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Illuminated globe depicting the travels of Captain James Cook from the Cook and the Pacific exhibition at the National Library of Australia

The names Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks spark instant recognition in Australia for the roles they played in the history of European-settled Australia and in various other parts of the world. Captain Cook, in particular, has become an almost mythical historic character, often being incorrectly attributed as the first one to discover Australia. While his navigational and scientific achievements were very significant, we are now paying a little more attention to the people and the places he and his fellow travellers encountered on their voyages, and the impact they had. The current exhibition at the National Library of Australia, Cook and the Pacific, gives us a detailed history of the trips and invites us to consider them from a number of perspectives.

The Cook and the Pacific exhibition covers the three major Pacific voyages of James Cook, exploring the regions and the voyages through the eyes of the British travellers and the First Nations peoples they met along the way. It covers travel to Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand, the east coast of Australia, and surprisingly, even Siberia and Antarctica.

It’s a fabulous exhibition, and with borrowings from 20 museums and libraries in Australia and across the world, and having consulted all the communities involved in the exhibits, it was three years in the planning. It includes maps and manuscripts, rare books, paintings and beautiful artworks, and some contemporary takes on the voyages. Highlights include a replica of the HM Bark Endeavour, the pahao (dagger) of swordfish reputed to be the one which killed Cook in 1779, a recovered canon from the Endeavour and some of the original plant specimens the ship carried, and a Chief Mourner’s Costume from the Society Islands from the 1700s.

One of the things that struck me most (apart from what a harsh existence it must have been on board and how rubbish I would have been as a navigator), was the variety and complexity of the relationships formed with the First Peoples the travellers met along the way. This ranged from being friendly, as seen through trading and sharing knowledge, to extremely friendly, as in relations with females, to being completely violent and warring, resulting in many deaths, including that of Cook himself in Hawaii. It must be said that at the time he was trying to capture and take hostage of the local king so it’s hardly surprising the locals were upset.

One of the stars of the exhibition is the original hand-written Cook journal of the Endeavour, side by side with an edited version in another’s handwriting which is usually housed in England. It’s believed this is the first time the two journals have been together since the 1770s. James Cook had no say in how journal was edited before publishing, so it would be interesting to compare the differences.


The exhibition also contains artwork by the renowed Tupaia, a native Arioi from Raiatea in the Society Islands, who was Cook’s constant guide and translator on his first voyage and who could navigate the oceans and islands without the use of navigational equipment, with the ability to map 130 islands from memory. How interesting how much knowledge they shared.

It’s really a remarkable collection, and if you can possibly get there before it closes on 10 February, you should. Get your skates on. And – bonus – they’re both free!

And while you’re there …

Beauty, Rich and Rare

Slide from the Beauty Rich and Rare exhibition at the National Library of Australia

The Cook and the Pacific exhibition coincides with a spectacular audio-visual display at the National Library: Beauty, Rich and Rare. (Does that make you want to sing along?). The immersive display, splayed over five large screens, tells the story of early navigation in the 1700s and the witnessing of the Transit of Venus, an astronomical event which occurs once every 243 years, and explores the spectacular and surprising flora and fauna that greeted Europeans when they landed on Australian shores, samples of which they took back to England.

As David Attenborough said of this voyage of exploration, ‘No journey has brought back such treasures.’

There are over 1 million species in Australia, most of them unique to our island continent, so imagine how amazed they must have been when they stepped ashore and saw it for themselves.

The show, which plays at various times during the day, allows you to step into the shoes of Joseph Banks, the ship’s naturalist and botanist (after whom we named our unique Banksia plant species) and those of his team of scientists and illustrators as they documented the thrilling plant and animal species that greeted them.

The huge number of plant specimens (over 30,000) collected by Banks were studied and drawn by botanical artist Sydney Parkinson, the first artist to set foot on Australian soil. He made 674 detailed drawings of the specimens with detailed notes about their colours, as well as 269 water colour illustrations. Poor old Parkinson didn’t survive the trip home, succumbing to dysentery  after they left Batavia, but when they returned to London, Banks employed five artists to create watercolours of all Parkinson’s drawers and 18 engravers to create 743 line engravings, insisting that every line of the sketches be included. Bank’s famed Florilegium wouldn’t have been possible without those drawings.




Back to Captain Cook, and an interesting fact


Good old Captain Cook has been in the news a bit lately in Australia, given the Prime Minister recently announced a replica Endeavour will re-enact Cook’s circumnavigation of Australia in the 18th century – at great cost. Never mind that he didn’t actually do that – that honour actually belongs to Matthew Flinders. Of course, Twitter had a field day with Scott Morrison’s error-filled tweet with many suggesting his learn his history himself, and hey presto – there’s an instant #WhatCookDid hashtag happening with tweets about what Cook actually did. Some may or may not be quite true.

Here’s a sample.



Sometimes I love Twitter.

As an aside, did you know that Captain Cook wasn’t actually a captain? I didn’t learn that at the exhibition but it did spark a following revealing conversation. At the time of ‘captaining’ the Endeavour, his official ranking was Lieutenant and it wasn’t until he returned to England that he was promoted to the rank above Captain. So officially, he was never Captain Cook! All these years we’ve been calling him the wrong name.