Two hundred and fifty years ago this week, white sails appeared on the horizon off what is now Australia’s largest city. To the inhabitants of the land now known as Sydney, the strange white figures who rowed ashore looked like ghosts.
The ship was HMS Endeavour, captained by the British explorer James Cook. The people standing on the shore were the Gweagal indigenous people who had lived on this land for thousands of years.
After a brief but violent encounter on 29 April 1770, Endeavour sailed on, heading north along the east coast of Australia, with Cook claiming the land for Britain’s King George III.
A government-funded $50 million program of commemorative events to mark the anniversary of the voyage that changed this country forever have been cancelled as Australia, along with most of the world, follows measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
One event that will go ahead, albeit online, is the $3 million Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in the national capital, Canberra. The exhibition runs until October, and if the museum reopens before then, visitors will be able to see the “real thing”.
One of those important untold stories is of the encounters that Captain Cook had with indigenous people after his ship foundered on the Great Barrier Reef and limped ashore on June 17, 1770.
Cook and his crew spent 48 days on the banks of what he named the Endeavour River, making repairs, exploring the area and interacting with the Guugu Yimithirr people, whose descendants still live there.
The Endeavour exhibition will highlight what is now being recognised as the first act of reconciliation – the word used by Cook in his journal – between indigenous people and Europeans, after an altercation between the inhabitants of the land and the shipwrecked interlopers. In Cooktown, the small Queensland town that bears his name, the location of this place is known as Reconciliation Rocks, where an indigenous man brokered peace between the parties.
Indigenous artists will tell the story from the perspective of their ancestors, and the exhibition will also feature artefacts from the ship and an interactive botanical display based on the work of Endeavour’s botanist, Joseph Banks.
Remote as it is, about three-and-a-half hours drive north of the nearest large city, Cairns, and one of the few large townships on Queensland’s Cape York, Cooktown (pop. about 2600) is an interesting place to visit.
The main street, Charlotte Street – said to be named for King George’s daughter (or perhaps his wife, who had the same name) – is lined with pubs and imposing colonial buildings, a legacy of the 1870s gold rush to nearby Palmer River. In its first decade, the town grew from a supply port and gold rush tent-city in 1873 to a town of substance and home to 18,000 people.
The James Cook Museum, housed in the brick gold-rush-era former Sisters of Mercy convent building, is well worth spending a few hours wandering through. It also covers the indigenous history of the area, as well as the influence of the Chinese and European settlers who came for gold. Endeavour’s original anchor, raised from the sea bed in December 1971, about 200 years after it was ditched, takes pride of place.
Cook is everywhere in Cooktown. On the foreshore, a large granite rock bears a plaque marking the spot where Cook beached Endeavour and there are two other memorials as well: Cook’s Monument, built in 1887 to commemorate the landing, and a bronze statue of the navigator.
The cannon next to the monument is still fired during the “Endeavour Festival” held annually on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June, when Cook’s landing is re-enacted by costumed locals. This year’s three-week-long 250th anniversary events have also been cancelled, with the promise of rescheduling for 2021.
Grassy Hill, on the eastern side of the river, was Cook’s salvation after Endeavour was repaired. Cook climbed the hill (today you can drive) more than once for the 360-degree views of the river and reefs, looking for a safe passage out. There’s another monument to him there, with extracts from his journals, but the small lighthouse is a later addition, built in England and shipped to Cooktown in 1885.
More stories from the area’s turbulent past can be found on the headstones in the Cooktown cemetery. The earliest grave is of Reverend Francis Tripp, who died just 10 days after his arrival in May 1874, and there have been 3000 burials since.
I love cemeteries for their stories and was not disappointed here. One modest headstone reads “Mary Watson of Lizard Island”, and later I find a monument to her in the town. Known as “Mrs. Watson’s Monument”, it tells how Mary, her infant son and a Chinese servant escaped an attack by Aborigines while her fisherman husband was away from their home on Lizard Island in 1881. The three escaped in a “boiling down” tank to a nearby island but later died of dehydration, as there was no fresh water. Their remains, and Mary Watson’s diary, were found in 1882.
Then there’s the sad but compelling story of the mysterious and nameless “Normanby Woman”, a blonde woman raised by the Normanby tribe and later forcibly removed from them, only to die soon after.
In a corner of the cemetery, a large shrine built in 1887 commemorates the 300 Chinese buried here between 1873 and 1920.
The James Cook Museum is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but since my visit work has been done on upgrading it and improving the exhibits.
I’m only hoping that they’ve retained two of my favourite things relating to Captain Cook. For a start, a lofty quote was strung across one wall of the museum:
“I had ambition not only to go further than anyone had been before, but as far as it was possible for man to go.”
At the time, he certainly achieve that. But I wonder if he’d be amused by seeing alongside his words, those of an irreverent Australian children’s rhyme? I’ll leave you with this:
Captain Cook chased a chook,
All around Australia,
Lost his pants in the middle of France
And found them in Tasmania.
Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about Captain Cook’s hometown of Whitby in England.