250 Years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Australia


European arrival

There were over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations occupying this land for many thousands of years before Cook’s voyage to the east coast of Australia. 

For First Australians, looking back on the arrival of the Endeavour brings up many emotions—not just because of the voyage, but due to the 250 years since. To some Australians the voyage is a symbol of change for the people and the land, and a reminder of the European colonisers that followed.

In the early days of colonisation, Indigenous people experienced frequent violent encounters with officials, convicts, law enforcers, settlers and missionaries. Encounters were commonly about access to land, resources and women. There were also conflicts between Western and Indigenous ideologies and ways of viewing the world. Western ways took precedence over Indigenous ones, and the land became owned and managed through Western laws and systems. This led to the displacement of Indigenous people in many nations and impacted the cultural structures that governed them. Indigenous people still feel the trauma of colonisation to this day. 

Citizenship and cycles of change

When the Australian Constitution was written there was barely a mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The welfare of Indigenous people was a state responsibility. It was not until 1957 that Albert Namatjira, a Western Arrernte man and Australia’s most prominent water colour artist, became the first Indigenous person to become a citizen of Australia. Becoming a citizen allowed him to vote and to live where he wanted, still with restrictions.

In the 1950s and 1960s, awareness of the treatment and rights of Indigenous Australians started to rise, stirring public debate. Actions started to take place, including the petitions organised by the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and the ‘Student Action for Aborigines’ Freedom Ride. 

Photo of Aborigines' bus outside the Hotel Bogabilla in February 1965
Image: Student Action for Aborigines' bus outside the Hotel Bogabilla in February 1965. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales.

These actions eventually led to a national referendum in 1967, proposing to amend the Constitution, allowing the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the national census. Ninety per cent of Australians voted in favour of the proposed amendments, meaning all Indigenous people would now have the same rights as other Australian citizens.

The 1967 referendum led the way for a rise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in the 1970’s, who began to fight for equality. A major milestone was in 1971 when Neville Bonner became the first Indigenous Australian to sit in the Federal Parliament, taking up a seat as a Senator for Queensland.

At the same time action about employment conditions and land started happening. In a strike action lasting for seven years, 200 Gurindji stockmen, house servants, and their families, had walked off a cattle station at Kalkarindji, in the Northern Territory because of poor treatment and no wages.

As missionaries began to withdraw from Northern Territory communities, Indigenous people began to be a part of a cash economy, with access to travel and also access to alcohol and other drugs. However, the impact of these new, introduced elements in communities was mixed. There was less involvement and attention towards traditional practices. 

Elders and communities became concerned for their people and their country. This concern led to small groups of Aboriginals returning to their traditional land to avoid the social problems in the larger communities. In 1976, the Fraser Government passed legislation that began a significant process to formalise the return land to Aboriginal people.  Today, 50 per cent of the Northern Territory land has been returned.

21st Century Australia

Now in the 21st century, a lot has changed for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. There is a rising respect and understanding of Indigenous cultures and the land we share. Indigenous leaders are now being consulted within specialised fields, such as land, water and fire management, to share their expertise and traditional lore.

Australia is home to one of the oldest continuing cultures in the world. One that had builders, farmers, law enforcers, teachers, astronomers and healers before the Endeavour first encountered the country and its people.

We are learning from our First Peoples—their culture and their lore, the impacts of colonisation, what the commemoration of the Endeavour means to us as a nation, and how we can embrace different knowledge systems. We still have more to learn from each other, beginning with the acceptance that our shared history has many different perspectives.

Photo from Homeground festival in Sydney which celebrated aboriginal culture of people dancing on sand
Image from Homeground festival in Sydney which celebrated aboriginal culture


Communication and the Lore of the Land


During the HMB Endeavour ‘s stop in Tahiti, Joseph Banks, the lead botanist on board the ship, developed a strong friendship with Tupaia, a Polynesian high priest and star navigator. 

Tupaia’s understanding of Polynesian language and culture, beyond the islands where he lived, was a skill that no one on the voyage possessed. This led Banks to invite Tupaia to join the voyage when it left Tahiti. Tupaia proved to play a significant role for the Pacific voyage.  

When the Endeavour arrived in New Zealand, Tupaia’s cultural knowledge earned him the respect and embrace of the Maori people, whose language and culture have Polynesian roots. He assumed the role of mediator and trade negotiator on behalf of the ship. He met with the Maori people at each stop, including the local chiefs and priests. 

Engagement between the voyagers and the Maori was not always mutually respectful and peaceful. Having Tupaia’s capacity to understand the cultural lore that governed Maori communication gave the voyagers more insight into what was happening in these interactions.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander context

Communication with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Nations of Australia was vastly different. For example, neither Tupaia nor any other crew member was unable to speak with the local clans when they first landed in Botany Bay. The culture of Australian Indigenous people was foreign to them. 

The voyagers did not know that the continent was governed by an existing sophisticated knowledge system linking many nations that strategically managed the continent through a communication system that could be seen, heard, and watched. 

Watching to listen – communication of nations

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people traditionally shared vital intelligence between clans through fire and smoke signals or messengers. Tribal messengers are widely used in traditional society, travelling quickly over long distances to convey information from clan to clan. 

The first visual display of communication between Indigenous Australians sighted from the Endeavour was fire. 

The Endeavour crew saw fires for as far as the eye could see as they sailed up the east coast of Australia, not understanding that the nations were warning of their presence off-shore.


When you click on the link to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Portraits, scroll down and click in VIEW ALL, then click on Country Song to hear a senior Luritja Aboriginal Man reflect on communication the old way. [The link works best in Internet Explorer]

There was an existing widespread cultural exchange over large areas of the continent. From nation to nation information was relayed - not just through fire, but ceremonies, songs, dances, words and actions. This information flowed back and forth along traditional trade routes and through places of cultural significance. 

Rules of engagement

The Endeavour crew and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples used vastly different languages, concepts, ways of living and systems of order. Each had their own rules of engagement in conflict situations. 

An example is seen in the Endeavour’s encounter with the Guugu Yimithirr people.   

The Endeavour spent weeks at Walmbaal Birri (Endeavour River) while it required repairs, during which the crew was closely watched by the Guugu Yimithirr. Relations between the two groups were friendly at first, even so far as learning significant words from each other.  

However, when preparing to leave Walmbaal Birri the crew started stockpiling fresh provisions for the journey, including twelve sea turtles. The Guugu Yimithirr saw the turtles and recognised them as having come from a breeding place on the reef, connected to a sacred storyline extending from the land to the sea. Taking the turtles was sacrilege, and the Guugu Yimithirr had a duty to act. 

The Guugu Yimithirr came to the crew and demanded the return of several of the turtles but were refused. The crew saw the turtles simply as stock for their larder, unaware of their cultural importance.  

The Guugu Yimithirr attempted to free the turtles, resulting in a small skirmish. The crew now believed they were under attack and shots were fired. This was a terrible breach of local protocol, as the lands they were on were neutral ground for the Guugu Yimithirr and bloody conflict was forbidden there.

Both groups were acting within their own rules of engagement – the one to protect their sacred lore, and the other to protect property. 
The Guugu Yimithirr retreated and about an hour later an older Guugu Yimithirr man approached. He was carrying a spear with the tip broken off – a sign of peace that Cook recognised and accepted. 

When the Endeavour set sail from Walmbaal Birri days later the hills around where they had been were set alight. The Guugu Yimithirr were cleansing the land of the Endeavour’s presence and the conflict that it had brought. 


Australia’s First Reconciliation


Many tales have been told about the HMB Endeavour expedition and, over the years, many ‘firsts’ have been attributed to the voyage.

In more recent times, another very significant ‘first’ has become more widely known—one of the earliest known acts of reconciliation between Europeans and Indigenous Australians. 

This story—of turtles and a broken spear—tells of the moment, in 1770, when two very different peoples and cultures clashed but found a way to step back from conflict. 

Coming to Waalumbaal Birri

In June 1770, the Endeavour limped into the mouth of Waalumbaal Birri (the Endeavour River).

It had struck a reef several days before, tearing a sizable hole in the hull. The ship required extensive repairs and it was destined to remain on the shore of the river for close to seven weeks while the ship’s carpenter, John Satterley and his team set to work.


A view of Endeavour River on the coast of New Holland.
Title: A view of Endeavour River on the coast of New Holland. An engraving by William Byrne done in 1773 from a lost drawing likely by Sydney Parkinson in 1770. Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Early encounters and exchanges 

For the next three weeks the Guugu Yimithirr people, who lived around Waalumbaal Birri, kept their distance. 

On 10 July 1770, a few Guugu Yimithirr fishermen paddled an outrigger canoe towards the beached ship, coming so close the crew could throw them ‘gifts’ of nails, cloth and paper. These gifts appeared of little value to the men, who responded far more positively when a small fish was accidentally thrown to them. 

According to Joseph Banks

“They expressd the greatest joy imaginable, and instantly putting off from the ship made signs that they would bring over their comrades, which they very soon did and all four landed near us.”

Tupaia, the Polynesian high priest and navigator who had joined the voyage in Tahiti, went towards the men and gestured for them to lay down their spears and come forward—which they did immediately, sitting on the ground with him. They were soon joined by Captain James Cook and a few others who brought gifts of beads and cloth. 

The Guugu Yimithirr men declined an invitation to eat with the voyagers that night but, despite the language barriers, Joseph Banks wrote that things quickly ‘became very easy’ between the two groups.

The following day the fishermen returned with a fish, which they gave to the ship’s crew likely in return for the fish given to them. 

Although the ship’s repairs were completed, the annual trade winds and difficulty of finding a clear channel out of the reef made it impossible to leave the sheltered river and the peaceful encounters continued.

A few days later a misunderstanding would bring a halt to the friendly interactions between the two groups.   

12 turtles 

The ship’s stores had been severely water-damaged when it struck the coral reef and Cook was concerned they would not have sufficient food to survive the scurvy spreading among the crew, let alone get them back to England. 

They had limited luck finding food ashore so it had been a welcome sight when an offshore excursion in the pinnace came back with three large green sea turtles. Just one large turtle, weighing between 200–300 pounds, could feed the entire crew. 

It became an almost daily task for ‘the turtlers’—the men tasked with hunting these turtles in the pinnace—to find more of this delicious, highly prized food.

Banks wrote: 

“The promise of such plenty of good provisions made our situation appear much less dreadfull; were we obligd to Wait here for another season of the year when the winds might alter we could do it without fear of wanting Provisions: this thought alone put every body in vast spirits.”

On 18 July, after ascending a high hill to look for a clear passage, Cook returned to the Endeavour to find several Guugu Yimithirr people aboard. Of all the things that could have caught their attention on the unfamiliar vessel, the officers reported that they were most interested in the 12 turtles on the ship’s deck.

Guugu Yimithirr elder and self-proclaimed Bama historian Alberta Hornsby recounts the story from the perspective of her ancestors,

“So when they saw these turtles – you know, 12 – it was just so many turtles. They didn’t do anything on that first day, but they marched off. The next day there were ten men who came. They’d left their spears before they boarded the ship again. And they demanded two turtles and that was refused. But this really angered our men.”

A series of disagreements broke out, with the Guugu Yimithirr men trying to drag the turtles overboard and the crew hauling them back. With no other food at his immediate disposal, Cook tried offering bread in place of the turtles but his offer was swiftly refused.

The Guugu Yimithirr had no need to stockpile food, only catching and eating what they needed. The dispute was about far more than this. The turtles had been taken from a sacred part of the reef, which could only be accessed by certain clan groups.

Unwittingly, Cook’s crew had not respected the Guugu Yimithirr customs and laws.

The Guugu Yimithirr men returned to the shore, picked up their spears and then set fire to the dry grass surrounding the Endeavour’s camp.

As the fire took hold Cook’s men did what they could to save any items, including Tupaia’s tent. Little was damaged although a piglet was scorched to death. 

But when another fire was lit near some washing and nets, Cook loaded and fired his musket, wounding a Guugu Yimithirr man.

Cook could not have grasped the full implications of his action in the eyes of the Guugu Yimithirr. Not only had they taken the turtles, but the area where the ship was beached was, in fact, part of a ‘neutral zone’. 

It was a piece of clan land called Waymbuurr that was shared by five surrounding groups. Waymbuurr was a place where the clans would meet, share resources, resolve disputes and participate in ceremonies. It was also where women would give birth. It was not a place for spilling blood in anger.

The little old man

Cook’s men put out the fires, and the Guugu Yimithirr men ran off. They did not go far and, hearing their voices, Cook, Banks and others went to find them. 

Cook wrote in his journal:

“Went to look for them and very soon met them comeing towards us. As they had each 4 or 5 darts [spears] a piece and not knowing their intention we seized upon six or seven of their first darts we met with, this alarmed them so much that they all made off.”

They followed the Guugu Yimithirr men for about a kilometre before both groups sat down, more than 100 metres apart, on some rocks.  

Banks describes ‘a little old man’ who had spoken to them after the fires were started, saying

“The little old man now came forward to us carrying in his hand a lance [spear] without a point. He halted several times and as he stood employd himself in collecting the moisture from under his arm pit with his finger which he every time drew through his mouth. We beckond to him to come: he then spoke to the others who all laid their lances against a tree and leaving them came forwards likewise and soon came quite to us.”

Cook describes the same incident saying, 

“After some little unintelligible conversation had pass’d they lay down their darts and came to us in a very friendly manner; we now returnd the darts we had taken from them which reconciled every thing.”

Hornsby explains the significance of the moment,

“It indicated something that Cook would understand - they didn’t want any more fighting. He performed a gesture, a custom called ngalangundaama, which means collecting your sweat from under your arms, which is a very personal gesture. Usually this sweat is rubbed over people. But he grabbed it from under his arms, he blew it in the air, and mumbled some words as he came towards Cook. And it's just described so simply in the journals but the intention of bringing about peace was just so significant.”

Cook and Banks may not have had the cultural knowledge to fully understand the old man’s gesture and intention to bring about peace but they did respond in kind by returning the spears. 

The artwork ‘Reconciliation’ by Jane Dennis depicts the meeting between the Guugu Yimithirr people and crew from the HMB Endeavour at the later named Reconciliation Rocks.
Detail: Reconciliation (panel 12 of 13) by Jane Dennis. Acrylic on canvas, 2015. From 48 days - A Shared History exhibition by the Queensland Government, the Cook Shire Council and the Cooktown Re-enactment Association. Source: Jane Eliza Dennis.

The man who had been injured by Cook’s musket was not seen again but four new Guugu Yimithirr men had appeared and wanted to see the ship, so after introductions the group of 11 headed back to the encampment. 

According to Banks, ‘they making signs as they came along that they would not set fire to the grass again and we distributing musquet balls among them and by our signs explaining their effect.’ The meeting occurred on the site of what is now known as Reconciliation Rocks. 

In the film ‘The Message,’ from the National Museum of Australia’s Endeavour Voyage exhibition, artist Alison Page explores the encounter from the perspective of the Guguu Yimithirr.’ She states, 

“I could see why [the people at Cooktown] were so proud of their encounters with Cook: their ancestors’ environmental activism when Cook and his men over-fished, followed by the extraordinary act of leadership shown by the little old man breaking a spear and offering it to the visitors as a gesture of peace.”

Leaving Waalumbaal Birri

Ten days later, after a 48 days at Waalumbaal Birri, the HMB Endeavour finally left.  As they left the crew noted, 

“all the hills about us for many miles were on fire and at night made the most beautifull appearance imaginable”

They had no way of knowing that the Guugu Yimithirr had lit the fires to cleanse the clan area known as Waymbuurr.

Today, despite the lack of clear understanding between them, we can appreciate the importance of the reconciliation that took place to prevent fighting and return weapons peacefully. 

We can only wonder if the voyagers and the Guugu Yimithirr had been able to truly understand each other’s language and cultural values whether they may have reached a deeper reconciliation.

Australia’s first reconciliation is re-enacted by the Cooktown Re-Enactment Association every year. Find out more about the Endeavour’s stay in Cooktown. 



An artistic legacy forged at sea


Alexander Buchan (unknown – 1769)

Unlike most of the HMB Endeavour crew, Alexander Buchan never saw New Zealand or the east coast of Australia.

One of several artists in Joseph Banks’ scientific party, Buchan died of an epileptic fit less than eight months after the ship left England. 

Although little was understood about epilepsy at the time, it is likely Buchan was aware of his condition but may have chosen to keep it to himself rather than jeopardise his position on the HMB Endeavour as a ‘landscip draftsman’.
Sadly, nothing is known of young Buchan’s life before he joined the voyage apart from the fact he was from Scotland.

A legacy worth remembering

Captain James Cook’s 1768 expedition was unique for a number of reasons, not least because it was one of the first exploration voyages to set sail with a team of qualified scientists and talented artists.

In 1771, when the HMB Endeavour returned to England, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander were immediately hailed for their discoveries but much less attention was given to the artists—none of whom survived the voyage. 

Sydney Parkinson, Herman Spöring, Alexander Buchan and Tupaia created a comprehensive visual library of life in the Pacific, drawn (primarily) from a European perspective. 

Collectively, they left behind a rich legacy of sketches, drawings and paintings of literally hundreds of plants, fish, molluscs, birds, insects and animals. They also documented coastlines, landscapes, people, crafts, cultural practices and ways of life. Remarkably, most of their work has survived.

Banks journal entry on 17 April 1769— the day Buchan died—indicates he was very well aware of the value of the work done by the ship’s artist:

“I sincerely regret him as an ingenious and good young man, but his Loss to me is irretrevable, my airy dreams of entertaining my freinds in England with the scenes that I am to see here are vanishd.

No account of the figures and dresses of men can be satisfactory unless illustrated with figures: had providence spard him a month longer what an advantage would it have been to my undertaking but I must submit.”

Tierra del Fuego and the Bay of Good Success

Buchan is perhaps best known for his drawings of Tierra del Fuego, an island region at the southernmost point of South America (part of modern-day Argentina), where the ship stayed for six days.

The quest for science was not without danger for Banks’ party

Going ashore was not without risk for those in Banks’ party. One of the voyage’s earliest inland collecting excursions in Tierra del Fuego, at the not so aptly named Bay of Good Success, ended very badly.

On 16 January 1769, the team had managed to collect many specimens before becoming lost on the way back to the ship and getting caught in a blizzard. Two men did not survive the night and it appears Buchan may have suffered an epileptic seizure. While he was strong enough to make it back to the ship in the morning, his health took a turn for the worse the following day. Sadly, it marked a decline he would not ever fully recover from.

A premature end

Less than three months later, just a few days after the HMB Endeavour arrived in Tahiti, Buchan had another seizure—this time he would not survive.
Banks recorded the severity of the attack in his journal:

“Poor Mr Buchan the young man who I brought out as lanscape and figure painter was yesterday attackd by an epileptick fit, he was today quite insensible, our surgeon gives me very little hopes of him.”

Two days after the seizure, on 17 April 1769, Buchan died in Matavai Bay and was buried at sea.

Cook, who did not typically write a lot about those who died during the voyage, devoted an uncharacteristically long entry in his journal to Buchan, his ongoing health issues, and the decision to bury him at sea:

“Monday 17th At 2 oClock this Morning departed this Life Mr. Alex. Buchan Landscip Draftsman to Mr Banks, a Gentleman well skill'd in his profession and one that will be greatly miss'd in the course of this Voyage, he had long been subject to a disorder in his Bowels which had more than once brought him to the Very point of death and was at the same time subject to fits of one of which he was taken on Saturday morning.

This brought on his former disorder which put a period to his life, Mr Banks thought it not so adviseable to Enterr the Body ashore in a place where we was utter strangers to the Customs of the Natives on such Occations, it was therefore set out to Sea and committed to that Element with all the decencey the circumstance of the place would admit of — ”

Although Buchan’s drawings of the Cape Verde Islands have been lost, a number of his works have survived, most notably those from Tierra del Fuego. Following his death, Buchan’s drawings came into Banks’ possession. 

Most of these are now at the British Library.

image of a painting by Buchan of the Endeavour in the water with a Tierra del Fuego coast line behind it.
'Endeavour' off the Coast of Tierra del Fuego. Alexander Buchan. Gouache on paper, 1779. Reproduced courtesy of the British Library.

This drawing is thought to be one of the last Buchan ever worked on.

A quiet achiever — HMB Endeavour’s second - in - command


Zachary Hickes (Hicks)* (1739–1771)

Lieutenant Zachary Hickes may be best remembered for being the first person on the HMB Endeavour to sight the east coast of Australia and holler, “Land ho!”, but it isn’t his only claim to fame. 

From Stepney to the South Pacific

Few details are known about Zachary Hickes’ early life. 

His mother Thomasin Cope was widowed in 1734 after two years of marriage to Joseph Cope. It appears she then moved in with Edward Hickes as his housekeeper and they had four children together. There is no evidence they ever married.

Hickes gave his parish of birth as Stepney in London when he enlisted, or was pressed into service, in the Navy in Ripon, Yorkshire.

He became a skilled seaman and, in 1760, passed his lieutenant’s examination after four years in Britain’s Royal Navy and about five years in the East India Company. 

His service on various Navy vessels ended in his appointment by commission on 26 May 1768 to the HMB Endeavour.


Hicks joined the HMB Endeavour on 3 June 1768, as second lieutenant to Captain James Cook. The expedition departed England on 26 August 1768 and proved anything but uneventful for Hickes.

Early in the voyage, in November 1768, Hickes was held hostage during challenging diplomatic negotiations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

A year later, in New Zealand, his quick thinking action as temporary commander of the ship is said to have saved the lives of Cook.
Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander who had gone ashore and unexpectedly found themselves surrounded by 200 -300 armed Maori.

Hickes was familiar with the basics of nautical astronomy and led one of the outlying observation teams during the 1769 transit of Venus. His team of four was located on Taaupiri Island, just off the east coast of Tahiti, and is said to have successfully observed the transit.

Image of  a page from  the  HMS  Endeavour log written by Zachary Hicks .
Hicks, Zachary 1739–1771: Log of HMS Endeavour.Zachary Hicks,journal entry, 30 November 1769. Source: National Library of New Zealand

A man of firsts

Hickes was not the first European to sight Australia’s coastline but, at 6pm on 19 April 1770, he was the first to do so from HMB Endeavour.

His rewards included a gallon of rum and having Point Hicks in south-east Victoria named after him—the first place name on Captain Cook's map of New Holland.  

Later that month Hickes was given command of the first shore party to collect wood and water for the ship and made contact with some Aboriginal people near the watering place. 

Cook recorded his observations of the meeting in his journal:

“Mister Hicks did all in his power to entice them to him by offering them presents and company but it was to no purpose, all they seemed to want was for us to be gone.”

During the ship’s short stay in Botany Bay, Hickes and two other members of the crew—Surgeon William Monkhouse and Isaac Smith—managed to interpret some 60 Aboriginal words into English. 

These word lists went missing for almost 200 years but have now been verified as authentic and go some way towards showing there were perhaps some friendly interactions between the Indigenous people and HMB Endeavour’s crew members.

An untimely end with home so close

On the return voyage, Hickes’ health began failing. Sent ashore in Batavia (Jakarta) to recover, he somehow survived the outbreak of dysentery and malaria that claimed the lives of 26 other crewmen. 

But, tragically, just over six weeks before the HMB Endeavour docked in Dover, on 26 May 1771, Hickes succumbed to tuberculosis and was buried at sea off the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena.

It was three years to the day since he had been commissioned as second-in-command to Cook on the HMB Endeavour.

Cook’s journal recorded his death as follows:

“About one o’clock in the PM departed this life Lieutt Hicks and in the evening his body was committed to the Sea with the usual ceremonies, he died of a consumption which he was not free from when we sailed from England so that it may be truly said that he hath been dying ever since, tho he held out tolerable well until we got to Batavia.”

*Zachary’s surname is variously spelt Hickes and Hicks. His family used Hickes and his Royal Navy commission also carried that spelling but Cook and Banks usually wrote Hicks in their journals.

The Banksia’s name sake


Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820)

The Endeavour voyage would not have been possible without the wealth and influence of enthusiastic botanist Sir Joseph Banks.

Early life – born into wealth 

Joseph Banks was the only son of William Banks, a wealthy country squire and member of the House of Commons. 

He went to the prestigious Eton College school from 1756 and studied natural history at the University of Oxford, though he left without gaining a degree. 

He continued to nurture his interest in science and nature by attending the Chelsea Physic Garden of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries and the British Museum.

It was at the museum he met Daniel Solander, Swedish naturalist and a fellow botanist on the Endeavour voyage.

Image of a portrait of Joseph Banks.
Joseph Banks, 1774. Sir Joshua Reynolds and William Dickinson (engraver). Mezzotint on paper, 1774. Source: National Portrait Gallery of Australia


His time on the Endeavour
A patron of science

Banks supported the scientific goals of the voyage by paying for a team of eight staff, equipment and a library to join him on the HMB Endeavour.

His previous experience sailing on the HMS Niger to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766 gave Banks experience in transporting delicate specimens.

To keep specimens safe, he paid for ‘…all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing …a curious contrivance of a telescope, by which, put into the water, you can see the bottom to a great depth, where it is clear …many cases of bottles with ground stoppers, of several sizes, to preserve animals in spirits …several sorts of salts to surround the seeds; and wax, both beeswax and that of Myrica.' (Natural historian, John Ellis, to Carl Linnaeus, 19 August 1768).

Banks’ team collected specimens at sea and in Rio de Janeiro, Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti and New Zealand. In Australia, they made two major collections, one at Botany Bay and the other at Endeavour River in far north Queensland. 

Based on the specimens Banks and his team collected on the voyage, he created the book Florilegium. He also compiled one of the earliest Aboriginal Australian word lists.

Life after the Endeavour — a man of power 

After the Endeavour's return to England in 1771, Banks was presented to King George III and given the degree of Doctor of Civil Law. 

Banks continued his quest for science throughout his life, funding botanists to travel the world to provide him with further specimens for both his personal collections and the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Banks will forever remain a part of Australia’s history, with the banksia genus of Australian plants named after him, as well as the suburb of Bankstown in Sydney.

Image of a second portrait of Joseph Banks.
Sir Joseph Banks, c. 1788. Benjamin West and John Raphael Smith (engraver). Mezzotint on paper, 1774. Source: National Portrait Gallery of Australia


Profound supporter and influencer of white settlement in the ‘Great Southern Land’

Banks was a major supporter of settlement in Australia and proposed Botany Bay as the location for the first penal colony. He was known as an expert on New South Wales, influenced the appointment of the first New South Wales governors and organised Matthew Flinders' voyage on the Investigator. He also influenced land grants, agriculture, trade, and free settlement. 

Banks’ decisions have had lasting impacts on the relationship between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous people. 

According to David Hunt, author of Girt, Banks directed that terra nullius be applied to Australia. This meant Australia was deemed to be unoccupied, which justified the British taking possession of Australia and the later displacement and genocide of the First Australians.

Finding Tupaia – high priest, navigator, warrior, scholar, linguist and artist


Tupaia (c1725–1770)

The extraordinary story of Tupaia — and his remarkable contribution to the HMB Endeavour voyage — waited a long time to be told.
For more than two centuries, despite the significant role he played, Tupaia was largely left off the public record, relegated to journal entries and the occasional mention or footnote. 

With no personal records to draw on, the story of Tupaia’s life has slowly been pieced together from fragments — including the years 1769–70, which he spent on board the HMB Endeavour.  

Over the last 50 or so years the story of Tupaia has bit by bit added another voice to the story of exploration in the South Pacific.

Born into the elite of Raiatea

Tupaia was born into local nobility at Ha’amanino Bay, Raiatea in the Society Islands where his family had extensive landholdings. 

His birthright, athleticism and intelligence assured him a place at the greatest marae in Polynesia, Taputapuatea at Opoa, on Raiatea’s southern coast. 

During his early years Tupaia trained in the origin of the cosmos, genealogies, the calendar, proverbs and histories and finally specialised in star navigation. 

After his consecration as a tahua (priest) he completed a three-year cadetship with the arioi society — an ancient guild of travelling entertainers — graduating as an honoured wayfinder.

Tupaia led a charmed life until the late 1750s when Raiatea was invaded by warriors from Bora Bora. He was seriously wounded in battle and fled to Tahiti where he had to rebuild a life for himself. 

It has been suggested it was here, in Papara, that he took on the name ‘Tupaia’, meaning ‘beaten’, to remind himself of this time.

The arrival of the British in Tahiti

By the late 1760s, when the first European visitors started arriving in Tahiti, Tupaia had managed to change his circumstances for the better. 

He had proved his worth as a political adviser to the high chiefs of Papara including Chief Amo and Queen Purea and became the high priest of all Tahiti. 

In 1767, Tupaia came face-to-face with British explorers for the first time, playing a significant role in first contact negotiations between the Tahitians and the British frigate HMS Dolphin commanded by Captain Samuel Wallis. 

By the time the HMB Endeavour arrived in Tahiti in April 1769, things in Papara had deteriorated. Warriors from the south had ravaged the district and the high chiefs and Tupaia had fled to the mountains.

The earlier bond forged between the Papara chiefs and Wallis translated into the new British arrivals being their allies and it was this relationship that opened the door to a different future for Tupaia. 

During the three months Captain James Cook was in Tahiti to chart the Transit of Venus, Tupaia showed great loyalty to the HMB Endeavour and its crew.

He cultivated a strong friendship with naturalist Joseph Banks who was impressed with his navigation expertise and knowledge of the islands.  

Banks wrote in his journal:

‘Tupia... is certainly a most proper man, well born, cheif Tahowa (tahu’a) or preist of this Island, consequently more skilld in the mysteries of their religion; but what makes him more than any thing else desireable is his experience in the navigation of these people and knowledge of the Islands in these seas; he has told us the names of above 70, the most of which he has been at.’

Banks subsequently agreed to pay for Tupaia to join the ship’s crew for the remainder of the voyage:

‘The Captn. refuses to take him on his own account, in my opinion sensibly enough, the government will never in all human probability take any notice of him; I therefore have resolvd to take him. Thank heaven I have a sufficiency...’

Although he did not want to cover the cost of Tupaia, Cook too agreed he would be a valuable addition to the crew:

‘This man had been with us most part of the time we had been upon the Island which gave us an oppertunity to know some thing of him: we found him to be a very intelligent person and to know more of the Geography of the Islands situated in these seas, their produce and the religion laws and customs of the inhabitants than any one we had met with and was the likeliest person to answer our purpose; for these reasons and at the request of Mr Banks I received him on board together with a young boy his servant.’

Leaving Tahiti on the HMB Endeavour

With no personal records to draw on, there can only be speculation about why Tupaia chose to join the crew of the HMB Endeavour accompanied by his young apprentice, Taiata. 

Did he think a return to the high life in Papara was unlikely? Would his life be in jeopardy because of his perceived treachery with the British visitors? Or did he hope to procure firearms or enlist the help of Cook to free his home island from the Bora Bora invaders? 

Whatever the reason, there is no question Tupaia’s knowledge of local customs, and expertise as a navigator and interpreter were invaluable.

image of a portrait of Taiata.
The Lad Taiyota, Native of Otaheite, in the dress of his Country. Plate 9. From the book: A journal of a voyage to the South Seas, in his Majesty's ship the Endeavour. Engraved by R.B. Godfrey, based on a lost sketch by Sydney Parkinson. Engraved print, 1773. Source: The Museum of New Zealand

There are no known pictures or representations of Tupaia and only one of young Taiata based on a lost sketch by Sydney Parkinson. 

Tupaia’s legacy 

Tupaia imparted knowledge about Tahitian traditions, acted as an interpreter of language, helped navigate the Polynesian islands and, at times, even piloted the HMB Endeavour — such was Cook’s confidence in his navigational abilities. 

Between August 1769 and February 1770, during the voyage from the Society Islands to Aotearoa New Zealand, Tupaia and the officers, scientists and draftsmen aboard the ship participated in a series of discussions and exchange of knowledge. 

Most notably, they produced a joint drawing of a chart of almost all major Polynesian island groups in Oceania, known as ‘Tupaia’s Map’. 

The islands depicted extend for more than 7,000 km, from Rapa Nui in the east, to Rotuma in the west, and for more than 5,000 km from Hawai‘i in the north to Rapa Iti in the south. 

Tupaia’s knowledge of the topography, coastline and environmental features of South Pacific islands proved indispensable to the British and showed the depth of knowledge the Polynesian wayfinders had of the Pacific region. 

Tupaia translated the complexities of his oceanic knowledge into conceptual and representational models he thought the British would understand.


image of a copy of Tupaia’s map drawn by James Cook.
Chart of the Society Islands. James Cook after the original by Tupaia. Pen and ink on paper, 1769. Source: The British Library


Revered in Aotearoa, rejected in Australia

When the HMB Endeavour arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand, Tupaia quickly proved his worth as an interpreter.

A young Māori chief was shot and killed by the British crew on their first day in Poverty Bay when Tupaia did not go ashore with them.

The next day Tupaia accompanied the crew ashore, discovered he could understand the local people and was able to diffuse a potentially explosive situation after the previous day’s shooting.

Some of the Māori believed the HMB Endeavour was Tupaia’s ship because he was the only one who could communicate with them. Tupaia was also at liberty to say what he wanted so he may well have encouraged such speculation.

During their time in Aotearoa New Zealand, Tupaia was increasingly recognised as a tahunga (expert), and was sought out to preach, share discussions with Māori priests, and to act as a trusted mediator.

‘We never suspected him to have had so much influence’, Banks wrote in his journal on 19 November 1769.

Similarly, Cook wrote of Tupaia’s value during this part of the voyage:

‘But, should it be thought proper to send a ship out upon this service some while Tupia lieves and he to come out in her, in that case she would have a prodigious advantage over every ship that have been upon disc discoveries in those seas before; for my [by] means of Tupia, supposeing he did not accompany you himself, you would always get people to direct you from Island to Island and would be sure of meeting with a friendly reseption and refreshments at every Island ^you came to; this would inable the Navigator to make his discoveries the more perfect and compleat …’

Over the many months the HMB Endeavour was in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Tupaia’s presence contributed to an invaluable transfer of knowledge and, although there were still hostilities, almost certainly reduced the number of clashes and deaths.

Unfortunately for Tupaia a very different situation emerged when the HMB Endeavour reached the east coast of Australia. When it was discovered he was unable to communicate with the Aboriginal people, he lost favour and influence on the ship just as quickly as he had previously gained it.

Tupaia the artist

In the late 1990s, the discovery of a letter written by Joseph Banks to Dawson Turner in 1812 — which described Tupaia drawing in New Zealand — led to the attribution of a series of artworks to him.  

image of a Maori trading a crawfish to Joseph Banks drawn by Tupaia.
Maori trading a crawfish with Joseph Banks. Tupaia. Watercolour on paper, 1769. Source: The British Library

Tupaia’s only known drawing of New Zealand 1769 — depicting a crayfish exchange between a Māori person and Banks.


image of three aboriginal people, two rowing in one canoe and the third spear fishing in a second canoe, drawn by Tupaia.
Australian aborigines in bark canoes. Tupaia, watercolour on paper, 1770. Source: The British Library

The drawing shows two canoes, in one of which a man is using a three-pronged spear to catch a fish. Banks described how, as the HMB Endeavour entered Botany Bay, he observed ‘four small canoes’ under the southern headland: 

‘In each of these was one man who held in his hand a long pole with which he struck fish, venturing with his little imbarkation almost into the surf. These people seem’d to be totaly engag’d in what they were about: the ship passd within a quarter of a mile of them and yet they scarce lifted their eyes from their employment.

Never to return home

Tupaia and Taiata did not survive the voyage back to England. Both were to die — with many others from the HMB Endeavour — in Batavia (Jakarta) where the ship was getting much needed repairs.

Tupaia and Taiata were fascinated by Batavia — described by Banks as ‘extreme[ly] unwholesome’ — having never seen a place like it:

‘On his [Tupaia’s] arrival his spirits which had long been very low were instantly raisd by the sights which he saw, and his boy Tayeto who had always been perfectly well was allmost ready to run mad. Houses, Carriages, streets, in short every thing were to him sights which he had often heard describd but never well understood, so he lookd upon them all with more than wonder, almost made with the numberless novelties which diverted his attention from one to the other he danc'd about the streets examining every thing to the best of his abilities.

Banks believed the illness that beset the crew — including Tupaia and Taiata — was likely due to the ‘lowness of the countrey and the numberless dirty Canals which intersect the town in all directions’.

A severe outbreak of dysentery and malaria took hold on the ship, so at Tupaia’s request, Banks had a tent pitched for the feverish pair where they could get some relief from the sea and land breezes. 

From his own bed, and ill himself, Banks recorded the death first of Taiata [Tayeto] on 9 November 1770 — possibly of pneumonia following ‘a cold and i[n]flammation on his lungs’ — and of Tupaia two days later, noting Tupaia’s deep bond for his young friend: 

‘We receivd the news of Tupias death. I had given him quite over ever since his boy died whoom I well knew he sincerely lovd, tho he usd to find much fault with him during his life time.

Tupaia and Taiato were buried next to each other on Eadan [Damar-Besar] Island in Batavia harbour.

Cook records Tupaia and Taiata’s deaths, along with five others, in his journal on 26 December 1770. His final words about Tupaia have subsequently been described as ungenerous by some:

‘He was a Shrewd Sensible, Ingenious Man, but proud and obstinate which often made his situation on board both disagreable to himself and those about him and tended much to promote the deceases which put a period to his life.’

When Cook subsequently returned to Aotearoa/New Zealand, the Māori called for Tupaia thinking he had returned in his ship — and wept and lamented when they heard of his death.

‘A koe mate aue Tupaia’ – ‘You have died – alas, Tupaia!’


Op-Ed: Chance to share both pain and celebration


History is complex - and inevitably there are differing perspectives on individual historical events. 

That is certainly true of Australian history. Australia is a continent rich in stories and home to the oldest continuous living culture on Earth. No one story or perspective can capture every aspect of our history, and what those stories mean to each person can be very different too.
Human history in Australia is estimated to go back more than 65,000 years. 

Through rock art, archaeological explorations and the oral history of Australia's indigenous people, we have tantalising glimpses - but there is much we do not know.

Read the full article by the Hon Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts here.