Sunday, 21 October 2012

Who Explored Australia? James Cook

Captain James Cook is perhaps one of Australia's most famous early explorers. It's almost impossible to grow up here and not know something of him. That he came to the East Australian coast in 1770. And that he died in Hawaii.

This book, the second I've read in this fabulous Who Explored Australia? series helps to fill in some of the gaps.

James Cook was the second of eight children born to his Scottish farm labourer father, James Cook, and his mother, Grace Pace. Four of his siblings were to die before they were five years old. Young James only had 4 years of schooling, from 8 to 12 years, which was paid for by his father's employer. James was believed to be an average student, but to have been quite talented at mathematics.

I walked past the cottage recently in Melbourne,
but didn't go in. 

He left school initially to work on the farm, before leaving as a teenager to work in a grocery shop, and then beoming a sailor. Working mainly in the North Sea, he quickly rose to become a ships captain. James Cook joined the British Navy in the lead up to the Seven Years War with France. Most of his naval service was in North America, where he developed a great skill charting unfamiliar waters.

In 1768 Cook was tasked with leading an expedition to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus due on 3 June 1769, and to search for the Great Southern Land. 94 people were on board The Endeavour, and the book includes an interesting two pages on the provisions that she took on board for the journey. 800 pounds of suet! Who would know what to do with that these days? Or where to get it from?

After spending three months in Hawaii, The Endeavour then went in search of the Great Southern Land. Several months later, on 7 October 1769 she sighted New Zealand. After six months spent charting the coast of New Zealand (the significance of Cook Strait never really dawned on me before, d'oh!), James Cook set off to find New Holland. The first sighting of Australian land came on 17 April 1770 at Point Hicks in what is now Eastern Victoria.

Captain Cook Memorial, Canberra
Showing Cook Strait and the three routes he took on his 3 Pacific voyages. 

After travelling up the East Coast, James Cook anchored the Endeavour in what was to become Botany Bay, south of Sydney Harbour. Interesting to read that he first named it Sting Ray Harbour, and then Botanist Bay, before it became Botany Bay. By August the Endeavour reached Possession Island off Cape York where Captain Cook claimed the Eastern Coast of Australia for Britain in the name of King George III.

There is an interesting page on Joseph Banks who was a mere 23 years old when he was selected by the Royal Society to travel with James Cook to the South Pacific- a journey that was to ensure his ongoing fame.

It's rather amazing to note that there were three botanists aboard the Endeavour! Dr Daniel Solander and Herman Sporing certainly don't have the enduring fame in Australia that Joseph Banks does. Banks' name lives on in place names and multiple plants- most notably the Banksias of course.

A Banksia in Blue Mountains National Park
James Cook was to lead two further expeditions to the Pacific. In 1779 after being unable to find the Northwest Passage he headed back to Hawaii, where he was killed on February 14. It took almost a year for the news of his death to reach England.

Check out my first post on this series Who Explored Australia? Blaxland, Lawson, Wentworth, Evans and Strzelecki.


Esme said...

He sure made his way around the world.

Swan Pond said...

Hi Louise,

You might also like Marele Day's book, called Mrs Cook. I read it a few years back and it is terrific. Mrs Cook never set sail, she was thoroughly busy bearing the babies conceived whenever Cook was home. Definitely worth a read.

You might also like Cook's Endeavour journal. It's fairly nautical but dipping into bits is good, especially the journey across the Pacific, Tahiti, NZ and east coast Australia. It's a great primary resource and is now free at

Years ago I also read Banks' account of the same Endeavour voyage. He was bit more on the human side of life and it is also a great read. I find these early accounts very interesting as we don't have anything written from the Indigenous point of view.

There's another book too, about the ship, The Lady Julian, which bought women convicts between the First and Second Fleets. I think sbs made it into a series. Add it to your overflowing pile if you haven't already read it.



Louise said...

He certainly did Esme, much more widely travelled than me, even with all our ease of travel. They were so much more adventurous back then.

Megan, thanks for all your suggestions, I haven't read any of them. The early accounts are rather interesting as you say. I heard about Mrs Cook when it first came out, and was keen, but had forgotten about it. I'll definitely add that to the towering TBR.

Paulita said...

This looks like a book with easy to digest historical details. We definitely learned about Cook here in the U.S., even though Columbus was our Cook.
I started a new France meme today. I hope you'll play along. Here's My Dreaming of France meme