Cooktown is a small town a long way from anywhere: 328 kilometres north of Cairns, at the end of the bitumen. When we visited it hadn’t occurred to me that it has a Botanic Gardens; but does, and it’s a beauty. Old, too. Planting first began there in 1868, and it was made official in 1878.
The Cooktown Botanic Gardens has an art gallery, café and information centre, and as always for a Botanic Gardens, its plantings are based on scientific, cultural and historical principles. It includes local species used throughout the centuries by the local Indigenous people, as well as threatened species.
It also includes examples of the plants collected in 1770 by the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on Captain James Cook’s visit on HMB Endeavour, and drawn by botanist and natural history artist Sydney Parkinson. Some of these specimens, pressed, are in the collection of the Queensland Herbarium, at Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens in Brisbane.
We visited Cooktown in mid-November, in the build-up to the wet season. Not surprisingly, it was hot in the Gardens.
Our motel overlooked the Endeavour River, named by Captain Cook, and I couldn’t help thinking about the history of this place that we’ve heard about all our lives. The Endeavour was beached for repairs just below us, and behind us was the granite hill that Cook and his companions climbed to look out over the sea and its treacherous reefs their wounded ship had picked its way through to reach this small harbour and would have to thread through again on its way out.
Captain Cook’s expedition (we call him Captain because he was captain of the Endeavour, but his naval rank was Lieutenant) arrived in mid-June and stayed throughout July, when the weather in the tropics is perfect. They spent nearly seven weeks here, on Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific, 250 years ago this month. When I read these sections of Cook’s journal, I realised for the first time just what an extraordinary episode this was, an encounter between two cultures entirely unknown to each other. The party of eighty-seven Europeans – explorers, astronomers, botanists, officers and crew – knew nothing of the Indigenous culture or language, and the local Guugu Yimithirr of the area had no idea what these strange intruders were doing here.
Cook was an extraordinary seaman, navigator and cartographer. His orders from the British government for this three-year voyage of discovery were both scientific and strategic: to carry out astronomical observations, and to investigate and take possession of the rumoured Great Southern Lands for Britain.
All the way up the east coast of Australia, Banks and Solander had been desperate to do some serious study of the wealth of plants and animals that Europeans had never seen before. In what is now Cooktown they finally got their chance, although they and everyone else on Endeavour nearly died getting there.
According to the captain’s journal it was a clear, moonlight night when on 10 June 1770, the Endeavour, surrounded by coral reefs, struck a reef and stuck fast. Cook’s journal entry for 11 June, written in the utmost haste, shows how desperate the situation was.
The crew threw overboard the ship’s cannons, ballast, and anything else that could be spared to reduce weight, and manned the pumps desperately for twenty-four hours before the ship could be floated and dragged off the reef. A fothering sail was prepared, packed with wool and oakum, and dragged under the hull to be lashed over the hole.
Too far from shore to swim, on a small ship alone in unknown waters and utterly beyond help, it was equivalent to a dangerous situation on a space craft.
The ship picked its way through further reefs, taking water all the time, until they found the mouth of what Cook named the Endeavour River, and moored the ship alongside a steep beach on the southern side of the river.
When they looked at the damage to the hull it was discovered that a piece of coral had broken off and blocked the hole, probably saving them.
The Endeavour and its company stayed at the Endeavour River until repairs were completed. Banks and Solander collected plant specimens; and the Europeans saw their first kangaroo.
The local Guugu Yimithirr people did not make them welcome. It’s a perilous business, going uninvited into a foreign land and helping yourself to whatever you need. Eight years later, in Hawaii, it was probably taking advantage of local hospitality without any awareness of local customs and sensitivities that led to Cook’s death. There were misunderstandings and clashes on the Endeavour River, too.
The locals especially resented Cook’s party catching and eating turtles, which were of course a traditional local food with rituals around their capture, preparation and sharing. They probably thought of it as stealing. They showed their displeasure, and Cook’s party retaliated.
19 July: …those that came on board were very desirous of having some of our turtle and took the liberty to haul two to the gang way to put over the side… being disappointed in this they grew a little troublesome, and were for throwing everything overboard they could lay their hands upon; I offer’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, myself and five or six more of our people being ashore at the same time, immediately upon their landing one of them took a handful of dry grass and lighted it at a fire we had ashore and before we well know’d what he was going about he made a large circuit round about us and set fire to the grass, and in an Instant the whole place was in flames… they went to a place… where all our nets and a good deal of linnen were laid out to dry, here they again set fire to the grass… I was obliged to fire a musquet loaded with small shott at one of the ring leaders which sent them off. Notwithstanding my firing in which one must have been a little hurt because we saw some a few drops of blood on some of the linnen he had gone over, they did not go far for we soon after heard their voices in the woods…
On 22 August 1770, on a small island he named Possession Island at the tip of Cape York, Captain Cook took possession of the whole eastern coast of what is now Australia on behalf of the British Government. Cook noted in his journal:
… I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast from the above Latitude down to this place by the Name of New South Wales together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were answerd by the like number from the Ship.
After Cook’s return to England the British government decided that this land belonged to no one – terra nullius – and therefore was free for them to use without treaty or reparation. It’s suggested that it was Banks, by all accounts both arrogant and influential, who gave them that impression.
We visited the James Cook Museum, occupying a spectacular old nineteenth century Sisters of Mercy Convent building, and looked at the displays telling the stories of this place where such an extraordinary clash of cultures occurred two hundred and fifty years ago. We visited Finch Bay, with its granite boulders like whales and a backpacker standing naked in the creek, braving the crocodiles as she washed her clothes; we watched another sunset over the Endeavour River, and next morning drove away back to Cairns.
The English knew what it was to have foreigners arrive in ships. Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans: they were all invaders who took land and goods, killed any who opposed them, and disrupted local culture, language and spirituality. Britain did the same to Ireland; and the Guugu Yimithirr people were to be left in peace for only a few more generations before the same disaster happened to them.
 http://southseas.nla.gov.au/journals/cook/17700611.html Cook’s Journal Daily Entries 11 June 1770.
 http://southseas.nla.gov.au/journals/cook/17700611.html Cook’s Journal Daily Entries 19 July 1770.
 http://southseas.nla.gov.au/journals/cook/17700822.html Cook’s Journal Daily Entries 22 August 1770