Cook's Endeavour Journal: the inside story. National Library of Australia. 2008

Cook's Endeavour Journal: the inside story. National Library of Australia. 2008

In 1927 the Australian parliament moved from Melbourne to its new permanent home in Canberra. With it went the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, which was renamed the National Library of Australia. Recently added to its collections was a journal written between 1768 and 1771 by a certain Lieutenant James Cook on his First Voyage round the world.

Like all national libraries, the role of the NLA is to ensure that documentary resources of national significance are collected, preserved and made accessible to the public. Libraries are open to readers, and are now making great use of the internet to showcase their items. However, there has long remained a place for publications that enable the public to examine collections, and in this the NLA is no exception. In the UK, both the National Archives and the British Library have an important publication programme, taking either a collection of documents (for example Admiralty and Navy papers) or a particular person (for example Elizabeth I) and examining the documents they hold and the history they can tell us. The NLA's publication programme includes the recently started series of books called "Collection Highlights". The book Cook's Endeavour Journal: the Inside Story is the second in this series. It is beautifully illustrated with pictures of charts, drawings / paintings from the voyage etc., as well as pages of the journal itself. We all know the story of the First Voyage, but usually it is from being told it by a third party. This book enables you to read about the journey through some of Cook's own words, while placing it in its context.

James Cook's journal measures 52.5 centimetres high and 34 centimetres wide and consists of a series of double-leaved folios; it began working life as a 92-page folio but grew in size after Cook added extra loose-folded folio pages. In comparison, the book from the NLA is small (19cm) and quite short (160 pages). It is intended only as an introduction to the First Voyage, and perhaps aimed at someone new to Cook. That said, I do believe it has a place on the bookshelves of the experts as well, if only for the colour illustrations of the journal itself. Seeing Cook's handwriting, and trying to get to grips with his punctuation and spelling, really helps bring this voyage alive. I personally would have liked to have seen more of the original journal, but my desire is more than amply served by the NLA's wonderful website at

There are a number of chapters, each preceded with a double colour page and a single quote from the journal, relevant to that section. For example, "A short Vocabulary of a few words in the New-Holland Language" for the section on Cook's meeting and recording of the aborigines, and "By this time we were so weake[n]ed by sickness" for the piece on their journey after Batavia. The next two pages of each chapter show a section of the original journal, and a transcript of that part, giving you a chance to test your knowledge of 18th century handwriting! A few pages, sometimes only one or two, tell the story, often quoting from the journal as well. The last chapter brings Endeavour back to Britain and outlines what happened to Cook's family, Banks, Solander and the ship herself, and brief mention is made of Cook's next two voyages.

As a researcher I handle historical documents on an almost daily basis and am never less than impressed by the fact that they have survived. For me, the most interesting chapter was the first one, which explains how the journal got from Endeavour to NLA. It had survived nearly three years at sea, and then disappeared from public view. For almost 150 years no one really knew the whereabouts of this journal and some had begun to doubt its existence. In the 1950s Beaglehole traced it's history and discovered that it had been left by Elizabeth Cook to her cousin Isaac Smith. In 1865 members of the Smith family sold the journal and other Cook items at auction where they fetched £14 15s and were bought by Henry Bolckow, of Marton.1 His great nephew, another Henry, put the items up for sale in London in 1923.2 He was offered £5,000 before the auction by the Mitchell Library in New South Wales, who were keen to add the journal to its growing collection, but the offer was rejected. When Australia's new Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, came to office he was persuaded that the purchase of the journal would be a splendid start to his period in office and so the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library (the forerunner of the NLA) entered the bidding alongside the Mitchell Library. The auction was held at Sotheby's on 21 March 1923. Although it was feared the main opposition would come from America (the fear of many libraries at auctions today) in the end the journal and other items sold with it were secured for £5,000. Within four months, the journal was back in Australia and on display in Melbourne.

While nothing beats seeing the original of any document, owning a book such as this with so many reproductions is surely the next best thing, and I would highly recommend this book to everyone.

Ruth Boreham


  1. Cook's Log, page 1046, vol. 17, no. 3 (1994).
  2. Cook's Log, page 47, vol. 30, no. 4 (2007).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 37, volume 32, number 1 (2009).

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