Books Australia

Re-discovering Cook

7 October 2017

9:00 AM

7 October 2017

9:00 AM

Despite an unpleasant resurgence of anti-British, anti-European political correctness, Captain James Cook (1728-1779) remains one of the world’s greatest explorers.

And just when we thought there was nothing new to be known about this intrepid English mariner, John Molony has written a fascinating account of Cook’s first voyage on the HMS Endeavour.

This voyage from August 1768 to July 1771 had two purposes. Cook was first to sail from England to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus across the sun in 1769. Then he was to head southwest from Tahiti in search of the fabled Great South Land, which was reckoned to be the source of untold riches.

Molony’s narrative primarily depends on Cook’s detailed daily journal, which is supplemented by a revealing series of maps that Cook painstakingly drafted throughout his journey.

On 13 April 1769 the Endeavour arrived at King George the Third Island (i.e. Tahiti). After observing the Transit of Venus on Saturday 3 June 1769, Cook left Tahiti in July 1769 and sailed in search of the Great South Land. Although Cook doubted its existence, as a loyal servant of the Admiralty he felt obliged to try and find it.

But the reality was that a huge land, that Cook called ‘the largest island in the world’, had partially been charted and named New Holland. Moreover, early Dutch and English mariners, including William Dampier (1651-1715) had pronounced the island worthless, its people repulsive and its wealth of small repute.


On 29 April 1770 the Endeavour anchored at what later became known as Botany Bay. As Cook noted on 30 April 1770 of the people he often called ‘Indians’ and who seemed to live in small groups – ‘all they seem to want was for us to be gone.’ After staying at Botany Bay until the morning of May 6 1770, and having taken on board fresh water, food and wood, plus grass for the ships’ remaining animals, Cook proceeded with a crucial task: to map and chart the east coast of New Holland.

From 11 June to 4 August 1770, at what he called the Endeavour River, Cook was initially preoccupied with repairing the Endeavour from damage inflicted by coral. Yet he and his crew did have a chance to observe the ‘natives of the country’, whose presence they did not fear. As well, they recorded the first sighting of a kangaroo on 24 June. Other animals sighted included the dingo, which was thought to be a wolf, as well as a two-metre-long ‘alligator’ (i.e. crocodile). Despite some misunderstanding concerning turtles, Cook established ‘good relations’ with the local Aborigines, who Molony concludes had probably experienced ‘some contact with other peoples’, before the arrival of the Endeavour.

On 22 August 1770 Cook named a small island at the top of Cape York ‘Possession Island’. Hence the subtitle of this fine book: Claiming the Great South Land.

In a historically enticing matching of Cook’s journal entries with those of botanist Joseph Banks, as well as with the notes of Banks’ natural history artist Sydney Parkinson and the American-born midshipman James Matra, Molony has constructed a rich, multi-layered tale.

Although their accounts sometimes differed, throughout the voyage Cook and Banks often collaborated in writing their accounts of what had occurred each day. Indeed before they penned their entries, the two regularly met in the Endeavour’s main cabin to discuss what they observed. As well as plentiful use of primary sources, this evocative story of Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific is usefully illustrated with 30 coloured maps, which have been reproduced with the aid of cartographers at the National Library of Australia.

This effective melding of maps and of voices sheds light on the encounters of Cook and his men with the places and peoples they met. Appropriately, Molony locates this meeting of the old and new at the centre of Cook’s intrepid voyage.

This admirable book highlights the fact that, although he was derided for doing so, Cook wrote with admiration of the land’s Aboriginal inhabitants. According to Cook, whose views were more positive than those of Banks and Matra, they were ‘among the happiest of people on the earth’. Cook famously added: ‘They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturbed 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 (and) Household stuff… they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air.’

In contrast to Dampier and the Dutch, Cook was also optimistic about the possibility of successful European settlement in New Holland.

Molony’s new history book contains some fascinating snippets of information about Cook and the Endeavour. For example, it is intriguing to learn that, until one of them perished in the snow in January 1769 at Tierra del Fuego, Joseph Banks’s two greyhound dogs slept with the botanist in his cabin. It was while collecting botanical specimens at Tierra del Fuego that Banks’s two servants also died of exposure. And as it happens, the ships’ goat, which produced fresh milk for the officers’ coffee, was one of the Endeavour’s most experienced seafarers!

It is also helpful for Molony to mention that John Webber’s famous oil-on-canvas portrait of James Cook in 1782 shows his right hand clothed in a leather glove. This was because of a severe injury caused by an explosion Cook suffered in 1764 in Newfoundland.

Despite all the naysayers, the statues erected in honour of Captain Cook in England and Australia, including the bronze statue of him in Hyde Park Sydney, holding a chart, his right hand raised, are throughly well-deserved.

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