ZACHARY Hicks has a rather unique claim to fame.
He's credited with being the first person onboard Captain Cook's ship Endeavour to spy the east coast of Australia on April 19, 1770. That was during a long voyage of exploration, sailing into the unknown of the vast Pacific Ocean to try to discover Terra Australis Incognita, or the Great South Land.
But when he called "Land Ho!" that daybreak, Hicks wasn't the first European to spot the coast of New Holland (as it was then called). That honour goes to a Dutchman called Janszoon much earlier in 1606, on seeing land south of the tip of Cape York peninsula but thinking it was an extension of the New Guinea coast.
Zachary Hicks (or Hickes) wasn't just any lowly seaman. He was a naval lieutenant and, in fact, Cook's second-in-command. Although a loyal and capable officer, his name tends to be overshadowed by Cook, the brilliant seaman who finally brought the Royal Navy bark Endeavour and most of her crew back home safely to England in mid 1771, having been away in strange waters a few weeks short of three years.
In those days, the daring voyage would have been like a mission to the moon, although commander Cook believed he'd failed, having made "no very great discoveries".
Despite health precautions on the ship, about 38 of Cook's original crew of 94 died on the voyage. They included Lt Hicks, who died of tuberculosis in May 1771 on the homeward voyage. He was buried at sea off the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena.
Hicks is remembered today because of Hicks Bay in New Zealand and Australia's Point Hicks, a promontory in south-east Victoria. Here, a monument to Hicks has stood on the coast since being erected by the Australian government in 1924. But here's the mystery. Is it in the right spot?
Hicks (1739-1771) was also on board when HMB Endeavour sailed north along what is now the NSW north coast and Cook spied "a small clump of an island" (Nobbys) offshore but missed the mouth of the Hunter River.
Earlier, Cook had sailed into a large bay (initially called Stingray Bay, but later renamed Botany Bay) to collect hundreds of botanical specimens for the ship's resident gentleman-botanist Joseph Banks.
Hicks was also a witness to the wooden royal navy vessel almost being wrecked about 3000 kilometres further north on a reef, forcing her to be beached at what later became Cooktown, in far north Queensland, for seven weeks.
Everything possible was jettisoned into the sea to lighten the wedged vessel.
That included cannons and ballast in the form of 'pig iron' ingots. One of these now historic items, later recovered, managed to end up years ago in Newcastle's former Maritime Museum as a prize exhibit. And to commemorate Cook's momentous voyage, in 1970 (marking the then 200th anniversary of the European discovery of Australia) Newcastle's new Civic Park fountain was named the Captain Cook Fountain.
But let's return to the life and times of second Lieutenant Zachary Hicks. A skilled seaman, his name is still remembered in odd places today, such as the Victorian suburb of Endeavour Hills where there's a Zachary Hicks Crescent.
Relatively little is known about his early life, except that he served on various Royal Navy vessels, culminating in his commission to Endeavour in 1768. We do know that by 1760 he had almost four years experience in Britain's Royal Navy and about five years in the East India Company.
So, what more do we know about this naval man often sidelined by Aussie history? As an officer, he was dependable and competent, but not apparently exceptional. Historian J.C Beaglehole once described Hicks as a man of ability but without "the chance to shine". Hicks was probably invaluable on any expedition, but "perhaps born to be a lieutenant".
He fulfilled his duty admirably. His quick thinking while in temporary command of HMB Endeavour is said to have saved the lives of Cook and botanists Banks and Solander when attacked by Maoris in New Zealand in 1769.
Hicks was once held hostage in Rio de Janeiro during a diplomatic squabble and later led a team to record the Transit of Venus in Tahiti. This was the British Admiralty's excuse for Cook to soon secretly sail into uncharted waters in search of the Great South Land.
After Endeavour moored in Botany Bay, Hicks commanded a shore party to collect wood and water to resupply the ship. During this time he made first contact on the beach with some curious indigenous Australians. He even managed to interpret a few words of their language.
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Although dogged by ill-health because of a lung infection, Hicks gamely persisted in his duty, until falling sick in Batavia en-route home. Cook then recorded in his journal his belief that Hicks "had been dying" ever since their ship left England. Hicks' death marked the third anniversary of his commission as lieutenant aboard Endeavour.
Now, to mark the 250th anniversary in April of the arrival of Cook in Australia, the replica Endeavour vessel (pictured) launched in 1993 and operated by the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) in Sydney, has proposed (all being well in future) six special voyages with paying passengers this May-June, arriving in Newcastle Harbour in early May.
The planned stages are between Sydney and Cairns, exploring the eastern seaboard by retracing Cook's voyage, including sailing inside the Great Barrier Reef.
Meanwhile, after a 20-year search, the long-lost historic wreck of the re-named Whitby collier, now famously known as Endeavour, is close to being formally identified among 13 vessels scuttled by the British to block Newport Harbour, Rhode Island, US, in 1778 during the American War of Independence.
And what's the mystery about Point Hicks not being Point Hicks?
Where the Point Hicks lighthouse now stands, winking its beacon over the Tasman Sea, was once called Point Everard (from 1853). The name Point Hicks, however, was still recorded, most likely symbolically, on an official monument on site there in 1924.
Victorian premier Henry Bolte then formally proclaimed the new name of Point Hicks as part of the 1970 Bicentenary events celebrating Cook's 1770 voyage.
According to the maritime experts, the co-ordinates for the spot known as Point Hicks as recorded by Cook in his log show a spot 22nautical miles (40km) offshore in 50 fathoms (300ft or 91metres) of water. Local explorers after Cook certainly couldn't find any land there.
So, was Cook's phantom Point Hicks landfall a massive accidental mistake, or was Cook deliberately lying to the British admiralty to cover up something?
Cook was too good a navigator to mistake, say, a distant cloudbank for the long expected south land.
The speculation is that Cook's 'error' was deliberate, to conceal Bass Strait from Britain's great maritime rivals, the French, who might easily set up strategic forts on islands there.
Paranoia? Maybe not.
Only days after the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay, two French ships commanded by La Perouse suddenly turned up, presumably to claim or settle Australia's east coast neglected by the British for 18 years since Cook landed.
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