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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

14 June 2022

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New ways of thinking about Australia and the Pacific

Australia and the Pacific share a rich history of exploration by people, animals and even ‘wooden explorers’. Senior lecturer in history, Dr Claire Brennan, and Blended Learning Librarian Sharon Bryan introduce Claire’s new book 'Beyond Cook' which is now freely available as an open publication.

“People want to know about explorers,” Claire Brennan says. That was what inspired her to write Beyond Cook: Explorers of Australia and the Pacific. In the book, Claire wanted to go beyond what people think they know about the history of the region. “It is an interesting project because it takes apart those easy ideas about explorers,” Claire says. “It also demystifies James Cook, and it demystifies exploration a bit.”

Even though James Cook is a well-known explorer figure in Australia and the Pacific, there were others who came long before Cook but who never wrote their experiences down. “The early explorers, the people who came through to Australia and the Pacific thousands of years ago, they drew people after them,” Claire says. “They might not have published their journeys in writing, but there are still stories within the Pacific about these people who were among the first to explore the region.”

So, when Europeans arrived in the Pacific in the sixteenth century, Claire says, they came in contact with societies that already had a rich history. “Exploration is really about cross-cultural, interpersonal encounters,” Claire says. “The European explorers are meeting people and engaging with established societies. Those encounters lead to changes both in the Pacific, and in Europe, as each side learns to think about the other.”

HMS Endeavour replica in Sydney.
Claire Brennan.
HMS Endeavour replica in Sydney (left), Claire Brennan inspecting the ship (right). Images supplied by Claire Brennan.

From history subject to book project

Claire teaches Australian and Pacific Exploration at JCU in Townsville and Cairns. “This project started with the research that I did for that subject, but it took on a life of its own,” Claire says. “Beyond Cook is a great resource for my students. The Library team, especially Blended Learning Librarian Sharon Bryan, Senior Liaison Librarian Claire Ovaska, and Open Education Librarian Alice Luetchford, offered me an opportunity to make my book available for non-JCU students as well.”

Working on the book project allowed Claire to reach out to a more general audience and to anyone who is interested in the history of exploration. “The chapters in the book don't strictly follow the topics I cover in the subject lectures,” Claire says. “It has taken on its own format, and while it's a resource for that subject, it's not a textbook.”

Beyond Cook links to a wide range of original sources and objects that are held in collections all over the world. “I was particularly overjoyed to find the type specimen of bougainvillea that was collected in Brazil by Philibert Commerson, who was on Louis Antoine de Bougainville's voyage of circumnavigation in 1766–1769,” Claire says.

She adds that the original bougainvillea specimen has been digitised and is now available online. “I can access it from my office in Townsville, and I can reach into this collection in Paris,” Claire says. “I can see objects that were collected hundreds of years ago and make them available to my readers, which is simply fantastic.”

Digging deep into the internet for original documents

Doing research for this book wasn’t always easy, but it was rewarding, and Claire is happy with the result. “For me what's at the heart of it is the journals that the explorers produced. They are fascinating documents, and they're widely available,” Claire says.

“They're out there on the internet, but it's not always easy to find them. I had good days and bad days,” Claire says. “On the bad days, I couldn't find the journals I was looking for. On the good days, all of a sudden, they came pouring out of the places that they were hiding on the internet.” Now, in Beyond Cook, these original documents are all linked together in one place, available for free and at the touch of a finger or the click of a mouse button.

James Cook's ship Endeavour off the West Coast of New Zealand, by Sydney Parkinson (supplied by the State Library of New South Wales)

Why Beyond Cook is a free book

Sharon Bryan, who works as JCU’s Blended Learning Librarian, says that making the book available for free was a conscious decision for Claire and the JCU Library team, who supported the book project in many ways.

“One of our ideas is that we get this book into as many hands as we can so that it will be distributed throughout our neighbours within the Pacific as well,” Sharon says. “We have a real passion for the Tropics at JCU, and one of the first books we published as a free ebook was Pacific French by Florence Boulard. We see this type of project as our way of fostering a relationship between JCU and the Pacific region.”

“We make it possible for people to get hold of these resources with ease. We aim to create a real bank of information that can be readily and easily used and shared across our region and the world,” Sharon says. “Someone in the middle of Alaska could read about this part of Pacific history if they wanted to, and that's lovely.”

Learning about Australian deep time

When it comes to the many topics that are covered in Beyond Cook, such as European explorers, Pasifika explorers, women explorers, animal explorers and also ‘wooden explorers’, to name some examples, Claire says she doesn’t have a favourite chapter, but rather a particular section that she especially likes.

“It is the final section where I'm writing about reconstructed voyaging in the Pacific and the acknowledgement of Australian deep time,” Claire says. “These chapters are about how people are using history to create the present; how recognising history and the creation of heritage is so important for people’s sense of themselves.”

Looking into the past through other peoples’ eyes

Claire says there is one main thing she would like her readers to take away from Beyond Cook. “This book is not simply a piece of information, but a method to learn to read things. It is important to understand not simply what people are writing, but also how they're writing and to get a sense of what they might not be seeing.”

This is especially important when it comes to reading some of the original journals that were written more than two hundred years ago, when people had a different way of seeing the world. “You can use the journals to see through the eyes of the European explorers and learn their thoughts on the people they encountered, the Pacific Islanders and the Indigenous people of Australia,” she says.

However, Claire says that the European perspective is not neutral. “It's a cloudy window, and while you can peer through it you can also use it as mirror because there's so much reflection of the explorers themselves in what they were seeing,” Claire says. “That's what I'd like people to take away from this: when you look at a text, it's not a simple window onto the past. It's also a reflection of the person who was writing it at the time.”

Historic compass (image supplied by Claire Brennan)

Shaped by the Sea exhibition in Sydney

“Working on Beyond Cook helped us make connections with other institutions within Australia as well,” Claire says. “I've been fortunate enough to participate in the creation of a permanent exhibition, ‘Shaped by the Sea’, at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.”

She recorded an interview and commentary for the exhibition. “The portion that I contributed was about how European explorers viewed the Australian continent from their ships.”

Beyond Cook: Explorers of Australia and the Pacific and other valuable resources are available for free on JCU Open eBooks and the Pressbooks Directory.

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Dr Claire Brennan

Senior Lecturer

Claire Brennan is a senior lecturer in history at JCU.  She is an environmental historian and has recently worked on the history of disasters and how people remember (and forget) them.  She has published chapters on COVID-19 and the 2019 Townsville flood. Her longer term projects focus on animal history, and she is writing a history of crocodile hunting in northern Australia.

Claire teaches at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Since 2021, she has been teaching a subject on Australian and Pacific exploration, as well as a subject on researching history.