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Angus Trumble reflects on the journal entries of James Cook, Joseph Banks and Sydney Parkinson and the official published account of the voyage of Endeavour by John Hawkesworth.

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.

Range across literature, language and lore as Angus shares insights into these seasoned European voyagers and their 18th-century worldview. New entries will be added to this website each week, to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Endeavour sailing up the east coast of Australia.

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.

Violence

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:

Headwind

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!’

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s

09 May 2020

Hi, How can I subscribe to this feed on Capt Cook's journal and receive updates ?

NMA team

10 Feb 2020

Thanks for your interest. We plan to update this page every Monday. Angus' posts for 21 and 22 April have been added today.

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.

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