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Angus Trumble reflects on the the early journal entries of James Cook, Joseph Banks and Sydney Parkinson and the mixed meanings of Endeavour in Australian waters.

Portrait of Angus Trumble in his office. - click to view larger image
Angus Trumble

Angus Trumble

Angus is a senior research fellow in Australian history at the National Museum of Australia. He is a former director of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. Angus was previously curator of European art at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide and then senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.

He is the author of numerous books and articles, including A Brief History of the Smile (2004), The Finger: A Handbook (2010) and (with Andrea Wolk Rager) Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (2013). In 2015, Angus was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

On the Endeavour journals

Range across literature, language and lore as Angus shares insights into early journal entries of these seasoned European voyagers and their 18th-century worldview.

James Cook:

In the evening the yawl return’d from fishing having caught two Sting rays weighing near 600 pounds … The great quantity of New Plants &c Mr Banks & Dr Solander collected … in this place occasioned my giveing it the name of Sting-Ray Harbour Botanyist Bay.

It is Capacious safe and commodious … To sail into it keep the south shore on board untill within a small bare Island which lies close under the north shore being within that Island the deepest water is on that side 7, 6 and five fathom a good way up.

There is shoal’d water a good way off from the South Shore from the inner South point qu[i]te to the head of the harbour but over to wards the north and NW shore is a channell of 12 or 14 feet water at low water 3 or 4 leagues up to a place where there is 3 & 4 fm but here I found very little fresh water. We anchord near the south shore about a Mile within the entrance for the conveniency of sailing with a Southerly wind and the getting of fresh water but I afterwards found a very fine stream of fresh water on the north shore in the first sandy cove within the Island before which a Ship might lay almost land lock’d and wood for fuel may be got every where: altho wood is here in great plenty yet there is very little variety[.] The largest trees are as large or larger than our oaks in England and grows a good deal like them and yeilds a redish gum[.] The wood itself is heavy, hard and black like Lignum Vitae[.]

Another sort that grows tall and strait some thing like Pines[.] The wood of this is … hard and Ponderous and something of the nature of American live oak, these two are all the timber trees … I met with, there are a few sorts of Shrubs and several Palm trees, and Mangroves about the head of the harbour —

The Country is woody low and flat as far inland as we could see and I believe that the soil is in general sandy, in the wood are a variety of very boutifull birds such as Cocatoo’s, Lorry quets Parrots &c and Crows exactly like those we have in England — Water fowl are no less plenty about the head of the harbour where there are large flats of sand and Mud on which they seek their food. The most of these were unknown to us, one sort especialy which was black and white and as large as a goose but most like a pelican.

On the Sand and Mud banks are Oysters, Muscles, Cockles &c which I beleive are the cheif support of the inhabitants who go into shoald water with their little canoes and pick them out of the sand and Mud with their hands and sometimes roast and eat them in the Canoe, having often a fire for that purpose as I suppose for I know no other it can be for.

The Natives do not appear to be numerous neither do they seem to live in large bodies but dispers’d in small parties along by the water side. Those I saw were about as tall as Europeans of a very dark brown colour but not black nor had they wooly frizled hair, but black and lank much like ours — no sort of cloathing or ornaments were ever seen by any of us upon any one of them or in or about any of their hutts from which I conclude that they never wear any —

Some that we saw had their faces and bodies painted with a sort of white paint or Pigment … Altho I have said that shell fish is their chief support yet they catch other sorts of fish, some of which we found roasting on the fire the first time we landed, some of these they strike with gigs and others they catch with hook and line[.] We have seen them strike fish with gigs & hooks and lines were found in their hutts —

Sting rays I believe they do not eat because I never saw the least remains of one near any of their hutts or fire places … However we could know but very little of their customs as we never were able to form any connections with them, they had not so much as touch’d the things we had left in their hutts on purpose for them to take away.

During our stay in this Harbour I caused the English Colours to be display’d a shore every day and an inscription to be cut out upon one of the trees near the watering place seting forth the Ships name, date &Ca — Having seen every thing this place afforded we at daylight in the Morning weigh’d with a light breeze at NW and put to sea and the wind soon after coming to the Southward we steer’d along shore NNE and at Noon we were by observation in the Latitude of 33°.50' So about 2 or 3 Miles from the land and abreast of a Bay or Harbour wherein there apperd to be safe anchorage which I call’d Port Jackson. It lies 3 leags to the northward of Sting Ray's Harbour Botanyist Bay…

Angus Trumble:


Writing his account of Endeavour’s last full day at Kamay/Botany Bay, and of his departure northwards that evening, Cook expands into a generous mode of recapitulation. But this long text is remarkable for a number of other reasons. It is clear from the emendations, deletions and insertions, that even as he was finishing this entry in his journal he had not yet made up his mind whether to name the place Stingray Harbour or Botany Bay. At best, Botany Bay seems to have solidified as almost the last act before Cook put down his pen. The manuscript clearly shows that he had even toyed with the, to us, strange sounding ‘Botanist Bay’.

It is as well to be reminded that on this concluding day Cook had no idea what he would encounter further north of Kamay/Botany Bay, so the tour d’horizon mode into which he shifts here suggests that he may have entertained the possibility that Botany Bay might end up being his only landfall. True, he knew perfectly well that he was making straight for subtropical and tropical latitudes, and that fresh water was most likely to be accessible much further north, however there were from his perspective no guarantees about that. So there was the ever-present problem of provisioning to consider.

As we shall see much further down the track, Endeavour carried hoops and staves with which to assemble new watertight casks for additional supplies of fresh water. Why were these not already assembled and therefore ready for service? The answer must be that they were stored in so many unassembled pieces simply to save space. Space was just as much at a premium in the hold as it was everywhere else aboard Endeavour.

It is therefore safe to assume that a dedicated party used the whole time at Kamay/Botany Bay accumulating an ample supply of fresh water at the landing place that would cover all necessities over the longest possible distance, perhaps even to within reach of Batavia. As with every such consideration, however, there was a trade-off. The more fresh water you took on board, the more likely it was to spoil after a long enough period sitting still, even in sealed casks, and certainly no longer to remain fresh.

We also find in his retrospective summary an unusual nod to future seafarers by providing the best possible advice to those who might follow in Endeavour’s wake; the safest way in; the best anchorage; the location of supplies of water; the character of the country, particularly its soil and its timber; local sources of food; and a summary sketch of the local people based on as much information as Cook had managed to gather over the preceding eight days, which was not a lot.

Suggestion of possession

His initial low opinion of the Dharawal canoes seems to have been modified somewhat by the revelation that little fires could be burned in them for ease of broiling fresh shellfish on the spot. And there is the powerfully suggestive remark, obviously intended for navigators of any nationality who might follow, that throughout his sojourn at Kamay/Botany Bay, James Cook carried ashore the red ensign and left behind as permanent a document of Endeavour’s presence as could be fashioned in the relatively little time available — the inscription on that tree.

We do not know why Cook did not take the additional step of doing what he did at Possession Island, at the very end of his voyage up the eastern coast of New Holland. Perhaps at this early stage, having noted and acknowledged how little progress he had made establishing anything like a rapport with the Dharawal, he was obliged to accept that he was not in a position to make for the British Crown any lasting claim to the territory based on the unequivocal advice he carried from the Earl of Morton, President of the Royal Society.

With respect to any native peoples Endeavour might encounter on its voyage, he wrote:

They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several regions they inhabit. No European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent. Conquest over such people can give no just title; because they could never be the Aggressors.

Had these sentiments not been set down so unequivocally in writing, and had the voyage not been so amply supported in part by the Royal Society, Cook might have acted differently. Clearly his thinking evolved in the light of his experience through the weeks and months ahead, however at Kamay/Botany Bay he was content to indicate merely that Endeavour had been there on the King’s business and let that fact alone be known to any and all who might follow.

James Cook:

Upon my return to the Ship in the evening I found that none of the natives had appear’d near the watering place but about 20 of them had been fishing in their Canoes at no great distance from us. In the AM as the wind would not permit us to sail I sent out some parties into the Country to try to form some Connections with the natives.

One of the Midshipmen met with a very old man and woman and two small Children[.] They were close to the water side where several more were in their canoes gathering shell fish and he being alone was afraid to make any stay with the two old people least he should be discoverd by those in the Canoes — he gave them a bird he had shott which they would not touch neither did they speak one word but seem’d to be much frightn’d, they were quite naked even the woman had nothing to cover her nuditie.

Dr Munkhouse and a nother man being in the woods not far from the watering place discoverd Six more of the natives who at first seem’d to wait his coming but as he was going up to them he had a dart thrown at him out of a tree which narrowly escaped him, as soon as the fellow had thrown the dart he desended the tree and made off and with him all the rest and these were all that were met with in the Course of this day.

Joseph Banks:

Myself in the woods botanizing as usual, now quite void of fear as our neighbours have turnd out such rank cowards. One of our midshipmen stragling by himself a long way from any one else met by accident with a very old man and woman and some children: they were setting under a tree and neither party saw the other till they were close together. They shewd signs of fear but did not attempt to run away.

He had nothing about him to give to them but some Parrots which he had shot: these they refusd, withdrawing themselves from his hand when he offerd them in token either of extreme fear or disgust. The people were very old and grey headed, the children young. The hair of the man was bushy about his head, his beard long and rough, the womans was crop’d short round her head; they were very dark colourd but not black nor was their hair wooley.

He stayd however with them but a very short time, for seing many canoes fishing at a small distance he feard that the people in them might observe him and come ashore to the assistance of the old people, who in all probability belongd to them. 17 Canoes came fishing near our people in the same manner as yesterday only stayd rather longer, emboldend a little I suppose by having yesterday met with no kind of molestation.

Angus Trumble:

Parrots and other preoccupations

As the days pass at Kamay/Botany Bay, there are more frequent references to the canoes by which Cook was so unimpressed at first, and to less guarded water traffic by the Dharawal, mainly for fishing and harvesting shellfish. Banks may well have been right as to the reason for this — the Dharawal were, perhaps, emboldened by lack of ‘molestation,’ especially on the water — but his opening barb, this day, about ‘rank cowardice’ is sharp and ugly.

In fact, of the three chroniclers Banks was perhaps the least qualified to render that judgement. It was an aspect of his character, mainly arising from his great wealth and privilege, that he never for one moment allowed to get in the way of expressing a negative opinion, and with corresponding conviction.

Whereas Cook describes the especially interesting encounter between one of the midshipmen and the old Dharawal couple with the two children — there were three midshipmen aboard Endeavour: John Bootie, Jonathon Munkhouse and Patrick Saunders — Cook does so with barely any elaboration or detail. Depending upon how recently the Endeavour party had been shooting, as was their constant practice, we may easily account for the fear he detected in the Dharawal: immediate fear, one might venture, as distinct from generalised fear. Banks, however, has extracted from the midshipman a wealth of carefully elaborated further detail.

To Cook, for example, they are ‘birds’; to Banks we owe the clarification of ‘parrots’. Almost always, Banks’s material makes it into Hawkesworth’s printed account, but on this day we find an excellent example of what, in due course, irritated Cook so much, Hawkesworth’s cheerful insertion of his own completely unverified matter.

For reasons unknown (as always), Hawkesworth took the parrots but reduced them to one in number. Given that particularly resonant (and pretty disgusting) later phenomenon of Australian colonial life, the parrot pie, it’s interesting that the Endeavour party did not hesitate to shoot and presumably eat them also. A good proportion of the ship’s company must have known from experience that especially unpleasant phenomenon of English country life, that is, the need to remove from your mouth small fragments of shot and any number of tiny bones whilst devouring the prized delicacy of small, half-rotten birds.

Textual drift

The account of Dr William Brougham Munkhouse’s alarming experience, meanwhile, when apparently upon Dharawal command a ‘dart’ was suddenly hurled at the surgeon out of a tree, narrowly missing him, goes through similarly unnecessary but telling modifications. Regardless, the incident is important because Cook seems to interpret it as an ambush. It is different from all previous encounters that verged upon skirmish or ‘stand’.

If there had been signs over recent days that the Dharawal were emboldened to the extent that they felt comfortable paddling their canoes closer to Endeavour than before, might not the same lack of inhibition take more dangerous forms from which Dr Munkhouse was lucky to escape? It is worth contemplating how closely disaster was averted on this occasion.

Dr Munkhouse was an especially valuable member of Cook’s party, and among the busiest. At any one time a good proportion of the ship’s company were too sick to come on deck. The loss of the ship’s surgeon would have been a loss that Cook could ill afford. The fatal incident on 14 February 1779 in Hawaii that cost Cook his life was the consequence of an overreaction to petty theft, much less the killing of one of his officers — a killing Cook would certainly have regarded as unprovoked.

We cannot know for sure, but I fear that if Dr Munkhouse had been killed, there would have been reprisals, perhaps even a bloodbath at the hands of those lethal Royal Marines. At any rate, to Cook afterwards, the culprit, assuming that the man who descended from the branches of the tree actually threw the spear — nobody saw him perform the act — was an age-nonspecific ‘fellow’. Banks goes on to describe the same person as ‘a young lad’, while Hawkesworth turns him into ‘a young Indian, whom he [Munkhouse] judged to be about nineteen or twenty years old’.

Munkhouse was one of the first of Cook’s companions to fall ill and die of dysentery when they reached Batavia in November 1770, so the extra detail cannot have come from him unless Hawkesworth had had access to Munkhouse’s journal, of which only a small fragment survives in the British Library (Add. MS 27889, fols 83–96; 6 to 21 October 1769). This textual drift being so constant a feature of Hawkesworth’s work makes paying close attention to the original manuscripts of the Endeavour company all the more important.

Joseph Banks:

Our collection of Plants was now grown so immensly large that it was necessary that some extrordinary care should be taken of them least they should spoil in the books. I therefore devoted this day to that business and carried all the drying paper, near 200 Quires of which the larger part was full, ashore and spreading them upon a sail in the sun kept them in this manner exposd the whole day, often turning them and sometimes turning the Quires in which were plants inside out. By this means they came on board at night in very good condition.

During the time this was doing 11 Canoes, in each of which was one Indian, came towards us. We soon saw that the people in them were employd in striking fish; they came within about a mile of us intent on their own employments and not at all regarding us. Opposite the place where they were several of our people were shooting; one Indian may be prompted by curiosity landed, hauld up his canoe and went towards them; he stayd about a quarter of an hour and then launchd his boat and went off, probably that time had been spent in watching behind trees to see what our people did.

Angus Trumble:


A quire is a set of four sheets of paper folded double so as to form eight leaves. Quires of parchment or vellum sewn together at the folds were the principle constituents of medieval manuscripts and codices and, still in the 18th century, of most printed books. Banks’s quires, however, were made from especially thick, absorbent paper, relatively high in rag content, and therefore designed specifically for the preparation, preservation and indefinite storage in books of botanical specimens — Banks’s ‘books’ being much more like a cross between the modern ‘solander’ (a book-like box for storing botanical specimens) and a flower press.

The waning of the influence of paper may well be remembered as one of the most fundamental changes that has taken place in our society in my lifetime, but in 1770 the primacy of paper was absolute. Coinciding with the earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution, the production of high-quality paper was undergoing its own revolution in England, led in part by improvements in printing and typography.

For centuries, the only method of making paper by hand was restricted to the production of individual sheets of ‘laid’ paper, which were limited in size by the wire frame in which the fibres in the pulp were set and dried. Through the 18th century, however, master paper-makers such as James Whatman the Elder and his son and namesake developed at their famous Turkey Mill outside Maidstone in Kent new and sophisticated techniques for the production of much larger, heavier sheets of smoother ‘wove’ paper that were ready-sized with gelatine. This was the single most important factor that ushered in the golden age of watercolour painting, England’s unique contribution to the development of European art in the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th.

It is no exaggeration to say that without James Whatman’s paper, we would probably never have heard of Francis Towne, Alexander Cozens, Thomas Jones, Thomas Girtin, John Robert Cozens, John ‘Warwick’ Smith or Thomas Rowlandson. And some of JMW Turner’s greatest achievements were in the art of watercolour on paper.

Yet bigger and better sheets of paper had a profound impact on many other branches of English culture, not least affording James Cook a supply of sheets of paper sufficiently large and durable upon which to literally chart the course of Endeavour.

And, of course, like Cook and Banks, the artist Sydney Parkinson also relied upon a ready supply of fit-for-purpose, up-to-the-minute English paper. That supply was huge: before his untimely death at sea, Parkinson produced more than one thousand botanical watercolour studies aboard Endeavour, a staggering achievement that ran parallel with the preparation and preservation of Banks’s precious specimens.

Carl Linnaeus

You sense in Banks an upsurge of excitement from being let loose on an entirely new body of flora as yet unknown to European science, especially after so many weeks at sea since Endeavour left New Zealand. And there is deep significance to be found in the way he, Solander and Spöring carried out their scientific work at Kamay/Botany Bay, albeit in a great hurry.

Among the stout threads that connect the Endeavour voyage to the Enlightenment in Europe, perhaps the most important is that of the great Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus. This would have been the case in any event, because Linnaeus’s enormously influential Species Plantarum was published in 1753, and succeeded in establishing for the European study of botany, and with unprecedented authority, ‘binomial nomenclature’, the modern (and continuing) system of naming plants and other organisms in the Latin language. Of the two names used in this system, the first indicates the genus (plural genera), in other words a group of closely related species; and the second, an epithet that defines a particular species within that genus. Apt Australian examples include Banksia integrifolia (coastal banksia) and Banksia seminuda (river banksia), the parent genus obviously having been named for Banks himself.

Linnaeus did not invent the system; it had existed after a fashion for centuries. However, Linnaeus did set the system upon much firmer, more rational and systematic foundations than ever before. The beauty of it was that this naming system both reflected and facilitated the organisation and classification of complex groups of related species. These were processes that accelerated dramatically in the 18th century, not least because of Endeavour’s voyage of discovery, among others.

Linnaeus has justly been described as the father of modern taxonomy. But there is more. Banks’s recruit, Daniel Solander, had been Linnaeus’s pupil at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, and even lodged in Linnaeus’s own house; there seems to have been some possibility that Solander might marry Linnaeus’s daughter.

Independently, Banks had travelled through Wales with a copy of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum. Later, after making their acquaintance at the British Museum, where Solander and his clerk Herman Spöring were engaged upon the mammoth task of cataloguing the museum’s natural history collection, Banks corresponded with Linnaeus and, of course, duly adopted his binomial system of nomenclature, and persisted with it aboard Endeavour.

For the scientific gentlemen and the artists sailing with Cook, the only way Linnaeus could have been a more powerful presence was if he, too, had sailed from Plymouth in 1768. Many of the works of art produced on the voyage of Endeavour in Australian waters were therefore intended to document new species of plant and animal that were previously unknown to European science; to support the new and burgeoning system of classification and naming; to provide (along with actual preserved specimens) a stock of raw data from which to extract and publish, to refine further and to reproduce and disseminate once the party reached home — all in the interest of future, possibly even unanticipated, botanical discoveries.

James Cook:

Between 3 and 4 oClock in the PM we returnd out of the Country and after dinner went a shore to the watering place where we had not been long before 17 or 18 of the natives appear’d in sight, in the morning I had sent Mr Gore with a boat up to the head of the bay to dridge for oysters[.] In his return to the ship he and another person came by land and met with these people who follow’d him at the distance of 10 or 20 yards[.]

When ever Mr Gore made a Stand and face’d them they s[t]ood also and not withstanding they were all arm’d they never offerd to attack him but after he had parted from them and they were met by Dr Munkhouse and one or two more who upon makeing a sham retreat they throw’d 3 darts after them, after which the[y] began to retire[.]

Dr Solander, I, and Tupia made all the haste we could after them but could by neither words nor actions prevail upon them to come near us. Mr Gore saw some up the bay who by signs invited him a shore which he prudantly declined …

Joseph Banks:

The morn was rainy and we who had got already so many plants were well contented to find an excuse for staying on board to examine them a little at least. In the afternoon however it cleard up and we returnd to our old occupation of collecting, in which we had our usual good success. Tupia who strayd from us in pursuit of Parrots, of which he shot several, told us on his return that he had seen nine Indians who ran from him as soon as they perceivd him.

Sydney Parkinson:

We met with but one quadruped on the Island, which was about the size of a hare: we found also the skin of a snake, and saw a great number of birds of a beautiful plumage; among which were two sorts of parroquets, and a beautiful briquet: we shot a few of them, which we made into a pie, and they ate very well. We also met with a black bird, very much like our crow, and shot some of them too, which also tasted agreeably. From the number of curious plants we met with on shore, we called the bay Botany-Bay.

Angus Trumble:

Huntin’, shootin’, fishin’

It is occasionally suggested that throughout Endeavour’s sojourn at Kamay/Botany Bay the Dharawal more or less ignored the Europeans. This is simply not true. Throughout the visit, as we have seen, groups of 16 to 18 armed Dharawal approach and tail the Europeans over at times very long distances (as on this occasion).

The Dharawal are watchful, and occasionally they threaten and even attack the visitors, but with a surfeit of amply justified caution, most probably arising from the fact that from even before they set foot on dry land, the Europeans were shooting at birds, mostly, and those few animals they caught sight of. The fact that there are comparatively few references to shooting in all three journals makes of those few the more valuable evidence, because it is axiomatic that, like so many other aspects of daily life, things that are commonplace tend to go unremarked; the more obvious the routine, the more likely it is to be taken as read.

The stubborn fact is, however, that more often than not an 18th-century Englishman navigated his landscape, indeed any landscape, armed with a gun and fully determined to shoot birds and animals. The old trope of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’— these phonetic adjustments specifically reflect upper-class habits of pronunciation which Banks probably followed and which even survived into the 20th century — was in the 18th century an entirely accurate one.

The Englishman properly regarded himself as a hunter, and this is another thing he might have had in common with the Indigenous people he was encountering here for the first time, had he succeeded in his repeated attempts to bridge the gulf in communication, however ineffectually.

Foot traffic

The vast majority of people living in Georgian England travelled only as far as they could walk. This was yet another thing they had in common with Australian Aboriginal people. In the case of the gentry and upwards, travel was on the whole only as far as they could ride or drive short distances in a trap. However, you could live a long and useful life in Great Yarmouth and never once set foot in Ipswich only 90 kilometres distant.

The psychic distance between Durham in the far north of England and Bristol in the south-west, meanwhile, might as well have been as far as Jamaica. Travel was uncomfortable, inconvenient, dangerous, dirty and mostly undertaken by stage coach only when it was absolutely unavoidable, and on unsealed roads that were at best poorly maintained and often impassably sodden rivers of mud. Most people stayed at home; home was usually where they were born, and where they eventually died.

The supreme irony in the present circumstances is that the most important exception to this rule, and for many a vital escape route and/or opportunity to learn a trade, was becoming a sailor and going to sea. The circumnavigation of Endeavour was therefore the more remarkable because the actual distance it covered, let alone the psychic one, was almost inconceivable to most people at home.

Diverse crew

It follows that on any ship of the Royal Navy the composition of the crew was relatively diverse, and Endeavour was no exception, indeed it was more polyglot than most. Banks’s scientific gentlemen who came aboard at Plymouth included one originally from Sweden and another from Finland, their luggage and servants having preceded them. These were a most unusual complement in any case, but below decks the crew consisted of men and boys — the youngest of whom was 12 years old, in 1768 — who came from Yorkshire, Cumberland, Lancashire, Wales, London, Essex, Inverness, Fife, the Orkneys, Guernsey, Cork, Hull, Venice, Brazil and two from New York, one of whom was impressed at Madeira.

As well, at Batavia it was found that several sailors were able to make themselves useful because they could speak Dutch and Portuguese. Many of them had already had experience of Caribbean, Atlantic, Baltic and Canadian waters, and a number of them, having proven themselves aboard Endeavour, went on to accompany Cook on his subsequent two voyages of circumnavigation. For all of its cramped quarters, therefore, the ship’s company was, with the glaring exception of gender, extraordinarily diverse, compared with any village or market town into which in 1770 most English people were still scattered. In that year, the population of London was 700,000, only slightly more than half that of Adelaide today.

Armed strangers

All this provides broad context to Cook’s remark that ‘Dr Solander, I, and Tupia made all the haste we could after them but could by neither words nor actions prevail upon them to come near us’. I have couched similar ‘encounter’ remarks in recent days within the framework of tension, frustration and failed gambits. And that remains true. However, let us consider it in a slightly different light. Here, a Swede, a Yorkshireman and a Polynesian companion from Tahiti — Tupaia is learning more and more English and has also been taught to shoot — together pursue on foot a group of armed strangers with whom they are determined to treat, even at the risk of rearguard attack which they have only minutes earlier experienced, an action Cook describes as ‘sham retreat’. Retreat it may have been, but the ‘darts’ were hardly sham. Nor was the intention.

At the same time, the Endeavour party has fanned out, pushing further afield on foot, in tenders, and for various purposes — above all Banks’s frenzy of botanical foraging. On the morrow we shall see quite how far they ventured on foot, which prompts one further observation. If most English people only ever travelled as far as they could walk, those distances could be huge and tackled at a cracking pace. It was a feature of the Romantic engagement with the English landscape that many people thought nothing of walking 40 or 50 kilometres in an afternoon.

We can accept that William Wordsworth ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’, but it is worth remembering that his ‘host of golden daffodils’ was probably one or two hours’ brisk walk away from his own hearth. That feature of the Romantic revolution at the end of the 18th century was merely a continuation, a development, of the routine habits of earlier generations of ‘men of sensibility’ and it is therefore noteworthy that several of them are very much alive to the Endeavour party. Indeed, they were thoroughly put to the test at Kamay/Botany Bay.

James Cook:

Last night Forby Sutherland seaman departed this life and in the AM his body was buried a shore at the watering place which occasioned my calling the south point of this Bay after his name.

This morning a party of us went aShore to some hutts not far from the watering place where some of the natives are daily seen, here we left several articles such as Cloth, Looking glasses, Combs, Beeds, Nails &Ca[.] After this we made an excursion into the country which we found deversified with woods, Lawns and Marshes; the woods are free from under wood of every kind and the trees are at such a distance from one a nother that the whole Country or at least great part of it might be cultivated without being oblig’d to cut down a single tree …

We found the soil every where except in the Marshes to be a light white sand and produceth a quanty of good grass which grows in little tufts about as big as one can hold in ones hand and pretty close to one another, in this manner the surface of the ground is coated in the woods between the trees.

Dr Solander had a bad sight of a small Animal some thing like a rabbit and we found the dung of an Animal which must feed upon grass and which we judge could not be less than a deer[.] We also saw the track of a dog or some such like Animal.

Angus Trumble:

Burial rites

Thus, on Endeavour’s third day at Kamay/Botany Bay, Forby Sutherland became the first Englishman who is known to have been buried in Australian soil. He died of tuberculosis, which it is thought he contracted at Rio de Janeiro.

Together with all other religious observances, the responsibility of conducting the rite of Christian burial fell to James Cook as the ship’s captain. Normally this would have happened at sea. You can still visit Forby Sutherland’s grave not far from the 1870 obelisk that marks Cook’s landing place in modern Kurnell, although it is not clear how clearly Cook marked it or indeed how later generations, beginning in 1788, revived the memory of its exact location.

Field’s sonnet

In 1822, the following sonnet by Judge Barron Field appeared in the Sydney Gazette (and was reprinted the following year in his First Fruits of Australian Poetry):

On Visiting the Spot where Captain Cook,
and Sir Joseph Banks, First Landed in Botany Bay

Here fix the tablet. This must be the place
Where our Columbus of the South did land;
He saw the Indian village on that sand,
And on this rock first met the simple race
Of Australasia, who presum’d to face,
With lance and spear, his musket. Close at hand
Is the clear stream, from which his vent’rous band
Refresh’d their ship; and thence, a little space,
Lies Sutherland, their shipmate; for the sound
Of Christian burial, better did proclaim
Possession, than the flag, in England’s name.
These were the commelineæ Banks first found,
But where’s the tree with the ship’s wood-carv’d fame?
Fix then th’ Ephesian brass. ’Tis classic ground.

(A footnote explains that the Ephesians were the first to dedicate inscriptions on metal. Commelineæ is a genus of approximately 170 species commonly called the 'dayflower' or spiderwort or 'widow’s tears'.)

I am struck by that part about Christian burial better proclaiming possession than the flag. It feels like a fairly conventional 18th-century Church of England sentiment such as was likely to linger among the clergymen of Regency Sydney; Field was one of the founders of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge among the Aborigines.

It is also clear that Field had gone all over the site and covered a fairly long distance. The reference to ‘Columbus of the south’, meanwhile, was a trope that was still being perpetuated as recently as 1970, when the New York Times (no less) used the phrase in relation to the recovery from Endeavour Reef of the four cannon that were jettisoned after the ship struck coral.

Memorialising in 1870, meanwhile, the correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald was persisting with the other, complementary trope of ‘classic ground’. The death and burial on dry land of Forby Sutherland, though not unexpected, must have created a strong impression among all the ship’s company. In a very real sense, upon its departure from Kamay/Botany Bay, Endeavour was leaving behind more than some names, including Sutherland’s. They were leaving behind one of their own.

The animal

As the late Judy Egerton once observed, ‘When first glimpsed in New Holland in 1770 … the kangaroo seemed so strange a creature that they referred to it simply as "the animal", or "the animal of the country"'. This, then, is the first documented occasion when Cook’s party became aware of the existence of ‘the animal,’ without yet having caught a glimpse of anything more substantial than its dung.

It is worth observing that among the very few things Cook’s party of pre-industrial Englishmen had in common with Indigenous Australians was the capacity to study and draw accurate conclusions from scats. Yet, from the point of view of Endeavour, you didn’t necessarily need to be a naturalist to read dung. And Cook was quite right: the physical scale of the kangaroo can be very close to that of a deer.

Joseph Banks:

Before day break this morn the Indians were at the houses abreast of the Ship: they were heard to shout much. At su[n]rise they were seen walking away along the beach; we saw them go into the woods where they lighted fires about a mile from us.

Our people went ashore as usual, Dr Solander and myself into the woods. The grass cutters were farthest from the body of the people: towards them came 14 or 15 Indians having in their hands sticks that shone (sayd the Sergeant of marines) like a musquet.

The officer on seeing them gatherd his people together: the hay cutters coming to the main body appeard like a flight so the Indians pursued them, however but a very short way, for they never came nearer than just to shout to each other, maybe a furlong [200 metres]. At night they came again in the same manner and acted over again the same half pursuit.

Sydney Parkinson:

The natives often reconnoitred us, but we could not prevail on them to come near us or to be social; for, as soon as we advanced, they fled as nimbly as deer, excepting at one time, when they seemed determined to face us: then they came armed with spears, having their breasts painted white; but, as soon as they saw our boat go off from the ship, they retreated.

Constrained by hunger, they often came into the bay to fish; but they kept in the shallows, and as near as possible to the shore. In one of their houses, at the top of the bay, we had laid some nails, pieces of cloth, and various trinkets; and though the natives had been there in our absence, yet they had not taken any of them.

This bay is in latitude 34° 6, and makes a good harbour, being only two or three points open to the eastward; but the water is in general shallow; and it has several arms extending from it, which are also shallow. On these shallows we found a great number of rays, some shell-fish, and a few sharks.

The rays are of an enormous size: one of them which we caught weighed two hundred and thirty-nine pounds, and another three hundred and twenty-six. They tasted very much like the European rays, and the viscera had an agreeable flavour, not unlike stewed turtle. These rays, and shell-fish, are the natives chief food.

Angus Trumble:


As usual, Banks and Parkinson provide valuable additions to Cook’s account of the same day. It seems the ‘wooders’, for example, doubled as ‘hay cutters’, gathering feed for the livestock aboard Endeavour. Banks reminds us, too, that the sergeant of marines was careful to pay close attention to the character of the weapons carried by the Dharawal.

On the whole, however, there is less wariness underlying the two civilians’ remarks, but the observation that stands out, here, is Parkinson’s. In 1770, the English concept of society, together with the adjective ‘social’, did not yet carry any dominant sense of society at large or the ‘common weal’, as they do for us today. However, they had long covered the sense of sociability or human interaction, and with an implied civility, harmoniousness and respect.

True, Georgian England may have leaned towards society in the sense of ‘high society’, but that is not how Sydney Parkinson is using the word social. His aspiration is to communicate, and you sense his frustration that this was not possible — especially because the word ‘reconnoitre’ attributes to the Dharawal a desire to learn more about the intruders, assumes that communication would be possible were existing barriers broken down.

We shall see that this was indeed the case at Waalumbaal Birri/Endeavour River, and ultimately the solution to the problem was gaining enough time — and patience — in which to go through those first, halting steps in non-verbal communication that represent the beginning of the process of acquiring words and phrases in a foreign language.

Gifts left untouched

We have already seen that Cook’s party soon grasped how fruitless these gestures of gifting ‘nails, pieces of cloth, and various trinkets’ were, but Parkinson also provides a telling fleck of additional detail. Having the previous day left gifts near the children in the hut, they paid a return visit and were able to conclude that adults had definitely been back — presumably to remove the children — but that the gifts were left untouched.

Had they been taken up or in some other sense ‘accepted’, this would have been a valuable indication of progress. It was important to know for sure, however, that that progress had not been made. It is also noteworthy that although the general feeling aboard Endeavour was that the Dharawal were content to ignore Cook’s party throughout their stay in Kamay/Botany Bay, the evidence furnished by the first 24 to 36 hours can hardly be characterised as any sort of impassive effort to ignore.

The Dharawal are a constant and vocal presence. They are sizing up the Endeavour party just as carefully as Cook, Banks and Parkinson took careful note of every interaction, or failure to interact, as well as the fact that these armed strangers moved through their locality ‘as nimbly as deer’. Which is good to know inasmuch as if you can retreat that way, you can advance just as suddenly. After all, the Endeavour party was, relatively speaking, encumbered by clothing, weapons, casks and other equipment.

There is, in all of this, a discernible degree of tension, certainly, but it is tension that manages with luck not to escalate.

James Cook:

As soon as the wooders and waterers were come on board to dinner 10 or 12 of the natives came to the watering place and took away their canoes that lay there but did not offer to touch any one of our Casks that had been left ashore and in the after noon 16 or 18 of them came boldly up to within 100 yards of our people at the watering place and there made a stand — Mr Hicks who was the officer ashore did all in his power to entice them to him by offering them presents &Ca but it was to no purpose all they seem’d to want was for us to be gone —

after staying a short time they went away they were all arm’d with darts and wooden swords, the darts have each four prongs and pointed with fish bones … [Those] we have seen seem to be intend more for strikeing fish than offensive weapons neither are they poisoned as we at first thought —

After I had returnd from sounding the bay I went over to a Cove on the north side where in 3 or 4 hauls with the Saine we caught about 300 pounds weight of fish which I caused to be equally divided among the Ships Company —

In the AM I went in the Pinnace to sound and explore the North side of the bay where I neither met with inhabitants or any thing remarkable …

Angus Trumble:

Wooders and waterers

Cook lost no time in setting about provisioning Endeavour at Kamay/Botany Bay. Wooders, here, refer to gatherers and/or cutters of firewood; and waterers were those charged with the task of filling casks from the natural supply of fresh water and returning them to the ship’s hold.

Depending upon the flow of water, filling them could take some time. The casks, therefore, that Cook left ashore were either yet to be filled or else, full, too heavy to take aboard more than one or two at a time. Either way, Cook was careful to note that the Dharawal made no attempt to touch or interfere with them.

Behind these observations, Cook partly conceals what was without doubt a serious vulnerability. By not returning those casks, Endeavour would thenceforth lack an adequate supply of fresh water. Had the Dharawal tampered with or removed the casks, Cook would have had no choice but to set about retrieving them. ‘Unavoidable’ conflict was therefore a real possibility.

In the circumstances, the care with which he enumerated the Dharawal (16 or 18 of them) and noted their boldness, as well as the exact distance they kept from Hicks’s party, speak to the same underlying wariness with which he observed the ‘stand’ by which the Dharawal had challenged the waterers.

Earlier, Cook and Banks noted that the Dharawal had prudently retrieved their canoes they had left on the beach, but only after the European party had returned to Endeavour. Cook also notes the failure of his lieutenant Zachary Hicks to achieve any sort of conciliatory communication. It was clear that the ‘presents &Ca’ would continue to be a forlornly devalued currency, and that all the Dharawal wanted was for Cook’s party to be gone.

Fish eyed

Some 300 pounds of fish caught in only three or four nettings is more than an abundant catch. Kamay/Botany Bay was teeming with fish. The fact that the Dharawal had no trouble simply spearing them either at the water’s edge or from their canoes further highlights the bounteous character of the place.

Overnight, Cook had somehow satisfied himself that those spears were not poisoned, although the fact that they were obviously used for fishing would have been sufficient to reach that conclusion. In the light of everything that he had seen and experienced in the preceding 24 hours, it is noteworthy that after returning from his otherwise highly productive reconnoitre of the north side of the bay — with enough fish to feed the whole ship’s company — Cook nevertheless found it possible to say that he had met with nothing remarkable.

Cook lacked neither curiosity nor keen faculties of observation, however there are numerous other occasions when he says something similar, as if this unique encounter with cautious strangers counted for little. At times one is tempted to contemplate what, if anything, Cook did find remarkable, or what otherwise remarkable things he was simply not seeing.

There is a school of thought in the study of visual perception according to which we see only what we already know or, to put it slightly differently, we do not see or fully grasp what we do not yet know or recognise, and that this applies to all of us. Cook and his companions were no different in bringing to their experience of Kamay/Botany Bay the restricted intellectual baggage of Georgian England, together with a number of pressing wants that outweighed most other imperatives: the need for a supply of fresh water and temporary relief from the monotony of their shipboard diet, a 300-pound catch of fresh fish.

After 24 hours, meanwhile, you sense that Cook is beginning to think he knows what to expect and what not to expect from the Dharawal.

James Cook:

In the PM … Saw as we came in on both points of the bay Several of the natives and a few hutts, Men women and children on the south shore abreast of the Ship to which place I went in the boats in hopes of speaking with them accompaned by Mr Banks Dr Solander and Tupia — as we approached the shore they all made off except two Men who seem’d resolved to oppose our landing — as soon as I saw this I orderd the boats to lay upon their oars in order to speake to them but this was to little purpose for neither us nor Tupia could understand one word they said.

we then threw them some nails beeds &Ca a shore which they took up and seem’d not ill pleased in so much that I thout that they beckon’d to us to come a shore but in this we were mistaken for as soon as we put the boat in they again came to oppose us upon which I fired a musket between the two which had no other effect than to make them retire back where bundles of thier darts lay and one of them took up a stone and threw at us which caused my fireing a second Musquet load with small shott and altho’ some of the shott struck the man yet it had no other effect than to make him lay hold of a Shield or target to defend himself

emmediatly after this we landed which we had no sooner done than they throw’d two darts at us this obliged me to fire a third shott soon after which they both made off, but not in such haste but what we might have taken one, but Mr Banks being of opinion that the darts were poisoned made me cautious how I advanced into the woods — We found here a few Small hutts made of the bark of trees in one of which were four or five small children with whome we left some strings of beeds &Ca a quantity of darts lay about the hutts these we took away with us …

Joseph Banks:

The land this morn appeard Cliffy and barren without wood. An opening appearing like a harbour was seen and we stood directly in for it. A small smoak arising from a very barren place directed our glasses that way and we soon saw about 10 people, who on our approach left the fire and retird to a little emminence where they could conveniently see the ship; soon after this two Canoes carrying 2 men each landed on the beach under them, the men hauld up their boats and went to their fellows upon the hill.

Our boat which had been sent ahead to sound now aproachd the place and they all retird higher up on the hill; we saw however that at the beach or landing place one man at least was hid among some rocks who never that we could see left that place. Our boat proceeded along shore and the Indians followd her at a distance.

When she came back the officer who was in her told me that in a cove a little within the harbour they came down to the beach and invited our people to land by many signs and word[s] which he did not at all understand; all however were armd with long pikes and a wooden weapon made something like a short scymetar.

During this time a few of the Indians who had not followd the boat remaind on the rocks opposite the ship, threatning and menacing with their pikes and swords — two in particular who were painted with white, their faces seemingly only dusted over with it, their bodies painted with broad strokes drawn over their breasts and backs resembling much a soldiers cross belts, and their legs and thighs also with such like broad strokes drawn round them which imitated broad garters or bracelets.

Each of these held in his hand a wooden weapon about 2 feet long, in shape much resembling a scymeter; the blades of these lookd whitish and some though[t] shining insomuch that they were almost of opinion that they were made of some kind of metal, but myself thought they were no more than wood smeard over with the same white pigment with which they paint their bodies. These two seemd to talk earnestly together, at times brandishing their crooked weapons at us as in token of defiance.

By noon we were within the mouth of the inlet which appeard to be very good. Under the South head of it were four small canoes; in each of these was one man who held in his hand a long pole with which he struck fish, venturing with his little imbarkation almost into the surf.

These people seemd to be totaly engag’d in what they were about: the ship passd within a quarter of a mile of them and yet they scarce lifted their eyes from their employment …

After dinner the boats were mann’d and we set out from the ship intending to land at the place where we saw these people, hoping that as they regarded the ships coming in to the bay so little they would as little regard our landing. We were in this however mistaken, for as soon as we aproachd the rocks two of the men came down upon them, each armd with a lance of about 10 feet long and a short stick which he seemd to handle as if it was a machine to throw the lance.

They calld to us very loud in a harsh sounding Language of which neither us or Tupia understood a word, shaking their lances and menacing, in all appearance resolvd to dispute our landing to the utmost tho they were but two and we 30 or 40 at least. In this manner we parleyd with them for about a quarter of an hour, they waving to us to be gone, we again signing that we wanted water and that we meant them no harm.

They remaind resolute so a musquet was fird over them, the Effect of which was that the Youngest of the two dropd a bundle of lances on the rock at the instant in which he heard the report; he however snatchd them up again and both renewd their threats and opposition.

A Musquet loaded with small shot was now fird at the Eldest of the two who was about 40 yards from the boat; it struck him on the legs but he minded it very little so another was immediately fird at him; on this he ran up to the house about 100 yards distant and soon returnd with a sheild.

In the mean time we had landed on the rock. He immediately threw a lance at us and the young man another which fell among the thickest of us but hurt nobody; 2 more musquets with small shot were then fird at them on which the Eldest threw one more lance and then ran away as did the other.

We went up to the houses, in one of which we found the children hid behind the sheild and a peice of bark in one of the houses. We were conscious from the distance the people had been from us when we fird that the shot could have done them no material harm; we therefore resolvd to leave the children on the spot without even opening their shelter.

We therefore threw into the house to them some beads, ribbands, cloths &c. as presents and went away. We however thought it no improper measure to take away with us all the lances which we could find about the houses, amounting in number to forty or fifty …

The people were blacker than any we have seen in the Voyage tho by no means negroes; their beards were thick and bushy and they seemd to have a redundancy of hair upon those parts of the body where it commonly grows; the hair of their heads was bushy and thick but by no means wooley like that of a Negro; they were of a common size, lean and seemd active and nimble; their voices were coarse and strong.

Upon examining the lances we had taken from them we found that the very most of them had been usd in striking fish, at least we concluded so from sea weed which was found stuck in among the four prongs …

Angus Trumble:

First landing

With these unusually long entries, Cook and Banks record their first landing at Kamay/Botany Bay and their first sustained encounter at close quarters with Indigenous people. Compared with what they were able to observe since the first sight of land at Munda Bubul/Point Hicks, this encounter represented a major leap forward.

These texts are therefore among the most important foundation documents in the history of British engagement with this island continent, and they are filled with contradictions. Banks, especially, is at pains to observe and to record his first relatively detached impressions based on the few available points of comparison he had at his disposal. In 1770, the English term ‘Indians’, having originated in the New World, was used indiscriminately to describe Indigenous peoples anywhere. His other point of comparison was much closer to hand; two of Banks’s servants aboard Endeavour were Afro-Caribbean: Thomas Richmond and George Dalton.

Not one word

Both Cook and Banks went so far as to emphasise the fact that the Dharawal warriors who resisted the landing party could neither understand them nor their Tahitian companion, Tupaia. Cook wrote, ‘Neither us nor Tupia could understand one word they said’. Banks echoes this with, ‘a harsh sounding Language of which neither us or Tupia understood a word’.

Upon any rational basis it ought to have been inconceivable that the Englishmen or the Tahitian could understand or converse with the Dharawal, were it not for what had transpired in New Zealand. In encountering Māori for the first time, near modern Gisborne in 1769, Cook was startled to find that after sailing a distance of some 2300 nautical miles, Tupaia could not only understand the Māori but spoke essentially the same language.

Cook and Banks, and perhaps even Tupaia, must have entertained the possibility that the same might turn out to be true of some or all of the inhabitants of New Holland. This makes his remark about the Dharawal far more explicable.


When Cook and his men prepared to land, it was quite clear to Cook and Banks that the Dharawal warriors were more than prepared to resist them. When Cook notes ‘I fired a musket’ and ‘my fireing [of] a second Musquet load with small shott’, almost certainly he means that he gave the order to one or more of his Royal Marines to open fire ‘over’ them — implying that the shots were fired over their heads, ostensibly to scare them away.

As Cook and his party landed, however, a spear was thrown by one of the warriors and further shots fired ‘at’ them, which Cook noted struck one of the men. The Dharawal retreated and thenceforth ignored the intruders for the entire time Endeavour lay at anchor in the bay.

There can be no question that this first encounter was violent, and according to Dharawal tradition the man later perished, while Cook implied that what the man had sustained was merely a glancing flesh wound to the legs.

‘No improper measure’

There is something ineffably creepy, whichever way you look at it, about what happened next. Cook’s party proceeded to intrude upon a dwelling in which he found four or five children but no sign of any adults. ‘Gifts’ were left, that hopeless gesture of conciliation the meaning of which is rarely if ever effectively conveyed or indeed ever fully appreciated. Worse, the decision was taken to gather up a stock of 40 or 50 weapons and remove them to Endeavour.

Banks thought this ‘no improper measure’ and we have no reason to doubt his sincerity, although by his own testimony he was well aware that some of the spears were used to catch fish. A presumably unintended consequence of that decision, therefore, was that the Dharawal were effectively deprived of the equipment they needed to feed themselves and their families for as long as it took them to fashion new ones. This is still remembered with considerable resentment.

In reflecting on this, it is worth considering what had happened at Kamay up to this point. Cook’s party encountered resistance from well before their landing but proceeded anyway. Their first encounter with the Dharawal on dry land was violent, and they ignored the plain fact that they were not welcome. They were lucky that from this point on the Dharawal completely ignored them, which made the task of seeking and helping themselves to a good supply of fresh water so much easier.

Cook’s and Banks’s separate accounts are clothed in the fabric of detached observation, cut in both cases for ease of self-justification. Banks, especially, seems incapable of grasping the hopelessness of their efforts prior to landing to communicate by signs and gestures ‘that we wanted water and that we meant them no harm’.

E Phillips Fox history painting

When in 1900, E Phillips Fox was commissioned, as part of the bequest of William Gilbee, to produce for the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne a large history painting on an Australian national theme, Fox chose as his subject The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770. Completed in 1902, the painting aligned itself with the full force and upsurge of nationalistic sentiment arising from Federation. But the resulting work is unfortunate; shrill in its patriotism, adoring of the historically accurate red ensign, and painfully crude in its dismissal of the two Dharawal warriors into a distant background projected against the right margin of the composition. Barely spear-wielding caricatures, they are evidently caught in the lethal sights of the red-coat marine in the foreground.

The implication, moreover, that Cook’s gesture, worthy of Marcus Aurelius, is one of restraint gives the lie to Fox’s version of the original encounter. Nevertheless, Fox’s composition was engraved on the verso of the Australian one-pound bill that circulated between 1923 and 1932.

It is worth noting that within months of the completion of Fox’s Landing, the new Commonwealth passed the Naturalisation Act 1903. This specifically provided for naturalisation as a British subject, not as an Australian citizen. In the case of Attorney-General of the Commonwealth v. Ah Sheung (1906) 4 CLR 949, the High Court of Australia stated, ‘We are not disposed to give any countenance to the novel doctrine that there is an Australian nationality as distinguished from a British nationality’.

The concept of Australian citizenship did not come into being until the Nationality and Citizenship Act was given royal assent in 1948. But the Commonwealth did not take responsibility for Aboriginal affairs until the Constitution was amended following the Referendum of 1967, when the bicentenary of Cook’s landing at Kamay was rapidly approaching.

If you go and visit that extraordinarily pungent place on the south side of the bay, the view from there takes in (from left to right) the modern Caltex wharf only a very short distance from modern Kurnell and, on the other side, Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport; the Port Botany container terminal; and the north head of La Perouse.

That Australia’s largest container terminal and her busiest airport should both today lie on the north shore of Kamay/Botany Bay gives some symmetry to the past 250 years. This is still the place where all manner of persons and cargoes from distant places first make landfall, as Cook and his companions did on the south side. Able seaman Isaac Smith (soon to be promoted to midshipman) was the first man ashore, responding dutifully to Cook’s injunction: ‘Jump out, Isaac!’

Sydney Parkinson:

In the morning, the wind being against us, we stood off and on shore. At noon, being about one mile from land, some of our men were sent on shore in a boat, which soon returned, not being able to land for the surf, which ran very high all along the coast.

They espied three men, sitting on the beach, who were naked, and of a very dark colour; but, on the boats approaching nearer toward them, they fled into the woods. Our people also discovered several canoes drawn upon the beach, and a kind of house or wig-warn adjacent.

We also, from the ship, saw five men walking, two of whom carried a canoe on their shoulders. The country looked very pleasant and fertile; and the trees, quite free from underwood, appeared like plantations in a gentleman’s park.

Joseph Banks:

The Countrey today again made in slopes to the sea coverd with wood of a tolerable growth tho not so large as some we have seen. At noon we were very near it; one fire only was in sight. Some bodies of 3 feet long and half as broad floated very boyant past the ship; they were supposd to be cuttle bones which indeed they a good deal resembled but for their enormous size.

After dinner the Captn proposd to hoist out boats and attempt to land, which gave me no small satisfaction; it was done accordingly but the Pinnace on being lowerd down into the water was found so leaky that it was impracticable to attempt it.

Four men were at this time observd walking briskly along the shore, two of which carried on their shoulders a small canoe; they did not however attempt to put her in the water so we soon lost all hopes of their intending to come off to us, a thought with which we once had flatterd ourselves.

To see something of them however we resolvd and the Yawl, a boat just capable of carrying the Captn, Dr Solander, myself and 4 rowers was accordingly prepard. They sat on the rocks expecting us but when we came within about a quarter of a mile they ran away hastily into the countrey; they appeard to us as well as we could judge at that distance exceedingly black.

Near the place were four small canoes which they left behind. The surf was too great to permit us with a single boat and that so small to attempt to land, so we were obligd to content ourselves with gazing from the boat at the productions of nature which we so much wishd to enjoy a nearer acquaintance with.

The trees were not very large and stood seperate from each other without the least underwood; among them we could discern many cabbage trees but nothing else which we could call by any name. In the course of the night many fires were seen.

Angus Trumble:

Impressions of people

Compared with all previous entries, at least since 19–20 April, these for the 27th, which correspond with Cook’s for the 28th, represent something of a breakthrough in learning about the Indigenous people, but without making direct contact. The events described here must have taken place north of modern Wollongong, near Bulli.

The limited character of Banks’s and Parkinson’s observations is hardly surprising given the insuperable barrier imposed by surf and ocean breakers. Nevertheless, they were able to satisfy themselves that the people they observed ashore were naked, that the colour of their skin was exceedingly dark, that they had shelter and used canoes, and that their behaviour tended to be fugitive.

Productions of nature

Conforming to a pattern we have already observed that aligns in part with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Parkinson was careful to note that the surrounding landscape gave the impression that it was park-like, in the sense of the park portion of a great estate, neither manicured, nor indeed in a state of wilderness. This conforms nearly exactly with what we have learned, and are continuing to learn, about Indigenous land management.

Banks presumably formed a similar view, although it is expressed differently. He is tantalised by ‘the productions of nature’, mainly trees, to all but one of which he cannot yet give any name.

Once again, Banks notes the existence of fire. Although he has not yet stated this explicitly, it must have been difficult to reach any conclusion other than that where there are people there is invariably fire.

James Cook:

Course and distance Saild sence yesterday noon is NBE 49 Miles. In the Course of this days run we saw the smook of fire in severl places near the sea beach. About 2 Leagues to the northward of Cape St George the Shore seems to form a bay which appeard to be shelterd from the NE winds but as we had the wind it was not in my power to look into it and the appearence was not favourable enough to induce me to loose time in beating up to it.

The north point of this bay on account of its figure I named Long Nose, Latitude 35°..4' So 8 Leagues to the northward of this is a point which I calld Red point, some part of the land about it appeared of that colour / Latitude 34°..29' Longde 208°..49'.

A little way in land to the NW of this point is a round hill the top of which look’d like the Crown of a hatt —

Joseph Banks:

Large fires were lighted this morn about 10 O’Clock, we supposd that the gentlemen ashore had a plentifull breakfast to prepare. The countrey tho in general well enough clothd appeard in some places bare; it resembled in my imagination the back of a lean Cow, coverd in general with long hair, but nevertheless where her scraggy hip bones have stuck out farther than they ought accidental rubbs and knocks have intirely bard them of their share of covering.

In the even it was calm. All the fires were put out about 5 O’Clock. Several brown patches were seen in the sea looking much as if dirt had been thrown into it, but upon a nearer examination they provd to be myriads of small dagysas [molluscs].

Sydney Parkinson:

The weather was very fine, but we were often becalmed. The land appeared still flat, remarkably level, and strait on the top. We saw several fires along the coast lit up one after another, which might have been designed as signals to us.

Angus Trumble:

In haste

Two leagues north of Cape St George places Endeavour more or less directly opposite the mouth of modern Jervis Bay, and Long Nose Point forms part of its northern head. Lying on the north shore of the bay, roughly halfway between modern Callala Beach and Currarong, today’s Red Point cannot be the feature that Cook named here. It presumably lies on the ocean side, somewhere between Currarong and the mouth of the Shoalhaven River.

The history of this country might have unfolded very differently had Cook overcome his unfavourable impression of Jervis Bay and made a closer inspection. He would have found a fine natural harbour and safe haven.

It is noteworthy that he decided against such a diversion for fear of losing time. Endeavour was in a hurry. Cook had fulfilled his sealed orders in Tahiti and, with the circumnavigation of both islands in New Zealand, and being well on his way up the eastern coast of Australia, he had largely dealt with his second.

New Zealand did not form a part of that great southern land, the existence of which had long been conjectured but never proven. It merely remained for Endeavour to sail the long and daunting distance home. This mood of impatience, of more haste if less speed, characterises the Endeavour mission throughout the Australian leg of its voyage, and it is was only ever suspended when dire circumstances left Cook no choice.

Contrasting personalities

From time to time, a close comparison of their respective entries on a single day provide rich evidence of the contrasting personalities of Cook, Banks and Parkinson. In this instance, Cook goes no further than merely to note smoke in several places near the beach. He writes, here, primarily as a navigator and cartographer, seeking as always to fix upon convenient topographical features with which to provide orientation.

Banks, by contrast, notes the time at which the fires were apparently lit, and when they were extinguished. He further presumes that ‘the gentlemen ashore had a plentifull breakfast to prepare’, his use of the word gentlemen being ironic, certainly, though not necessarily sarcastic. However, Banks, the naturalist, is far more interested in the lay of the land, deploying that slightly crude cow analogy, as well as weighing the character of the vegetation, while at the same time reaching conclusions about marine life.

Only Parkinson, perhaps unconsciously revealing the eye of an artist, and even the imagination, permits himself to speculate whether the fires might not have been intended to communicate. It is Parkinson, again and again, who shows himself capable of the deepest interest in the Indigenous people in whose vicinity Endeavour had been sailing for six days straight.

We may even leave open the possibility that Parkinson came close to understanding one of the purposes of the fires that were observed with such frequency from the deck of Endeavour — as a type of bush telegraph that was intended to send out an alert to neighbouring communities scattered along the southern coast, to prepare them, and to warn.

James Cook:

Stood to the NE untill noon haveing a gentle breeze at NW, at which time we tack’d and stood to the westward being than by obsern in the Latde of 35° 10' So and Longde 208° 51' … Wt A point of land which I named Cape St George we having discover’d it on that Saints day [23 April].

Angus Trumble:


No sailing ship can proceed in the direction from which the wind is blowing other than by ‘tacking’, in other words sailing as closely as possible to the wind in a series of zigzag manoeuvres. Being relatively cumbersome, Endeavour could not sail all that close to the wind, so tacking was a relatively inefficient and time-consuming process.

Cape St George

We have observed a number of general principles of naming to which Cook consistently adhered — the exercise of patronage downwards (Point Hicks) and upwards (Cape Howe), as well as the clear identification of topographical features (Mount Dromedary, Pigeon House Mountain). A fourth convention was to name places in acknowledgment of particular circumstances, days or dates.

Cape St George, which forms the southern headland of modern Jervis Bay, was named simply because Cook saw it on that feast day. This is neither the first time nor the last when Cook resorted to the calendar of the Church of England.

Taking this entry in isolation, it would be impossible to understand why, when that feature was sufficiently conspicuous for Cook to name it — by no means did Cook even attempt to name all such topographical features — he did not take the opportunity to enter Jervis Bay. Cook estimated that the ship was about 4 or 5 leagues’ distance from the land (about 28 kilometres at most). At that distance, from the viewpoint of the Endeavour’s deck, coastal features would have been indistinct or deceptive, depending on the weather conditions or the swell.

It is possible that for whatever reason the mouth of Jervis Bay did not reveal itself as such, or that higher features of the hinterland partly disguised it. There is also the simple fact that neither Cook nor his companions were in a position to keep their eyes glued to the coast all day, every day, without interruption. The laborious passage of time on board Endeavour, however, provides the answer. It seems Cook first saw Cape St George from some considerable distance to the south.

Joseph Banks:

Calm today, myself in small boat but saw few or no birds. Took with the dipping net Cancer Erythroptamus, Medusa radiata, pelagica, Dagysa gemma, strumosa, cornuta, Holothuria obtusata, Phyllodoce Velella and Mimus volutator. The ship was too far from the shore to see much of it; a larger fire was however seen than any we have seen before.

The Master [Robert Molyneux] today in conversation made a remark on the Variation of the Needle [of his compass] which struck me much, as to me it was new and appeard to throw much light on the Theory of that Phaenomenon. The Variation is here very small, he says: he has three times crossd the line of no variation and that at all those times as well as at this he has observd the Needle to be very unsteady, moving very easily and scarce at all fixing: this he shewd me: he also told me that in several places he has been in the land had a very remarkable effect upon the variation, as in the place we were now in: at 1 or 2 Leagues [5.5–11 kilometres] distant from the shore the variation was 2 degrees less than at 8 Lgs distance.

Angus Trumble:

Specimens in short supply

Banks busies himself here with the task of collecting marine specimens with one of the nets that formed part of his relatively large cargo of equipment designed to obtain and, if possible, to preserve natural history specimens. Banks was conversant, as were Daniel Solander and Herman Spöring, with the system of binomial nomenclature that had not long before been largely standardised by the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus, who had been Solander’s teacher at the University of Uppsala.

In Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae (1758) the genus Cancer covered not just all known species of crab, but most other crustaceans as well. Thus Banks’s Cancer erythroptamus is difficult to identify with precision, and his Mimus volutator completely impossible. He does retrieve two species of the genus Medusa, that is, jellyfish, and three of the genus Dagysa, molluscs. The Linnaean genus of Holothuria covered various wormlike aquatic animals, which overlapped with molluscs, while Phyllodoce velella is a species of marine worm. It was not an especially remarkable crop, which is presumably why Banks does not remark upon it.

Part of the frustration of the voyage from Banks’s point of view, and that of his scientific companions, was that Endeavour did not make landfall more often. We feel here his regret at not being closer to the shore, with its promise of a rich smorgasbord of botanical specimens. It was not for want of seeking a suitable harbour or safe haven. Still, Endeavour sailed right past Jervis Bay, and treated with superabundant caution all other possible options between Cape Howe and Kamay/Botany Bay, a voyage of 10 days and roughly 263 nautical miles (488 kilometres).

To some extent, the scientists aboard Endeavour relied upon a steady accumulation of specimens with which to occupy themselves while at sea. But it is clear that by this date, Banks needed to get his hands on more.

Variation and deviation

Robert Molyneux was one of a number of officers who provided Cook with a formidable team of navigators, each of whom made a substantial contribution to Endeavour's successful passage and to the accuracy of Cook’s own charts.

All information on those charts is oriented to true north. Compasses, by contrast, point to magnetic north, which varies from true north by a margin known as variation. Compasses are also subject to inherent error, for example the distorting influence of other sources of magnetism. This is called deviation. Therefore, at any point, your compass bearing equals your true bearing plus or minus magnetic variation, plus or minus compass deviation.

Molyneux is here explaining to Banks two separate phenomena: (a) an apparent elision of magnetic north and true north, which would happen if those separate poles happened to be aligned; and (b) the magnetic influence of the landmass to larboard (port side), sometimes disruptive, at other times stabilising.

James Cook:

In the PM had a gentle breeze at SBW with which we steerd along shore NBE and NNE at the distance of about 3 Leagues [16.5 kilometres]; saw the smook of fire in several places near the Sea beach. At 5 oClock we were abreast of a Point of land which on account of its perpendicular clifts I call’d Point Upright [modern Depot Beach] / Latde 35°..35'/ it bore from us due west distant 2 Leagues and in this situation had 31 fm water a Sandy bottom —

At 6 oClock falling little wind we hauld off ENE at this time the Northermost land in sight bore NNE1/2E — At midnight being in 70 fathom [128 metres] water we brougt too untill 4 AM at which time we made sail in for the land and at day light found our selves nearly in the same place we were at 5 oClock in the evening by which it was apparent that we had been drove about 3 Leagues to the Southward by a Tide or Current in the night, after this we steerd along shore NNE having a gentle breeze at SW and were so near the Shore as to distinguish several people upon the Sea beach they appear'd to be of a very dark or black Colour but whether this was the real colour of their skins or the C[l]othes they might have on I know not —

At Noon we were by observation in the Latitude of 35°..27' and Longde 209°..23'. Cape Dromedary bore So 28° West distt 19 Leags a remarkable peaked hill laying inland the top of which look'd like a Pigeon house and occasioned my giving it that name, bore N 32°..30' Wt and a small low Island laying close under the shore bore NW distt 2 or 3 Leagues, Variation of the Compass 9°..50' Et[.]

When we first discover’d this Island in the morning I was in hopes from its appearence that we should have found shelter for the Ship behind it but when we came to approach it near I did not think that there was even security for a boat to land, but this I believe I should have attempted had not the wind come on shore after which I did not think it safe to send a boat from the ship as we had a large hollow sea from ye SE rowling in upon the land which beat every were very high upon the Shore and this we have had ever sence we came upon the Coast.

The land near the Sea coast still continues of a moderate hieght forming alternatly rocky points and Sandy beaches, but inland between Mount Dromedary and the Pigeon house are several pretty high Mountains two only of which we saw but what were coverd with trees and these lay inland behind the Pigeon house and are remarkably flat atop with steep rocky clifts all round them as far as we could see — the trees in this Country hath all the appearence of being stout and lofty — For these two days past the observe’d Latitude hath been 12 or 14 Miles to the Southward of the Ships account given by the Log which can be owing to nothing but a Curre[n]t set to the Southward —

Angus Trumble:

Views and vantage points

James Cook notes seeing Aboriginal people on the Australian continent for the first time on a beach somewhere between modern Depot Beach, about 10 kilometres north of Batemans Bay, and Ulladulla, the country of Yuin people. At that time the Endeavour was close enough to the shore that the voyagers were able to make out individuals — and closer, Cook therefore implies, than it had previously been to the coast. But the ship was still too far away for the crew to tell if these people were wearing dark clothes or if that was the colour of their skin.

As a general rule, it is safe to assume that before Endeavour’s arrival at Kamay/Botany Bay, the ship tended to observe a distance offshore of 3 leagues (17.5 kilometres), perhaps a little less, though this is a distance that Cook repeatedly mentions.

According to Warren Foster, a traditional holder of Djiringanj/Yuin knowledge, Endeavour was certainly seen, either here or from vantage points nearby, possibly elevated ones. His ancestors spoke of Endeavour swimming on the ocean with its large white sails making it look very much like Gurung-gubba the pelican. ‘Now, the story of Gurung-gubba, he’s a real greedy fella’, says Warren Foster.

When you’re fishing he’ll come and steal your fish. So, you had to watch him. And just the same as us watching him when we’re fishing, we had to keep an eye out on that boat.

Though they did not make direct contact with Cook and his companions, the Yuin were fatefully prescient. But for the time being they had no way of knowing that they had even come close to touching the Endeavour narrative.

As we have seen in the commentary for 19 April, ‘bringing to’ (attempting to make a ship stationary by manipulating the sails) is an imperfect solution to an insoluble problem at sea. In uncharted waters, sailing blind at night is far more dangerous than being more or less stationary, even if the sea is too deep for your anchor or even your plumb line. However, at sea there is no such thing as stationary.

Tides and currents carry your vessel every bit as effectively and, at times, as fast as a light wind, the difference being that able mariners may harness the wind. But there is nothing they can do about currents, especially when, as in this case, they run against the wind. An overnight setback, perhaps, but this reversal by nearly 18 kilometres in a matter of hours did bring Endeavour into a position much closer to the shore, from which Cook was, purely by chance, able to see a number of Yuin people.

Names taking shape

Three topographical features, all freshly named by him, and not so much the Yuin people, dominate Cook’s entry for this day. Cook holds fast to Mount Dromedary (Gulaga), (re)named on the previous day. You sense that for him it was a really good idea, and that by continuing to refer to it, the name itself was acquiring heft.

In a process that amplifies and accelerates all the way up the eastern coast of Australia, starting this day Cook built on his third naming principle: simple resemblance. Point Upright because of the vertical cliffs, and Pigeon House Mountain — or Didthul, which is the Yuin word for breast. In the weeks that followed, Cook would become familiar with the sandstone cliffs and rampart-like formations that constitute the Great Dividing Range, but thus far they were still novel.

That James Cook should have opted for ‘pigeon house’ as a metaphor and as a name is merely one of any number of comparable English projections upon the Australian landscape. Often freestanding dovecotes and pigeon houses, with their ‘pigeonholes’ for nesting, had for centuries been a familiar feature of many English parks, gardens and estates. Although no longer, by the 18th century, the exclusive preserve of the nobility and their gardeners, they and the breeding and care of decorative doves and pigeons nevertheless enjoyed that rich association.

The metaphor and the prompt belong to a broader kind of Edenic, Jean-Jacques Rousseau view of the inhabited landscape: a fundamental presumption of its park-like character, neither manicured nor given over to a state of wilderness. In 1770, English woods and forests were still regarded as dangerous places.

This stance goes some distance toward what we know about Indigenous nations’ harmonious management over tens of millennia of their land, their country. Subsequent contact with other Aboriginal nations and clan groups would strengthen and deepen Cook’s first impression, which had already been partly affirmed in Tahiti and New Zealand.

James Cook:

Winds Southerly a gentle breeze and clear weather with which we coasted along shore to the northward. In the PM we saw the smook of fire in several places a certain sign that the Country is inhabited — At 6 oClock being about 2 or 3 Leagues [11–16 kilometres] from the land we shortned sail and sounded and found 44 fathom water a sandy bottom; stood on under an easy sail untill 12 oClock at which time we brought too untill 4 AM when we made sail again having than 90 fathom water 5 Leagues from the land[.] At 6 oClock we were a breast of a pretty high mountain laying near the shore which on account of its figure I named Mount Dromedary Latde 36°..18' So Longde 209°..55' Wt / The shore under the foot of this Mountain forms a point which I have named Cape Dromedary over which is a peaked hillock …

Cape Dromedary bore So 30° Wt distt 12 Leagues — an open Bay wherein lay three or 4 small Islands bore NWBW distant 4 [,] 5 or 6 Leagues[.] This Bay seem’d to be but very little shelterd from the sea winds and yet it is the only likely anchoring place I have yet seen upon the Coast.

Joseph Banks:

In the morn the land appeard much as it did yesterday but rather more hilly; in the even again it became flatter. Several smoaks were seen from whence we concluded it to be rather more populous; at night five fires.

Sydney Parkinson:

We saw some clouds of smoke rising from them a good way up the country, but we found no harbour. Latitude 35° 51.

Angus Trumble:

Chains of command

This is the first occasion on which Cook noted smoke, and therefore the existence of the continent's First Australians, although to our knowledge nobody aboard Endeavour had yet seen any. To some extent, this brings into sharp focus the point that, despite having left us a compendious account of the voyage, an account that runs exactly parallel with those of Banks and Parkinson, which mostly corroborate it, Cook’s was merely one pair of eyes among more than 90.

For the most part, except for occasional vignettes, we have no idea what the vast majority of the crew and Banks’s supernumeraries saw, or what they thought about what they saw. Moreover, Cook’s perspective passed through the prism of command, and is often coloured by it. It possesses authority, of course, but authority can also be inhibiting. He knew his journal would pass directly to Their Lordships of the Admiralty upon Endeavour’s return to England. One is therefore regularly struck by a certain guardedness in Cook.

Profiling and naming

In this entry, following hard upon the heels of the last, we may see a third guiding principle that Cook followed with respect to the naming of places. That principle arose from coastal profiling and the need to identify topographical features easily from some considerable distance offshore, as in the case of Mount Dromedary.

Gulaga/Mount Dromedary rises 806 metres above sea level in the hinterland of the South Coast of New South Wales, approximately 10 kilometres north-north-east of the modern coastal community of Bermagui. To the local Yuin people, Gulaga holds ancestral significance as the recumbent figure of a mother and is therefore of particular importance to Yuin women.

Even allowing Cook considerable latitude, from any direction today it is difficult to recognise in the topography of Gulaga the hump of a camel. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how Cook ever managed to see a real dromedary, although Richard Heppenstall did maintain a novelty collection of camels at the Talbot Inn on the Strand, in London, and even took them on tour to Edinburgh and back in the early 1760s.

Neither Banks nor Parkinson noted the feature, but they were careful to note the existence of smoke, to which Banks added a careful enumeration of fires clearly visible through the darkness. He therefore wondered if the country was populous and, by implication, more populous than he had at first presumed.

A moonlit sail

Cook mentions that he sailed until midnight before he brought the vessel to. We know that on 17 April 1770, only four days prior, a full moon shone in the southern sky, while Cook notes that the weather that evening was clear. In the circumstances, and provided the weather conditions and the phase of the moon permitted it, Endeavour was perfectly able to proceed at night.

James Cook:

In the PM and most part of the night had a fresh gale westerly with squals attended with showers of rain. In the AM had the wind at SW with serene weather. At 1 PM saw three water spouts at once, two were between us and the shore and one at some distance upon our Larboard quarter — At 6 oClock shortned sail and brought too for the night having 56 fathom [102.5 metres] a fine sandy bottom, the Northermost land in sight bore NBE1/2E and a small Island [Gabo Island] lying close to a point on the Main[.] Bore west distant 2 Leagues — This point I have named Cape Howe, it may be known by the Trending of the Coast which is north on the one side and SW on the other / Latitude 37°..28' SoLongde 210°..3' West / it may likewise be known by some round hills upon the Main just within it.

Having brought too with her head off shore we at 10 oClock wore and lay her head in untill 4 AM at which time we made sail along Shore to the Northward — At 6 oClock the northermost land in sight bore North being at this time about 4 Leagues from the land …

The weather being clear gave us an opportunity to View the Country which had a very agreeable and promising Aspect the land is of moderate height diversified with hills, ridges, planes and Vallies with some few small lawns, but for the most part the whole was cover’d with wood, the hills and ridges rise with a gentle slope, they are not high neither are there many off them.

Joseph Banks:

The countrey this morn rose in gentle sloping hills which had the appearance of the highest fertility, every hill seemd to be cloth’d with trees of no mean size; at noon a smoak was seen a little way inland and in the Evening several more.

Sydney Parkinson:

We sailed along shore with a fine brisk breeze, but we found no harbour. The land appeared rather level, with here and there a gentle ascent covered entirely with wood, some of which appeared large. About noon we saw some smoke ascending out of a wood near the sea tide. Latitude 36° 51.

Angus Trumble:

Larboard and starboard

What does Cook mean by ‘larboard quarter’? Imagine orienting yourself at sea, such that your vessel is at the centre of a vast and radiating circle that is divided into quarters by two perpendicular lines. The first, extending infinitely forward and aft, runs through the bow and the stern. Everything to the left of this line is on the larboard side and, to the right, starboard. The other line intersects with the first at right angles. You are facing ahead.

Physical space is so ordered that, putting it crudely, the larboard quarter embraces everything you can see over your left shoulder and as far over it as you can see without crossing over onto the right side; the starboard quarter, meanwhile, taking in everything you can see that falls over your right shoulder, likewise to the rear. The two front quarters are known as the larboard bow and the starboard bow. The term ‘larboard’ was abandoned by the Royal Navy in 1844, and replaced with ‘port’, because larboard sounded too much like ‘starboard’.

In his economical way, therefore, Cook places two of these whopping waterspouts much closer to ‘nine o’clock’, between Endeavour and the coast, but the other, the one in the larboard quarter, was some considerable distance farther over his shoulder. Endeavour was leaving it quite a long way behind and sailing at a cracking pace. To reach Gabo Island and to pass Cape Howe in a day’s voyage from Munda Bubul/Point Hicks was, for the relatively slow Endeavour, excellent progress.

Anatomy of a waterspout

Nobody who has ever witnessed the formation of a waterspout is ever likely to forget it. A waterspout is a gyrating column of mist, spray and water, essentially a rising vortex produced by the action of a relatively mild whirlwind on a portion of the sea and, of the climatic cause and effect of the clouds above with which it connects. These are usually lowering cumulus congestus, cumuliform or cumulonimbus.

A waterspout begins to form, first, with the appearance of a ‘dark spot’ on the surface of the ocean, surrounded by a larger dark area of indeterminate shape and with diffuse edges. A pattern of light and dark-coloured surface bands soon spiral out from the dark spot. A dense swirling ring of rising spray appears around the dark spot with what seems to be an ‘eye’ like that of a hurricane, but miniature by comparison — a waterspout is the maritime equivalent of the land-based ‘willy-willy’.

At maximum intensity, a waterspout rises from the surface of the ocean and all the way up and into the cloud above. Its funnel appears hollow, with a surrounding spinning ‘shell’ consisting of turbulent spray and condensation. The vortex can rise to a height of several hundred metres, and often creates a visible wake and/or an associated wave train if it moves any distance. More often, however, the funnel and spray vortex begin to dissipate as the flow of warm air into the vortex weakens.

Cook, Banks and Parkinson correctly noted the phenomenon in their respective entries for adjacent days: Cook shortly after the commencement of his 20th, and Banks and Parkinson in the early afternoon of the 19th. Cook was content merely to note the number and exact position of the waterspouts. By contrast, Banks reveals his innate curiosity, even delight:

With the first day light this morn the Land was seen, at 10 it was pretty plainly to be observ’d; it made in sloping hills, cover’d in Part with trees or bushes, but interspers’d with large tracts of sand.

At Noon the land much the same. We were now sailing along shore 5 or 6 Leagues from it, with a brisk breeze of wind and cloudy unsettled weather, when we were call’d upon deck to see three water spouts, which at the same time made their appearance in different places but all between us and the land. Two which were very distant soon disapear’d but the third which was about a League from us lasted full a quarter of an hour.

It was a column which appear’d to be of about the thickness of a mast or a midling tree, and reach’d down from a smoak colour’d cloud about two thirds of the way to the surface of the sea; under it the sea appear’d to be much troubled for a considerable space and from the whole of that space arose a dark colourd thick mist which reachd to the bottom of the pipe.

When it was at its greatest distance from the water the pipe itself was perfectly transparent and much resembled a tube of glass or a Column of water, if such a thing could be suppos’d to be suspended in the air; it very frequently contracted and dilated, lengthened and short’ned itself and that by very quick motions; it very seldom remain’d in a perpendicular direction but Generaly inclin’d either one way or the other in a curve as a light body acted upon by wind is observ’d to do.

During the whole time that it lasted smaler ones seem’d to attempt to form in its neighbourhood; at last one did about as thick as a rope close by it and became longer than the old one which at that time was in its shortest state; upon this they Join’d together in an instant and gradualy contracting into the Cloud disapeard.

For many Indigenous people across Australia, waterspouts are associated with spiritual meanings. In modern East Gippsland, Aboriginal people maintain an inherited belief in the ancestorship of several waterspouts. Neither Cook, Banks nor Parkinson had any way of knowing this, obviously. When much later Resolution and Adventure passed through Cook Strait in New Zealand in May 1773, the artist William Hodges produced a dramatic view of both ships passing, again, three waterspouts. Perhaps this is merely a coincidence.

Smoke and mirrors

In his entry for 20 April, Cook provides an initial impression of the landscape and topography that sounds very much like the sort of encouraging assessment the agent of a great estate would return to His Lordship’s factor upon completing a routine inspection. The tenants are invisible; he makes no mention of any sign of human activity ashore. It falls to Banks and Parkinson to mention the smoke.

Smoke and fire will thenceforth be constantly visible from the quarter deck of Endeavour. These were immediate and obvious indicators of human activity, yet between them, on 20 April, Banks and Parkinson found it impossible to make any explicit reference to the people they surely knew were responsible for lighting the fires that produced the smoke that they were seeing so clearly. It is possible that they were afraid. They could see the smoke, but they could not see the people — not yet. Cook made no reference to any smoke.

Cook named features for the benefit of his extraordinarily accurate charts, but he employed a consistent set of guiding principles. There was patronage to acknowledge (upwards) and indeed exercise downwards. In the first of these two brackets we may place Cape Howe, named for Viscount Howe (later Earl Howe) who in 1768 was Treasurer of the Royal Navy under the Earl of Sandwich. In the latter, we have already seen Point Hicks — for Zachary, second lieutenant, the officer of the watch who first spied it. We shall encounter a third guiding principle next time.

James Cook:

In the PM had fresh gales at SSW and Clowdy Squaly weather with a large Southerly Sea — At 6 [pm] took in the Topsails and at 1 AM brought too, and sounded but had no ground with 130 fathoms [238 metres] of line. At 5 [am] Set the Topsails Close reef’d and 6 [am] saw land extending from NE to West at the distance of 5 or 6 Leagues [28–33 kilometres] having 80 fathom water a fine sandy bottom.

We continued Standing to the westward with the wind at SSW untill 8 oClock at which time we got topg[allan]tyards aCross made all sail, and bore away along shore NE for the Eastermost land we had in sight, being at this time in the Latitude of 37°..58' So and Longd of 210°..39' West.

The Southermost Point of land we had in sight which bore from us W1/4S I judged to lay in the Latitude of 38°..0' So and in the Longitude of 211°..07' Wt from the Meridion of Greenwich. I have named it Point Hicks, because Leuitt Hicks was the first who discover’d this land —

To the Southward of this point we could see no land and yet it was very clear in that quarter and by our Longitude compared with that of Tasman’s the body of Van Diemen’s land ought to have been due south from us and from the soon falling of the Sea after the wind abated I had reason to think it did.

But as we did not see it, and finding this coast to trend NE and SW or rather more to the westward, makes me doubtfull whether they are land or no: however everyone who compares this Journal with that of Tasman will be as good a judge I am, but it is necessary to observe that I do not take the situation of Van Diemen’s [Land] from the printed charts but from the extract of Tasman’s Journal published by Dirk Rembrantse.

Angus Trumble:

Some nautical terms

‘Sounded but had no ground’ means that the seabed was deeper than the maximum length of the ship’s plumb line. ‘Brought to’ means to have caused the vessel to become more or less stationary (subject only to tides and currents) by manipulating the sails. ‘Standing to the westward’ means to sail, steer or direct your course in that direction.

The first measure was to make sure Endeavour was not effectively treading water or drifting in dangerous shallows, land evidently being nearby but not yet seen. The second was obviously to avoid sailing in darkness. The third, upon catching sight of land soon after sunrise, indicates that the weather had sufficiently improved so that Endeavour could ‘make full sail’ and run before the wind as fast as possible.

By Tasman’s reckoning

Whether or not what we recognise today as Munda Bubul/Point Hicks, in modern East Gippsland, Victoria, is the feature that Zachary Hicks first caught sight of is a matter of some dispute. It has been argued that, owing to the curvature of the earth’s surface and based on Cook’s notation of his position, which puts him some considerable distance offshore, Hicks was actually observing a more elevated feature inland. As well, according to Sydney Parkinson, there was fog that day — perhaps that is what Cook described as ‘Clowdy Squaly weather’.

The colonial presumption that Point Hicks was indeed the feature first seen from the quarter deck of Endeavour has nevertheless persisted. A commemorative bronze plaque stands close to the modern Point Hicks lighthouse (1890) and lists the entire ship’s company. That plaque was unveiled in 1970 by Premier Sir Henry Bolte, who, marking the bicentenary, restored the name of Point Hicks and consigned to permanent obsolescence the name of Cape Everard, which had been coined in 1852 by the surveyor George Douglas Smythe.

We have seen, a day earlier, Cook thinking aloud about his position offshore with respect to what he knew about Abel Jansz Tasman’s experience of Van Diemen’s Land in December 1642. Cook was careful to note then that that position was ‘a degree to the westward of the East side of Van Diemen’s Land’ by Tasman’s reckoning. Here, adding to his perplexity, Cook looked southward and saw only water where, according to Tasman, there should have been land. He scanned the coast of modern East Gippsland, meanwhile, and saw it extending to the north-east as far as the eye could see, and likewise to the south-west.

Cook is obviously doubting here Tasman’s presumption that Van Diemen’s Land formed part of the island continent and is beginning to form the impression that it was instead separated from the mainland by what was later named Bass Strait. Nevertheless, we shall see that he gave Tasman the benefit of the doubt, and adhered to that earlier presumption on his charts, not because he mistrusted his own instinct in the matter but because there were good strategic and political reasons for concealing the discovery from future seafarers, above all the French. Why then, when he allowed his charts to reflect the old hypothesis, did Cook go so far as to flag this very issue in his journal? Hawkesworth, after all, could not have hoped for more attentive readers than those in authority in Paris and at Brest or Toulon.

Having ‘stood to the westward’, running before the wind, presumably to get closer to the coast, Cook soon changed direction, sailing to the north-east, effectively commencing the immensely long journey of Endeavour all the way up the coast of eastern Australia. It is telling that, from the very outset, Cook’s mind was weighing and inclined partly to correct errors in the body of knowledge to which Abel Tasman had made an important contribution almost 130 years earlier.

James Cook:

Winds southerly. A hard gale with heavy squals attended with showers of rain and a great sea from the same quarter — At 3 PM Close reef’d the Topsails, handed the Main & Miz[ze]ntopsail & got down topgallant yards. At 6 o’Clock the gale increased to such a height as to Oblige us to take in the Fore topsail and Main sail and to run under the Fore sail and Miz[z]en all night sounding every 2 hours but found no ground with 120 fathoms [219 metres deep].

At 6 AM set the Mainsail and soon after the fore topsail and before noon the Main-topsail both close reef’d. At Noon our Latitude by Obser[vatio]n was 38°..45' S Longitude from Cape Farewell 23° 43' W[es]t and Course and distance run sence yesterday noon N. 51° West 82 Miles.

Last night we saw a Port Egmont Hen and this morning two more, a Pintado bird [Cape petrel], several Albatrosses and black sheer-waters [shearwaters]. The first of these birds are certain signs of the nearness of land, indeed we cannot be far from it for by our Longitude we are a degree to the westward of the East side of Vandieman Land according to Tasman’s the first discoverers Longitude of it who could not err much in so short a run as from this land to New Zealand and by our Latitude we could not be above 50 or 55 Leagues [275–302 kilometres] to the northward of the place where he took his departure from.

Joseph Banks:

Stiff gales and a heavy sea from the Westward. In the morn a Port Egmont hen and a Pintado bird were seen, at noon two more of the former. At night the weather became rather more moderate and a shoal of Porpoises were about the Ship which leap’d out of the water like Salmons, often throwing their whole bodies several feet high above the surface.

Angus Trumble:

Steady as she goes

On 18 April, the day before land was observed from Endeavour at a position some considerable distance offshore but not far from Munda Bubul/Point Hicks in modern East Gippsland, Victoria, the presence of seabirds alerted Cook and Banks to the immediate proximity of dry land. Also, a small ‘land bird’ had been spied the day before, perching high up in the rigging. Cook’s focus, however, was very much on the bad weather, so often the compelling consideration under sail.

That previous day (17 April) Endeavour was buffeted by what Cook called a ‘strong gale with very heavy squals’. This worsened overnight, developing into a ‘hard gale’ with rough seas, which in Bass Strait can be especially treacherous owing to the relative shallowness of that stretch of ocean. Conditions further deteriorated through the afternoon and evening, requiring successive reductions in the surface area of sail. The various technical terms Cook deploys here — topsails, fore, main and mizzen, and so on — relate to particular sails and their position on the ship’s three masts. A ‘topgallant yard’ is the highest horizontal ‘spar’ on a mast from which the topsail is both suspended and set to catch the wind.

Conditions eased by the following morning, but not much. Cook noted all of those changes in the weather, while at the same time making the necessary lunar observations to ascertain his position and to monitor the ship’s progress and speed. Endeavour was inclined to roll in any case, but importantly when Cook notes, simply, ‘close reef’d the Topsails’, what he actually did was to give the order for up to eight men to climb high up into the rigging and perform this dangerous task of taking in the sails by hand, presumably hampered by degrees of drunkenness, which was more or less constant below decks and throughout the voyage.

The higher you climbed, the more extreme was the side-to-side metronomic motion of the ship’s mast. To reef the topsails you had to climb almost as high as it was possible to go. And you only went through this procedure when bad weather demanded it, mostly in a hurry. The stronger the wind that fills the sails, the harder it is to reef them. Setting too much sail in a gale can easily dismast a sailing ship.

Time keeping

You will notice that in Cook’s journal ‘pm’ always precedes ‘am’ on any given date. That is because Cook observed ‘ship time’, beginning at the meridian and ending 24 hours later at the next, while the civilian Banks adhered to dates that, like ours, commence and conclude at midnight. On any given date, therefore, Cook’s account overlaps with Banks’s only for the 12 hours between noon and midnight, never in the morning.

Cook and Banks purport to record the sighting of birds as having occurred on the same morning. However, Cook notes the sighting towards the end of ‘his’ 18 April, which was, in fact, the early part of Banks’s 19th. If, on the other hand, Banks was correct in noting the birds on the right morning, 18 April, that should have equated with the latter half of Cook’s 17th.

You can perhaps see into the dark, fidgeting, maddening heart of this problem. To be sure, it has caused much confusion ever since Dr John Hawkesworth first grappled with but eventually washed his hands of it. In this case, Hawkesworth assigned the birds to ‘the morning of the 18th’.

Superstitions at sea

At sea, birds have long bewitched seamen. Their patterns of migration, their behaviour, the very appearance of certain well-known species have aided navigators in many seafaring cultures, but they have also assumed a sort of mythic quality as well.

Below decks and above they were the subject of superstition, and one need go no further than The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the shooting of an albatross that, having been credited with guiding a ship out of Antarctic pack ice, later, upon the arrival of fairer, warmer weather, gives rise to a fatal presumption by the crew:

'Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,

That bring the fog and mist

Big mistake. In fact, the late Bernard Smith argued convincingly in an article in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (vol. XIX, nos 1–2, 1956) that Coleridge’s Rime was directly inspired by Cook’s experience of Antarctic waters on the second circumnavigation because William Wales was astronomer and meteorologist aboard Resolution and later taught (from 1776) at the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital when Coleridge was a pupil there (from 1781).

As well, the relative freedom of seabirds on the wing, especially big stately albatrosses, merely served to remind generations of seamen of their confinement and the limits that were placed upon the progress of their vessel, wholly dependent upon the strength and direction of the wind, which by contrast imposed no such constraint upon the birds. On the contrary, they are masters of the sky, defiers of gravity, and feeders upon the riches of the ocean.

Lags and datelines

The problem of Cook and Banks’s non-aligning dates may constitute persuasive evidence of a lag, at times, in their recording, writing up and/or the bringing up to date of their respective daily entries — in this case easily attributable to a stretch of sustained bad weather which made any writing impossible.

Shared recollections, presumably the subject of conversations in the great cabin at dinner time, were retrospectively noted on the ‘right’ day, or on an adjacent ‘wrong’ one. In the circumstances, it is better perhaps to accept that the birds were seen and identified on one morning or the next, and not become too distracted by an overzealous need to solve the problem of which adjacent morning it actually was.

That problem is further complicated for us today because, while Endeavour gradually proceeded ever westwards, the dates recorded in Cook’s log and journal reflected an uninterrupted sequence of days and dates since his departure from Plymouth on 26 August 1768, there having been no International Date Line (IDL) with which to make the adjustment. Running between the poles at roughly 180 degrees (with necessary geopolitical detours), the IDL was only established in 1917 by Anglo–French agreement.

Cook was certainly aware of the distortion, but chose to keep his entries carefully arranged in sequence. Therefore, the day that, adhering to Greenwich, Cook recorded as 18 April 1770 was actually what we choose to recognise in retrospect as the 19th. It seems Cook readjusted his calendar by one day soon after reaching Batavia on 9/10 October 1770.

We shall consider Cook’s remarks about Abel Tasman and Van Diemen’s Land in our next log.

This begins a series of extracts, with commentary, from the journals of James Cook, Joseph Banks and Sydney Parkinson, and from the official published account of the voyage of Endeavour (1773) by Dr John Hawkesworth.

The series applies exclusively to the period between late April and late August 1770, when Endeavour was making northward progress in Australian waters.

It is intended to elucidate, or provide context for, various written observations by 18th-century English gentlemen living at very close quarters aboard a small vessel about as far away from home as it was possible to be.

Some of these observations may not automatically make full sense to anyone who is neither a naval or maritime historian, nor a seasoned scholar of Cook. Indeed, the rest of us may never have had the opportunity to sail in the open sea. We may not know what ‘reefing the topsails’ means, for example, or why from time to time that becomes an urgent necessity.

The journal extracts presented in this series have been drawn from the complete digitised texts available on the National Library of Australia’s excellent website South Seas: Voyaging and Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Pacific (1760–1800). In certain instances, to aid the reader, we have adjusted the original spellings, abbreviations, contractions and punctuation. We have also provided brief clarifying matter within square brackets and added paragraph breaks for better screen readability.

Over the past 250 years it has proven exceptionally valuable that not one but three independent manuscript accounts of the voyage were maintained aboard Endeavour.

Cook’s journal existed alongside Endeavour’s log, but as a significant adjunct and expansion upon the bare data required by the Royal Navy. All three accounts provide a gradually accumulating daily snapshot of a voyage on which the only certainty about tomorrow and the next day were that what they held in store was unknown and unknowable.

The three accounts are not always consistent, a problem that vexed Dr Hawkesworth especially. He wrote up the voyage after Cook had departed on his second circumnavigation aboard Resolution, and published it well before his return. Indeed, Cook first bumped into the published volumes in Cape Town in March 1775. Parkinson died not long after Endeavour commenced her crossing of the Indian Ocean, so he was permanently inaccessible. Although Banks was accessible, far too accessible, Hawkesworth, on the whole, preferred to take his journal as read.

Although they bring us as close as we can possibly be to the experience of each writer, it would be a mistake to presume that their journals shed more than a few beams of pale light on their personalities. Despite the mountainous Cook literature, it has often been observed that he, in particular, is very hard to know through all the available sources.

He revealed very little about himself, his private thoughts, his personality.

However, there is much that we can infer from the shared experience of many other 18th-century English mariners, and from maritime life and lore more generally.

Joseph Conrad’s ships and their crews were a mixed bag of much later merchantmen under power, but his observations about man and the sea and the sky are pretty universal. When in Lord Jim (1900) Conrad talks about the welcome of an eastern port (should it be forthcoming), ‘a warmth of welcome that melts the salt of a three months’ passage out of a seaman’s heart’, you feel that he not only speaks with the authority of lived experience, but also that that authority would extend to any passage of three months’ duration, or more, at any moment in time.

So, the Endeavour texts, beyond affording us the opportunity to tease out telling points of detail, also allow us to discover certain universals that may help to bridge the historical gulf that separates all of us now from Cook and his companions 250 years ago.

In general terms, each writer was aware of the scientific importance of their mission, so their choices and points of emphasis are particularly noteworthy. But so, from time to time, are their omissions. There was only enough time to maintain the daily record, and relatively few opportunities for retrospective or broad-ranging assessments and re-assessments. However, this makes those few tours d’horizon the more significant and noteworthy.

It is therefore upon the principle of companionship, of gentle eavesdropping, that these extracts have been selected and the accompanying commentary framed. Cook and Banks knew perfectly well that along with the rest of posterity, we would eventually be looking over their shoulder. Indeed, they wrote with that in mind. Despite the at times ineffable strangeness of the 18th-century England that sent them forth, and to which they belonged, that corner of the past need not be a foreign country. It is partly there for us to make ourselves at home in, an exercise in informed historical imagination.

That said, Cook and Banks could not have guessed at many of the things we would be looking for in the light of our shared experience in 2020. Humboldt, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Russell, Rutherford, Florey (and so on) all stand between us, and we are also in the midst of a once-in-a-generation global public health emergency that must surely colour many of our perceptions.

If we choose to lay emphasis upon the telling or picturesque detail, therefore, or the fleck of colour, the throwaway but baffling line, such then are the emotional and imaginative roots of the historical disciplines, without which we would all sound a lot more like George Eliot’s hideous creation Mr Casaubon, with his dreadful ‘Key to all Mythologies’ (in Middlemarch) — in other words, ‘a great bladder for dried peas to rattle in!’

Three hardcover, leather bound volumes of a book. One is open about half way through.

Cook kept a daily journal throughout the Endeavour’s voyage up the east coast of Australia. See images of his meticulous journal entries and read the full transcripts.

On Endeavour in Australian waters

Twenty-five reflections from Angus on the mixed meanings of HM Bark Endeavour in Australian waters.

Australia is not the only modern nation state whose relatively brief history as such is partly built upon the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. There is, for example, on the site of the Battle of Tlatelolco in the middle of what is now Mexico City a stone plaque with an inscription that reads in translation:

13 August 1521. Heroically defended by Cuauhtémoc, the isle of Tlatelolco [came] under the power of Hernán Cortés. It was neither a triumph nor a defeat; it was the painful birth of the hybrid people who are Mexico today.

True, the Mexicans have had almost exactly twice as much time to reach this sort of accommodation with their fearfully blood-stained history as we here in Australia. The text is disingenuous with respect to Cortés’s summary destruction of the Aztec civilisation. There is a great deal of complexity throughout Latin America attaching to the 16th-century term ‘mestizo’ [hybrid], meaning two racially separate peoples, in this case Spanish and Aztec, ultimately merging as one but with up to 16 carefully defined, indeed named degrees or ‘shades’ of miscegenation.

The inscription should also be read in the context of the upsurge in Mexican nationalism and cultural regeneración that followed the demise of the regime of Porfirio Díaz and the Zapata revolution and civil war that ended in about 1920. Nevertheless, there is in this inscription on the site of the Battle of Tlatelolco a hint towards how we might frame or reframe the 250th anniversary of the arrival in Australian waters of HM Bark Endeavour.

Sir Arthur de la Mare, sometime British ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand in the 1970s, once remarked, ‘Distance and proximity are matters of the mind, and so is time’. To some extent all anniversaries derive their significance from testing, from contemplating this observation, especially when it concerns cultures as radically different as those of Aboriginal Australia before first contact (and since), and of Georgian England.

Nevertheless, in 2020 in Australia we stand together at exactly the same temporal distance from James Cook’s arrival, and the same long physical distance from the England that sent him forth, as those same distances separated Cook and his companions at Botany Bay on 29 April 1770 from the famous meeting of King Henry VIII and François I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

To Cook the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was markedly more recent than the arrival of the Endeavour is to us in this sestercentenary year. Another intriguing feature of this anniversary is that around 1770, when Richard Arkwright invented the spinning frame and substituted a mechanism for the work of human fingers, England stood upon the threshold of a revolution in work and industry every bit as radical as the one we are experiencing ourselves right now with regard to digital disruption. In many respects, we are still living with the consequences of that first Industrial Revolution and its impact upon the rest of the world; the renewed British imperial project that followed the loss of the 13 American colonies and, above all, the profound effect that these developments have had upon the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of this continent. Perspective, distance and proximity are indeed matters of the mind, and so is time.

The poet WS Merwin once observed that somewhere over the previous 365¼ days he had unwittingly marked the future anniversary of his own death. Anniversaries have an inherent arbitrariness as to their eventual timing and observance (or otherwise), but what are they for? Whence comes the human impulse to pore over the ledger of time and note down a succession of exact subtotals in the roundest of numbers – forever putting off, incidentally, the calculation of a grand total?

What signifies a span of 250 years except that it is one more than 249? The impulse to arrange, to shape the passage of time into manageable blocks with which to orient the shared memory of events is partly what makes of humanity a species of philosopher also – and with luck a rational, intelligent, creative, compassionate and empathetic animal. It was, after all, Herodotus, the father of history in the Western tradition, who in the 5th century BCE began his account of the long, desperate and costly struggle between the Greeks and the Persians by analysing as best he could the fears and grievances, hopes and ambitions, in other words the points of view from both sides.

Electronic and social media plus the global interconnectedness of everything today make it almost impossible for us to imagine what it was like to experience a 3-year voyage of circumnavigation 250 years ago: Cook’s was evidently only the 25th circumnavigation attempted by any European ship or convoy since September 1519 when Ferdinand Magellan set sail from Spain.

In the case of Endeavour, 94 men (all told at first) were crammed aboard a wooden vessel no more than 30 metres long, roughly the same length as a Boeing 737 aircraft, perhaps a little shorter, and barely 9 metres abeam; that is, considerably wider. As a collier, or cargo ship, Endeavour was flat-bottomed with a sturdy hull and a duly capacious hold. These features commended it to be purchased by the Admiralty and fitted out for Cook’s mission, because of the need to accommodate a larger than usual crew, to stow a massive quantity of supplies, and in anticipation of shallow tropical reef waters. However, the flat bottom also made it relatively inefficient and prone to roll. Endeavour was not a comfortable vessel in which to sail.

You spend weeks, months, in total isolation at sea and at desperately close quarters – thus heaping significance upon those few chance or other encounters with island-dwelling strangers, speaking a thitherto unknown language, and about whom you know precisely nothing except, probably, fear. In between, tedium is a major problem aboard.

As Cook notes in his journal on 22 April 1769, ‘Nothing worthy of note happned’. Upon your departure in August 1768 Pitt the Elder is prime minister; when eventually you return in June 1771 you are startled to learn that for more than a year it has been Lord North instead, but that King George III, Catherine the Great and Louis XV are all still in possession of their thrones. (You have almost certainly never heard of the Qianlong Emperor who nevertheless still occupies his.)

In the interim, loved ones have died and been buried – thus shattering the longed-for prospect of happy reunions at home, if home still exists. Besides, you have been gone for so long that many people presume Endeavour and its company have been lost at sea. Relieved wives, making straight for the Downs in search of absent husbands are shocked to discover that they are widows instead, and have been for a year or more. These things are almost impossible to imagine – and, equally difficult to retrieve from historical oblivion are the shock, the trauma – often the delayed trauma – the perplexity arising from encounters between April and October 1770 among mostly undisturbed, self-sufficient communities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people all the way up the eastern margin of this continent.

It was never a case of Captain Cook having ‘discovered’ Australia for Britain and Europe (which, of course, he did not) so much as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples having in the southern autumn and winter of 1770 made the surprising, fateful discovery of Cook. It is a simple but important point to emphasise. And there are vital residues of Indigenous memory relating to those brief encounters that survive in the oral tradition. It is a time for the rest of us to listen carefully.

There is far more you can say about what James Cook did not do than about the things that he did as captain of the Endeavour. He did not discover Australia. He did not circumnavigate the continent. He did not establish any settlement. Indeed, he only made landfall a handful of times.

He did establish beyond question that New Guinea was divided from New Holland, but upon completing his voyage up the immensely long eastern coast Cook also laid claim to New South Wales for the British Crown. He thereby marks the beginning of the continuous British association with this island continent that led in incremental stages to the creation of a penal colony, the establishment of other British settler societies, and eventually a nation state – while a long series of injustices and calamities were experienced by the Indigenous people of the contintent: the killings, the stolen children, the loss of language and culture, the diseases, the alcohol. But was the line of association that begins with Endeavour even continuous? If you had been a Dharawal youth of 14 years of age in 1770, living with your people in the neighbourhood of Botany Bay, for some days you might have had the opportunity of seeing the inexplicable sight of clothed men emerging uninvited from inside a strange contraption, and then fossicking about, helping themselves to plants on your own country. Not until 1788 would you have seen anything again remotely comparable, by which time the youth (if he survived) would have been 32 years old.

Naturally, the vast majority of Aboriginal people across the rest of the continent had no knowledge of Cook or Endeavour at the time, nor indeed until long afterwards, and many communities did not encounter European settlers until many decades later, in some cases upwards of a century or even longer.

What we can certainly agree upon, however, is that, following the American Revolution and a failed experimental penal colony in West Africa, some of the knowledge about Australia that Cook and his companions took back to England, along with the active advocacy of Joseph Banks, led to the decision to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay, even though these developments took place long after Cook’s death.

Why did Endeavour set sail in 1768? Cook’s orders were twofold, and both marked ‘secret.’ The first task of the mission was scientific, and urged upon the Admiralty by the Royal Society in London, namely to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. Because it was accurately predictable (following Johannes Kepler’s calculations in 1627), this planetary phenomenon was known to be due to occur in 1769 and to be observable from the neighbourhood of Tahiti.

To this extent Endeavour legitimately assumes the character of a project of the Enlightenment in Britain. The purpose of observing the transit of Venus was to arrive at a more accurate estimation of the distance between the earth and the sun. In turn, this would improve the accuracy of the calculations used to fix longitude at sea, improve cartography, and facilitate more distant and otherwise dangerous voyages of exploration (because longitude was harder to fix the further north or south you sailed in either direction), which considerations inevitably raised questions in Whitehall as to the commercial and strategic advantages of any such discoveries. Ultimately, at the Royal Society the results of Endeavour’s astronomical observations in Tahiti were thought to be disappointing.

Cook and Charles Green knew that their observations on 3 June 1769 differed more than they would have wished, yet it was Green’s work as the ship’s astronomer that was especially criticised. Having died at sea, Green was not in a position to defend himself. However, based on the solar parallax values that Cook, Green and Daniel Solander obtained, in December 1771 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society estimated that ‘the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun [is] 93,726,900 English miles’. The best approximation today is 92,955,000 miles (149,597,000 kilometres), a difference of only eight-tenths of 1 per cent. Taking account of what little Endeavour had to work with, the results were astonishingly accurate and stand as an emphatic vindication of Charles Green.

Two world wars and 50 years of Common Market and European Union have largely erased from the shared cultural memory the ancient enmity between England and France. Any task of an 18th-century ship flying the pennant of the Royal Navy was undertaken with this innate hostility in mind. Just as these traditional enemies regularly fought wars on land and at sea, they also jostled for colonial possessions in the Caribbean, North America and elsewhere.

Wherever Endeavour sailed, it was easily possible that the French had either plied the same waters before, or would inevitably follow in competition. The French are the elephant in the room of the Endeavour narratives. This is almost certainly why Cook’s second orders were not to be opened until he had completed the astronomical observations in Tahiti. Then as now, ports bristled with spies and informers, so it was vital that Their Lordships’ instructions be kept a closely guarded secret.

Accordingly, upon opening his second instructions Cook was ordered to sail due south to the latitude of 40 degrees in search of an unknown southern land the existence of which was long theorised but never proven. Depending upon what he might discover (or not), thence Cook was to sail west to the latitude of 35 degrees until he came upon the eastern coast of New Zealand, part of which had been noted by Abel Tasman. Did it form part of the unknown southern land? The orders went on:

You are also carefully to observe the Nature of the Soil, & the products thereof; the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the fishes that are to be found in the Rivers or upon the Coast…observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition & Number of the Natives, if there be any, & endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship & Alliance with them…You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the name of the King of Gt Britain; Or if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for His Maj’y by setting up Proper Marks & Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.

The prospect of obtaining any such ‘Consent of the Natives’ must have seemed highly improbable, indeed more honoured in the breach than in the observance, but it was nevertheless underlined in a set of informal follow-up instructions or ‘hints’ that were issued to Cook by the President of the Royal Society Lord Morton. (The misspelling of Moreton Bay was an error perpetuated by Dr John Hawkesworth, to whom we shall come presently.) These urged ‘the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the Natives of the several lands where the ship may touch,’ and as well:

To check the petulance of the Sailors, and restrain the wanton use of Fire Arms.

To have it still in view that the shedding of the blood of those people is a crime of the highest nature:— They are human creatures, the work of the same omnipotent Author, equally under his care with the most polished European; perhaps being less offensive, more entitled to his favour.

They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several regions they inhabit.

No European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent.

Conquest over such people can give no just title; because they could never be the Aggressors.

The 14th Earl of Morton wrote, here, as a powerful nobleman of the Enlightenment in England – the very concept of Britain having been in 1768 less than 70 years old; the Acts of Union were only given royal assent by Queen Anne in 1707. Lord Morton was a man of ‘sensibility’, and the fact that he felt the need to spell out his hints in quite such detail is itself telling.

The hints also underline a number of striking presumptions. First, exactly how might consent be sought or secured from native peoples given the inevitable barrier of language, a barrier that might well prove insuperable? Second, Morton reflects the broad assumption of his century, namely that the ordinary foot soldier or sailor was a brute, a low beast that had to be kept under control and, often, punished into submission by means of the lash. The severe brutality of state-sanctioned flogging cannot be overstated.

It was not until the arrival of journalists (and cameras) on the battlefields of the Crimean War of 1853–56 that this general attitude, much helped by the nursing activities of Florence Nightingale, was overturned and the ordinary foot soldier and sailor, the tommy and eventually the digger became instead the thitherto unsung heroes, while dark clouds of incompetence, corruption and patronage hung low over Lord Raglan’s High Command.

If Lord Morton’s hints were comparatively benign with respect to native peoples, the Navy Board took a far more pragmatic stance. At Plymouth, Endeavour took aboard 10 four-pounder cannon and 12 swivel guns with a great deal of ammunition, to cover against the possibility of native or any other attack in the Pacific, as well as 12 heavily armed Royal Marines. Prior to Endeavour’sdeparture, one of the formalities Cook was bound to observe as commanding officer was, in accordance with an act of Parliament, to read to the assembled ship’s company the 36 Articles of War. It would be naïve to suppose that, on the eve of Cook’s departure in 1768, the hints and not the arms better reflected the general outlook of the authorities at Deptford, in Whitehall and at Plymouth.

Following upon their first sight of land at Point Hicks in East Gippsland – the name was restored to the feature by the then premier of Victoria Sir Henry Bolte in connection with the bicentenary in 1970 – on 20 April 1770, Endeavour passed three waterspouts by which Joseph Banks especially was impressed:

We were now sailing along shore 5 or 6 Leagues from it [the coast], with a brisk breeze of wind and cloudy unsettled weather, when we were calld upon deck to see three water spouts, which at the same time made their appearance in different places but all between us and the land. Two which were very distant soon disapeard but the third which was about a League from us lasted full a quarter of an hour. It was a column which appeard to be of about the thickness of a mast or a midling tree, and reachd down from a smoak colourd cloud about two thirds of the way to the surface of the sea; under it the sea appeard to be much troubled for a considerable space and from the whole of that space arose a dark colourd thick mist which reachd to the bottom of the pipe. When it was at its greatest distance from the water the pipe itself was perfectly transparent and much resembled a tube of glass or a Column of water, if such a thing could be supposd to be suspended in the air; it very frequently contracted and dilated, lengthned and shortned itself and that by very quick motions; it very seldom remaind in a perpendicular direction but Generaly inclind either one way or the other in a curve as a light body acted upon by wind is observd to do. During the whole time that it lasted smaler ones seemd to attempt to form in its neighbourhood; at last one did about as thick as a rope close by it and became longer than the old one which at that time was in its shortest state; upon this they Joind together in an instant and gradualy contracting into the Cloud disapeard.

It turns out that the approximately 3000 Gunaikurnai people of East Gippsland maintain an inherited belief in the ancestorship of several waterspouts. Endeavour was immediately made aware of the existence of people ashore. Plumes of smoke were observed in many places and, at night, even out to sea, Resolution and Adventure passed through Cook Strait in New Zealand, the artist William Hodges produced a dramatic view of both ships passing, again, 3 waterspouts.

Although it has long been claimed that the Gweagal people and the Kameygal people of the Dharawal nation were driven away from Botany Bay, the descendants of both are very much still there and always have been. The two warriors who at first tried to resist Cook’s landing dropped their spears and withdrew. A presumably unintended consequence of Cook’s decision to gather up and take on board those spears was that the Kameygal were effectively deprived of the equipment they needed to feed themselves and their families for as long as it took them to fashion new ones. This is still remembered with considerable resentment. In the circumstances, Cook was lucky that, throughout his relatively brief stay at Botany Bay, the Dharawal people ignored him. Their name for Botany Bay, was and remains Kamay.

The question of naming is an important one. When and why did Cook settle upon the name of South Wales, later adjusting it to New South Wales? The impressive cliffs and headlands along the stretch of coast that runs between Jervis Bay and modern Sydney Harbour (and beyond) may well have given him the idea. It would not be a stretch, I think, to be thus reminded of wild stretches of the coast of Pembrokeshire, which Cook sailed past on his way to and from Atlantic Canada years earlier.

However, as names go, New South Wales must surely have struck him as increasingly unsuitable the further north Endeavour proceeded. To my knowledge there are not many coconut palms or mangroves in the vicinity of Milford Haven. Cook named features for the benefit of his extraordinarily accurate charts, employing a consistent set of guiding principles.

Coastal profiling and the identification of topographical features led, for example, to Mount Dromedary (Gulaga) just inland from the south coast of New South Wales. It is hard to imagine how Cook ever managed to see a real dromedary, although Richard Heppenstall did maintain a novelty travelling show of camels at the Talbot Inn on the Strand, so it is possible.

Having initially named Kamay Stingray Bay, Cook switched to Botany Bay owing to the activities of Banks, Solander and Herman Spöring. He also named places in acknowledgment of particular circumstances and/or days or dates; for example Cape Tribulation, Mount Warning, Point Danger, Thirsty Sound, Thursday Island, the Whitsundays, Trinity Bay. And there was patronage to acknowledge (upwards) and indeed exercise downwards. In the first of these two brackets we may list Cape York (for Vice-Admiral of the Blue Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of York and Albany; King George III’s lately deceased younger brother), Cape Howe, Port Jackson, Port Stephens, Hervey Bay and Moreton Bay. In the latter, there are Point Hicks (Zachary, the officer of the watch who first spied it), Cape Solander, Cape Banks, Young Nick’s Head (in New Zealand, after the cabin boy), and so on.

In one remarkable case, that of ‘Three Brothers’ (hills on the mid–North Coast that rise in the hinterland of Port Stephens), Cook managed to alight upon an exact translation of the local Birpai name. Not going ashore, Cook had no way of knowing this – so it is merely a coincidence, but one that suggests, in rare instances, the existence, the possibility, of certain psychic commonalities that might have spanned an otherwise unbridgeable gulf.

Cook’s names were ultimately published with his maps and, to the extent that the imposition of names overlaps with absorbing the named into a body of knowledge, too easily this in turn glides effortlessly into the casual presumption of intellectual ownership and, before too long, actual possession and political or commercial exploitation. Cook also worked within Admiralty conventions pertaining to the discovery and concealment of features of particularly strategic importance. It seems obvious now that Cook correctly guessed that Van Diemen’s Land was separated from the mainland by what was later named Bass Strait. If any settlement were eventually attempted in New South Wales, therefore – Cook had no particular reason to think that this was not imminent and/or like – a separate Van Diemen’s Land might well prove to be a strategic asset snatched up by the French and therefore, of course, a serious vulnerability. It was vital therefore to persist in creating the impression that it formed part of the mainland as Tasman had presumed; indeed that impression was successfully kept up for another 30 years.

The Cook Islands (today an independent Pacific island nation in voluntary association with Aotearoa New Zealand) are proposing to rename themselves. This is entirely reasonable, because the name was first coined long after Cook’s death by, it seems, a Russian cartographer as late as the 1820s. In the circumstances who could possibly blame the Polynesian Cook Islanders for now wishing to agree upon, reclaim and restore a Polynesian name? James Cook had in 1769 named one of the atolls (Manuae) Hervey Island, but the plural was soon applied to the whole group. It is not clear why Cook’s name for the islands fell into desuetude.

Approaching by sea, from the direction of modern Wollongong, Endeavour must have experienced considerable drama because the headlands at either side of the Botany Bay form lofty, sponge-cake layered sandstone cliffs, so the bay itself only discloses itself at the last minute.

Endeavour dropped anchor in a sheltered spot about as close to the heads as it is possible safely to be. The immediate neighbourhood has been turned into a pretty park along the shore, with separate monuments to Cook (a fine obelisk, 1870), Solander and Banks; and the grave of Forby Sutherland, the ship’s poulterer and apparently the first British subject to be buried on Australian soil, occupying prominent and nicely spaced positions overlooking the bay.

The considerable distance between the western side of the bay and modern Kurnell takes the motorist through a dispiriting industrial zone with, inter alia, a ‘waste management centre’, the Caltex petroleum depot with enormous white storage tanks and a desalination plant, so the way into modern Kurnell itself feels gritty – except for the Cook Landing Place with its exotic conifers and manicured lawns, the effects of which are duly incongruous. The view from there takes in (from left to right) the modern Caltex wharf only a very short distance from Kurnell and, on the other side, Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport; the Port Botany container terminal, again the largest in the country; and the north head of La Pérouse.

That Australia’s largest container terminal and its busiest airport should both today lie on the north shore of Botany Bay gives symmetry to the past 250 years. This is still the place where all manner of persons and cargoes from distant places first make landfall, as Cook and his companions did on the south side. Able seaman Isaac Smith (soon to be promoted midshipman) was the first man ashore, responding dutifully to Cook’s injuntion: ‘Jump out, Isaac!’ What next transpired runs to the heart of our project.

In many parts of the continent it is customary for visitors to wait to be invited to approach the custodians of a place so when, oblivious, Cook and his men landed, the Dharawal people attempted to discourage the strangers from coming any further. Two warriors painted in ceremonial ochre confronted the Endeavour party with spears to which threat Cook ordered either one or two muskets be fired over their head – ostensibly to scare them away.

As Cook and his party landed, a spear was thrown by one of the warriors and a third shot fired, which Cook noted struck one of the men. The Dharawal retreated and thenceforth ignored the intruders for the time that Endeavour lay at anchor in the bay. There can be no question that this first encounter was violent and, according to Dharawal tradition, the man perished, while Cook implied that what he sustained was merely a glancing flesh wound to the legs.

Owing to the impressive width of the bay, there is enough in the view to give a general sense of its original topography, ignoring the fact that the site is effectively the back doorstep of a modern metropolis of 5 million people. Seen through narrowed eyes, the airport and container terminal merge with the horizon.

The Philosophical Society of Australasia’s inscription commemorating the 50th anniversary of Cook’s landing is some considerable distance from the other, later monuments and unfortunately the old sandstone steps down to it were being repaired so there was no access except by water. The plaque was evidently of some enduring interest in the colony because in 1822 the following sonnet by Judge Barron Field appeared in the Sydney Gazette (and was reprinted the following year in his First Fruits of Australian Poetry):



Here fix the tablet: – This must must be the place

Where our Columbus of the South did land;

He saw the Indian village on that sand,

And on this rock first met the simple race

Of Australasia, who presum’d to face,

With lance and spear, his musket. Close at hand

Is the clear stream, from which his vent’rous band

Refresh’d their ship; and thence, a little space,

Lies Sutherland, their shipmate; for the sound

Of Christian burial, better did proclaim

Possession than the flag, in England’s name.

These were the commelineæ Banks first found,

But where’s the tree with the ship’s wood-carv’d fame?

Fix then th’ Ephesian brass. ’Tis classic ground.

(A footnote explains that the Ephesians were the first to dedicate inscriptions on metal. Commelineæ is a genus of approximately 170 species commonly called the dayflower or spiderwort or widow’s tears. It is the largest genus of its family, Commelinaceæ.)

I am struck by that part about Christian burial better proclaiming possession than the flag. It feels like a fairly conventional 18th-century Church of England sentiment such as was likely to linger among the clergymen of Regency Sydney; Field was one of the founders of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge among the Aborigines. It is also clear that Field went all over the extensive site. The reference to ‘Columbus of the south’, meanwhile, was a trope that continued to be perpetuated as recently as 1970, when the New York Times (no less) used the phrase in relation to the recovery from Endeavour Reef of the 4 cannon that were jettisoned after it struck coral. Memorialising in 1870, meanwhile, the correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald persisted with the other, complementary trope of ‘Classic ground.’

The view up and down the coast from nearby Cape Solander is truly spectacular, and adds to the sense of incongruity that surrounds modern Kurnell, definitely the poor relation to modern Cronulla. It’s hard to think of any such place of historical significance or ‘classic ground’ that has been more effectively encroached upon by prosaic industrial junk. The most recent efforts to improve the park and related national park that protects much of the dramatic windswept headland have resulted in excellent signs that place the spot in the context of its Aboriginal inhabitants. On the pavement directly in front of the 1870 obelisk, for example, are inset the Dharawal words with which Cook’s party are believed to have been greeted from the shore. They mean: ‘Go away.’ In the immediate vicinity of the existing monuments there are few flora that can possibly correspond with what Banks and Solander set to work on straight away. For them, it is necessary to walk a little way into the adjoining national park. There is another plaque on the side of the base of the obelisk that records the fact that on the occasion of the Endeavour bicentenary in 1970, a historical re-enactment of the landing was observed from this spot by The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne. It does not mention that, at the same time, Aboriginal Australians on the opposite shore at La Pérouse protested the celebration.

Another plaque marks the place where, by an apparent stroke of good fortune that was denied to Arthur Phillip 18 years later, Cook ordered a hole dug in the sand and managed to extract enough fresh water to replenish the ship’s supply – not exactly the stream Barron Field referred to, although there must have been something still there in 1822, as there was in 1870.

Given the comparative brevity of the ensuing visit , it now seems far less strange that Banks furnished such an encouraging report about Botany Bay to Their Lordships of the Admiralty. Later generations concluded that Banks’s assessments of the place, its suitability for settlement and agriculture, were recklessly optimistic, indeed exaggerated beyond recognition. However, it is not hard to grasp that without various discouraging elements (of which Banks was never made aware, there being too little time) otherwise reasonable men would reach similarly optimistic conclusions. Botany Bay is quite obviously an excellent natural harbour. What they could see of the hinterland must also have seemed hugely encouraging.

Cook went so far as to note that the Dharawal warriors he encountered upon landing at Kamay could neither understand him nor his Tahitian companion, Tupaia. Cook’s assumption that this might have been possible would be baffling, were it not for the fact that upon encountering Māori for the first time on the equivalent occasion near modern Gisborne in New Zealand in 1769, Cook was startled to find that after sailing a distance of some 2,300 nautical miles, Tupaia could not only understand the Māori but spoke essentially the same language. Cook must have entertained the possibility that the same might turn out to be true of some or all of the inhabitants of New Holland. This makes his remark about the Dharawal far more explicable.

When in 1900, E Phillips Fox was commissioned, as part of the bequest of William Gilbee, to produce for the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne a large history painting on an Australian national theme, Fox chose as his subject The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770. Completed in 1902, the painting aligned itself with the full force and upsurge of nationalistic sentiment arising from Federation, but the resulting work is unfortunate; shrill in its patriotism, adoring of the historically accurate red ensign, and painfully crude in its dismissal of the two Dharawal warriors into a distant background projected against the right margin of the composition – barely spear-wielding caricatures, and evidently caught in the lethal sights of the red-coat marine in the foreground. The implication, moreover, that Cook’s gesture, worthy of Marcus Aurelius, is one of restraint gives the lie to Fox’s version of the original encounter. Nevertheless, Fox’s composition was engraved on the verso of the Australian one-pound note between 1923 and 1932.

It is worth noting that, within months of the completion of Fox’s Landing, the new Commonwealth passed the Naturalisation Act 1903. This specifically provided for naturalisation as a British subject, not as an Australian citizen. In the case of Attorney-General of the Commonwealth v Ah Sheung (1906) 4 CLR 949, the High Court of Australia said that ‘We are not disposed to give any countenance to the novel doctrine that there is an Australian nationality as distinguished from a British nationality’. The concept of Australian citizenship did not come into being until the Nationality and Citizenship Act was given royal assent in 1948, and the Commonwealth did not take responsibility for Aboriginal affairs until the Constitution was amended following the referendum of 1967, when the bicentenary of Cook’s landing at Botany Bay was rapidly approaching.

Endeavour carried no chronometer. The invention was so new and expensive that the provision of one was impracticable. Instead, according to Captain WJL Wharton, evidently writing for a nautically literate audience in the 1890s:

The recognised means of finding longitude was by the observation of lunars; that is, accurately measuring the angular distance between the centres of the moon and of the sun, or of the moon and some star. The motion of the moon is so rapid that this angular distance changes from second to second, and thereby, by previous astronomical calculation, the time at Greenwich at which its distance from any body is a certain number of degrees can be ascertained and recorded. By well-known [sic] calculations the local time at any spot can be obtained, and when this is ascertained, at the precise moment that the angular distance of sun and moon is observed, the difference gives longitude.

He went on:

This calculation seems simple enough, but there is a good deal of calculation to go through before the result is reached, and neither the observation nor the calculation is easy, especially with the astronomical tables of those days, there were very few sailors who were capable of, or patient enough to make them, nor was the result, as a rule, very accurate. For one thing the motions of the moon, which are extremely complicated, were not enough known to allow her calculated position in the heavens to be very accurate, and a very small error in this position considerably affects the time, and therefore the longitude. Luckily for Cook, the Nautical Almanack and Astronomical Ephemeris (1767) had just been started, and contained tables of the moon which had not previously been available, and which much lightened the calculations.

Charles Green therefore played a vital, indispensable role as ship’s astronomer and effectively as navigator also, but Cook himself increasingly made those astronomical observations, and was obliged to carry the whole burden after Green died at sea. Theirs were sophisticated mathematical minds, equipped with exceptionally good mental arithmetic compared with what our society has effectively surrendered to machines.

Prior to its departure from Plymouth, Endeavour took aboard provisions that were intended to last for 18 months and sustain 94 men. These included ‘four tons of beer, 185 pounds of great Devonshire cheeses, fresh meat by the hundredweight, salt beef by the ton, biscuits and vinegar, healthy sauerkraut and fruit against scurvy, six bags of freshly baked bread for the first days, 604 gallons of rum [about 94 proof, and rationed at one pint per day for men and half a pint for boys]’. As well, there were live chickens, pigs, the ship’s milking goat, two greyhounds and a cat plus mountainous quantities of feed, coal and many blocks of stone and pig iron for ballast.

Drunkenness was for much of the ship’s company habitual and occasionally violent. The Scottish quartermaster, Robert Anderson, had to be flogged for excessive drunkenness at Rio de Janeiro, where the boatswain’s mate John Reading was himself too drunk to carry out the flogging, as was his duty, and was himself therefore flogged as well. So disinhibiting were the daily rations of ‘grog’ that buggery, although for the time being a capital and unspeakably notorious offence, was nevertheless a feature of communal life below decks, there having been an understanding, unstated but very real, that, provided the sharing of hammocks was more or less discreet, a blind eye would be turned. This appears to have been commonplace within the shipboard culture of the Royal Navy, especially on long voyages of which Endeavour’s was the ne plus ultra.

The enormous quantity of provisions did not travel well. The salt beef eventually rotted and maggots, rat and mouse faeces, weevils and general adulteration became severe problems. In the weeks prior to his departure, Cook successfully applied to the Navy Board to replace his first cook, whom he judged too frail to endure the coming voyage, only to find that the board’s replacement, John Thompson, had only one hand. Cook protested a second time, but was unsuccessful. Despite this impediment, Thompson went on to do a good job. He died early in the crossing of the Indian Ocean.

If many of the ship’s company were more or less drunk every day, at any one time a good proportion of them were badly sick. Upon beaching Endeavour at what is now Cooktown, one of the first measures ashore was to erect 2 tents of sailcloth, one to store provisions and the other to shelter ‘the sick’, about whom Cook noted the fact as if it were simply routine. The ship’s surgeon, William Monkhouse, was among the busiest gentlemen aboard until he succumbed, died, and was replaced by the surgeon’s mate, William Perry. At Batavia in November, about a third of the ship’s company contracted dysentery or malaria or both, and there were many deaths. The Dutch estimated that 50 per cent mortality was the norm among new arrivals at Batavia; Cook, Banks, Solander and Spöring were all lucky to survive. The two Tahitians, Tupaia and Tiata, died almost straight away.

It was observed with some irony that the only person aboard who did not fall ill at Batavia was the seaman who had been catatonically drunk every day since they sailed from Plymouth. Charles Green, John Thompson and Sydney Parkinson (among others) died at sea in January and February 1771, at which point Cook’s journal veers toward desperation. The cause of the dysentery may well have been the supply of water Endeavour took on board at Prince’s Island (modern Panaitan in the Sunda Strait that separates Java and Sumatra). The loss of life was severe so it can have been a matter of little consolation that Cook was able to report to the Navy Board upon his return to London that, at least, nobody had died of scurvy.

The vast majority of people living in Georgian England travelled only as far as they could walk. This was one of the few things they had in common with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In the case of the gentry and upwards, travel was on the whole only as far as they could ride or drive short distances in a trap.

A long and useful life in Great Yarmouth could be measured without ever once set foot in Ipswich, only 60 miles (100 kilometres) distant. The psychic distance between Durham and Bristol, meanwhile, might as well have been as far as Jamaica. Travel was uncomfortable, inconvenient, dangerous, dirty and mostly undertaken by stagecoach only when it was absolutely unavoidable, and on unsealed roads that were at best poorly maintained and often impassably sodden rivers of mud. Most people stayed at home; home was usually where they were born, and where they eventually died.

The most important exception to this rule, and for many a vital escape route and/or opportunity to learn a trade, was becoming a sailor and going to sea. Endeavour’s circumnavigation was therefore the more remarkable because the actual distance it covered, let alone the psychic, was almost inconceivable to most people at home. It follows that on any ship of the Royal Navy the composition of the crew was relatively diverse, and Endeavour was no exception, indeed it was more polyglot than most.

The scientific gentlemen who came aboard at Plymouth included one originally from Sweden and another from Finland, their luggage and servants having preceded them. These were a most unusual complement in any case, but below-decks the crew consisted of men and boys, the youngest of whom was 12 years old, who came from Cork, Cumberland, Essex, Fife, Guernsey, Hull, Inverness, Lancashire, London, the Orkneys, Wales, Yorkshire, Brazil, Venice, and two from New York (one of whom was impressed at Madeira). As well, at Batavia it was found that several sailors were able to make themselves useful because they could speak Dutch and Portuguese. Many of them already had experience of Atlantic, Baltic, Canadian and Caribbean waters, and a number of them, having proven themselves aboard Endeavour, went on to accompany Cook on his subsequent two voyages of circumnavigation.

For all of its cramped quarters, the ship’s company was – with the obvious, glaring exception of gender – extraordinarily diverse, compared with any village or market town in which in 1770 most English people were assembled. In that year, the population of London was 700,000, only slightly more than half that of Adelaide today.

The seaside community Seventeen Seventy or 1770 in Queensland, roughly halfway between Bundaberg and Gladstone, formerly known as Round Hill, was renamed Seventeen Seventy in 1935, when the country was beginning to prepare for the commemoration of the sesquicentenary of the establishment of Port Jackson by Arthur Phillip. That was around the same date when, commemorating separately the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Melbourne (and by inference Victoria), Russell Grimwade acquired ‘Captain Cook’s Cottage’, and had it brought brick by brick from Yorkshire to the Fitzroy Gardens.

A process of historical drift had by then morphed James Cook into an unwitting harbinger and receptacle of Australian national identity, and put to many such strange uses, but why this particular spot in Queensland? Because Seventeen Seventy was only the second place all that long way up the east coast of Australia where Cook and his companions alighted on terra firma. It does seem extraordinary that they did not land more often than that. One senses an impatience, after nearly 2 years, to sail home. The distance between the first sighting of land (Point Hicks in East Gippsland) and Botany Bay is 600 kilometres (324 nautical miles). The distance from Botany Bay to Seventeen Seventy is more than 1400 kilometres (756 nautical miles).

Cooktown, much further north (another 1600 kilometres [864 nautical miles]), was inevitable. Endeavour had to be beached and repaired after it struck coral on the Great Barrier Reef. That Cook opted for that particular stretch of beach was simply a matter of luck, unaware as he must have been that it was effectively neutral territory separating two Aboriginal communities, either of which, had he beached the vessel on theirs, only a short distance north or south, would have justly regarded it as a dangerous intrusion.

Endeavour dropped anchor at Seventeen Seventy in the late afternoon of 23 May 1770. Cook named the inlet Bustard Bay because upon landing one of his marines shot a species of bustard that weighed 17-and-a-half pounds (8 kilograms). Ardeotis australis, alas now endangered, is still known as bush turkey. It was generally agreed back on board that night that it was the best bird they (some of them) had eaten since sailing from England. In his journal, Cook noted that Bustard Bay was a suitable safe haven for several large vessels, and blessed with a good supply of fresh water. It is not hard to visualise Endeavour riding at anchor there. They saw about 20 local people ashore, but encountered none upon landing. However, we know from the oral tradition that Cook, Banks (who was promptly stung by green ants) and the other Englishmen, were not only seen, but also watched carefully for several hours, and from a safe distance.

From Bustard Bay, which lies near the southernmost end of the Great Barrier Reef, Cook was almost straight away obliged to make the decision to sail inside the reef, so as to remain within reach of the coast; or to sail outside it, avoid the peril of shoals, rocks and coral, but lose sight of the coast and open up what would have been a very long gap in his charts. The decision to sail inside the reef proved fateful. On the night of 10 June, wrote Banks,

While we were at supper she went over a bank of 7 or 8 fathom water which she came upon very suddenly; this we concluded to be the tail of the Sholes we had seen at sunset and therefore went to bed in perfect security, but scarce were we warm in our beds when we were calld up with the alarming news of the ship being fast ashore upon a rock, which she in a few moments convincd us of by beating very violently against the rocks. Our situation became now greatly alarming: we had stood off shore 3 hours and a half with a plesant breeze so knew we could not be very near it: we were little less than certain that we were upon sunken coral rocks, the most dreadfull of all others on account of their sharp points and grinding quality which cut through a ships bottom almost immediately. The officers however behavd with inimitable coolness void of all hurry and confusion; a boat was got out in which the master went and after sounding round the ship found that she had ran over a rock and consequently had Shole water all round her. All this time she continued to beat very much so that we could hardly keep our legs upon the Quarter deck; by the light of the moon we could see her sheathing boards &c. floating thick round her; about 12 her false keel came away.

For Banks ever to express alarm is most unusual. Nevertheless, there is considerable sangfroid in his account of this appalling incident, one that placed the ship and everyone aboard in immediate and extreme peril. One can only imagine the sickening sound of stout Yorkshire oak being crunched then pulverised against razor-sharp coral, to say nothing of jolting so violent that one could barely stand on the quarterdeck. Cook’s first response, upon swiftly assessing the extent of the damage to Endeavour’s hull, was to lighten the vessel:

We not only started water but threw’d over board our guns, Iron and stone ballast, Casks, Hoops, staves, oyle Jars, decay’d stores &Ca many of these last articles lay in the way at coming at heavyer – all this time the Ship made little or no water. At a 11 oClock in the AM being high-water as we thought we try'd to heave her off without success she not being a float by a foot or more notwithstanding by this time we had thrown over board 40 or 50 Tun weight, as this was not found sufficient we continued to Lighten her by every method we could think off.

The jettisoning of 40 or 50 tons is impressive, even when presumably ejected in a hurry by all available hands. That Endeavour in the hours and days that followedshould have been successfully freed from the coral and saved, beached at the mouth of Endeavour River, and repaired over the course of the ensuing weeks – largely thanks to the efforts of the ship’s carpenters and armourers – was something of a miracle and certainly attests to the discipline and superb seamanship of the company.

The sojourn at Endeavour River following their close brush with death opened up a wide envelope of time, and a wholly unanticipated opportunity for the scientific gentlemen. It also furnished by far the most meaningful contact with any local Aboriginal people. Sydney Parkinson, especially, took a lively and relatively detached interest:

The natives, who were naked, though of a diminutive size, ran very swiftly, and were very merry and facetious. Their bones were so small, that I could more than span their ancles; and their arms too, above the elbow joint. The tallest we saw measured but five feet nine inches; though their slimness made them appear taller, most of them were about five feet five inches; and were painted with red and white in various figures. The colour of their skin was like that of wood-soot. They had flattish noses, moderate-sized mouths, regular well-set large teeth, tinged with yellow. Most of them had cut off the hair from their heads; but some of them wore their hair, which was curled and bushy, and their beards frizzled. On their breasts and hips were corresponding marks like ridges, or seams, raised above the rest of the flesh, which looked like the cicatrices of ill-healed wounds. Some of them were painted with red streaks across the body, and others streaked over the face with white, which they called Carbanda. Some of them had a small hair-rope about their loins, and one about an arm, made of human hair. They had also a bag that hung by their necks, which they carried shell-fish in. Their noses had holes bored in them, through which they drew a piece of white bone about three or five inches long, and two round. One of them had his ears bored in like manner, and pieces of bone hung in them. Some of them had necklaces made of oval pieces of bright shells, which lay imbricated over one another, and linked together by two strings. The women, who did not approach nearer to us than the opposite shore, had feathers stuck on the crown of their heads, fastened, as we were informed, to a piece of gum. They had lances and levers, very neatly made of a reddish wood; and had two pieces of bone, joined together with pitch, that stood out at the end of them. To polish their lances they made use of the ficus riduola, which served the pur-pose of a rasp. Their canoes were made out of the trunks of trees; had an out-rigger; and eight outriggers on which they laid their lances. Their paddles were long in the blade. To throw the water out of their canoes, they used a large shell called the Persian-crown.

Their language was not harsh, as may be seen by the following vocabulary, and they articulated their words very distinctly, though, in speaking, they made a great motion with their lips, and uttered their words vociferously, especially when they meant to shew their dissent or disapprobation. When they were pleased, and would manifest approbation, they said Hee, with a long flexion of the voice, in a high and shrill tone. They often said Tut, tut, many times together, but we knew not what they meant by it, unless it was intended to express astonishment. At the end of this Tut, they sometimes added Urr, and often whistled when they were surprised.

In the 7 weeks so unexpectedly made available to him, Parkinson committed himself to that initial nonverbal dialogue with the Aboriginal people that in any such encounter constitutes the first hesitant step toward learning a language, or exchanging bits of two. Patiently, he compiled a list of words that were largely and necessarily confined to the features most easily communicated nonverbally and at close quarters. They include:

Bamma: man

Mootjel: woman

Tulkoore: hair

Wageegee: head

Walloo: temples

Peete: forehead

Meul: eyes

Garbar: eyebrows

Poetya: eye-lids

Melea: ears

Bonjoo: nose

Yembe: lips

Mulere, or mole: teeth

Unjar: tongue

Jacal, or tacal,: chin.

Waller, jeamball, or teamball: beard

Doomboo: neck

and so on.

Upon finally returning to London in 1771, Cook and his companions attained instant celebrity. King George III received Cook in audience at Kew for a whole hour, and soon afterwards businessman and politician Henry Thrale and his arts patron wife Hester hosted a dinner in Cook’s honour. In August he was promoted to the rank of commander. His fame, however, was not restricted to England. It spread throughout Europe, and even transcended the ancient enmity with France.

The posthumous classicising marble bust of Cook by Augustin Pajou was created for a cenotaph in the formal gardens of the Château of Méréville in the valley of the Juine in the Île de France, seat of the wealthy financier of the ancien régime the Marquis de Laborde. There, among follies, grottoes, caves and waterfalls, Cook’s bust joined a pantheon of European heroes, including the Marquis’ two sons who in 1785 sailed with Jean François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, and were presumed lost at sea, correctly as it turned out. In 1777, Wedgwood’s Etruria pottery in Staffordshire issued a large medallion portrait of Captain Cook, designed for jasper stoneware by John Flaxman, in a series of Illustrious Moderns. In 1870, making essentially the same point about Cook’s fame, the Sydney Morning Herald claimed that England ‘justly places him in that long list of worthies which add lustre to the annals of the nation. But his great achievements form part of universal history, which, as [Alphonse de] Lamartine gracefully observes, “admits of no personal feeling, acknowledges neither cause nor birth nor country, and bows only to genius and heroism and virtue”’.

Having delivered his charts, journals and ship’s log to the Admiralty, as well as Banks’s journal, Their Lordships assigned the task of collating and editing an authoritative account of the voyage to Dr John Hawkesworth. His An Account of the Voyages undertaken … for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere and performed by Commodore Byrone, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret and Captain Cook (from 1702 to 1771) drawn up from the Journals … (3 vols) appeared in 1773.

Hawkesworth is another stout thread with which Endeavour may be tied to the Enlightenment in England. Years earlier Hawkesworth created an authoritative edition of the works of Dean Swift. He was a friend and former colleague of Dr Samuel Johnson. In the absence of Cook himself, who set out on his second circumnavigation in July 1772, Hawkesworth, by then almost 60 years old and with no firsthand experience of any such voyage, set to work and, on the basis of his high reputation, sold the rights in advance for the colossal sum of £6,000. He proceeded to attribute to Cook observations that were actually made by Banks, and vice versa. As Lynne Truss has observed:

What Cook himself famously disliked in the finished product – in a conversation recorded by Boswell in 1776 – was Hawkesworth’s moralising; his habit of drawing ‘a general conclusion from a particular fact’. Boswell agreed: ‘He has used your narrative as a London tavern keeper does wine. He has brewed it.’ In Hawkesworth’s defence, it was hard to find common ground between the journals of Cook and Banks. But this is where his hubris comes in, because his conceited editorial solution was sometimes not to choose between Cook and Banks, but to override both and insert his own stuff.

As well, many critics attacked Hawkesworth’s descriptions of the manners and customs of the South Seas as being ‘hurtful to the interests of morality’. Worse, these were at the same time mocked for the commensurate enthusiasms Hawkesworth incorrectly attributed to Cook. The book was roundly condemned. Fanny Burney was sure that this rejection ultimately killed Hawkesworth. He died a broken man in November 1773. The South Sea islander material also ‘prompted a blast from Dr Johnson that just because ignorant savages laughed at some of the follies of civilised life it did not follow that men were better without houses’.

Nevertheless, Hawkesworth marks the beginning of an enormous Endeavour literature that shows no sign of dwindling. Entire lifetimes have been devoted to its pursuit, that of JC Beaglehole, for example, whose authoritative edition of Cook’s journals for the Hakluyt Society in Cambridge appeared in meticulous stages between 1955 and 1974. There has been no focus too narrow for further inquiry, for re-examination and reinterpretation – a point that is made clear by perusing the website of the Captain Cook Society and the cumulative index of its quarterly publication Cook’s Log. An initial search in the British Library’s online catalogue, meanwhile, yields 4764 items pertaining to James Cook, of which 1763 are books.

Of few men could it be more accurately said that he has been turned into a publishing industry. There is some evidence to suggest that Cook’s unhappiness with Hawkesworth’s magnum opus, which he first encountered at Cape Town upon returning aboard the Resolution, altered his approach to his journal on the third circumnavigation, even to the point of hinting at literary aspiration. Yet over the past nearly 250 years the vast and accumulating historiography of James Cook has evolved with the writing of history itself, and will no doubt continue to.

If, as is obvious, at times we look askance at general conclusions that were reached about Endeavour 100 years ago, even only 50, we can be quite certain that in 50 and 100 years time our own will be found wanting. The meanings of Endeavour will then be just as mixed as they are today, but mixed in the light of utterly different circumstances, and different questions that trouble future minds: questions that we have no way of framing. Fortunately, perhaps, as George Eliot once remarked, among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous. All we can do is to ask our own questions, and accept that there are in Australia today many different answers. What, after all, are the meanings of Endeavour?

Counterfactual narrative is useful when it serves to lay particular emphasis upon the actual. For example, a passage such as the following has clear and logical resonance with an imagining of Cook’s life post Hawaii.

Following his safe return from the third circumnavigation, his several subsequent promotions and his eventual retirement from active service, Vice Admiral Sir James Cook RN KCB FRS was in 1793 appointed to succeed Lord Cornwallis as Governor-General of the Presidency of Fort William (Bengal) under letters patent that provided him with the additional responsibility for, and oversight of, new settlements in New South Wales, on Norfolk Island and settlements envisaged but yet to be established in Van Diemen’s Land, New Zealand and other British territories in the Pacific (for which he carried dormant commissions). His Excellency and Lady Cook, accompanied by His Excellency’s elder surviving son and namesake, who served his father as aide-de-camp, arrived at Calcutta aboard the East Indiaman Rose in November of that year.

Even if he had not become an overnight celebrity upon his return to England in 1771, Cook’s untimely death in Hawaii in February 1779, midway through that third circumnavigation, instantly catapulted him into the realm of myth. At the end of 1778, after a long voyage from the Bering Sea, the crew of Cook’s ships, the Resolution and Discovery, were at first warmly greeted by the Hawaiian Islanders.

At Kealakekua Bay they traded enthusiastically from innumerable canoes. Ashore, their ceremonies in honour of Cook were long and intricate. The women especially were a welcome, indeed abundant distraction, so much so that the decks were described as ‘a scene of Babylonian copulation and acquisitiveness’. Cook soon felt obliged to prevent the women from boarding.

Another change in these happy circumstances arose from the 18th-century English obsession with minor offences against property. Cook perceived that the Hawaiians made no distinction between bona fide trading and outright theft. They were interested in metal objects. One islander was flogged aboard Discovery for trying to steal a pair of the armourer’s tongs. Another islander succeeded where the previous one failed, and made off with the tongs. A boat was sent in hot pursuit. The question was one of principle. Events quickly span out of control. What began as scuffles ashore soon deteriorated. The islanders set about making war, not love. Then, under cover of darkness, Discovery’s cutter was stolen.

To Cook this was an outrageously provocative escalation. He went ashore and attempted with his Royal Marines to take on board a ‘friendly hostage’, King Terreeoboo, to ensure the return of the stolen vessel, but the armed islanders congregated, resisted, and suddenly Cook, who had thought that his marines’ muskets would prevail, found himself desperately outnumbered and under ferocious attack. Cook and 4 of his marines were killed while attempting to board his pinnace. He was clubbed, stabbed many times, and afterwards his body dismembered and partly burned. This was a particularly gruesome death, which horrified the British survivors who witnessed it.

It took 11 months for the news to reach London by letter from the Kamchatka Peninsula. ‘This untimely and ever to be lamented Fate of so intrepid, so able, and intelligent a Sea-Officer,’ ran his obituary in the London Gazette, ‘may justly be considered as an irreparable Loss to the Public, as well as to his Family, for in him were united every successful and amiable quality that could adorn his Profession; nor was his singular Modesty less conspicuous than his other Virtues. His successful Experiments to preserve the Healths of his Crews are well known, and his Discoveries will be an everlasting Honour to his Country.’

Into the realm of myth Cook duly migrated, and there he remained for the next 200 years – and in many minds, you could argue, for 241. Over that time there has been a Captain Cook for every purpose, for every mood, for every situation. Spy, naval officer, self-made Yorkshireman; ‘the son of an agricultural labourer’, as the old Dictionary of National Biography sniffily pointed out in 1887, who ran away to sea on the Baltic trade; quick-tempered martinet, hero, man of science, brilliant cartographer, bringer of disease, nutritionist, invalid, intruder, celebrity, and so forth.

In 1969, with the bicentenary rapidly approaching, NASA itself went so far as to draw what were regarded as obvious parallels between Neil Armstrong and James Cook, Apollo 11 and Endeavour. The famous portrait of Cook by Nathaniel Dance-Holland surely brings forth the defining element of Yorkshire grit, especially when compared with Sir Joshua Reynolds’ far softer and youthful Joseph Banks, a young man with lively intellect and the leisure with which to exercise it, both made possible by rank, privilege and £6000 a year.

Cook wears the uniform of the Royal Navy. The use of indigo to dye its officers’ cloth what for obvious reasons we now call navy blue was an adaptation that took hold in the early to mid-eighteenth century, indigo having replaced the less colourfast, locally procured English woad as the principal dyestuff. Indigo therefore carries us to a supply chain emanating either from the Honourable East India Company’s commercial operations in occupied Bombay and Calcutta, or from British possessions in the Caribbean and South Carolina, in both of which indigo was cultivated by slaves. Take your pick, but either way this significant bit of British national iconography is joined at the hip with some especially troubling private enterprise aspects of the colonial project prior to the American Revolution, and indeed after it.

Johan Zoffany’s unfinished history painting The Death of Cook (Greenwich, National Maritime Museum), once owned by the navigator’s widow Elizabeth Cook, meanwhile, took as its model Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe (Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada), a British hero who perished in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Québec, part of a wider Anglo–French conflict in which Cook himself played a part early in his career whilst serving in Atlantic Canadian waters aboard HMS Pembroke. Thus, Cook entered the martyrology of the Royal Navy, and was in many respects also elevated into a position of imperial significance, and in due course of national significance to the many countries with which he is today associated. It seems not unreasonable to suppose that if he had survived, Cook would have risen and that, eventually retiring from active service, between them the Admiralty, Whitehall and the Honourable East India Company would have made good use of him. Who better to place in overall charge of those Pacific territories than the man who had years earlier formally taken possession of several of them?

We may credit Johan Zoffany with the gradual solidification of an enduring historical link between Captain Cook and General Wolfe, and their respective fates. In Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, however, there is a tablet that reads:

A[d]. M[aiorem]. D[ei]. G[loriam]. / To commemorate the life and work / of the intrepid explorer of the Pacific / James Cook / 1728–1779 / Captain in the Royal Navy / who prepared the way for General Wolfe to Québec / and in the month of March 1778 / first revealed the wealth of this province / this tablet was erected September 1929 / by the Royal Empire Society.

‘Preparing the way for General Wolfe’ covers Cook’s participation aboard Pembroke in the assault upon the Fortress of Louisbourg (1758); the siege of Québec City, and Cook’s mapping of the mouth of the St Lawrence River, upon which Wolfe and his forces depended (both 1759). The Royal Empire Society, meanwhile, was ‘rebranded’ in 1928, only a year before the laying of the tablet. Previously, the society had for many decades been the Royal Colonial Institute. One might hazard a guess that the tablet in Vancouver was one of the foundation acts of the newly furbished British Columbian branch, proud of its enduring link to Cook, just as in 1820 the placing of the brass plaque with a commemorative inscription near the site of Cook’s landing place at Kamay, Botany Bay, at a spot now known as Inscription Point, was the foundation act of the Philosophical Society of Australasia in Sydney, the forerunner of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

The extant Endeavour narrative is sadly bereft of women. Soon after the news of James Cook’s death in Hawaii reached Their Lordships of the Admiralty, HM Government duly granted Elizabeth Cook an annuity of £200, never dreaming that this remarkable woman would continue to draw upon it for the next 55 years, before she died in her 94th (in May 1835).

Imagine giving birth 6 times; experiencing in ghastly increments the loss of all 6 children, 3 in infancy (including George, who was conceived during the narrow window between the conclusion of the first circumnavigation and the beginning of the second but died aged only 4 months). She also lost her husband (who is mostly absent anyway) and not merely retained her sanity for the next inconsolably bereft 42 years but instead pressed on in a charitable, lively and positive manner. She even lived to witness the passage of the Reform Act (1832).

Elizabeth Cook’s obituary appeared in Sydney in the Australian on Friday 16 October 1835, under the title ‘English extracts’:

The widow of the celebrated Captain Cook died at Clapham on the 13th instant [May], in the 94th year of her age, the 55th of her widowhood, and the 42nd subsequent to the death of the only child that remained to her of six … She always spoke of her husband as ‘poor dear Mr. Cook,’ apparently because he was not a captain at the time of his marriage, and she, having been too modest to mention him with his new rank at first, never afterwards thought it worth while to change her habit. So exquisite were her feelings that, to the last year of her life, when February, the month in which he was murdered, came round, she suffered violent spasms, and was confined to her room; and the same thing happened whenever the wind was high, for two of her five sons perished at sea … Her mind was perfectly clear and active to the very last, so that she not only read the Psalms and the newspaper every day, and read them without spectacles, still extremely near-sighted as she had always been, but managed all her own affairs till within a few days of her death … Her liberality and generosity were totally un-impaired by age … Two days before her death she stated that she possessed a medal of her husband, presented to her long ago by the Government [viz. the Royal Society’s solid gold 1776 Copley Medal, specifically awarded for scientific experiments–in this case for Cook’s successful work on the prevention of scurvy aboard Endeavour], and directed it should be sent to the British Museum. She was gratified with an acknowledgment of it in the evening. When the King of Owhyhee was here [in London] a few years back [i.e. King Kamehameha II in 1824], he presented his surgeon with an arrow made of a leg-bone of Captain Cook as the most valuable present he could make to an Englishman.

Leaving aside the indelicacy of that last point, it is extraordinary to imagine the burghers of Sydney reading this on their pretty verandahs overlooking Elizabeth Bay or Woolloomooloo and contemplating the departure of this last living link to James Cook, and one so intimate. Elizabeth Cook outlived Sir Joseph Banks by 15 years.

The arrival of Endeavour has been marked at 50-year intervals since 1820, and no doubt will be marked again in 50 years’ time. If the obelisk at Kurnell was a piece of private enterprise, erected to mark the centenary in 1870 at his own expense by the Hon. Thomas Holt of The Warren, which estate then took in the landing site at Kurnell, the far more ambitious proposal to erect a colossal bronze statue in honour of Captain Cook assumed the character of a project of proto-national significance.

Initiated by the harbour master at Sydney in anticipation of the centenary of Cook’s arrival, the Australian Patriotic Association took up the challenge of raising enough money to lay the foundation stone of the pedestal in time for the Queen’s second son and fourth child – Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh – to perform this task in Sydney on 27 March 1869. In his speech, the Duke lauded the fact that ‘the man whose fame we desire to commemorate has by a life of great discoveries and of scientific researches, increased so materially the territorial extent of the Empire’.

The commission went to Thomas Woolner, an original member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the only one who ever visited Australia. Woolner spent two years here in 1852–54, at first on the goldfields of Victoria, and subsequently creating bas relief portraits, approximately 30 all told, of the great and the good in Melbourne and then in Sydney. There, he got to know Henry Parkes and subsequently, upon Woolner’s return to England, kept in touch with him. Parkes, not yet premier of New South Wales, was almost certainly instrumental in securing Woolner’s services.

The site of the statue was directly opposite the Australian Museum in Hyde Park, than which you could hardly select a more prominent position. The unveiling took place on the 25 February 1879, and contemporary photographs demonstrate the degree to which that event was also conceived as a festival of patriotic fervour. Large stands were built to the east and west of the statue and accommodated more than 2,000 ticketholders. The bold inscription on the back of the plinth is the one that arouses most controversy today: ‘Discovered This Territory / 1770.’

Fifty years later, to mark the Endeavour sesquicentenary, at the end of April 1920, the Royal Apollo Club performed in Sydney Captain Cook, a cantata by JA Delany. According to the correspondent of the Sydney Sun (29 April 1920), this work, performed in conjunction with the State Orchestra, was ‘a suitable offering in connection with the anniversary of the landing of the famous navigator at Botany Bay’ and ‘reminiscent of the good old-time liedertafel days’. ‘The combined forces were conducted by Mr. Alfred Hill,’ he continued,

and the soloists were Madame [Alice] Goossens-Viceroy; Mr. Philip Newbury and Mr. A. E. Y. Benham with Mr. H. Tollemache taking the part of the voice in the Hawaiian scene. Unhappily the choir was not large enough to balance the orchestra, and in this way the choristers were swamped in certain places, notably so in the first section of the storm music. Nevertheless, there were some very happy moments, especially in the introduction chorus, where voices and instruments blended well in the graceful writing, and in the lovely ‘Silently Sailed the Ship.’ The concluding movement, ‘So All His Days,’ was not, however, well presented … Mme. Goossens-Viceroy made much of the ‘Australia Awakes,’ a fine piece of writing for soprano, with chorus, and always a favourite number when detached from its context, as it frequently is. Mr. Newbury aroused warm enthusiasm with his fine singing of the sailor’s song, ‘Far in the Land Where the Violet Blows.’ The tenor also used his voice to the best advantage in ‘Dead the Leader Who Led So Well,’ which was beautifully phrased and enunciated. Mr. Benham, with his fine gift of voice, should have been well suited in music allotted to Captain Cook. But his diction and his occasional throat delivery injured his readings. In the second part of the programme the State Orchestra played the Tannhäuser ouverture, and Mme. Goossens-Viceroy sang ‘When the Tired Winds’ from Alfred Hill’s Hinemoa [A Māori Legend, 1897]. The choir sang part songs by Brahms and Dudley Buck [who also composed a cantata entitled Columbus (1876)], and with Mr. Benham, ‘The Little Admiral’ ([Songs of the Fleet, IV.] [Sir Charles Villiers] Stanford).’

It is fascinating to consider such a determinedly middlebrow Edwardian concert programme being performed in Sydney so soon after the end of the Great War, almost as if that cataclysm hadn’t happened. One thinks of portraits through the 1920s by George W Lambert that give more or less the same impression. No doubt old familiarities were clung to for reassurance and nostalgia. We often forget that for all of its industrialised destruction, World War One was relatively brief so that, while forever gone, those ‘good old-time liedertafel days’ must have felt pretty recent. And it is also fascinating to consider the precious meaning of James Cook at that particular moment of national trauma, less than a year after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. As always, much emphasis is laid upon Cook’s death and apotheosis in Hawaii: ‘Dead the Leader Who Led So Well’.

‘The nation as a whole must remain diminished unless and until there is an acknowledgement of, and a retreat from, those past injustices,’ wrote justices Deane and Gaudron in their joint High Court decision in Mabo v Queensland (No. 2) (1992). The past 50 years have witnessed important developments in the relationship between Australian society as a whole and the First Nations peoples and cultures at its core and in its heart.

The sudden efflorescence since Papunya in the mid-1970s of a vibrant contemporary Australian Aboriginal art practice that, in many cases, effectively fuses modern, non-traditional materials and techniques with traditional narratives, ancient and sometimes sacred knowledge and, at times, personal and clan identity that is indivisible from place is an encouraging sign Endeavour, this anniversary of its arrival in Australian waters and its relatively brief sojourn provides a valuable opportunity to extend the discussion, to consider how we might better bridge the gulf that separated Cook and his companions from the first Australians they encountered in 1770. Cook’s famous parting assessment is, after all, undeniably humane:

From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholy unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniencies so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life; they covet not Magnificent Houses, Houshold-stuff &Ca. they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholsome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing and this they seem to ^be fully sencible of, for many to whome we gave Cloth &Ca. to, left it carlessly upon the Sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for. In short they seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, ^nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this, in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no Superfluities.

Or, as an anonymous coffee house poet in London summed it up in 1775:

Can Europe boast, with all her pilfer’d wealth,

A larger share of happiness, or health?

One might well conclude that James Cook himself here provides our multicultural society today with the sobering challenge and resolve to seek where possible to repair the ‘inequality of condition’, and restore to the First Nations peoples, their elders, present and emerging, not merely the happiness but all the necessaries of life that were so brutally robbed from First Nations peoples and communities throughout our shared past.

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