Possession Island

Possession Island, known to the local Kaurareg Aboriginal peoples as Bedanug, is a small and seemingly insignificant island of the tip of Cape York, the most northerly point of mainland Australia. It was here, just before sunset on Wednesday 22nd August 1770, that British navigator Lieut. James Cook came ashore and took possession of the east coast of Australia under the name of South Wales (he later amended it to New South Wales), for the King of England, His Majesty King George III, and set in motion a series of events that resulted in the establishment of the colony of New South Wales and later the commonwealth of Australia. A cairn marks the location.

It could be said that it was here where all of Australia's recent land control battles started. It is ironic that the place of possession is not on the Australian Mainland; and the reason? Cook feared the Aborigines of the area were hostile, so he decided to make possession on an uninhabited island!

Cook recorded the event thus: "As I was about to quit the eastern coast of New Holland, which I had coasted from latitude 38 deg. to this place, and which I am confident no European had ever seen before, I once more hoisted English colours, and though I had already taken possession of several particular parts, I now took possession of the whole eastern coast, from latitude 38 deg. to this place, latitude 10 deg. 30 min., in right of his Majesty King George the Third, by the name of New South Wales, with all the bays, harbours, rivers, and islands situated upon it. We then fired three volleys of small arms, which were answered by the same number from the ship."

Cook had recorded signs that the coast was inhabited during the voyage north, and here he noted as he returned to the ship the great number of fires on all the land and islands about them, 'a certain sign they are Inhabited'. Cook then sailed through Torres Strait, returning to England in May 1771.

Cook gave the lands he had charted and claimed a new name; New Wales (he later amended it to New South Wales). When he claimed New South Wales for the British Crown on 22nd August 1770, his claim covered all the lands he had explored. The point of possession was the most easterly point he had visited, it was also and that point was located 142 degrees west of Greenwich, which placed it right on the line of demarkation between Portuguese and Spanish territory as determined by the Treaty of Saragossa or Treaty of Zaragoza, signed on 22nd April 1529.

By claiming only territory he had visited, Cook was in fact claiming territory up to that line and no further, which amounted to the whole of that part of Australia which fell in Spain's half of the world. It is presumed that, to Cook, Dutch territory in New Holland would have extended east to that line of demarkation since the Dutch were aligned with the Portuguese. Britain had no quarms about walking in and taking over territory in Spain's half of the world, as evidenced by the Nootka Sound Incident of 1790 which brought the matter of international territory ownership to a head and resulted in the rules being changed forever, but Britain had no argument with the Portuguese or Dutch and respected their territorial rights and claims.

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It was with great relief that Cook passed out of the reef and into Torres Strait. He realised that the waters he was now entering had been well plotted by years of Dutch and Portuguese presence, and therefore ceased charting the voyage. His route was to the coast of New Guinea, then west along the southern coast of Java and around the west end of the island into Batavia. He arrived home in England on 13th July 1771.

The Voyage of the Endeavour

The Monument

There have been a number of cairns and monuments at this site where Cook took possession but all were vandalised. The most recent monument (above) was erected as a bicentennial project in 1788 and is almost indestructible. 

Possession Island or Botany Bay?

John Alexander Gilfillan's painting titled 'Captain Cook taking possession of the Australian continent on behalf of the British Crown' is universally used to illustrate the taking possession of a large part of the Australian continent in August 1770 at Possession Island. It was presented to the Philosophical Society of Victoria in 1889. Banks' greyhound is watching two men skin a kangaroo near the tent on the left of the painting. National Library of Australia.

The only problem with this painting is that does not depict possession Island - anyone who has been there knows it doesn't look like this. Some say the painting depicts Botany Bay, but anyone who has been there knows that the lay of the land there is not as depicted either. One can only assume it is a depction of how he saw the incident in his mind's eye, perhaps based on eyewitness accounts.

Gilfillan was born on 25 December 1793 in Elizabeth Castle, Jersey, Channel Islands, UK, of Scottish parents, Lieutenant John Gilfillan and Elizabeth, née Bridges. After a tumultuous childhood running away to sea, being shipwrecked and press ganged for 8 years, Gilfillan studied art and made it his career. Gilfillan was for ten years professor of painting at Anderson University, Glasgow. In 1841 he emigrated to New Zealand, but came to Sydney in 1847 after his wife and four of his children were killed in a Maori insurrection. He spent some time in Adelaide (1849-51) and on the Victorian goldfields before joining the customs department in Melbourne. His works are represented in several state and provincial collections. He died in Melboune in 1864. Thse is no record of him having visited Possession Island.

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