to observe the transit of Mercury at present day Cooks Beach. Banks, who did not go recorded this as being one of the few fine days ‘with not the smallest cloud intervening to Obstruct him’. Today a monument marks the spot where the observation was made. The observation concluded that Mercury had little or no atmosphere. Observations of the transit of Venus had already been made at Tahiti. The party had a total of four telescopes and two clocks as well as an astronomical quadrant. The observation of the transit of Mercury also helped Cook determine the exact position of his observation point with regard to latitude.

The following day Cook and others explored the river flowing into the bay on which is now the town of Whitianga. The following days saw some unpleasant weather but the crew of the Endeavour managed to collect a large quantity of seafood. Banks and the scientific staff of course explored the unique native flora and fauna which often entailed shooting birds for examination.

It is still possible to see the stream where Cook and his men refilled their water butts and cut firewood. This is the Purangi River named by Cook as ‘Oyster River’ because of the good quality oysters that they enjoyed from here. The Purangi inlet can be found at the far eastern end of Cook’s beach. Cook named other prominent geographical features in the area including The Alderman Islands, Tower Rock, Shakespeare Cliff and of course Mercury Bay itself. The Mercury Bay museum at Whitanga today contains many interesting displays relating to Cook’s 12 day visit to the area.

H.M.S. Endeavour (artist's impression)
Source: 'Thames and the Coromandel Peninsula
2000 Years' by Zelma and John Williams.

Captain James Cook's Journal 11th November 1769

Saturday 11th Fresh gales at ENE and and Clowdy hazey weather with rain. Between 7 and 8 oClock PM I returnd on board from out of the River having been about 4 or 5 Miles up it and could have gone much farther had the weather been favourable. I landed on the East side and went up on the hills ^from whence I saw or at least I thought I saw the head of the River it here branched into several Channels and form'd a number of very low flat Islands all cover'd with a sort of Mangrove trees, and several places of the Shores of both sides of the River were cover'd with the same sort of wood: the sand banks were well store'd with Cockles, and clams and in many places were Rock Oysters. Here is likewise pretty plenty of wild Foul, such as Shags, Ducks, Curlews, and a Black Bird about as big as a Crow with a long sharp bill of a Colour between (White) Red and yellow. We also saw fish in the River but of what sort I know not. The Country (particularly) Especialy on the East side is barren and for the most part distitute of wood or any other signs of fertility, but the face of the country on the other side looked much better and is in many places cover'd with wood. We met with some of the natives and saw several more and smookes a long way inland. but saw not the least sign of cultivation either here or in any other part about the Bay, so that the Inhabitents must live wholy on Shell and other Fish and Fern roots which they eat by way of bread — In the entrance of this River and for 2 or 3 Miles up it is very safe and commodious Anchoring in 3, 4, and 5 fathom water, and convenient places for laying a Vessel a shore where the Tide rises and falls about 7 feet and flows full and change

I could not see whether or no any considerable fresh water stream came out of the Country into this River but there are a number of small Rivulets which come from the adjacent hills — A little with[in] the entrance of the River on the East side is a high point or peninsula juting out into the River on which are the remains of one of thier Fortified towns the Situation is such that the best Engineer in Europe could not have choose'd a better for a small number of men to defend themselves against against a greater. it is strong by nature and made more so by Art It is only accessible on the land side, and there have been cut a Ditch and a bank raised on the inside from the top of the bank to the bottom of the ditch was about 22 feet and depth of the ditch on the land side 14 feet; its breadth was in proportion to its depth and the whole seem'd to have been done with great judgment. There had been a row of Pickets on the top of the bank and a nother on the outside of the ditch. these last had been set deep in the ground and sloaping with their upper ends hanging over the ditch; the whole had been bur^nt down, so that it is probable that this place has been taken and distroy'd by an Enimy. The people on this side of the Bay seem now to have no houses or fix'd habitations but sleep in the open air, under trees and in small temporary shades, but to all appearence they are better off on the other side but there we have not yet set foot - In the Morning being dirty rainy weather I did not expect any of the Natives off with fish, but thinking that they might have some a shore, I sent a boat with some trade, who returnd about noon load with oysters which they got in the River ^which is abreast of the Ship, but saw no fish among the Natives —

As seen on The South Seas website of the National Library of Australia.

At 7 am on 15th November the weather having improved and sufficient water and supplies been gathered the Endeavour set sail heading north around Tower Rock and towards a headland at the top of the Coromandel Peninsula that Cook named Cape Colville. The Endeavour encountered strong south westerly gales and was forced to stand well off shore for four days. These gales diminished to the point where by the 18th canoes of Maori were again approaching the ship and throwing stones at it whereupon Cook fired a musket shot through a canoe and the Maori retired ashore.

Parkinson's Journal 11th - 18 November 1769:

While we lay in this bay the natives brought us a great number of cray-fish, of an enormous size, which were very good. These were caught by women, who dived for them in the surf amongst the rocks. A long-boat full of rock oysters, too, were brought on board of us at one time, which were good food, and tasted deliciously. A little way up the river there were banks entirely composed of them. We also got abundance of parsley for the ship’s use; and, at the place where we watered, we found a great quantity of fern, the root of which partakes much of a farinaceous quality: the natives dry it upon the fire, then beat it upon a stone, and eat it instead of bread.

On the 16th, in the morning, the weather being very fair, we weighed anchor, and stood out to sea, but, having a strong breeze from the west, which was against us all this day and the next, being the l7th, we did nothing but beat to windward. The country in view appeared rather barren, and had but few signs of inhabitants. We saw several islands, which we named Mercury islands.

On the 18th, in the morning, we passed between the main and an island which appeared to be very fertile, and as large as Yoolee-Etea. Two canoes came to us from the main, having carved heads, like those we had seen in the bay of Opoorangee: one of them was longer than the other, and had sixty of the natives in her: they gazed at us awhile, and then gave us several heivos; but the breeze freshening, they were obliged to drop astern, and we soon left them. The coast hereabout is full of islands: the name of the largest is Waootaia; and one of the small ones is called Matoo Taboo. After we had passed this island, (the passage between which and the main we named Port Charles,) it seemed as if we were in a large bay, the land surrounding us on every side, excepting a-head, where we could discover none: we bent our course that way, and got, at length, inclosed between two shores, which seemed to form a kind of strait. Night coming on, we anchored here, not daring to venture farther, as we knew not whether we were in a strait or a bay. The land on both sides of us appeared very broken, and had a high and bold shore, tolerably well cloathed with verdure; but it appeared to be thinly inhabited; nor did we see any signs of cultivation. There are many small islands along the shore, among which are some good harbours.

As seen on The South Seas website of the National Library of Australia.

Cook and the Endeavour crept slowly south after rounding Cape Colville and after anchoring for the night, in the morning sailed and then anchored at a position about nine miles north of present day Thames and in about 6 fathoms (18 metres) of water.

The following day November 20th, Cook with Joseph Banks and some seamen in a rowing boat were carried by a considerable tidal flow, upriver for some miles. Cook named this river the Thames but today this river is the present day Waihou. It now has stopbanks (levees) and is in every way different from the river that Cook saw which was a river with swampy and ever changing banks clothed with lush forests to the waters edge.

Upon landing in the very swampy conditions they measured one of many tall trees and found one that measured 89 feet (about 30 metres) to the first branch with as Cook observed a girth of some 19 feet 8 inches (almost 7 metres) and as Cook noted ‘it was as streight as an arrow and taper’d but little in proportion to its length. He goes on to say that there were other species of trees entirely new to them.

Joseph Banks

This of course was Cook the sailor. England was at that time facing a shortage of timber for ships’ masts and spars and he was looking at the trees in that regard. Luckily he didn’t know that timber of the native kahikatea Podocarpus dacrydioides was unsuitable for such a purpose the timber being too light and soft. Nearby and undiscovered was the timber treasure of northern New Zealand - Kauri Agathis australis the gum of which had already been observed amongst the mangroves in Mercury Bay. Cook found it difficult to get leaves from such a tall tree and a smaller one was cut down so that the timber could be studied. Unfortunately the tree cut down was not the same species as the tree that had been measured.

The journey back to the Endeavour had to be postponed because the tidal flow was against them and Cook, Banks and the others spent a night sitting in the boat in intermittent rain showers. On the morning of the 22nd they caught the outgoing tidal current and arrived back at the ship. This was the longest time that James Cook spent away from the Endeavour in the entire first voyage and indicates the importance he placed on the area and the potential that he saw in it.

Parkinson's Journal 19th - 21 November:

On the 19th, in the morning, several of the natives came on board of us: their canoes were the largest we had seen, and the people in them behaved very friendly. By what we could learn, they had got intelligence of us from the people that inhabit the country about Opoorangee Bay, which is not very distant. They told us this was not an entrance into the main, but a deep bay. Some of them presented us with a large parcel of smoaked eels, which tasted very sweet and luscious. We observed that the natives mode of salutation was by putting their noses together.

We sailed along till we came to six fathoms water, and then let go our anchor. The weather being hazy, we could not have so good a view of the land upon the coast as we wished to have; but it appeared to be well covered with wood, and some parts of it cultivated. This day we caught a considerable quantity of fish, with hook and line, of the scienna or bream kind. The natives call this harbour Ooahaowragee.

On the 20th, early in the morning, the Captain, Mr. Banks, and Dr. Solander, set out, in the long-boat and pinnace, for the bottom of this gulph, to see in what manner it terminated: and, as it blew very fresh, and a great swell rolled into the bay all day, they did not attempt to return till the next morning, the 21st; then, with some difficulty, on account of the swell, they reached the ship again, and reported, that they had been a considerable way up a fresh-water river, at the end of the gulph, in which they found three fathoms water. It was about half a mile broad, and would make an excellent harbour. Near the entrance of this river, which they named the Thames, there was a village, and a Hippa, or place of re-fuge, erected to defend it, which was surrounded by piquets that reached above water when the tide was up; and, at low-water, it was unapproachable on account of a soft deep mud. The inhabitants of the village behaved civil and obliging, and promised to bring some provisions to the ship; but, the weather proving unfavourable, they could not fulfil their engagement. On that day they also met with the large tree of which we had seen so many groves formed in different parts of the coast. This tree has a small narrow leaf, like a juniper’s, and grows to the height of ninety feet, and is nine feet in girth. It is generally found in low land, and has a very dark-coloured appearance at a distance. The natives, it is thought, make their canoes of this tree. They also saw several young cabbage palm-trees, and a new species of Pardanus, or palm-nut.

As seen on The South Seas website of the National Library of Australia.

On the morning of 24th November,1769 the Endeavour sailed north rounding present day Waiheke Island and heading further north towards Northland. He did not explore any more of the Hauraki Gulf probably because it would have been extremely difficult to establish from off the coast just where the safe passages were, especially those shielded by islands. The Coromandel area especially Mercury Bay (Whitianga) and Thames and the Waihou River offers a unique chance to retrace the steps of James Cook and his crew at their first and in many ways most thoroughly explored landfall on the New Zealand coast.

Track from Mercury Bay to Bay of Islands, NZ 15 - 28 Nov 1769.

As seen on The Endeavour Voyage Maps 1768 - 1771.

Persons who left England in H.M.S. Endeavour, 26th August 1786.

Mercury Bay Museum, Whitianga.


  1. The Treasury Collection holds a large collection of James Cook material.
  2. VILLIERS Alan ‘Captain Cook, The Seamen’s Seaman: A Study of the Great Discoverer’. Hodder & Stoughton 1967 also Penguin Books.
  3. HOUGH Richard ‘Captain James Cook-a biography’. Hodder & Stoughton 1994.
  4. ROBSON John ‘Captain Cook’s World:Maps of the Life and Voyages of James Cook RN’. Random House 2000.
  5. ROBSON John ‘The Captain Cook Encyclopeda ‘. Random House 2004.
  6. BEDDIE M.K. (editor) ‘Bibliography of Captain James Cook’. Mitchell Library NSW 1970.
  7. ROBSON John ‘Captain Cook’s War and Peace-The Royal Navy Years’1755-1768. UNSW Press 2009.
  8. PARKINSON Sydney ‘A Journal of a VoyageTo The South Seas’ Caliban Books 1984.
  9. BEAGLEHOLE J.C. ‘The Life of Captain James Cook’ A & C. Black London.
  10. RIGBY Nigel & VAN DER MERWE Pieter ‘Captain Cook in the Pacific’. National Maritime Museum (UK) 2002.
  11. BEGG A.C. & BEGG N.C. ‘James Cook in New Zealand.’ Government Printer (NZ) 1969.
  12. AUGHTON Peter ‘The Story of Captain Cook’s First Great Epic Voyage’ ENDEAVOUR. Cassell.
  13. GASCOIGNE John ‘Voyager Between Worlds’ Hambledon 2007.
  14. FINKEL George ‘James Cook- Royal Navy’ Hodder & Stoughton 1987.
  15. WILLIAMS, Z & J 'Thames and the Coromandel Peninsula 2000 years.' Thames 1994.
  16. South Seas Voyaging Accounts The Journals of James Cook's First Pacific Voyage, 1768 - 1771. National Library of Australia.
  17. Project Gutenberg Australia Captain Cook's Journal. First Voyage.


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