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Captain James Cook and the visit of the Endeavour

April 1770 - the visit of the Endeavour to Botany Bay

The Endeavour, commanded by Lieutenant James Cook, set sail from Greenwich in August 1768, with a scientific party led by Joseph Banks and including Dr Daniel Solander. This was the first scientific exploring expedition, and set the pattern for many later voyages by Europeans over the next century.

After observing the transit of Venus in Tahiti, Cook made further explorations in the Pacific, including the circumnavigation of New Zealand, and then headed west towards the east coast of Australia, which was then unknown to Europeans. The Endeavour entered Botany Bay on 29 April 1770 and 'Anchor'd under the South shore about 2 Mile within the entrence [sic] in 6 fathoms water...'

During the following days, excursions were made to various parts of Botany Bay including Bare Island and the La Perouse peninsula, the Cooks River, the mouth of the Georges River, and along the coast towards Cronulla.

The Endeavour departed on 6 May, and sailed northward making several landings on the Queensland coast, including a forced stay of nearly two months at the Endeavour River near Cooktown to repair the ship after it was severely damaged on a coral reef. Eventually, the expedition returned to England in July 1771.

Route of the HMS Endeavour as it sailed north along Australia’s east coast in 1770, showing landfalls where Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander collected Australian plants.

So, too Cook made choice,
Over the brink, into the devil's mouth,
With four months' food and sailors wild with dreams
Of English beer, the smoking barns of home.
So Cook made choice, so Cook sailed westabout,
So men write poems in Australia.
'Captain Cook' by Kenneth Slessor

The Botany Bay landscape of 1770

Cook, Banks and Solander landed at Kurnell on the afternoon of 29 April 1770. Fresh water was needed. Water from a small hole dug in the sand was inadequate, so a site on the northern side of the Bay was searched but water there in rock pools was difficult to get. The following morning Cook sent a party of men ashore where there was a small stream with fresh water sufficient to water the ship.

On 1 May, after the burial of seaman Forby Sutherland who had died of consumption near the watering place, Cook, Banks and Solander made an excursion into the country. The gum tree mentioned by Banks was probably the Red Bloodwood Corymbia gummifera, of which they collected a specimen at Botany Bay.

...which we found deversified with woods, Lawns and Marshes; the woods are free from under wood of every kind and the trees are at such a distance from one another that the whole Country or at least great part of it might be cultivated without being oblig'd to cut down a single tree; we found the soil every where except in the Marshes to be a light white sand and produceth a quant[it]y of good grass which grows in little tufts about as big as one can hold in ones hand and pretty close to one another, in this manner the surface of the ground is coated in the woods between the trees.
Cook's journal, 1 May 1770
... walkd till we completely tird ourselves, which was in the evening, seeing by the way only one Indian who ran from us as soon as he saw us. The soil wherever we saw it consisted of either swamps or light sandy soil on which grew very few species of trees, one which was large yielding a gum much like sanguis draconis, but every place coverd with vast quantities of grass.'
Banks' journal, 1 May 1770

These accounts of woods, lawns and marshes, of woods free of underwood, of open and easily cultivable country, and of vast quantities of grass have always been puzzling.

The dense grassy understorey is particularly interesting, as true grasses are relatively rare on sandy soils where one would have expected shrubs and sedges to predominate. Grasses would be frequent on the clay soils farther up westward from the peninsula towards Sutherland, but they surely would have recorded the red-coloured clay soils if they had gone that far.

They presumably left the watering place at Kurnell and walked south-west somewhere about the route of the present Captain Cook Drive to Woolooware or Caringbah. It is likely that these areas had silty organic soils with areas of swamp forest or woodland. This may have been relatively open with occasional large trees. Cook mentions seeing trees that had been barked by the Aboriginal peoples; these could have been rough-barked eucalypts like Eucalyptus robusta or Eucalyptus botryoides, or perhaps the Swamp She-oak Casuarina glauca or the mangrove Avicennia marina.

In his Journal account Cook lumped all the eucalypts together: Although wood [for fuel] is here in great plenty yet there is very little variety, the largest trees are as large or larger than our oaks in England and grows a good deal like them and yields a redish gum, the wood itself is heavy hard and black like Lignum Vitae.

Other excursions around the Bay

During the eight days, they visited various other parts of Botany Bay, including Bare Island (Banks on 29 April); the Sea Coast to the south (Cook, Banks and Solander, 3 May); the head of the Bay (Cook, Solander and Dr Munkhouse, 3 May); ashore on the NW side of the bay (Banks, 4 May); and the North shore, ... 3 or 4 miles into the Country or rather along the Sea Coast (Cook, 5 May).

Cook generally provides more landscape descriptions in his journal than Banks does. Of the excursion to the head of the Bay with Solander and Dr Munkhouse, Cook reports; We found the face of the Country much the same as I have before described but the land much richer, for in stead of sand I found in many places a deep black Soil which we thought was capable of produceing any kind of grain, at present it produceth besides timber as fine meadow as ever was seen. However we found it not all like this, some few places were very rocky but I believe this to be uncommon.

The head of the Bay was probably Georges River and the deep black soil and meadow were probably near Sans Souci. Cook was right that most of the country was sandy, though there were places with better silty alluvial soils. While there was never any extensive agricultural land near Botany Bay, the small areas of silty alluvial soils were later used for market gardens, even up until the present.

Cook provides a final summary of the landscape around Botany Bay in his entry for 6 May: although wood [for fuel] is here in great plenty yet there is very little variety, the largest trees are as large or larger than our oaks in England and grows a good deal like them and yields a redish gum, the wood itself is heavy hard and black like Lignum Vitae; another sort that grows tall and strait some thing like Pines, the wood of this is hard and Ponderous and something of the nature of American live oaks, these two are all the timber trees I met with. There are a few sorts of shrubs and several Palm trees, and Mangroves about the head of the harbour. The country is woody low and flat as far inland as we could see and I believe that the soil is in general sandy, in the wood are a variety of very boutifull birds such as Cocatoo's, Lorryquets, Parrots &c and Crows exactly like those we have in England. Water fowl are no less plenty about the head of the harbour where there are large flats of sand and Mud on which they seek their food ...

Banks would have disagreed about the limited variety of shrubs. By this time he and Solander had amassed and processed a huge number of specimens of the many different species, the result of which was to persuade Cook to change the name of the bay from Stingray to Botany Bay.

We would like to acknowledge the Cadigal people of the Eora Nation within Sydney and pay our respect to Elders past, present and future.