Myrtle, John: Another look at Cook

John Myrtle

‘Another look at Cook’, Honest History, 12 December 2017

 John Myrtle* reviews Captain James Cook: Claiming the Great South Land by John Molony

In mid-2018 the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich near London will be launching Pacific Encounters, a new permanent gallery marking the 250th anniversary of the commencement of the first of James Cook’s Pacific explorations. In the words of the Museum, ‘the links between James Cook and Greenwich stretch back to the spring and summer of 1768, when Cook was appointed to the command of H.M. ship Endeavour … The new gallery … will usher in more than a decade of commemorations in Britain and overseas’.[1]

captain-james-cookCurators organising these commemorations would know that over the years many scholars and historians have written of Cook and his voyages, the most important of whom was the distinguished New Zealand historian John Beaglehole (1901-71), who edited the journals of James Cook’s voyages as well as the Endeavour journal of Joseph Banks, and whose biography of Cook was published posthumously. It is these carefully edited journals of Cook and Banks that have become a valuable reference for scholars and have provided a foundation for the work of other writers such as Ray Parkin, who is remembered for his prize-winning work H.M. Bark Endeavour: Her Place in Australian History.[2]

The distinguished historian Emeritus Professor John Molony has now joined this crowded field, publishing Captain James Cook: Claiming the Great South Land, a narrative of Cook’s first voyage across the Pacific, a voyage of close to three years, commencing at Plymouth on 26 August 1768 and returning home on 13 July 1771. Commissioned by the British Admiralty, the voyage had two purposes: to observe the Transit of Venus across the sun at Tahiti in 1769; secondly, to sail south-west from Tahiti in search of the fabled Great South Land. If the second objective was unsuccessful Cook was to proceed to New Zealand and chart its coast. From there he was free to select his passage home.

John Molony, who occupied the Manning Clark Chair of Australian History at the Australian National University from 1982 until his retirement, is co-founder of the ANU Emeritus Faculty, an enterprise comprising retired academic staff and professional officers of the University, and also invited retirees with links to other universities or similar institutions. The Faculty encourages and enables members to contribute collectively and individually to the intellectual, creative, and cultural life of the ANU.

In 2008, under the leadership of Molony, members of the Faculty initiated ‘the Eastern Australian Project’, later known as ‘the East Coast Project’. This group sought to examine the early development of Eastern Australia or New South Wales, as it was subsequently named by the British Admiralty. It became a continuing research project, meeting each month in the Faculty premises. At first, the group worked with the journal of Captain James Cook, written during the voyage when he charted the eastern coastline of Australia in 1770.

Courtesy of the National Library of Australia, Molony spent some time reading Cook’s manuscript journal held by the Library. Arising out of this research, Molony has compiled a narrative primarily based on Cook’s Endeavour journal, supplemented by the journal of Joseph Banks. The great strength of Molony’s book is that it not only provides a narrative of Cook’s voyage but also keeps track of the progress of the voyage with a series of maps, originally developed by cartographers at the National Library and formatted for the book by Nik Fominas, a member of the East Coast Project group.[3]

Anyone reading Captain James Cook: Claiming the Great South Land is made aware of the scale of the venture and the complexity of its organisation. Providing accommodation for the self-funding gentleman naturalist Joseph Banks and his team as part of the ship’s complement would have added to the complexity. The voyage was to be nearly three years in duration, and there was no doubting its hazardous nature.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that of the 94 of the Endeavour’s complement who sailed from Plymouth on 26 August 1768, only 54 survived the voyage.[4] Cook’s experience of scurvy in his first crossing of the Atlantic made him aware of the importance of providing rations that would keep the disease at bay.[5] Initially, though, any deaths during the voyage occurred by misadventure rather than disease. The first fatality was at the first port of call at Madeira, with the accidental drowning of the master’s mate when he became entangled in an anchor rope. In the later stages of the voyage, when the Endeavour needed to be overhauled, foul and insanitary conditions in Batavia had a devastating effect on the crew, resulting in many deaths from malaria and dysentery.

John_MolonyEmeritus Professor John Molony (ANU)

As a final comment, it is a little unfortunate that the author has not used the opportunity to discuss the role of the East Coast Project within ANU’s Emeritus Faculty, and to explain the rationale for forming the group and undertaking the research. Also, while some may welcome the book’s hardback binding, particularly for libraries and official collections, researchers, students, or casual readers may have preferred a more flexible, less costly binding. Overall, however, the depth of scholarship and innovative linking of the journal narrative with the maps in Captain James Cook: Claiming the Great South Land has resulted in a valuable educational publication.

* John Myrtle was principal librarian at the Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra. He produces Online Gems for Honest History, drawing upon his extensive database of references, and has written a number of book reviews for us, also (check using our Search engine).


[1] John McAleer & Nigel Rigby, Captain Cook and the Pacific: Art, Exploration and Empire, Yale University Press & National Maritime Museum, London, 2017.

[2] Full title: H.M. Bark Endeavour: Her Place in Australian History: with an account of her construction, crew and equipment and a narrative of her voyage on the east coast of New Holland in the year 1770: with plans, charts and illustrations by the author, Melbourne University Press, 1997. John Clarke’s obituary for Ray Parkin (1910-2005) in Griffith Review 48 mentions that Parkin’s Endeavour book developed after encouragement from Professor Max Crawford of the University of Melbourne for Parkin to write down everything he knew about Cook’s voyage in the Endeavour.

[3] The individual maps of the National Library’s Endeavour Voyage Maps, 1768-1771, available on the Library’s website, have accompanying links to the text of the journals of both Cook and Banks.

[4] Molony, Captain James Cook, p. 173.

[5] See, for instance: Vanessa Collingridge, Captain Cook: Obsession and Betrayal in the New World, Ebury, London, 2002, pp. 138-39.

Click here for all items related to: , ,