Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Special Collections Celebrates National Science Week: Age of Discovery and the Endeavour's Wreck off Cape Tribulation

Captain Cook chartered 2000 miles of the East Australian coastline and only stopped for any length of time in four places:  Botany Bay, Bustard Bay, Thirsty Sound, and the Endeavour River. He was in a hurry. His crew were exhausted, supplies were running low and he was mindful of the approaching monsoons which would make his traverse across the Timor Sea arduous and dangerous. Also, it was not known whether the North of Queensland was attached to Papua New Guinea, and if it was they would need to sail right around New Guinea to get to Batavia, a friendly port in Dutch Indonesia. So, it was a serious misadventure when the Endeavour "Struck and stuck fast"on a ledge of coral reef at Cape Tribulation where "began all our troubles". From Cook’s handwritten Journal  (online at the National Library of Australia).

Figure 1. Captain James Cook's handwritten journal from the Endeavour Voyage around the World. Held at the National Library of Australia.

 “Before 10 o'clock we had 20 and 21 fathoms, and continued in that depth until a few minutes before 11, when we had 17, and before the Man at the Lead could heave another cast, the Ship Struck and stuck fast. Immediately upon this we took in all our Sails, hoisted out the Boats and Sounded round the Ship, and found that we had got upon the South-East Edge of a reef of Coral Rocks, having in some places round the Ship 3 and 4 fathoms Water, and in other places not quite as many feet …  I found the most water a Stern, and therefore had this Anchor carried out upon the Starboard Quarter, and hove upon it a very great Strain; which was to no purpose, the Ship being quite fast, upon which we went to work to lighten her as fast as possible, which seem'd to be the only means we had left to get her off. As we went ashore about the Top of High Water we not only started water, but threw overboard our Guns, Iron and Stone Ballast, Casks, Hoop Staves, Oil Jars, decay'd Stores, etc.” (From the online transcript of Cook’s Endeavour Journal, Project Gutenberg, Australia).

Figure 2. Location map of the Endeavour wreck on a coral ledge and the safe harbour in the Endeavour River where they repaired the ship. (From Hawkesworth, 1773, Vol. 3).
Figure 3. Endeavour River, New Holland. Engraving in Hawkesworth, 1773, Vol. 3.

They spent twenty three hours on the coral ledge before they luckily found harbour in the Endeavour River (Cooktown). There they stayed mending the ship for nearly seven weeks. During this time Banks and Solander made numerous collecting forays and described a large number of specimens. The aboriginal people for the first time during the Endeavours' trip up the coast overcame their fear for long enough to join with Cook and his crew. The Special Collections at Eddie Koiki Mabo Library, James Cook University, holds hundreds of oral history recordings including tales told by aboriginal Australians of encounters with Captain James Cook. They believed he was a ghost and that his clothes were like a snake's skin that could be removed. During their seven week long sojourn repairing the Endeavour, Joseph Banks learned many aboriginal words, including 'kangaroo', the first sighting of which occurred here at the Endeavour River. From Captain Cook’s Journal: 

“I saw myself this morning, a little way from the Ship, one of the Animals before spoke of; it was of a light mouse Colour and the full size of a Grey Hound, and shaped in every respect like one, with a long tail, which it carried like a Grey Hound; in short, I should have taken it for a wild dog but for its walking or running, in which it jump'd like a Hare or Deer. Another of them was seen to-day by some of our people, who saw the first; they described them as having very small Legs, and the print of the Feet like that of a Goat; but this I could not see myself because the ground the one I saw was upon was too hard, and the length of the Grass hindered my seeing its legs.” 

Figure 4. Engraving of a kangaroo sighted for the first time by the crew aboard the Endeavour at Endeavour River. (From Hawkesworth, 1773. Vol. 3).

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