Cooktown…

Was named in honour of Captain James Cook, the explorer who put the east coast of the great southern continent on the map. He was by no means the first European to visit Australia. That honour goes to one Willem Janszoon on the good ship Duyfken in 1606. More of him a little later.

The Dutch had mapped the west coast of Oz pretty thoroughly over the course of a century starting with Dirk Hartog in 1616. Abel Tasman put the southerly limit on the continent with the discovery of Van Dieman’s Land in 1642.

The first Brit to hit the shore was John Brookes who wrecked the Tryall off the WA coast in 1622. Survivors spent a week on the Monte Bello Islands. William Dampier made a far more successful visit in 1699 discovering an excellent site for a bird observatory.

Turn the clock forward to 1770. After making a thorough survey of New Zealand Cook sailed west heading for Van Diemen’s Land the next known spot in the ocean. The weather caused him to take a more northerly route and on 19th April 1770 Lieutenant Zachary Hicks, a Stepney lad, spotted the east coast of Victoria. Like a lot of Victorians since our James then headed north to Queensland. No landings were made in Victoria and only one in New South Wales, at Botany Bay (29th April).

Once in the future Queensland’s waters Cook made 13 more landings. None more important to the success of the voyage than the one at the mouth of the Endeavour River.

On June the 11th Endeavour struck a reef. It took 23 hours to get her off and she was badly holed in the process. A desperate bout of pumping followed until the inflow of water was reduced by passing a sail under the ship’s belly a process known as fothering. The ship could then be kept afloat by use of a single pump until a suitable landing site could be found. On the 17th the ship was beached at the mouth of the Endeavour River. Repairs took 7 weeks.

Relations with the locals were mainly good perhaps because Cook had unwittingly chosen to camp at a traditional meeting place where custom forbade the shedding of blood. Some aboriginal words and names were recorded for posterity. The word kangaroo was borrowed from the Guugu Yimithirr language. Subsequent scholarship has disproved the furphy that it meant “buggered if I know” and suggests that it was the name of a particular species of macropod.

One kangaroo had the misfortune to be shot. It was sketched by Sydney Parkinson then eaten by the officers and gentlemen. That sketch may have been the model for a painting by George Stubbs that was itself the source material for an engraving that appeared in John Hawkesworth’s 1773 book describing the voyage.

Cook and Banks are often credited with being the first to describe a macropod forgetting that Western Australia had been on the map for about 150 years at that time. The honour should go to Francois Pelsaert who described a wallaby from the other side of the continent in 1629.

Returning as promised to Willem Janszoon. In 1606 he sailed eastward in the Arafura Sea and bumped into land that he thought was a southerly extension of New Guinea. It was in fact the west coast of the Cape York Peninsula in the vicinity of present day Weipa. He then sailed south in the Gulf of Carpentaria charting the coast as far as Cape Keerweer. When Cook was at Cooktown he was just 437km as the crow flies from Cape Keerweer and 164 years too late to be the first European to visit Cape York.

One thought on “Cooktown…

  1. Fascinating.
    A nice bit of history that was not explained to me as a child. I’m wondering why I was taught about Cook and his “discovering” Australia when he clearly didn’t. And why are people vandalising his statue now. Is it because he was from Yorkshire ? (Joke, I love Yorkshire and the Bempton Cliffs).
    Please keep up the good work. I like your posts.
    Mal 🙂

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