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National Treasures – Endeavour Journal (2004)

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Written on board the Endeavour during his trip down under in 1770, James Cook’s journal records the beginning of Australia as we know it today.

Curator’s notes

Captain James Cook FRS RN (27 October 1728–14 February 1779) was an English explorer, navigator and cartographer. Cook made three voyages to the Pacific Ocean.

James Cook was the first European explorer to chart the east coast of Australia. Written on board the Endeavour during his 1770 trip, James Cook’s journal records his first impressions and traces the beginning of Australia as we know it today. He is presented in many Australian text books as a hero. In tracing his voyage around the world, writer Tony Horwitz discovered that to many Indigenous people he is seen as a villain:

Initially, I was drawn more to Cook’s voyages than to Cook himself. The man went everywhere: he touched every continent except Antarctica, and he only missed that by a hundred or so miles. In the past, writers have focused on Cook’s considerable maritime achievements as a navigator and mapmaker. But to me, the most compelling part of his story is what happened on land: the drama of 'first contact’ between Europeans and native peoples. Island after island, Cook and his men stepped off their ship with no idea whether they’d be greeted with embraces or arrows. They knew little or nothing of the cultures they were about to encounter, and islanders knew even less of them. Yet somehow they had to find a way to communicate, trade, and get along — and remarkably, for the most part they did.

But as I began to research the captain’s voyages, I became just as entranced by Cook the man. He was born in a mud hut in rural Yorkshire, the son of an illiterate day labourer: the very bottom of Britain’s class-bound, 18th-century society. Yet he broke free from this cramped world and went on to explore more of the earth’s surface than any person in history. He’s a British Abe Lincoln: a once-in-a-generation figure who comes out of nowhere to transform his world and ours. You have to wonder what drives a man like that, and much of my book is an attempt to understand Cook’s character …

Memory of Cook varies a great deal from country to country. In Tahiti, where the French seized control from the British 70 years after Cook’s voyages, he’s conveniently forgotten. In New Zealand and Australia, he’s seen as a 'founding father’ by some whites, while being reviled as an imperialist by many Maori and Aborigines. In Tonga, which has modelled itself on monarchial England, he’s remembered fondly: a turtle he gave to a Tongan king roamed the palace grounds until a few decades ago. In Hawaii, he’s widely despised, because American missionaries spread disparaging tales about his behavior on the islands. One Hawaiian activist has termed Cook a ‘syphilitic, tubercular racist’ and declared it a point of pride that the captain didn’t leave Hawaiian shores alive. So I had plenty of controversy to work with in writing this book.

The sad truth is that Cook’s discoveries paved the way for whalers, traders, colonialists, missionaries and others who dispossessed native peoples, destroyed their cultures and belief systems, and despoiled the environment. We have to recognize this, and do what we can to repair the damage done. But I don’t think we should dismiss and vilify Cook in the process. He didn’t set out to ravage the Pacific: his mission was to explore and understand, not exploit. And much of what he wrote was strikingly sensitive. Most explorers before him were brutal men: gold-mad conquistadors and buccaneers who regarded natives as heathen savages and thought nothing of slaughtering them.

Cook was open and tolerant, and willing to learn from unfamiliar cultures — he admired their non-materialism and their respect for the environment. I think this is instructive at a moment in time when we tend to regard foreign societies with fear, and in many cases, hostility.

From an interview with Tony Horwitz, author of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before (2002).

Teacher’s notes

developed for NFSA digital learning NFSA digital learning

Classroom Activities

  1. When does Cook’s Endeavour Journal date from?
  2. Where is it found today?
  3. Why is it located there?
  4. Why is it considered a significant item?
  5. Although we have the written record of the arrival in 1770 of the Endeavour and its crew into what became known as Botany Bay, and the excursion ashore to gather flora and fauna samples for observation, what were the first impressions of those Indigenous Australians who may have been watching their activities? Plan and write what you consider may have been an oral report presented by one of the Indigenous observation party to his community elders. You may want to prepare this activity as a play scene with dialogue, where the elders ask further questions about what has been witnessed, and make decisions about the information they are receiving.
  6. Following from the previous activity, in pairs carry out research, from records in the Endeavour Journal and elsewhere, then write an informative article of about 400-500 words, on the Europeans’ first contact with the local population in 1770. How did the two groups relate? Was contact friendly? Were there misunderstandings, problems, arguments, acts of violence?
  7. Read the interview with Tony Horwitz on the Video–Curator’s notes tab where he discusses Captain James Cook. Carry out further research about Cook elsewhere if required. Following this, debate in class the question of whether Cook was a hero, a villain, or somewhere in between, in his relations with Indigenous populations during his voyages of exploration.
  8. Warren Brown enthuses about the status of Cook’s journal as a national treasure, but what is missing from Brown’s account? For example, what might an Indigenous Australian make of this clip?
  9. The story of Cook’s voyages up the east coast of Australia is fraught with controversy. Through research, discover how Cook is represented by different people from different backgrounds (different schools of history, Indigenous people including Australian Aborigines etc). Pick one of these groups and research Cook’s travels. From their perspective, decide: was he a hero or a villain? Prepare to participate in a panel discussion where a range of views on Cook can be discussed and debated. In your role, justify your conclusion by reference to the criteria you develop to apply to him in your role.
  10. Alternatively, debate whether Cook’s Endeavour Journal really is Australia’s greatest book.

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