250 years ago today James Cook and the crew of the Endeavour arrived on the east coast of Australia. For the previous twenty months Cook had been sailing across the world, discovering never before seen lands and reporting the transit of venus. Though his landing at Botany Bay and subsequent charting of Australia’s east coast became Cook’s most famous deed, there was plenty of action along the way.
Leaving Plymouth in 1768, Cook and co. had a close call with the local authorities in Rio De Janeiro in November/December of that year. When visiting to purchase stores for the journey ahead, a number of crew were taken captive and two were thrown into a dungeon. The local Portuguese viceroy did not believe that the Endeavour was a Royal Navy ship and it took several days before he would allow Cook to purchase fresh produce and sail on. In a frightening post script, as Endeavour dawdled out of the harbour a cannonball was fired at the vessel due to a miscommunication between the Santa Cruz fort and those on land. (Mundle, Captain James Cook. p119).
Midway through 1769 the Endeavour had sailed into the pacific islands. Cook’s men were enamoured with the beauty of the island of the Tahiti and its women. Several of those onboard made diary entries about the Tahitian women including Joseph Banks who wrote, “The foremost of the women . . . unveiling all her charms gave me a most convenient opportunity of admiring them by turning herself gradually round . . . she then once more displayed her naked beauties . . . ” (Mundle, Captain James Cook. p134).
While in Tahiti the British completed the first of their assigned tasks. They observed the Transit Of Venus (3rd June 1769) a historic astronomical event, which aided in measuring the size of the solar system, knowledge not yet ascertained. The Royal Navy had also issued secret instructions that were only to be opened upon observation of the astronomical event. The instructions were to find, “a continent or land of great extent . . .” By this time in history there was already knowledge of the existence of New Zealand and New Holland but no one had properly mapped the coastlines of either land mass. Cook and the Endeavour would soon complete this job.
When Cook and co. arrived at the east coast of New Zealand his men were ecstatic but the mood was soon saddened when the English were forced to shoot a man (Mundle, Captain James Cook. p149) who was in the motion of throwing a spear at them. The next day the intrepid Cook tried again to make peaceful contact but it ended with mortal wounding when Maori guests onboard the Endeavour tried to make off with a crew member’s short sword. The entire mapping of New Zealand was marked with unpredictable interactions. On some occasions the British were well received, on others they were surrounded by canoes with aggressive locals throwing projectiles. Cook also learned that the Maori had a custom of eating their enemies (Mundle, p160). They left New Zealand with exclusive knowledge that the land mass was actually two islands separated by a strait, and that it was not part of a great southern continent.
From there they sailed west toward the previously discovered Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania). History was made on 19th April 1770 when the English came upon Point Hicks, on the southern coast of Victoria – land previously uncharted. They sailed northward with the long-term plan of anchoring in modern Jakarta, Indonesia to stock up for their journey home. But along the way Cook completed much of what was unknown on world maps up to that day. Cook named Bateman’s Bay and even made a brief attempt to land a pinnace just south of Wollongong. But his successful landing at Botany Bay 0n 29th April 1770 was Cook’s crowning glory.
Having anchored the Endeavour in Botany Bay and sighting a few natives and their huts, Cook determined to make contact. After Tupia (the Tahitian man who had come along as an interpreter) failed to understand the men from the local Gweagal clan, a decision was made to row ashore. Nails and beads were thrown to the natives by Cook’s men as a peace offering but after initially looking pleased with the gift, the aboriginals, “. . . came to oppose us . . .” (Mundle, Captain James Cook. p190). Cook then fired a musket between the two men, ” . . . which had no other effect than to make them retire back, where bundles of their darts lay, and one of them took up a stone and threw at us, which caused my firing a second musket loaded with small shot.” (Mundle, Captain James Cook. p190). The second shot gave one man a minor wound but finally the men boarded the pinnace. Cook along with Banks, Solander, Tupia some rowers and teenager Isaac Smith jumped in. The 18 foot pinnace soon cut a furrow in the sands of Botany Bay before Cook ordered young Isaac Smith to leap onto the shore. The teenager made history as the first white man to set foot on the east coast of Australia. Shortly after the two natives returned, and in a display of stereotypical xenophobia, hurled spears at the English. The Gweagal virtually vanished into the scrub but left behind some small children in the crude bark huts. Cook’s men skirted the beachfront and came upon some simplistic canoes made of, “one piece of the bark of a tree, drawn or tied up at each end . . .” (Mundle, Captain James Cook. p190). They also recorded the first sighting of a boomerang and the iconic dingo.
Cook’s Botany Bay visit was marred by the passing of seaman Forby Sutherland who died of tuberculosis. He was buried onshore at the south end of the bay, and in memory of him an entire shire is named Sutherland. The English sailed north on 6th May, 1770 and dotted the map with now famous landmarks. The first was Port Jackson (aka Sydney Harbour), further they discovered Broken Bay then Port Stephens just north of modern day Newcastle. They were left disappointed when they made trips ashore as the aboriginals usually dispersed, making communication impossible. As the ship sailed north it went close to sinking on two occasions as they sailed abreast of the Great Barrier Reef. Cook was forced to make landfall again at modern day Cooktown where the Endeavour had to be repaired. It was 17th June when they sailed into the Endeavour River, and it would be six weeks before their repairs were completed. Here they made the first sighting of a kangaroo. But again the landing at Cooktown was tinged with disappointment as eventually the natives showed a tendency toward racism. The explorers had been enjoying some turtle that they had fished out of the local waters and the aboriginal people were either jealous or a little possessive about the local fauna. The natives made a ring of fire around Cook and some of his companions, “. . . in an instant the whole place was in flames.” Cook recorded that a pig and her young were scorched to death by the cruel actions of the natives. The Endeavour sailed out of Cooktown on 4th August 1770 (Mundle, Captain James Cook. p222)
Cook sailed to Australia two more times in the 1770s. His violent death in 1779 at the hands of Hawaiian natives was no surprise given his propensity to always tread the most dangerous path.
Cook was a pioneer. His pacific adventures were made safe through his policy of practising hygiene and ensuring his crew had access to fresh fruit to prevent disease. The survival rate amongst his crew was remarkable in itself but the boy from Marton, Yorkshire will always be revered for his accurate mapping of the east coast of Australia, leading to the English settlement at Port Jackson in 1788.
P.S. Do Big Kooka a favour and never confused Captain Cook with Captain Arthur Phillip like some ignorant Australian politicians. Captain Cook sailed in the Endeavour, Phillip sailed with a fleet of convicts. Easy.