The History of Cape York

David Cook — 15 August 2019
Camper Tips you off on the long, fabled history of the Cape York Peninsula.

To those of us living in the big cities, Cape York may seem one of the last untouched wilderness areas of our nation, but it has a long and vital history with all the peoples of Australia. Cape York represents about one eighth of the area of Queensland – an area of about 234,000 square kilometres – almost equal in size to the state of Victoria.

At the very northern tip of the country, Cape York sits 150km south of our nearest neighbour, New Guinea, with a smattering of small islands in between. As such it is likely to be the first place on Australia reached by the southerly migration of humankind that occurred 30,000 to 120,000 years ago. 

Recent studies indicate the latter date is likely to be more accurate.


The Cape is home, today, to over fifty different clans, each with their own language and culture. The Torres Strait Islanders are a different group and a much more recent arrival, dating back maybe a thousand years. These indigenous peoples occupy the islands of the Torres Strait and around the coastal tip of the Cape.

Outside exploration of the Cape and northern Australia goes back much further than the famed explorer, Willem Janszoon. A handful of 1000 year old African coins found on a beach on an island off the NT in 1944 suggest that there may have been contacts with northern Australia going back a lot longer than we understand. One controversial theory from a British writer is that two huge Chinese ships examined the West and East coasts of Australia in 1422, almost 350 years before Cook, establishing settlements and mining valuable metals. This claim was repeated in Australia by the Chinese Premier in 2003.

Others claim the Portuguese mapped the northern and eastern coasts of Australia between 1521 and 1524, using their colony of Timor as a base. There was certainly a lot of trade with people from Sulawesi, in modern Indonesia, from the eighteenth century, harvesting trepang, or sea cucumber, which had great value in China. In fact, it’s believed that aboriginal people from the Yolngu tribe travelled to Singapore and the Philippines.


The first known and undisputed European contact with the Australian mainland was in 1606 when the Dutch East India Company sent Willem Janszoon along the southern coast of New Guinea to explore for commercial resources. Janszoon rounded Dolak Island on New Guinea’s southern tip then headed south-east, coming up on a long coast running north and south, the western side of what today we’d know as Cape York. 

There they anchored in the estuary of the Pennefather River where they landed, before heading south to Cape Keerweer (Cape Turnaround in Dutch), at which point they turned north and sailed 300km to near the tip of the Cape before veering off north-west to return home.

Janszoon’s maps, and the charts of the Spanish explorer Luis Vaz de Torres, who passed through the passage between Australia and New Guinea in the same year, were kept a strict secret. De Torres appears to have been acting on existing knowledge, because he headed for the Strait, so its existence appears to have been known before then. 

The Strait only became known to the rest of the world in 1769 when Scottish geographer Alexander Dalrymple translated some Spanish documents captured in the Philippines. Dalrymple gave the name Torres Strait to the newly revealed waterway south of New Guinea. Up until this time early European maps of the mysterious southern continent show Cape York as a southern continuation of New Guinea.

Dalrymple was miffed when he was passed over for command of a British naval expedition to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. This was vital to establishing accurate navigational positions for ships at sea, an issue of great importance to the seafaring nation of Great Britain.


Cook was also given secret instructions to search for the often speculated “Great South Land” after completing the necessary astronomical observations. In doing this he first fully mapped both the North and South Islands of New Zealand before then meeting with the east coast of Australia. This he mapped with a degree of accuracy which still astonishes seafarers today. 

However he almost paid the price of his life and that of all his ship’s company – on a handful of occasions. First, when running aground on the Endeavour Reef, north of modern day Cairns. Second, when coming within metres of being washed onto the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. 

The former incident could have resulted in the loss of all hands, if not by drowning then by starvation on the dry and inhospitable coast. The latter incident was much more dangerous, as it would have resulted in the total destruction of the ship and all its crew many miles from land. In the end it was only Cook’s seamanship and the calm efficiency of his crew that saved them on both occasions.

Cook went on to round the tip of the Cape and landed on Possession Island. Having climbed a hill on the island, Cook signalled that he could see a clear passage through the Strait, but when later, in Batavia, he heard that the French had already completed a trans-Pacific crossing, he changed his journal entry to imply that he had conducted a ceremony to claim possession of the east coast for Britain. 

Cook named the promontory Cape York, after Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany, a brother of King George III, who had died three years earlier. 

Shortly after the establishment of the First Fleet settlement in Sydney, navigator Matthew Flinders took his leaky ship, Investigator, around the full circumference of the continent in 1802-03, creating detailed maps of the coastline, and noting the extensive laterite deposits around the area known today as Weipa, that would one day be developed as the huge bauxite deposits for which the town is known.


Edmund Kennedy was the first to lead an expedition to try to navigate to the tip of the Cape over land in 1848, but of the 13 members of his party, 10 perished from disease, starvation or during hostile encounters with indigenous tribes – including Kennedy himself, who died from a spear wound when within sight of their destination. 

Only the aboriginal guide Jacky Jacky actually succeeded in making the journey, and he led rescuers back to the other two survivors. 

It was Francis Lascelles and William Jardine who made the first truly successful trip in 1865, driving a mob of cattle from Rockhampton to the new settlement of Somerset, losing most of their horses and stores along the way.

Nowadays, Cape York – despite the asphalt roads and crowded camp sites in some areas – is still a place of immense adventure. 


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