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
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.
View Larger Map
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
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
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.