Home > An Insignificant Discovery - Littabella Creek

January - March 1768

 


Approach to Littabella Creek

 

On Monday afternoon, 21 May, 1770, Endeavour rounded Sandy Cape and Breaksea Spit, and the following day crossed Hervey Bay, as she sailed up the east coast of Australia.1  Dusk was about 6 pm.  She anchored at 8 pm in eight fathoms about five miles off the coast.  The next morning, at 6:30 am, at high tide, the ship sailed up the coast to Bustard Bay, where Captain Cook went ashore on Thursday morning, 24 May, the first time he had landed since leaving Botany Bay earlier that month.  The landing place is now marked by a cairn in the town of Seventeen Seventy.2 

Two charts from the Endeavour voyage show a creek or river west of the overnight anchorage of 22 May.  When I looked at the charts I puzzled over the identity of the creek, and wondered how it was charted.  I became interested in this coast after sailing to the town of Seventeen Seventy.

 

Along the fifty miles of coast from Bundaberg north to Seventeen Seventy there are three creeks, in order: the Kolan River, Littabella Creek and the Port of Baffle Creek.  According to a claim I found on the Internet, Cook had sent some men in a boat into Baffle Creek for water but they were baffled, hence the name.3  There is no evidence for this claim at all; the name appears first in the 1850s.4  

 

My curiosity about the creek led me to Andrew David’s book about the charts of the Endeavour voyage.5  Information on the two charts that show the creek imply that a boat was sent to check the depth over Breaksea Spit, or to find an anchorage in Bustard Bay.  Neither chart mentions Baffle Creek nor of the men being baffled.  However, they did take on water from Round Hill Creek when later anchored in Bustard Bay.

 

The Two Charts

 

The first chart6 I looked at was by Robert Molyneux, the ship’s Master, who died after Endeavour left Cape Town on the way home.  He left a series of small-scale Mercator projection charts that cover the entire eastern coast of Australia.  They include a considerable river, the one in question.

 

Richard Pickersgill, Master’s Mate,7 drew two charts of this coast, the first being a small-scale Mercator’s chart like Molyneux’s, but without a creek.  The second is a larger-scale plane chart covering two degrees of latitude from Sandy Cape to the Keppel Islands.8  It shows details of landmarks that don’t appear on any other Endeavour chart.  Pickersgill shows the Sloping Hummock at Bundaberg,9 the sand hills on Sandy Cape, Round Hill,10 and a creek that is less splendid than the one on Molyneux’s chart.

 

Who Saw the Creek, and When?

 

According to several Endeavour journals low tide was at 12:30 am that night, giving a high tide just after 6:30 am.  Modern calculations from the Queensland Transport Maritime Section give a high tide for the morning of 23 May, 1770, at Bundaberg, 25 miles south of the anchorage, as 6:45 am with a height of 2.67 metres, and at Seventeen Seventy, 25 miles north of the anchorage, as 7:08 am with a height of 2.55 m. 

 

The main masthead on the Endeavour replica is 17 m above sea level giving a visible horizon of 8.4 nautical miles, and her topmast head is 26 m above sea level, giving a horizon of 10.4 nautical miles.11 

 

A full moon had appeared on 16 May.  The last quarter of the moon was on 24 May, so I speculate that on the morning of 23 May, Molyneux and / or Pickersgill climbed a mast, looked to the southwest up the creek at high tide with a half-moon overhead and with the sun rising behind them in the east, and that the ship swung as the tide changed.  As Molyneux gives the creek such prominence I feel that he must have seen it, and was so impressed he included it on his chart.  Pickersgill’s inclusion of the creek on his chart, along with Sloping Hummock and Round Hill (both readily in view), makes me feel that he saw it also.

 

Which Creek Was It?

 


Littabella Creek

 

Molyneux’s chart shows his creek at the same latitude as Sandy Cape, 24˚30’S, close to modern Baffle Creek.  His Sandy Cape, which swallows Breaksea Spit, is about 15 miles north of other charts from Endeavour, which agree with modern charts.

 

Pickersgill’s chart shows his creek at 24˚35’S, the same latitude as modern Littabella Creek.  His Sandy Cape is further south, about the same latitude as the Sloping Hummock.

 

All charts were designed to fulfil the requirement to produce a track of the ship’s movement along with a journal to be handed in at the end of the voyage to the Admiralty.  

 

Pickersgill’s larger scale chart is more ambitious than his other one.  His cartographic education began on his first voyage, at the age of 15, in Tartar to Barbados, during which John Harrison’s H4 chronometer was tested.12  Also on board was one of the great cartographers, George Gauld, and Pickersgill continued with him in Tartar to Pensacola, Florida.  During the Endeavour voyage, “Pickersgill appears to have been given a free hand to conduct his own surveys”.13 

 

Only Littabella Creek actually flows to the northeast, as both charts show, though some caution must be shown here. All three creeks flow through sandbanks at the mouth, and are liable to change, though Baffle Creek is anchored by the rocks of Gil Blas Point inside.  Pickersgill’s creek looks like the modern Littabella Creek, the smallest and straightest of the three creeks.

 

I have anchored overnight in all three waterways to check the available light.  Littabella Creek in late May, high tide at 5:52 am, and the moon in the last quarter, was the best fit.  Littabella Creek at high tide is a substantial body of water, very different from low tide. 

 


Littabella Creek in the morning

 

The above investigation leads me to conclude that the first discovery on this coast (now named the Discovery Coast), and the first waterway charted on the east coast of Queensland, was the small, tidal, Littabella Creek, hidden at deck height by sandbanks and she-oak trees that occur along many creeks in Queensland.

 

David Bannerman

 

References

  1. Cook’s Log, page 1158, vol. 18, no. 2 (1995). 
  2. Cook’s Log, page 1390, vol. 20, no. 2 (1997). 
  3. www.bafflecreek.com/aboutbaffleframe.html
  4. Dymock, Darryl and Kevin Sommerfeld.“Baffle Creek: the changing fortunes of a coastal waterway” in Queensland History Journal.Vol. 22, no. 10. August 2015.Pages 741-755.
  5. David, Andrew. Charts and Coastal Views of Captain Cook’s Voyages.  Volume One: The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771. Hakluyt Society. 1988.
  6. ibid.  Page 267.  A chart of the east coast of Australia from Point Hicks to Endeavour Strait by Robert Molyneaux.  Six sheets of paper pasted together.  Fig. 1.271.  Now held at The National Archives (TNA), Kew. 
  7. Molyneux and Pickersgill had both sailed in Dolphin on her voyage around the world, which brought Tahiti into European focus as a viewing site for the transit of Venus.
  8. David.  op. cit.Page 293.A chart of the east coast of Australia from Sandy Cape to Keppel Islands.Fig. 1.294.Now at TNA.
  9. Named by Matthew Flinders in 1799.
  10. Named by Flinders in 1802.
  11. Personal communication from Dr Nigel Erskine, Australian National Maritime Museum.
  12. Cook’s Log, page 10, vol. 34, no. 4 (2011). 
  13. David.  op. cit.Page xxvii.

    Originally published in Cook's Log, page 24, volume 40, number 3 (2017).

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