Sunday, 21 July 2013

Cooktown and its place in history

This entry is all about Captain Cook so I've coloured the type in green so if you're not interested you don't need to read it! 

The Captain Cook monument in Cooktown
Today is Sunday 21st July 2013 and we have spent our second day in Cooktown, the location of Captain Cook’s longest stay ashore in Australia.

We spent our day walking round the town, but 243 years ago today there was no town and in this place the great Captain Cook wrote in is log: “Carpenters employed in repairing the boats and overhauling the pumps and as the wind would not permit us to sail I sent the Boatswain with some hands ashore making rope and a petty officer and two men to gather greens for the Ships Company.” His chief botanist, Joseph Banks wrote: “No sign of the Indians today nor indeed any thing else worthy of note”.

It had been 35 days since they had first set eyes on this place, limping into the safety of the Endeavour river estuary on 17th June 1770, named after his ship HMB Endeavour (His Majesty's Bark Endeavour) and beaching it on the south side of the river at a spot now marked by a cairn and small plaque. It was with huge relief to all on board that they had navigated to safe waters after running aground on the Great Barrier Reef near Cape Tribulation, named by Cook because of his predicament, one week earlier on 10th June 1770 at about 11:00pm, the ship stuck fast on the reef for 23 hours. During this time they threw overboard as many heavy items as they could spare including 6 cannon, in all between 40 and 50 Tons and set out anchors onto the reef which they used to try to haul the ship off the reef before it got dashed to pieces on the rocks. Every man, including Cook took their turns at the three pumps in an effort to keep it afloat, but they were losing the battle as it sank lower into the water.

Imagine how they must have been feeling, it had been 2 years since they had left England, sailing round Cape Horn and across the virtually unknown Pacific to Tahiti and then into completely uncharted territory. There was vague knowledge of lands known as the great southern continent and Cook and his men sailed into the unknown, finding and circumnavigating New Zealand, then across the Tasman Sea to sight Australia just south of Botany Bay and sailing, as we have driven, up the east coast. There were no ports, repair facilities or anyone who spoke English, only the native Aboriginals who could offer no assistance at all.

The feeling of desperation they must have felt halfway around the world and totally out of any contact with anyone who could help is summed up in Joseph Banks journal entry of 12th June 1770: 

“The most critical part of our distress now approached: the ship was almost afloat and everything ready to get her into deep water but she leaked so fast that with all our pumps we just keep her free: if she should make more water when hauled off she must sink and we well knew that our boats were not capable of carrying us all ashore, so that some, probably the most of us, must be drowned…

A dreadful time now approached and the anxiety in every bodys countenance was visible enough: the Capstan and Windlace were manned and they began to heave: fear of death now stared us in the face: hopes we had none but of being able to keep the ship afloat till we could run her ashore on some part of the main where out of her materials we might build a vessel large enough to carry us to the East Indies. At 10 o’Clock she floated and in a few minutes was hawled into deep water where to our great satisfaction she made no more water than she had done, which was indeed full as much as we could manage tho no one there was in the ship but who willingly exterted his utmost strength.

The people who had been 24 hours at exceeding hard work now began to flag: myself unused to labour was much fatigued and had laid down to take a little rest, was awakened at about 12 with the alarming news of the ships having gained so much on the Pumps that she had 4 feet water in her hold: add to this that the wind blew off the land a regular land breeze so that all hopes of running her ashore were totally cut off. This however acted on everybody like a charm: rest was no more thought of but the pumps went with unwearied vigour till the water was all out which was done in a much shorter time than expected, and upon examination it was found that she never had half so much water in her as we thought, the Carpenter having made a mistake in sounding the pumps. We now began again to have some hopes and getting the ship into some harbour as we could spare hands from the pumps to get up our anchors: one Bower however we cut away but got the other three small anchors far more valuable to us than the Bowers, as we were obliged to warp her to windward that we might take advantage of the sea breeze to run in shore.”

The continual exhausting pumping to keep the ship afloat could not continue and it was midshipman Johnathan Monkhouse who suggested fothering the ship; a temporary repair method he had seen used on a previous voyage. A sail was covered with oakum, dung and sheeps wool and drawn under the Endeavours belly. Relief was instant with the intake of water slowing so much that the leak became manageable with only one pump.

The beaching of the Endeavour
An urgent search was now on to find a safe harbour in which to repair her and she limped along behind her boats who searched ahead for a suitable place. The pinnace, which had gone ahead and did not return until about 9:00 arrived with news of a suitable safe haven ahead so, carefully picking their way through the shallow shoals they eventually turned into the river estuary where, after several attempts the ship was beached to the great relief of all on board.

Over the following days the carpenters repaired the ship while Banks and Solander explored the countryside gathering plant samples and cataloguing them. In all 325 species of plants were collected in 8 days, which is 55% of all known to the area today. They also first saw and named the kangaroo here, misunderstanding the local Aborigine word 'ganguuru'. They shot one and ate it, declaring it to be very good.

Sydney Parkinsons pencil drawing
The next day, on 19th June Cook and Banks “went upon one of the highest hills over the harbour from which I had a perfect view of the inlet or river and adjacent country which afforded but a very indifferent prospect. The lowlands near the river is all over run with mangroves among which the salt water flows every tide and the high land appeared to be barren and stony.” 
The cairn marking the location of the beaching
Looking out to sea he observed: “at this time it was low water and I saw what gave me no small uneasiness which were a number of sand bank or shoals laying along the coast; the innermost lay about 3 or 4 miles from the shore and the outermost extended off to sea as far as I could see with my glass, some just appeared above water. 

Cooks map of Endeavour estuary and Grassy Hill
The only hope I have of getting clear of them is to the northward where there seems to be a passage for as the wind blows constantly from the south east we shall find it difficult if not impractical to return to the southward.”

The view from Grassy Hill showing the shallow sea
Our town plan with my pen additions showing points of interest
Today we got to the top of this hill, named Grassy Hill (Loretta Sullivan tells me Cook referred to it as 'a grassy hill, but it was only officially named 'Grassy Hill' by the gold miners who came in 1873), by driving to the top. We stood where the great men had stood and looked at the same views. The lowlands and high ground were as he described, virtually unchanged in 243 years, with the exception of the few roads of Cooktown. Out to sea we could see what gave him his uneasiness, very shallow sea with breakers where the shoals of coral are, how must he have felt?

The Endeavour River with mangrove covered banks
While all this was going on the local Aboriginal people, Guugu Yimithirr observed and met with Cook and his crew on several occasions, they reported: “after these strange beings beached their large canoe our bama decided not to make contact but to observe. They decided to do what they normally did, they collected wood and other things from the beach, two bama even paddled their canoe close to the visitors boat. The strangers gave our bama fish and beads. Next day four of our men went back and gave them fish in return, which is customary.

The Endeavour River with Cooktown
Then one morning ten of our bama were invited to inspect the visitors boat. To their horror they saw a number of turtles on board, presumably taken from our waters. When they asked if they could have one it was refused. To our bama it became an offence. The visitors had trespassed. The sharing code was broken. They should have got permission from us as the owners or custodians. Then things got out of hand. Our bama were so confused and angry that they set fire to the camp site. They then heard a loud bang and saw a pall of smoke. One of the men could not believe that something invisible had punctured his leg and blood started to flow. They all ran away. Before going back to their camp our bama lit more fires to warn other clans that something had gone wrong.”

Here is Cooks journal entry for the 19th July 1770:

Grassy Hill from the town
“In the AM we were visited by 10 or 11 of the natives the most of them came from the other side of the River where we saw six or seven more; the most of them women and like the men were quite naked; those that came on board were very desirous of having some of our turtle and took the liberty to haul two to the gangway to put over the side; being disappointed in this they grew a little troublesome, and were for throwing everything over board they could lay their hands upon; as we had no victuals dress’d at this time I offere’d them some bread to eat, which they rejected with scorn as I believe they would have done anything else excepting turtle – soon after this they all went ashore Mr. Banks and my self and five or six of our people being a shore at the same time.

Reconciliation Rocks
Immediately upon their landing one of them took a handful of dry grass and lighted it at a fire we had a shore and before we well know’d what was going about he made a large circuit round about us and set fire to the grass in his way and in an instant the whole place was in flames, luckily at this time we had hardly any thing a shore besides the forge and a sow with a litter of young pigs one of which was scorched to death in the fire – as soon as they had done this they all went to a place where some of our people were washing and where all our nets and a good deal of linen were laid out to dry; here with the greatest obstinacy they again set fire to the grass which I and some others present could not prevail until I was oblig’d to fire a musket loaded with small shot at one of the ring leaders which sent them off; as we were appraised of this last attempt of theirs we got the fire out before it got a head; but the first spread like wild fire in the woods and grass.

Notwithstanding my firing which must have been a little hurt because we saw a few drops of blood on some of the linen he had gone over; they did not go far from us for we soon after heard their voices in the woods upon which Mr. Banks and I and 3 or 4 More went to look for them and very soon we met them coming towards us as they had each 4 or 5 darts a piece and not knowing their intention we seized upon six or seven of the first darts we met with; this alarmed them so much that they all made off and we followed them for near half a mile and then set down and call’d to them and they stopped also; after some unintelligible conversation had passed they lay down their darts and came to us in a very friendly manner; we now returned the darts we had taken from them which ‘reconciled everything’.

There were 4 strangers among them that we had not seen before and these were introduced to us by name by the others; the man which we supposed to have been struck with small shott was gone off, but he could not be much hurt as he was at a great distance when I fired.

They all came along with us abreast of the ship where they stay’d a short time and then went away and soon after set the woods on fire about a mile and a half to two miles from us.”

Joseph Banks entry for the day:
"We followed for near half a mile, then meeting with some rocks from whence we might observe these motions we sat down and they did so too about 100 yards from us. The little old man now came forward to us carrying a lance without a point. He halted several times and as he stood employed himself collecting moisture from under his armpit with his finger which he every time drew through his mouth."

One of the cannon and anchor recovered from the Endeavour Reef
The place where this meeting occurred  was a rocky bar, which is now at the end of Furneaux Street in the town. The rocks are called ‘Reconciliation Rocks’ as it was the first recorded reconciliation between Indigenous Australians and Europeans. This is now considered as an event that has far reaching implications for the community, as its a significant lesson in diplomacy with two different cultures having the will to reconcile their differences. It happened on 19th July 1770, 2 days short of 243 years ago.

It was not to be until 10th August 1770 that the Endeavour finally departed the area with a new understanding between Europeans and Aborigines and Cook summarised the Aborigines as “From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a tranquillity, which is not disturbed by the inequality of condition: The earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not magnificent houses, household stuff; they live in a warm and fine climate and enjoy a very wholesome air, so that they have very little need for clothing. And this they seem to be fully sensible of.
Our cloth they leave carelessly upon the beach and in the woods as a thing they have no manner of use for. They seem to set no value upon anything we give them. nor will they ever part with anything of their own for any article we offer them. This in my opinion.argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessities of life and that they have no superfluities.”

The Cooktown Hotel, established in 1885
Very little happened in the area until gold was found on the Palmer River in 1873 and this bought an influx of prospectors who acted very differently to Cook and his crew, confiscating land and water supplies, forcing the natives off their land killing them indiscriminately and infecting them with European diseases that they had no resistance to. The result decimated them from which they never recovered. The town of Cooktown was established as a port for the goldfields and, at one time up to 18,000 people lived in the area, a good proportion of them Chinese. After the gold ran out the town gradually declined and the nearby towns of Cairns and Port Douglas took most of Cooktowns trade leaving it as a quiet backwater.

Cooktown was only accessible by sea until the first overland track was built in 1937, gradually improved over the years to finally being a fully sealed road 9 years ago, allowing Cooktown to become the tourist town it deserves to be.

I was very pleased to meet Loretta Sullivan who is the President of the Cooktown Re-enactment Association Inc. (known locally as Mrs. Cook), who gave me some very useful help in writing this. I used some extracts from her booklet ‘Historical Endeavours’ and other material from the Captain Cook Historical museum in the town. Her website is and she is a true enthusiast! She called me and others like me a ‘Cook Tragic’!

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