Posts Tagged ‘Captain Cook’

On the 12th of April 1769 Cook wrote: “and at 6 AM it (Tahiti) bore from SSW to WBN being little wind and calm several of the Natives came off to us in their Canoes, but more to look at us than any thing else we could not prevail with any of them to come on board – and some would not come near the ship” 

Despite the distance travelled, Cook and his crew arrive in good health.  Thanks to an unusual combination of food and drink. So wrote Cook as he dropped anchor:  “At this time we had but very few men upon the Sick list and these had but slite complaints, the Ships compney had in general been very healthy owing in a great measure to the Sour krout, Portable Soup and Malt…”.

So with a full compliment of crew and civilians, Cook approached the island of Tahiti for the all-important observation of the Transit of Venus. Here we get a glimpse of an Englishman, in his own words, as he “meets the locals”…. 

And it appears to be exactly as we would like to imagine, an idyllic meeting on a blue ocean, surrounding a beautiful tropical island…

“We had no sooner come to an Anchor in Royal Bay as before Mentioned than a great number of the natives in their canoes came off to the Ship and brought with them Cocoa-nuts, &ca and these they seem’d to set a great Value upon- amongest those that came off to the Ship was an elderly Man whose Name was is Owhaa, him the Gentlemen that had been here before in the Dolphin kne ow and had often spoke of him as one that had been of service to them, this man, / together with some others / I took on board / and made much of him thinking that he might on some occasion be of use to us”

The last comment indicates that Cook was there for a purpose (the Transit of Venus and future discovery for the Crown), not as an individual intent on “experiencing the color and nuances of a new culture”…

“1769 Friday Apl 14th This morning we had a great many canoes about the Ship, the Most of them came from the westward but brought nothing with them but a few Cocoa-nuts &Ca  Two that appear’d to be Chiefs we had on board together with several others for it was a hard matter to keep them out of the Ship.  As they clime like Munkeys, but it was still harder to keep them from Stealing but every thing that came within their reach, in this they are prodiges expert” 

The ever logical Lieutenant Cook quickly apprised the situation, and realising their stay would not be short drafted a list of regulations for the behavior of his people. Namely…

RULES to be observ’d by every person in or belonging to His Majestys Bark the Endevour, for the better establishing a regular and uniform Trade for Provisions, &c:a with the Inhabitants of Georges Island —

st To endeavour by every fair means to cultivate a friendship with the Natives and to treat them with all imaginable humanity —

d A proper person or persons will be appointed to trade with the Natives for all manner of Provisions, Fruit, and other productions of the earth; and no officer or Seaman or other person belonging to the Ship, excepting such as are so appointed, shall Trade or offer to Trade for any sort of Provisions, Fruit or other Productions of the earth, unless they have my leave so to do —

d Every person employ’d a shore on any duty what soever is strictly to attend to the same, and if by neglect he looseth any of his Arms or working tools, or suffers them to be stole, the full Value thereof will be charge’d againest his pay, according to the Custom of the Navy in such cases- and ^ he shall recive such farther punishment as the nature of the offence may deserve —

th The same penalty will be inflicted upon every person who is found to imbezzle, trade or offer to trade with any of the Ships ^ Stores of what nature so everunless they

th No Sort of Iron, or any thing that is made of Iron, or any sort of Cloth or other usefull or necessary articles are to be given in exchange for any thing but provisions —


Illustration by Alberto Salinas

Soon after establishing a camp, Cook set out for a look-see, accompanies by Mr Banks and others, leaving thirteen marines and a petty officer to guard the tent.

Cook and his company had not gone far when there was conflict back at the tent.  One of the locals took a fancy to one of the petty officers’ muskets and took to purloining it. The midshipman petty officer ordered the marines to fire on the crowd of more than a hundred. After a pursuit the thief was shot dead, but apparently no one else was injured.

Lieutenant Cook was not impressed with the conduct of the petty officer and had to use all of his powers of persuasion in an attempt to calm the locals and proceed with his mission. But he succeeded and later at the fort the transit of the planet Venus across the sun’s disk was observed with great success by Dr. Solander and Mr. Green.

Stage 1 of Lieutenant Cook’s mission had been a success. And now it was time to depart for much greater glory….


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So in May 1768, with Lieutenant Cook duly appointed to the command of the Endeavour, he steps on board and takes charge of the ship. The Endeavour lay in Deptford-yard, where she was being fitted out for sea…..

Click for video of the Endeavour Replica sailing

In the meantime, every good ship needs a good crew. And Cook set about with due advice assembling his team. According to the muster book (crew list) approximately 70 men joined the Endeavour and began receiving wages from 25 May 1768. This included such likes as a carpenter, boatswain’s mate and sailmaker, servants, able seamen and marines.

The refit included sheathing and caulking the hull to protect against shipworm attack, the addition of a third internal deck to provide extra cabins, and adding a powder magazine and storerooms.

The new cabins were allocated to Cook and the Royal Society representatives: naturalist Joseph Banks, his assistants Daniel Solander and Herman Spöring, astronomer Charles Green, and two artists, Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan. These were the key civilians who will help reveal some of the first secrets of the Great Southern land.

One civilian that has become especially well known is the naturalist Joseph Banks. Banks is credited with the introduction to the Western world of plants such as the eucalyptus, acacia, mimosa. In recognition he had the genus Banksia named after him, with approximately 80 species of plants bearing his name. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, that is in the future…

So with the wind becoming fair on 26 August 1768, our Great Navigator finally gets under sail.

The Endeavour departs Plymouth carrying 94 people (71 Ships Company, 12 Royal marines and 11 civilians) plus 18 months of provisions. All of this was on a vessel that was only 32 m long and a beam (width at widest point) of just under 9 meters. This is not a big ship (step it out and imagine you and a 100 people living and working together in this space for a year or so!)

A variety of livestock was on board including pigs, poultry, two greyhounds and a milking goat. There is nothing glamouraour about travel at this time, for captain, civilians or crew. The cabins for Captain and civilians were rude 2m x 2m additions to the new deck and for the rest they were just an outstretched arm from another human, or animal day in and day out.

The first port of call was Funchal in the Madeira Islands, which Endeavour reached on 12 September. She stayed for a week where Lieutenant Cook and his company’s needs were tended to by a Mr. Cheap, the English consul, one of the leading merchants in the town. Here it is worth noting one of the outstanding traits of Cook’s leadership. As mentioned previously, scurvy and disease was still an enemy lurking just out of sight of any deep sea voyage at this time.

At this first stop Cook ensured that he laid in a fresh stock of beef & water (and wine) before setting sail from the island. Indeed, on the next leg of the voyage on the 7th of November he noted that several articles of the ship’s provisions were beginning to fall short. He did not hesitate to put in a stop over in Rio de Janeiro. This port he preferred because he could be better supplied with what he wanted.

While there Cook and his company seemed to have some difficulties with Count Rolim, Viceroy and Captain General of the Estates of Brazil. It culminated on the 5th of December when as the Endeavour weighed anchor to depart and two shots were fired at it from Santa Cruz, the principal fortification of the harbour.

When Cook cast anchor and angrily demanded the reason of the conduct, the explanation given was that the commandant had not received an order from the Viceroy to let the ship pass. Anyway, correspondence flowed and things were sorted (in reality nothing more than some colonial ego contest), and on the 7th of December the Endeavour finally got under sail.

From Rio de Janeiro, Lieutenant Cook pursued his voyage, and on the 15th of January, 1769 anchored, first before a small cove, which was understood to be Port Maurice, and afterward in the Bay of Good Success.

While the Endeavour was in this station, Mr. Banks, Dr. Solander, Mr. Monkhouse the surgeon, and Mr. Green the astronomer together with their attendants set off inland with two seamen. They climbed  a mountain to search for plants. The weather apparently turned foul and exposed them to extreme cold; Dr. Solander , apparently nearly died, but was more fortunate than two black servants who did actually died of exposure during the night.  Not a great start, but in reality nothing exceptional for the times (for a little more detail on that incident and Cook’s meeting of the locals, I have included an edit excerpt from Cooks Journal).

So, our Great Voyage of Discovery begins as the English set sail for the Great Southern Land. Soon our history of the opening up of that vast and ancient continent will begin…


Cook’s Journal: Daily Entries

16 January 1769

“Monday 16 A Fresh breeze of Wind at South and S.W. with frequent Showers of Snow and rain –   at 2 PM Anchor’d in the Bay of Success… hoisted out the Boats, and Moor’d with the Stream Anchor, while this was doing I went a Shore accompany’d with by Mr Banks and Dr Solander to look for a Watering Place, and to speak with the Natives who were assembled on the beach at the head of the Bay to the number of 30 or 40; they were so far from being afraid or surprised at our coming amongest them that three of them came on board without the least hesitation. They are something above the Middle size of a dark copper Colour with long black hair, they paint their bodies ^in Streakes mostly Red and Black, their cloathing consists wholy and ^of a Guanacoes skin or that of a Seal, in the same form as it came from the Animals back, the Women wear of a peice of skin over their privey parts but the Men observe no such decency   their Hutts are made like a behive and open on one side where they have their fire, they are made of small Sticks and cover’d with branches of trees, Long grass &Ca in such a manner that they are neither proff against Wind, Hail, rain or snow, a sufficient proff that these People must be a very hardy race; they live chiefly on shell fish such as Muscles, which they gather from off the rock, … we saw amongst them with other European things such as Rings, Buttons, Cloth, Canvas &Ca which I think proves that they must sometimes travel to the Northward as we know of no ship that hath been in those parts for many years, besides they were not at all surprised at our fire arms, on the contrary seem’d to know the use of them by making signs to us to fire at Sea^ls or Birds that might come in the way …we could not discover that they had any head or chief, or form of Government, neither have they any usefull or necessary Utentials except it be a Bagg ^or Basket to gather their Muscels into: in a Word they are perhaps as miserable a set of People as are this day upon Earth —  Having found a convenient place on the So side of the Bay to wood and Water at, we set about that work in the morning, and MBanks with a Party went into the Country to gather Plants &Ca”

7 January 1769

“Thursday [Tuesday] 17th Janry Fresh gales at South, SW and W, with rain and Snow and of Course very cold weather, notwithstanding we kept geting on board Wood and water, and finished the Survey of the Bay. Mr Banks and his Party not returning this Evening as I expected gave me great uneasiness as they were not prepared for staying out the night, however, about noon they returned in no very comfortable condition and what was still worse two black servants to Mr Banks had perished in the night with cold; great part of the day they landed was spent before they got through the woods, after which they advanced so far into the Country that they were so far from being able to return that night that it was with much difficulty they got to a place of tolerable shelter where they could make a fire — these two men being intrusted with great part of the Liquor that was for the whole party had made too free with it and stupified themselves to that degree that they either could or would not travel but laid themselves down in a place where there was not the least thing to shelter them from the inclemency of the night. This was about a 1/4 of a Mile from where the rest took up their quarters and notwithstanding their repeated endeavours they could not get them to move one step farther, and the bad traveling made it impossible for any one to carry them, so that they were oblig’d to leave them and the next morning they were both found dead…”

 Click for Source Link

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We finally move towards Cook’s voyage of discovery. He is back in England after his nearly 10 years in Canada. By now an officer of technical reputation, but not what you would say, of public reputation. Rather a man in waiting.  Enter Edmund Hailey, the now famous astronomer…

Halley predicted that on June 3 1769, the planet Venus would cross in front of the sun. This was important because when this happened you could calculate the distance of the Earth from the Sun by timing the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun.

Based on the Halley’s observations, the Royal Geographic Society proposed that observers be sent to three places around the world to observe this transit. They nominated Norway, Hudson Bay and a remote island in the Pacific.

So how did a relatively unknown Cook get to lead the planned voyage into the deepest reaches of the Pacific? Well, there seems to be a bit of politicking in the Admiralty, as well as reward for good word done….

Alexander Dalrymple, then an eminent member of the Royal Society, was, at the time, the favored contender. He was renown as a man possessing a solid knowledge of astronomy, and had previously distinguished himself by his inquiries into the Southern Oceans. But he was not at his core a seaman, or a naval officer.

And Sir Edward Hawke would not have a bar of Dalrymple leading the expedition. As head of the Admiralty he refused to accede to Dalrymple’s appointment. It was written by Andrew Kippis in a biography of Cook in 1788 that, “Sir Edward declared, that he would suffer his right hand to be cut off before he would sign any such commission”.

The background to this opposition was the previous mutinous behavior of Halley’s crew on an expedition; they refused to acknowledge the legal authority of their non-naval commander.

It was then that the Secretary of the Admiralty, Sir Phillip Stephens, left his mark on history by suggesting Cook’s name. As Cook was relatively unknown Stephens added that soundings should be taken of his former commander and Governor of Newfoundland, Sir Hugh Palliser. Palliser actively and enthusiastically supported Cook’s nomination and so it was quickly a done deal.

Cook was to be off to the Pacific!

Mr. Cook was appointed to the command of the expedition by the Lords of the Admiralty and promoted to the rank of a lieutenant in the royal navy, his commission being date the 25th of May, 1768.

Under the guidance of Sir Hugh Palliser, the then Lieutenant Cook examined a number of ships which lay on the banks of the river Thames. They decided on one, purchased it on behalf of the Admiralty, and it was commissioned as His Majesty’s Bark the Endeavour. She was a former Whitby built ship, only 32 meters long and measuring only 3 meters at her greatest width. We expect that Cook would have been influenced by the fact that this type of vessel was in common usage in the area where he grew up and he would be familiar with it.

But there is a twist to this scientific story of discovery…this was not going to be just a scientific mission…no it was going to be much more if the Admiralty has its way…

We may not realize it now, but publicly at the time Cook’s voyage was not a “boy’s own” voyage of discovery in search of the mystical Terra Australis Incognita, or “unknown southern land”.  No, that aspect was a secret. As we have mentioned, at this time exploration and its results were held close to the chest. Exploration was a matter of national importance, and there were rivals out there, across the channel. Secret orders were to be issued…

Cook’s secret instructions from the Admiralty were straight forward: he was instructed that if he found the unknown land, he should chart its coasts, obtain information about its people, cultivate their friendship and alliance, and annex any convenient trading posts in the King’s name.

Colonial ambitions were again coming to the fore as Cook departs on his voyage…an ominous sign for the Great Southern Land….



The Secret Instructions issued to captain Jame Cook:



By the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral of Great Britain & ca.

Additional Instructions for Lt James Cook, Appointed to Command His Majesty’s Bark the Endeavour

                     Whereas the making Discoverys of Countries hitherto unknown, and the Attaining a Knowledge of distant Parts which though formerly discover’d have yet been but imperfectly explored, will redound greatly to the Honour of this Nation as a Maritime Power, as well as to the Dignity of the Crown of Great Britain, and may tend greatly to the advancement of the Trade and Navigation thereof; and Whereas there is reason to imagine that a Continent or Land of great extent, may be found to the Southward of the Tract lately made by Captn Wallis in His Majesty’s Ship the Dolphin (of which you will herewith receive a Copy) or of the Tract of any former Navigators in Pursuit of the like kind, You are therefore in Pursuance of His Majesty’s Pleasure hereby requir’d and directed to put to Sea with the Bark you Command so soon as the Observation of the Transit of the Planet Venus shall be finished and observe the following Instructions. You are to proceed to the Southward in order to make discovery of the Continent abovementioned until’ you arrive in the Latitude of 40, unless you sooner fall in with it. But not having discover’d it or any Evident sign of it in that Run you are to proceed in search of it to the Westward between the Latitude beforementioned and the Latitude of 35 until’ you discover it, or fall in with the Eastern side of the Land discover’d by Tasman and now called New Zeland.

If you discover the Continent abovementioned either in your Run to the Southward or to the Westward as above directed, You are to employ yourself diligently in exploring as great an Extent of the Coast as you can carefully observing the true situation thereof both in Latitude and Longitude, the Variation of the Needle; bearings of Head Lands Height direction and Course of the Tides and Currents, Depths and Soundings of the Sea, Shoals, Rocks &ca and also surveying and making Charts, and taking Views of  Such Bays, Harbours and Parts of the Coasts as may be useful to Navigation. You are also carefully to observe the Nature of the Soil, and the Products thereof; the Beasts and Fowls that inhabit or frequent it, the Fishes that are to be found in the Rivers or upon the Coast and in what Plenty and in Case you find any Mines, Minerals, or valuable Stones you are to bring home Specimens of each, as also such Specimens of the Seeds of the Trees, Fruits and [FIRST PAGE ENDS] and Grains as you may be able to collect, and Transmit them to our Secretary that We may cause proper Examination and Experiments to be made of them. You are likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives, if there be any and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them, making them presents of such Trifles as they may Value inviting them to Traffick, and Shewing them every kind of Civility and Regard; taking Care however not to suffer yourself to be surprized by them, but to be always upon your guard against any Accidents.

You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain: Or: if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.

But if you shall fail of discovering the Continent beforemention’d, you will with upon falling in with New Zeland carefully observe the Latitude and Longitude in which that Land is situated and explore as much of the Coast as the Condition of the Bark, the health of her Crew, and the State of your Provisions will admit of having always great Attention to reserve as much of the latter as will enable you to reach some known Port where you may procure a Sufficiency to carry You to England either round the Cape of Good Hope, or Cape Horn as from Circumstances you may judge the Most Eligible way of returning home.

You will also observe with accuracy the Situation of such Islands as you may discover in the Course of your Voyage that have not hitherto been discover’d by any Europeans and take Possession for His Majesty and make Surveys and Draughts of such of them as may appear to be of Consequence, without Suffering yourself however to be thereby diverted from the Object which you are always to have in View, the Discovery of the Southern Continent so often Mentioned.

But for as much as in an undertaking of this nature several Emergencies may Arise not to be foreseen, and therefore not to be particularly to be provided for by Instruction beforehand, you are in all such Cases to proceed, as, upon advice with your Officers you shall judge most advantageous to the Service on which you are employed.

You are to send by all proper Conveyance to the Secretary of the Royal Society Copys of the Observations you shall have made of the Transit of Venus; and you are at the same time to send to our Secretary for our information accounts of your Proceedings, and Copys of the Surveys and discoverings you shall have made and upon your Arrival in England you are immediately to repair to this [SECOND PAGE ENDS] Office in order to lay before us a full account of your Proceedings in the whole Course of your Voyage; taking care before you leave the Vessel to demand from the Officers and Petty Officers the Log Books and Journals they may have Kept, and to seal them up for our inspection and enjoyning them, and the whole Crew, not to divulge where they have been until’ they shall have Permission so to do.

Given under our hands the 30 of July 1768

Ed Hawke

 Piercy Brett

                                                                                       C Spencer

By Command of their Lordships


              Php Stephens


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So how is our shopkeeper from the little coastal village of Staithes fairing?  We left off in the last byte with our shopkeeper hitting the high seas and heading for Canada with the British Navy….

Well, Cook arrives in Halifax, Canada in May 1758, where in short order he takes part in the siege of Louisbourg which effectively ended French control in Canada. And so starts Cook’s near 10 year engagement with Canada, its coast, rivers and tributaries. These were to be critical years that transforms this shopkeeper into the pre-eminent navigator/explorer of his time.

Following the surrender of the French, Cook’s ship involved itself with the ferrying of troops up the St. Lawrence River for a planned British assault on Quebec. This gave ample opportunity for Cook to further refine his mapping and navigation skills. During this time he was mentored and tutored in how to survey and chart by Samuel Holland, an army surveyor-engineer.

Holland did his work well and Cooks work soon so impressed Admiral Saunders under whom he served that Saunders arranges for his charts to be published (Saunders went on to become a very influential First Lord of the Admiralty and future supporter of Cook’s abilities).

Cook’s career progression continued, and he was next transferred to the gun ship Northumberland, where he served as its Master for the next two years (a Master is responsible for the navigation and steering of the vessel).

In the meantime the French turned their attention towards Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada and its important cod fisheries. With this new French threat the need for accurate maps was never greater and Cook was the obvious answer. The new Governor of Newfoundland appointed him ‘marine surveyor of the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.’ As a part of this appointment Cook was entrusted with his first command, that of the HMS Grenville, a 12 gun schooner. Cook continued in this role until 1767.

Cook’s mapping and surveying skills over this time gained him the technical reputation and contacts that was to allow our shopkeeper to elevate himself to almost “superstar status” within Britain later in life.

But by design or fate, there was another activity that also played an important role in shaping his destiny. During 1766 he made detailed observations of the eclipse of the sun. Again his eye for detail and accuracy came to the fore. It was if all the “stars were aligning” to make him the obvious choice for any future voyage of discovery. For there was to be a rare transit of Venus in 1769, visible in the South Pacific.

During his time in Canada Cook took time to return to Britain and marry Elizabeth Batts. They went on to have five sons and one daughter, the first, James, being born in 1763.

But it was in 1767, upon his return to Britain, when it became clear that he was a man capable of making good on his claim to go as far as any man could go…


Another View of Captain James Cook from Today:

“Few things have plummeted more disastrously than Cook’s reputation,” Mr. McLynn writes in his book “Captain Cook: Master of the Seas.”. “In the Victorian era he was the classic Boy’s Own hero, saint and martyr, bringing light to benighted savages, perceived as a larger-than-life figure from the long eighteenth century who died, like Wolfe and Nelson, while fighting for empire.” But he has become, according to the prejudices of our era, “racist, imperialist, [a] man of violence and spreader of venereal disease” and thus “the object of almost universal execration in all societies that have lived through colonialism.”

Your thoughts….???

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So I have to tell you a little secret. It was an apprentice shopkeeper who discovered the Great Southern Land. I kid you not!

Well, may be a little bit. The part that is true is the apprentice shopkeeper part. It is, however, perhaps more accurate to say this person mapped and laid claim for the Crown to the previously uncharted east coast of Terra Australis, Terra Incognita, or New Holland, whatever we may choose to call it.

Discovery, as we have seen, has been underway by a number of brave (and dubious) soulsfor well over a century or two.

Luckily for our story, this apprentice shopkeeper was good at maths, was a hard worker, and sought a future more challenging than being a grocer in the village of Staithes under the tutelage of merchant grocer William Sanderson.

But even though Staithes is a pretty non de-script village, it is here that an important connection is made. Staithes, a small village only a day’s walk from Middlesbrough, is on the sea; it is a relatively busy little fishing village.  Here a fateful choice is no doubt offered to our storekeeper.

We can imagine him standing outside the wooden shutters of Sanderson’s seaside shop, the smell of fish and ocean spray in the air, asking:  “Should I follow in the footsteps of my father and work the land, or turn to the sea that stands before me and seek out my future there?”

We all know what this man of humble origins chose. He chose the sea. In 1746, with the blessing of his family he was apprenticed to a Whitby ship owner, Mr. John Walker. His company transported coal between Newcastle and London. Nothing glamourous, but an opportunity all the same. One that he grasped with both hands. With hard work and application to his studies, including maths and navigation, he earned a chance to become a Master of the Friendship (a master is responsible for the navigation of the sailing vessel). Of course he said “yes” to the opportunity!  Well, in fact, he turned it down!

What is clear about this 27-year-old seaman is that that a career on a nondescript sailing vessel hauling cargo about the English coast or even the Baltic sea was not enough. There was only one career option that would give this young man the canvas he desired to paint on. And that was the Royal Navy. He promptly signed on as an Able Seaman of the 60-gun ship the Eagle carrying out tasks from standing watch to helmsman and lookout.

Here it becomes even more apparent  that we a dealing with a man of talent. Within a month of being on board the Eagle he is appointed as a masters mate; within two years he is qualified by examination for the navigation and handling of a royal ship. He then becomes master of the Pembroke and in 1758 crosses the Atlantic to participate in the Siege of Louisbourg. This was a pivotal battle in the Seven Year War that ended the French colonial era in Atlantic Canada.

In 1763 French colonial interest were ceded to the British and our talented master is about to make the most of the situation and further develop his skills for the grand adventure to come.

This seaman and navigator we now know as Captain James Cook. A man who would write prior to heading into the Pacific that he wished to go ‘farther than any man has been before…, but as far as I think it possible for man to go’. Well, he was not wrong…



First Fleeter Lieutenant Governor Robert Ross of Australia was also thought to be present at the Siege of Louisbourg. He was appointed lieutenant-governor of New South Wales in 1786 and sailed in the Scarborough with the First Fleet. From the early days of the colony, Ross and the Governor Arthur Phillip were in conflict (more about that later). Ross did not settle well into this new land and wrote in 1788 : ‘I do not scruple to pronounce that in the whole world there is not a worse country than what we have yet seen of this.’

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As we venture towards the European colonisation (or invasion) of Terra Australis, let’s catch up on the situation of indigenous Australians around this time.

They possessed one of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet. But what makes their culture distinctly unique is their isolation other cultures.

It was 40,000 years plus years ago that the first humans migrated to Australia. This was during a time of glaciation and much lower sea levels, effectively joining Papua New Guinea and Tasmania to Australia.

Some 10,000 years ago the sea began to rise again, adding to the isolation of the Australian continent. This resulted in minimal contact with outside cultures for thousands and thousands of years (except for a few tribes in the north that may have had limited contact with Indonesian tribes). Over this time indigenous Australians developed their own unique culture, shaped by this isolation and the harsh and varied nature of the Australian landscape.

Aboriginal people at this time lived as they had for thousands of years, in close association with the rhythms of the land, mainly as hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal society was generally mobile and influenced by food availability and the seasons. The population at prior to the arrival of Europeans is variously estimated to be somewhere between 300,000 and 700,000.

Aboriginal society was based on largely oral traditions and complex and, as is obvious now, largely beyond the comprehension of the average European of the time. Research indicates that the indigenous Australians had not only had a rich systems of beliefs (a subject of a future Bytes), but also pioneered a number of innovations, among them being the earliest known human cremations, some of the earliest rock art, the first boomerangs, ground axes, and grindstones in the world.

As Europeans ready themselves to step onto this continent, some 500 individual tribes cover the continent like a patchwork quilt. There is no overarching political system. No chiefs or kings. Tribes met for ceremonies, settled disputes and traded with each other, but that was about it.

Beneath these tribes were are a multitude of clans and family groups of varying sizes, from 6 to 40. There was also around 250 languages, along with intricate and shared oral traditions and spiritual beliefs united by the Dreaming, a world view that unites the spiritual, human and natural world.

You could easily think of this continent as being made up of a multitude of individual nations all with dynamic relationships and alliances, but a single world view.

But there was one thing over and above the Dreaming that unites indigenous Australia, and that is a strong and permanent relationship with the land…and unfortunately this is something that the Europeans coveted most of all.

So as the Europeans approach this Great Southern Land we need to prepare ourselves for an impending clash of two very different cultures…cultures formed separately over thousands of years on opposite sides of the world. One rich and spiritual, the other individualistic and legalistic.

And as if to exacerbate this future clash the fires of prejudice were being stoked in Britain and Europe by the writings of the European explorers of the time.

We have to look no further than the writings of William Dampier in his New Voyage Round the World in 1697. His description of indigenous Australians created stereotypes that policy makers took to heart:

So wrote Dampier:

“The inhabitants of this country are the miserablest people in the world. The Hodmadods of Monomatapa, though a nasty people, yet for wealth are gentlemen to these; who have no houses and skin garments, sheep, poultry, and fruits of the earth, ostrich eggs, etc., as the Hodmadods have; and setting aside their human shape, they differ but little from brutes….”

Though to be fair, not all spoke as harshly as this. For example Captain Cook wrote a little more favorably about the Aboriginal inhabitants in 1770:

“… they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them … the Earth and sea of their own accord furnished them with all things necessary for life …”

What we will now see as we move towards the arrival of the first European colonists is a conflict over the very stuff of Terra Australis – a peoples’ identity and the land itself. A clash that will see the indigenous population dwindle from 100% of the population of this Great Southern Land, to some 2.5 % today…

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So where are the English in this History of Australia?

They have been notably absent from the Discovery story, particularly when many think  it was the Englishman Captain Cook who actually discovered Australia. In fact an estimated  54 European ships precede Cook’s so called “discovery” in 1770.

Well, the time has finally come. Enter the English, if ever so briefly. Although the Englishmen in question may wish it was not so. Meaning, John Brook, Commander of a 500 tonne British East India vessel and his crew of some 130 men.

The year is 1622 and he is at the helm of the Tryall, a ship that soon is to become the Great Southern Land’s oldest known shipwreck. So to our story….

Loaded with silver from Plymouth, Brooks is on his way to the East Indies from Plymouth. It is the ship’s maiden voyage and the early days of the English trying out the new Brouwer route to the East Indies. His ship we know is only the second British ship to try out this route.

It is clear Brooks and his crew are inexperienced as they stop in Cape Town, not just for supplies, but to ask the locals basically, “How do we get to the East Indies?” Not happy with a verbal answer, they recruit a solution.  Brooks locates and appoints an experienced First Mate, Thomas Bright and sets off east with the “roaring forties” at their backs.

Then the fun begins. After mistaking Barrow Island for the mainland they find themselves too far east. There are varying accounts of the cause – incompetence, or the the typical challenge of trying to work out their exact longitude.

Fate struck in the dead of night of the 25th of May. The Tryall crashes into submerged rocks some 30 km from Montebello Islands. In the dead of night there begins a mad scramble for a skiff and longboat. Brook’s immediately takes command of the skiff (filled with silver?) and Bright takes to the longboat. Over 90 of the 133 souls are left to perish as the two boats set sail into the night. But they do not head for the nearby Great Southern Land, but rather they head north. Amazingly some weeks later in early July both boats arrived in Batavia some 1200 km away. A feat of endurance and perseverance by both Brooks and Bright.

Today the submerged rocks are now known as the Tryal Rocks, and for some 300 years after their exact location had been a point of controversy amongst mariners.

The English have finally entered our story of discovery, but have not quite managed to set foot on their future domain. But we do know one thing…finally the English are coming…

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