East Coast Encounters 1770: Reflections on a cultural clash. Pauline Curby. 2020

East Coast Encounters 1770: Reflections on a cultural clash. Pauline Curby. 2020

Curby, Pauline (ed).  
East Coast Encounters 1770: Reflections on a cultural clash
Sutherland Shire Historical Society. 
ISBN 978-0-909658-02-1. 
132 pages.


Anniversaries provide an opportunity to evaluate and review significant events through a contempor­ary lens.  In this publication the 13 contributing authors (who have expertise in history, botany, medicine and cartography) cover a range of diverse topics linked to Captain Cook and the 1770 Endeavour voyage up the eastern seaboard of the Australian continent.  They also consider some of the many individuals involved, either directly or indirectly, in the making of this much studied scientific voyage of exploration and discovery.


I shall consider the ten chapters in three groups: Community and Commemorations (2), Science and Exploration (4) and First Nations (4).


In The Kurnell peninsula, an isolated community Pauline Curby describes from 1815 the history of Kurnell, “the peninsula where the Dharawal people first encountered Europeans”.  It was then that the “newcomers began to arrive”, and 700 acres of land was granted to James Birnie.  There is a summary of the efforts of European settlers and landowners in the area, and the steps that led to what is now Kamay Botany Bay National Park.  The memorialisation of early European landings that commenced in the 1820s provides a useful background for the commemorations of 1970 and hopes for 2020.


Stephanie Bailey complements this information in Commemorating Cook.  It looks at other com­memorative activities, initiated in 1822 by members of the Philosophical Society of Australasia.  Visitors to Kamay Botany Bay can still view the plaque they placed at what is now known as Inscription Point, overlooking the entrance to the bay.  Sutherland Shire organised, oversaw or supported many other commemorative activities.  Bailey ends by writing how “by looking back on how things have been done in the past, better decisions can be made in the future”.


Quest for the legendary Great South Land by Paul Brunton is the first chapter to look at the science and exploration of the inhabited world that gave rise to the European contact with the First Nations peoples of what we now call Australia.  He begins with the theoretical musings of the Greeks, and covers the epic voyages by the Spanish, Dutch and English, building a picture of human maritime aspirations spanning over 300 years.  He does not cover the Endeavour voyage, but points out it “would be the best scientifically equipped expedition ever launch­ed to that time by Britain and would provide a model for future voyages”.


In Uncommon endeavour, from Yorkshire to Newfoundland, Elizabeth Adams takes the remark­able life and maritime career of James Cook from his early life in rural Yorkshire through the coastal fishing village of Staithes to the Royal Navy and Newfoundland.  These places provided the back­ground to his Pacific explorations.


In the chapter Banks and Solander: a Linnean Partnership, John Gascoigne contextualises the partnership between Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.  Essential background is provided on their respective careers before they worked together in Endeavour.  The ramifications of their collaboration can still be seen in botanical taxonomy and the results of their collecting and scientific work.


The final narrative in this group of chapters is Ian Stewart’s Remembering Forby Sutherland.  He brings his expert medical knowledge to the evaluation of Forby’s death from consumption (tuberculosis) in 1770 at Kamay Botany Bay. 


The first of four chapters to focus on the First Nations is First Encounter, a reassessment based on the Endeavour journals by Bruce Howell, a member of the Sutherland Shire Council Aboriginal Advisory Committee.  He draws on writings and images from Endeavour’s party to evaluate the encounters at Kamay Botany Bay.  They are compared to the encounters in Tahiti and New Zealand, which, he argues, contributed to Cook evolving a strategy of avoiding unnecessary loss of life when Endeavour’s men were faced with threats.


Ray and Shane Ingrey from La Perouse Aboriginal Community, and historian Paul Irish, collaborated on writing Warrawarrawa – what was really said to Cook?  Drawing on original records and the work of the Dharawal Language Program they explore the words that are supposed to have been used during the face-to-face encounter at Kamay Botany Bay.


Material Culture held by the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) is explored by Beau James and Stephen Gapps in Too Many Captain Cooks – the Australian National Maritime Museum collection.  This chapter highlights the shift in the practice by curators at the ANMM of collecting material from Cook’s voyages to that of contemporary Indigenous artists.  Several examples are shown and discussed, such as “Too Many Captain Cook’s” by Paddy Fordham.  The back­ground to the acquisition of these and other works provides an insight to the gradual shift in collecting focus.


In my view it is fitting that the last of the First Nations themed chapters is about the 48 days spent on the banks of the Waalumbaal Birri (Endeavour River).  Mark McKenna explores interaction, conflict and eventual reconciliation with the Guugu Yimithirr people in A bridge to reconciliation for Cooktown – and for Australia?  A summary of how the Cooktown community came to hold an annual commemoration of the 1770 engagement with Cook and his men, and how it has given rise to a wider dialogue on reconciliation, is a most fitting and forward-looking conclusion.


In addition to the ten chapters there are four cameo pieces that provide additional details on “John Cawte Beagle­hole”, “The clash: ancient culture, rising empire”, “Tupaia – a man of culture”, and “Scurvy and mortality on HMB Endeavour”.  While the authorship of these short, informative pieces is not apparent, it is assumed that they are the collective work of the Society’s publications committee of Elizabeth Adams, Elizabeth Craig, Pauline Curby and Ian Stewart.


The 68 illustrations add greater depth to the topics covered.  They comprise maps, charts, portraits (both of the period and contemporary ones), and images of places of geographical interest linked to some of the narratives.  It is pleasing to see a publica­tion on exploration, science and historical events so generously illustrated.  Gathering such images requires significant time and resources but, if well selected as in this case, enriches understanding of the topics covered.


The publication is rounded off by short pieces about each of the contributors, followed by a select bibliography that lists 64 works with publication dates between 1773 and 2018.  There is also a five-page index, compiled by Catherine Elteridge, that provides easy access for those seeking a specific person, place or other subject.


This compact and modestly priced book is a useful addition to the library of anyone interested in early Pacific exploration, James Cook, scientific collect­ing, or the First Nations perspectives of early contact with Europeans on the east coast of Australia.


Richard G Ferguson

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 41, volume 44, number 1 (2021).

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