England’s Royal Society proposed the Endeavour voyage of 1768 to observe the transit of Venus at Tahiti on 3 June 1769. Accurate observations of such transits could help in calculating the scale and size of the solar system. The Lords of the Admiralty appointed Lieutenant James Cook to lead the expedition.

He also received secret instructions, to be opened later, which required him to search for the ‘great southern land’. If he found this new continent, he should chart its coast and ‘carefully … observe’ the flora and fauna. He was also instructed to ‘observe … the Natives’, and ‘by all proper means … cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them … Shewing them every kind of Civility and Regard’. They went on to state:

‘You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain: Or: if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.’

Image of a page of written script instructions labelled as 'secret' at the top right. Predominant colours are light yellow, and dark brown.
Additional Instructions for Lt James Cook, 30 July 1768. From the National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove

Lord Morton’s advice for Cook

Before Endeavour sailed, Lord Morton, President of the Royal Society, wrote this letter to Cook and his companions, advising them ‘to exercise the utmost patience and forbearance’ in the treatment of any inhabitants of the lands they visited.

Creme-coloured page with script writing in dark brown.
James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton, Hints Offered to the Consideration of Captain Cooke, Mr Bankes, Dr Solander and the Other Gentlemen Who Go upon the Expedition on Board the Endeavour, 10 August 1768. From the National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

‘sheding the blood of those people is a crime of the highest nature:— They are human creatures, the work of the same omnipotent Author, equally under his care with the most polished European … They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit. No European Nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent.’

Recording the transit of Venus

The men of the Endeavour took great care to prepare for the transit of Venus. Cook and astronomer Charles Green recorded the observations they made on 3 June 1769. These were later published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. This page displays the ‘Appearances of Venus’, as recorded by Cook and Green.

During the transit, Venus passed between the sun and the earth. It looked like a small black spot moving across the face of the sun. The measurement of the event provided information to assist in determining the size of our solar system.

The transit occurs every 100 years or so — and in pairs. The next transits will take place in 2117 and 2121.

observations of the planet drawn and explained on a page in cursive writing
‘Appearances of Venus’ by Cook and Green, as seen from Fort Venus, 1771. From the National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

Tupaia and Taiata

Before Endeavour left Tahiti, the Ra’iatean high priest and navigator Tupaia, and his servant Taiata joined the crew.

Joseph Banks sponsored Tupaia and Taiata’s stay on board, and even planned for them to return to England with him: ‘I do not know why I may not keep him as a curiosity, as well as some of my neighbours do lions and tigers at a larger expense than he will probably ever put me to.’

Cook valued Tupaia’s navigational skills and geographical knowledge of the Pacific. The Tahitian also acted as the expedition's interpreter, helping the voyagers communicate with the Indigenous peoples they encountered.

Sadly, Tupaia and Taiata, along with many crew died from dysentery in December 1770, while the Endeavour was being repaired at Batavia before sailing back to England.

Journal of HMB Endeavour

Lieutenant James Cook’s 753-page handwritten account of the voyage of His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour from 1768 to 1771 is the story of one of European history’s greatest journeys of exploration. By the end of the epic voyage, Cook had charted the coastlines of New Zealand and eastern Australia. Two gifted botanists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, had increased the tally of plant species known to Western science by 10 per cent.

This is one of the most interesting pages. The text written in the left-hand margin records the tense days after the Endeavour struck a reef off the coast of north Queensland late in the evening of 11 June 1770:

‘A Mistake soon after happened which for the first time caused fear to operate upon every man in the Ship.’

paper with written hints in cursive, paper is off-white - almost creme, and the writing is much darker in the bottom third of the page. There is writing on the left-hand-side as well.
A page from the Endeavour Journal, James Cook, 1768–71. From the National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

Australia’s east coast

Cook and the Endeavour sailed along the east coast of Australia, from south to north, and landed at various points on the continent, beginning with Kamay Botany Bay on 29 April 1770. Cook gave these places — and many others he viewed from the sea — European names, unaware of the names that the local inhabitants had already provided them. Some of these places are still known by Cook’s names, but what about their original Indigenous names? What do we know about those?

Gulaga (Mount Dromedary)

The Yuin people in the south-east of Australia know Gulaga mountain, on the south coast of New South Wales, as a place of ancestral origin, as the mother mountain. The mountain is a place imbued with spiritual identity and culture, and has particular significance for women, with sites for ceremony, childbirth and storytelling.

Seen from the sea, it reminded Cook of a camel’s hump, and he named it ‘Mount Dromedary’.

‘At 6 oClock we were a breast of a pretty high mountain laying near the shore which on account of its figure I named Mount Dromedary.’

James Cook, 21 April 1770. 

The Gulaga Story

drawing of a woman laying underneath a mountain and orange sky - Indigenous art
Cheryl Davison, Gulaga, 2018. From the National Museum of Australia

‘One day Gulaga and her two sons, Baranguba and Najanuga, were collecting bush tucker when Baranguba asked if he could go fishing. Gulaga said, ‘No, you’re too young, you’re to stay next to me’. 

As they walked along, Baranguba insisted that he go fishing. But Gulaga said, ‘No, no, you have to stay next to me, it’s not safe to go fishing by yourself’. But Baranguba snuck away. He made himself a canoe and he rowed out to sea until a big wave came and washed him off the canoe … He laid down in the water — and that’s where he still lives today. 

When the younger son had seen this he wanted to move away and set up his own camp. But Gulaga said, ‘No, you’re too young, you just sit here right next to me’. 
So now she lies there, looking out at the sea at her older son, and her younger son is right next to her, in arm’s reach.’

Cheryl Davison, Yuin/Walbunja, 2019.

Kamay (Botany Bay)

Kamay (Botany Bay) National Park is about 10 kilometres south of Sydney Cove. When the Endeavour anchored at Kamay, the Gweagal of people were living on the south side of the bay and the Bidiaga/Bidjigal people were living on the north side of Kamay. Both these peoples enjoyed a sustainable lifestyle. Fishing was a main source of food, providing a rich variety of seafood. They used resources from the coastal  environments to make tools and implements, canoes, and shelters.

On the evening of 29 April 1770, Cook and his crew boarded two long boats and made their way to Kundle (Dharawal name for Kurnell). The Gweagal opposed the landing of these strangers on their country and in retaliation to the opposition displayed by the two warriors, Cook ordered musket shots to be fired upon them.

The Europeans’ efforts to engage were mostly ignored as their approaches breached Indigenous etiquette. They never waited to be invited.

Walmbaal Birri (Endeavour River)

On 11 June 1770, the Endeavour struck a reef off the coast of what we now know as far north Queensland.

Needing to repair the ship, Cook had it careened on the banks of Walmbaal Birri, part of an area that had been home to the Guugu Yimithirr people for tens of thousands of years. The Endeavour spent 48 days here, and during this time, the Guugu Yimithirr had several peaceful encounters with Cook and his men. Joseph Banks and Sydney Parkinson, an artist aboard Endeavour recorded over 130 words of Guugu Yimithirr language, including ‘kangaroo’, after the voyager’s first sighting of the animal.

A list of words is recorded in the Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, which is held by the State Library of New South Wales. It can also be viewed online here as A Short Vocabulary of the Guugu Yimithirr People, Waalambaal Birri (Endeavour River).

Disagreement over the ownership of turtles collected by Cook’s crew led to conflict. This was followed by a symbolic truce, or what is now seen as an early act of reconciliation between the two peoples.

An animal found on the coast of New Holland, called kanguroo

This engraving of one of the new animals encountered by those on the Endeavour voyage is from the officially sanctioned account of the voyage, written by a journalist named John Hawkesworth. On 23 June 1770, at Walmbaal Birri (Endeavour River), Banks recorded the sighting of ‘an Animal … very slender made, and swift of Foot’. The next day, Cook ‘saw myself this morning … one of the animals spoke of; it was of a light mouse Colour and full size of a Grey Hound … with a long tail’.

A drawing of a kangaroo outside on some rocks with its body facing right, and head facing left
Thomas Thornton, An Animal Found on the Coast of New Holland, Called Kanguroo, plate no. 20 in John Hawkesworth, An Account of the Voyages Undertaken by the Order of His Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, London, 1773. From the National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

Bedanug (Possession Island)

Bedanug is a small island in the Torres Strait Islands group, off the coast of far north Queensland. When Cook reached this northernmost tip of the coast, he named it Cape York. He needed to find a route through the islands. On one of these, he climbed to the top of a steep hill from where he saw a navigable passage. It was here that Cook ‘took possession’ of the east coast of Australia. To commemorate this event, he named the spot Possession Island.

Garrara (fishing spear)

Rod Mason made these two spears, assisted by his uncle, Shayne Williams, in September 2012 at Cook’s landing site on the southern headland of Kamay (Botany Bay). Rod’s knowledge of spear making has been passed on from generation to generation. For Mason and other senior Gweagal people it is important to keep these local cultural practices alive. Just like earlier generations, they believe in teaching children how to care for and respect the land of their ancestors.

Close-up photograph of a Garrara (fishing spears) showing three metal prongs moulded together by something of a dark-brown colour. The background is black.
Garrara (fishing spears), 2011. From the National Museum of Australia. Click here to view on the National Museum of Australia’s Collection Explorer site.
Photograph of a closeup showing the metal prongs of a Garrara (fishing spears) attached to the spear base with wires. The background is black.
Garrara (fishing spears), 2011. From the National Museum of Australia. Click here to view on the National Museum of Australia’s Collection Explorer site.

Watch Rod Mason teaching the next generation from the La Perouse Aboriginal community how to make garrara (fishing spear) in 2019.

Kamay spear-making workshop, Little Marley Beach, Royal National Park.
From the National Museum of Australia. Transcript available here.

Returning home

In August 1770 HMB Endeavour reached the Torres Strait Islands, completing a running survey of Australia’s east coast. Cook had surveyed more than 3000 kilometres of coastline. Before returning home, Cook claimed possession of the east coast of Australia, which he named ‘New South Wales’. By raising the colours on 22 August 1770, Cook claimed the land for George III. He recorded in his log: ‘at 6 Possession was taken of this Country in his majesty’s Name’.

The lengthy periods at sea resulted in sickness and deaths. While Cook was able to curb scurvy, he lost a quarter of the Endeavour’s crew at Batavia (Jakarta) and on the final leg home, with many succumbing to dysentery and other illnesses.

Cook’s achievements were admirable. He sailed Endeavour through largely uncharted waters, dispelled the myth of the ‘Great Southern Land’, and the expedition recorded many botanical and zoological specimens previously unknown to Europeans.

Reflecting on Possession Island

This is a contemporary Indigenous perspective on first contact and European occupation within Australia. This work is about reclaiming or strengthening our ties with the dreaming, by spiritually taking back what was already there .

In this work, artist Arone Meeks reflects on Cook’s voyage to Possession Island, which he sees as a physical marker of first contact.

‘The image was really about, reclaiming or strengthening our ties with the dreaming, by spiritually taking back, what was already there’

Arone Meeks

The figures represent the artist as a child and people at an initiation ceremony.

When Meeks visited Possession Island, he was struck by the beauty of this area as a living entity. The luminous canoe is a vehicle to travel back to the dreamtime.

Oil painting on canvas depicting the first voyage to Possession Island. Uses Indigenous art, and depicts a canoe made of leaves, tracks and waterholes entering a mangrove at sun set. From the canoe emerge six spiritual figures whose limbs are part of the canoe.
Arone Meeks, First Voyage to Possession Island, 2012. Image from the Australian National Maritime Museum. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

The ‘Black Bastards’ are coming

In this painting, Gordon Syron provides a surprising contemporary perspective of first contact and European arrival in Australia. He reverses the roles, depicting black soldiers in military red coats. They approach the shore, firing guns at the white people standing in the shallows.

Unframed oil painting on stretched canvas depicting a small boat arriving in Botany Bay, at night, full of black soldiers wearing the Royal Navy military red coats and flying the Aboriginal flag, approaching shore and firing guns at the white people standing in the shallows. Predominately blue colours.
Gordon Syron, Black Bastards Are Coming, 2013. From the Australian National Maritime Museum. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.