Featured News A fresh look at the voyage of Endeavour

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Tue, 7 Jan 2020

A fresh look at the voyage of Endeavour

A replica of the Endeavour in Sydney Harbour.

Research by JCU historian Dr Claire Brennan has cast light on the voyage of Captain James Cook’s Endeavour.

“While James Cook’s first voyage has been extensively studied by historians there are still aspects of it to unpack,” she said.

“Surprisingly, there are still details in the journals of Cook and Joseph Banks that historians have not fully analysed.”

Dr Brennan’s close reading of the journals of Captain Cook and botanist Joseph Banks reveals the ways in which the Endeavour’s technology strongly influenced the voyage.

“The ship was selected for the voyage because of sturdiness and ability to carry stores, not for manoeuvrability or speed,” she said.

“This limited where Cook could go, and Cook was more dependent on the wind and weather than if he had been using another style of ship. As a result, he sometimes left regions uncharted and exploration incomplete.”

The ship also had an impact on Banks’ ability to collect botanic specimens, both positively and negatively.

“Wind, weather, and the physical conditions of the shore prevented Banks from gathering specimens,” Dr Brennan said. “However, conditions that delayed the ship also gave Banks more time for collection and observation.”

The significance of the wind, weather, and water depth to Cook’s voyage seem obvious, but Dr Brennan says those details can easily be overlooked.

“Cook had to balance the fragility of his ship against the purpose of his voyage,” she said. “It is possible to look at his maps and forget the physical restrictions he faced.”

Dr Brennan adds that the explorers’ journals also offer fascinating insights into European understandings of the world.

“They offer glimpses into the thinking of European explorers, and opportunities to re-interpret what they saw, and often misunderstood, when encountering other cultures,” she said.

“They are also startling in what they don’t record: for me the rare glimpses of the animals carried on board spring out, but those glimpses are rare because the animals were so common place.

“The animals tend to only get mentioned when they are swept overboard, or get in caught in grass fires, or otherwise die or require work done to keep them alive.”

As we head towards the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing in Australia, Dr Brennan says it’s a chance to reconsider the history of Australia, and particularly how Cook is portrayed within it.

“The 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing in Australia offers an opportunity to examine Australia’s colonial past, and to assess the significance Australians place on Cook and the Endeavour.”


Dr Claire Brennan
E: Claire.brennan@jcu.edu.au