Look! Cook!

Captain James Cook is one of the if not THE most important historic figure in modern Australian history. With modern I mean the history of the whites in Australia because I know barely anything about the history of Australia before white man came and discovered the land for himself.

There are more names that are important in the exploration of the continent but it all goes back to Captain James Cook’s famous voyage to the Pacific in 1770. There had been other Europeans, like the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, and the Portuguese, who had ‘seen land’ prior to Cook, but it was his setting foot on land that made the impact. Least to mention all the explorations and discoveries Joseph Banks made when he described and collected as many plants and animals as he could to give them new European or rather Latin names.

When you travel to Australia’s northern part in Queensland, you’ll find that many locations bear the name of Cook in their denominations of street names, town names, rivers or creeks, mountains etc. I find this interesting since Cook’s first contact with Australia was much further in the south, in Botany Bay near Sydney. Yes, he did spend about 4 days there and that event went down in history, yet, Cook seems to be remembered and celebrated much more in the north.

If I got the records straight, Cook set foot on land three times: first in Botany Bay, then in a little bay known today as Town of Seventy-Seven, and last in a bay with a river inlet, today’s Cooktown. This last event was an unplanned one, yet his longest stay on the continent. His ship the Endeavour had run onto the Great Barrier Reef and got badly damaged. Mind you, back in those days nobody had sailed that coast before and known anything about the reef there. (Just imagine what the reef must have looked like back then with all its glory and richness in fishes and corals. I’m not sure Cook noticed it but I’m just saying.)

When the Endeavor run on ground the crew tried everything to lower her weight and threw off canons and the big anchor and other heavy objects yet to little avail. It lifted the Endeavour but the damage had been done and water was coming in. They were close to land and all they could do for now was to take the important things they had to land. So they loaded their boats with the livestock they carried, their food, tools and the people of course. Among those people were also sick ones who needed special care and attention. This proved to be specially critical because later on when they had run out of fresh food and needed new one it was the sick people who got the fish and seafood first. The problem was not so much the amount of seafood there was but how to get it.

Another remarkable event that was recorded was the first sight of an animal that looked like a hare at its head but was tall as a greyhound and jumped on two legs only. Its two front legs were short but the hind legs were big and it had a big long tail. It was the first time Europeans saw a kangaroo without knowing what is was. Eventually they managed to kill one and had it as their meal. Banks said it was excellent meat. (Having tasted it myself I agree. Apparently it’s the tail that is regarded the best part of the kangaroo by the aboriginals. I wouldn’t know I don’t think I had tail, I had a steak.)

There was also contact with some Aboriginals of that area and it wasn’t always friendly. The James Cook Museum in Cooktown has a nice coverage of the whole event of 1770 and there it is explained that the problems arose from intercultural misunderstandings. Let’s say back then it was that. Cook and his men had given the Aboriginals some fish they had caught as a present or sharing gift. The Aboriginals did the same. This was common and basically expected in the Aboriginal culture which Cook didn’t know about. When they caught turtle later, Cook didn’t share the food and the Aboriginals were offended. This caused tensions and even a fight. The result were wounded Aboriginals who, surprisingly, didn’t like the white men anymore. (By the way, at first sight the Aboriginal didn’t know what to make of white man. Whereas the Native Indians in Mexico thought the white soldiers to be a powerful god that had returned, the Aboriginals, also called Indians, thought white men to be dead ancestors that had returned.) Somehow they managed to get back together and talk about what had happened and it was the Aboriginals who did the first move. The gesture of leaning the spear against a tree so it wasn’t a threat anymore showed Cook and his crew that that meeting was going to be a peaceful one. They were able to clarify the misunderstanding and Cook and his men could stay on land. By then they didn’t have an option anyway because the Endeavour was still damaged.

With a lot of patience and then skill the crafty crew of the Endeavour was able to repair the damage. First they had to assess the damage, how big it was and what was needed to repair it. Luckily enough the whole in the belly was at a spot where the boards were close together and the carpenters knew what they needed. So off into the woods they went – and the woods back then went right up to the beaches – and hauled the trees they needed. At the same time a blacksmith forged the nails and bolts needed. One can imagine that all that work took some time. Everything was done by hand of course.

While the craftsmen were busy doing their job, Joseph banks was busy doing his. He collected further specimen and wrote down descriptions of fauna and flora and even sketches were drawn of some of them. (I bet they wished they had cameras or smartphones back then. Or maybe not; they were still able to give concise descriptions of everything.)

After about 40 days of being stranded, Cook and his crew had managed to repair the ship and make it seaworthy again. They waited for the best time with tides to go on board and set sail again. White Australians – or at least the British - have honoured their Captain Cook for all he achieved. Surely, he was or has been among the greatest explorers if not the greatest one. What came after him, however, this whole claiming of land and settling and civilizing thing, is what went wrong. It’s still going wrong.

If you ever venture up to the north of Queensland and go to Cooktown, take the time to visit the James Cook Museum. It’s a nice exhibition of the events of Cook’s landing there. You can even see the original anchor and cannon of the Endeavour archaeologists and divers have discovered on the reef in the late 1960s. The museum also displays various artifacts and objects of daily use in the early settlers’ past. It shines a light on the gold rush in that area and explains about the Aboriginal peoples that have lived in that area. It’s well worth spending an hour or two in the museum.

sunset at Cooktown
sunset at Cooktown
James Cook statue

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