Captain Cook’s Epic Voyage
The Strange Quest for a Missing Continent
By Geoffrey Blainey
Published by Penguin/Viking
RRP $ 34.99 in paperback | 336pp | ISBN 9781760895099
Revised edition – previously published as Sea of Dangers (2008), Penguin/Viking
A small detour from our military history theme with this blog post – I could not resist the lure of a book about arguably the most important European in Australia’s history – Captain James Cook – the first European to map a large part of the coastline.
His discovery set in train a series of events that culminated in the modern, democratic, first-world country that Australia is today, notwithstanding the mixed emotions of Australia’s first people at his achievements.
This year was to have been a year of commemoration being the 250th anniversary of the voyage of Cook and the Endeavour. There were many events planned to mark the 250th anniversary of the voyage which culminated in Cook charting Australia’s eastern coastline and claiming it for Great Britain.
The worldwide pandemic and the need for social distancing has resulted in most commemorations being scaled down or cancelled altogether. But it is still possible to publish books in the time of Covid.
I recently visited the Town of 1770, on Queensland’s central coast, which was the second landing spot for the voyage up the east coast of Australia, the first being the most famous – Botany Bay, just south of Sydney harbour.
The tea towels had already been printed for the commemoration activities planned for the Town of 1770 (pictured) before the coronavirus restrictions ended all their plans. The Endeavour anchored 2 miles off and a small party of men rowed ashore, describing abundant marine life, fauna and flora. (It’s a popular place now for fishing and fishing charters and you are guaranteed to see kangaroos on nearby roads as sundown approaches.)
This book is one among many on Captain Cook, but the one with the most distinguished of authors. Geoffrey Blainey is a name known to anyone with a passing interest in Australian history. Now aged 90 and a National Living Treasure, his list of achievements and accolades would exceed the scope of any blogpost. Sufficient to say, though, that he is highly regarded as one of the finest non-fiction writers Australia has produced so readers of this book are in good, authoritative hands.
So what has changed between editions of these two books?
As Blainey writes in his preface, he has streamlined references related to French voyages and rewritten parts of the remaining text. He acknowledges that Cook’s voyage and its commemoration have become more controversial against the backdrop of indigenous activism. He counters by calling for recognition of the first Aboriginal discoverers of Australia, tens of thousands of years ago, alongside Cook.
So why did Cook begin this long voyage to parts unknown?
In 1768 he set sail, bound for the Pacific Ocean. He was ordered to establish an observatory at Tahiti in order to record the 1769 transit of Venus, and – with the skills of naturalist Joseph Banks and his team – to collect natural history in this far part of the world. But Cook’s brief also included a secret mission from the British Admiralty: to discover Terra Australis Incognita, an unknown southern land that many believed to be inhabited by white people, yet others were sceptical of its value, having dismissed it as a potential source of trade based on the scant reports of earlier navigators, primarily those who touched the western coastline.
Cook was not alone in this quest, and the Endeavour shared the Coral Sea and coastal New Zealand with an armed French merchant ship commanded by Jean de Surville.
Eventually, in 1770, Cook’s ship crossed the Tasman Sea and reached the southern coast of what was to become New South Wales. Sailing north, he charted the future Australia’s eastern coastline and claimed it for Great Britain, but not before falling foul of the now famed Great Barrier Reef.
Blainey describes Cook’s desperate efforts to save his ship, eventually sailing it into what was to become the Endeavour River. Through Cook’s and other journals, he describes their salvage operations and their interactions with the local indigenous population.
Like earlier European explorers who had glimpsed the Australian continent (the west coast), Cook did not perceive before him a land capable of sustaining life without the introduction of the familiar European crops and farm animals that he deemed essential to sustain life, despite being accompanied on the voyage by the esteemed botanist Sir Joseph Banks.
(We have the Australian native tree growing in our garden that bears his name: the banksia.)
Neither did he nor any of the earlier explorers have any inkling of the enormous mineral wealth that Australia would later yield up: iron ore, gold, coal, copper, and rare minerals, none of which were of much interest to the indigenous population who hunted and fished for food and collected fruits and berries from Australia’s still largely unknown range of ‘bush food’ trees and shrubs – the most famous Australian bush food is probably the Macadamia nut, native to north eastern New South Wales and southern Queensland. (What a shame it has a name with no indigenous association.)
This was, without doubt, the most significant of Cook’s voyages, transforming the world map and the way Europeans viewed the South Pacific Ocean and its lands and peoples. Blainey takes us on a vivid journey, which he has based on deep and thorough research. Despite the misgivings of Australia’s first people, he believes Cook is a hero worth honouring, his achievements extraordinary and his place in Australia’s history a worthy one.
If you want to read about the discovery of Australia by Europeans, this book is as good a starting point as any.
The name of Captain Cook is far better known in Australia than any of the explorers who subsequently opened up Australia to white settlement or even Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton, whose name is pretty much lost to history.