IN THE 248 YEARS SINCE James Cook first sighted land after his circumnavigation of New Zealand in 1770, new generations have added layers of interpretation to that event. Once praised as a hero for his bravery and supreme navigation skills, Cook’s colonial ambitions are now villainised by some. This is a historical debate that’s living into the present, with treasurer Scott Morrison’s announcement earlier this year of a $3 million monument to Captain Cook at Botany Bay greeted with outrage by those who seek to highlight his legacy of violence and murder. Even Cook’s naming and mapping of geographical features, wiping out their original Indigenous names, is also now problematic – but for good or ill, this too is now part of Australia’s history. These are some of the places named by or for the man whose legacy is nothing less than modern Australia, in all its complexity.
A crowd estimated to be 60,000-strong attended the unveiling of this statue in 1879. During the ceremony, reported the Sydney Morning Herald, the Duke of Edinburgh said, “There is no one among…England’s heroes more deserving of this recognition on your part, and none whose career could be held up as a brighter example to every Englishman than that of Captain Cook.” In contrast to this year’s Cook monument controversy, this one was so popular with Sydneysiders that it was funded through public subscription as well as a government grant.
The first of Cook’s landings in Australia, Botany Bay was initially called Sting-Ray Harbour – for obvious reasons – in his journals. Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, Endeavour’s botanists, collected so many plants there, however, that Cook changed the name. Its swampy nature led governor Arthur Phillip, when he landed in HMS Supply in 1788, to abandon it as a home for his new colony, heading to Port Jackson and what is now Sydney Harbour. Botany Bay wasn’t settled until well into the next century.
The exact location of the spot Cook named Point Danger (for its offshore reefs) is still disputed. In 1823 government surveyor John Oxley decided that Cook had meant what’s now called Fingal Head to be named Point Danger, but in 1828 naval officer Henry John Rous designated it as the current Point Danger. The second location is home to a lighthouse built in 1971 and a memorial to Captain Cook that’s constructed from iron jettisoned from Endeavour when it struck a reef.
It wasn’t Whitsunday (the Christian festival of Whitsun, on the seventh Sunday after Easter) when Cook saw the Whitsunday Passage in June 1770. He dated it as such in his journal, but this was before the International Date Line had been put in place, so he was a day out. Describing it in his journals, he wrote, “The land both on the Main and Islands especialy on the former is tolerable high and distinguished by hills and Vallies which are deversified with woods and Lawns that look’d green and pleasent.”
When Cook gave this cape its name, he wrote in his journal, “because here began all our troubles”. Endeavour had run aground on the Great Barrier Reef, within sight of this cape. He wrote: “We went to work to lighten her…we threw’d over board our guns Iron and stone ballast, Casks, Hoops staves oyle Jars, decay’d stores & C.” This matter-of-fact account must have hidden considerable dismay, betrayed only by Cook’s naming of the cape. Alone and unsupported as Endeavour was, its grounding could have proved fatal.
Located at the spot on the Endeavour River where Cook landed on 16 June 1770, Cooktown is a tiny town proud of its links with history. Every year, the residents hold a costumed re-enactment of the landing of Endeavour, which needed repairs after its grounding. Bad weather kept the crew at what’s now Cooktown until 4 August, the longest period they were to spend anywhere in Australia. They filled their time with searching for botanical specimens and learning words in the local language of the Guugu Yimithirr people. So Cooktown became the first (albeit temporary) white settlement in Australia.
Cook was unimaginative when naming features, honouring aristocrats and crew (Point Hicks, Cape Byron), or picking a characteristic (Red Point, Wide Bay). His rare flights of fancy can be hard to fathom: Pigeon House Mountain? A third category records events: Thirsty Sound, Weary Bay and Cape Flattery, where “We now judged our selves to be clear of all danger having…a clear open sea before us, but this we soon found otherwise and occasiond my calling the headland…Cape Flattery.”
Located in a restored 19th-century convent, this museum dedicated to Cook has a collection of artefacts from that first voyage, including an anchor and a cannon he jettisoned while trying to free Endeavour from the Great Barrier Reef. It also tells the history of the town that grew up in the place Cook stopped to repair his ship, including its Indigenous past, Chinese heritage and stories of its maritime culture.
An entire island nation bears Cook’s name – but these islands weren’t named by Cook. He reportedly named them the Hervey Islands, after a British Lord of the Admiralty, and went ashore at Palmerston when he visited in 1773 and 1779. The Russian cartographer Admiral Adam Johann von Krusenstern renamed them to honour Cook in his 1835 supplement to his Atlas de l’Océan Pacifique. The islands were settled by Polynesian explorers in about the fifth century.
Cook may have been born too soon to venture into space, but the inveterate explorer made it there anyway. Not only is there a Cook Crater on the Moon, but NASA named its third space shuttle Discovery, after the ship Cook commanded on his third major voyage. The shuttle went to space 39 times between 1984 and 2011, launching the Hubble Space Telescope. Space shuttle Endeavour was NASA’s fifth shuttle and flew from 1992 until 2011, launching the first African-American female astronaut, Mae Jemison, into space.
PHOTO CREDITS, OPPOSITE FROM TOP: YAY MEDIA AS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO; MIKE MCCOY/AUSTRALIAN GEOGRAPHIC; THIS PAGE, FROM TOP: WIKIMEDIA; NASA ■