Exploration and Endeavour: The Royal Society of London and the South Seas. 2010

Exploration and Endeavour: The Royal Society of London and the South Seas. 2010

Exploration and Endeavour: The Royal Society of London and the South Seas.
National Museum of Australia Press. 
ISBN 978-1-87694-481-0.

This book is described as a companion to the exhibition of the same name1 that opened on 15 September 2010 at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra and runs to 30 January 2011 (extended to 6 February 2011).

The exhibition commemorates the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society in 1660 "to meet weekly to witness experiments and engage in wide ranging discussions on what we would now call scientific topics." The motto of the Society is Nullius in verba (Take no-one's word for it), an expression of "the determination of the Fellows to withstand the domination of authority (such as in scholasticism) and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment."

The book's introduction contains two modern descriptions of what took place in 1768 that would have confused and annoyed the Society, Joseph Banks and James Cook. The Royal Society is said to have had a "desire to sponsor Cook's important voyage", as though the voyage was Cook's idea and the Society wanted to get involved. And the "place" of Joseph Banks was "as Cook's botanist". Fortunately the rest of the book explains how the voyage came about and the true role of the Royal Society, Banks and Cook in the voyage.

As the exhibition primarily comprises artefacts from the Royal Society, supplemented with objects from the National Museum of Australia (NMA), the result is both an exciting opportunity to see items not normally seen, but also somewhat erratic with gaps and jumps in the story that the Society played in the exploration of the Pacific in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At the back of the book there is a list of the objects included in the exhibition.

The first main item is a document with the title "Directions for Sea-men bound for far voyages", written by Lawrence Rooke and published by the Royal Society in 1661. It lists the type of information sailors should try to gather during voyages of exploration, such as compass readings, the tides, winds and weather encountered, depths of ocean and coastal waters and observations of extraordinary celestial phenomena encountered. The recommendations were adopted by the British Admiralty, with the result that there are now more than 250,000 logbooks, including those of James Cook.

In 1716 Edmund Halley proposed to the Royal Society that expeditions be organised to observe the transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769 from a number of locations around the world. His ideas were taken up and the exhibition includes a model from about 1760. The model is a mechanical planetarium, or orrery, built to demonstrate the principles of the transit of Venus. As the observations taken in 1761 proved inconclusive the Society arranged more expeditions, including one to the Pacific, and approached King George III for financial assistance in February 1768. The petition or "Memorial" is also included in the exhibition. However, whilst a photograph of the orrery appears in this book, one of the memorial does not, which is a great disappointment.

Instead, we get a double-page spread of a painting of "Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro", about 1838, by Owen Stanley. Its relevance is not explained, not even if it was included in the exhibition. It is followed by a reproduction of the first page of James Cook's letter to Charles Morton, Secretary of the Royal Society, written at Rio de Janeiro on 30 November 1768. It is wonderful to see Cook's handwriting and to read one page of this famous letter, but disappointing that a transcript of the whole thing is not provided - only a short extract is provided.

The next two objects in the exhibition from the Endeavour voyage show the value of the collaboration by the Society and the NMA.

From the Society's collection there is the 12-inch astronomical quadrant made by John Bird used in the transit of Venus observations. It was kept in a tent erected as a portable observatory on Point Venus, Matavai Bay, Tahiti. Although a guard stood outside the tent at all times it was stolen and was damaged before it was returned. "Fortunately, Herman Spöring, who served as clerk, assistant naturalist, artist and personal secretary to Banks on the expedition, was also a trained watchmaker. He carried with him a set of watchmaking tools and so was able to repair the instrument in time for the transit observation."

From the NMA's collection is a four-pounder cannon from Endeavour, one of six jettisoned by Cook to lighten the ship after it ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef in 1770. They were recovered 200 years later.

The next section of the exhibition, and this book, covers Cook's voyages in Resolution.

It begins with a long-case astronomical regulator, made by John Shelton that was taken by Cook on both his Second and Third Voyages. It was one of five created by Shelton for the Royal Society for the purpose of timing the transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769. This object is followed by two timepieces made by John Arnold and used by William Bayly, astronomer, in Adventure.2 According to the book, "none of the Arnold timekeepers were as reliable as K1 [the chronometer in Resolution], which may account for their preservation in the Royal Society's collection: accurate timepieces were too valuable not to be used".

Another letter now appears in the exhibition, but not in this book. It is from one Fellow of the Royal Society to another. Daines Barrington wrote to Dr Charles Blagden, on 26 June 1775 of news he had just received of Cook's arrival at the Cape of Good Hope on 22 March, "noting that in a voyage of 28 months not a single person had been lost to sickness, many new islands had been discovered, and 260 new plants and 200 new animals had been collected." The letter is described as "fascinating for its glimpse of relations between the Royal Society's Fellows" and its "breathless tone... conveys the excitement and expectation with which the arrival of the Resolution was greeted". But without being able to see the manuscript or read a full transcript it is difficult for me to agree.

The last item in this section is "Captain Cook's magnifying glass", which had once belonged to William Bayly and was purchased by the NMA at auction in 2006. Once again it is not illustrated in this book, but it did appear in Cook's Log when we covered the auction.3

The next section explores Cook's later relationships with the Royal Society. Surprisingly, the items are presented out of chronological order.

It starts with a six-page letter written by Cook at his house at Mile End and sent to then President of the Royal Society, Sir John Pringle. The letter was read at the Society's meeting of 7 March 1776. From the illustration I can just about read that it begins "As many Gentlemen have expressed some surprise at the uncommon good state of Health, which the Crew of the Resolution, under my Command, experienced during her late long voyage; I take the liberty to communicate to you the methods that were taken to obtain that end". I would have liked to have been able to read the whole letter, and for the illustration to have filled the whole page of the book, rather than be squashed down to make room for pictures of the Copley Medal awarded to Cook for being "the author of the best paper contributed to the Transactions of the Royal Society by a Fellow during that year".

Early on in the book it is explained that in 1731 the Royal Society decided "each candidate for election had to be proposed in writing and this written certificate [be] signed by those who supported his candidature".

The certificate for James Cook appears in the exhibition, and this book, and shows him described as "a gentleman skilfull in astronomy, & the successful conductor of two important voyages for the discovery of unknown countries, by which geography & natural history have been greatly advantaged and improved, being desirous of the honour of becoming a member of this Society, we whose names are underwritten, do, from our personal knowledge testify, that we believe him deserving of such honour, and that he will become a worthy & useful member". The 25 signatures are led by Banks and Solander.

According to the book, the exhibition includes "examples from the Royal Society Cook Medal Papers 1784-85", though which ones is not clear. However, they include the designs by Lewis Pingo for the commemorative medal produced by the Society in commemoration of Cook, and a letter from Elizabeth Cook to Sir Joseph Banks, dated 16 August 1784. The medal and a suggested design are illustrated in the book, but not the letter. For that we must go to the excellent article about the medal that appeared in Cook's Log.4

After Cook's voyages, the exhibition moves on to the Royal Society's "role in the establishment of the first European colony on the Australian continent's east coast". This section includes the meteorological records for Port Jackson, New South Wales, 1788-91. They were kept by Lieutenant William Dawes whose "List of Instruments proper for making astronomical Observations at Botany Bay", presented to the Board of Longitude before he went, is also included. Many items on the list are crossed out, showing how many were not available.

The next document is a description of the anatomy of the platypus, written by Sir Everard Home, and presented to the Royal Society on 17 December 1801 when many people considered the platypus to be a hoax.

The exhibition ends with a letter from Matthew Flinders to Joseph Banks about the problem of compass deviation based on his observations while surveying the Australian coastline.

This small book of 63 pages describes an exhibition that I would have liked to have seen. It is a good substitute with good descriptions of the items displayed and their context. It would have been even better if all of the items had been illustrated and if full, or longer, transcripts of the documents had been included.

Instead there are several paintings in the book that are not listed as appearing in the exhibition, and which add little to our understanding of the Royal Society's contribution to the exploration of the South Seas.

Ian Boreham


  1. Cook's Log, page 14, vol. 33, no. 4 (2010).
  2. Cook's Log, page 43, vol. 31, no. 4 (2008).
  3. Cook's Log, page 17, vol. 30, no. 1 (2007).
  4. Cook's Log, page 12, vol. 31, no. 4 (2008).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 40, volume 34, number 1 (2011).

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