Keith Vincent Smith
It is 250 years today since HM Bark Endeavour, a squat, flat-bottomed vessel of 368 tons, set sail from Plymouth Harbour in England on a great voyage to the Pacific.
The square-rigged timber ship, a Whitby collier (coal carrier), previously named The Earl of Pembroke, had been purchased by the Navy, a joint sponsor with the Royal Society of this scientific expedition.
Its commander, Lieutenant James Cook, had instructions to observe the transit of the sun across the planet Venus, but he also carried secret instructions to search for land and for the legendary Great Southern Continent though to exist in the Southern Hemisphere.
Also on board was the wealthy landowner and keen botanist Joseph Banks, aged 25, who brought with him a retinue of eight fellow scientists, artists and servants, including Daniel Solander, a student of the famed Swedish botanist Carl Linne (Linnaeus). The Royal Society’s astronomer Charles Green was given the task of observing the Transit of Venus at Tahiti.
The young Scots natural history painter Sydney Parkinson, a Quaker, and Herman Sporing, a Swedish draughtsman and watchmaker who had studied with Linnaeus were also employed by Banks.
This first of three voyage took Cook and his crew and passengers, to Tahiti, New Zealand and the east coast of Australia. It would result, in January 1788, in the first European settlement of the continent and, in time, to the dispossession of its Indigenous inhabitants.
This is the background to events that would follow in April 1770, when HM Bark Endeavour sailed north along the eastern coast of Australia. You will hear and see many more articles, essays and exhibitions about the voyage and James Cook in particular, leading up to 2020, which will mark the 250th anniversary of his landing at Kamay or Gamay, now called Botany Bay.
Copy of Original Plan of Sting-ray Bay, now called Botany Bay, by the Master of HMS. Endeavour, Captain James Cook 1770 …
Drawn by Richard Pickersgill (1749–1779)
M2 811.1801/1770/2, Mitchell Library, Sydney
Several kinds of stingrays abounded in the shallow waters of the bay. On 6 May 1770, the eighth day of the Endeavour’s stay, Cook’s entry in his Log that day (Add. MS 27885, British Library, London) reads:
Clear’d Ship for sea The yawl return’d from fishing having caught two sting rays whose weight was near 600 lb. The great quantity of these sort of fish found in this place occasioned my giving it the name of Sting-ray’s Harbour.
When the ship was out to sea, Cook and Joseph Banks dined on ‘the sting-ray and his tripe’ which was thought to be excellent. ‘We had it with a dish of the leaves of tetragonia cornuta boild, which eat as well as spinage or very near it,’ Banks wrote.
The plant referred to is Tetragonia tetragoniodes, at first called Botany Bay Greens or New Zealand Spinach (Maori : kokohi) because it was first seen growing at Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand in October 1769. The arrow-shaped dark green leaves are nutritious and very like English spinach, but thicker. In Australia they are now commonly called warrigal greens. This was probably the first edible Australian plant to be introduced to Europe from seeds Banks took back to England.
Cook correctly conjectured that stingrays were not eaten by the Indigenous people. ‘Sting rays I believe they do not eat because I never saw the least remains of one near any of their hutts or fire places,’ he wrote.
The artist Sydney Parkinson thought the stingray ‘had an agreeable flavour, not unlike stewed turtle’. Midshipman John Bootie headed his journal on 29 April as ‘Moored in Stingray Bay, on the coast of New Holland’ and each day afterwards as ‘Moored in Stingray Bay’. Master’s Mate Richard Pickersgill drew ‘A Plan of Sting-Ray Bay’ and marked it as ‘Stingerray Bay’ on his map of the East Coast of New Holland.
Some time afterwards Cook had a seachange and altered the references to Stingray’s Bay or Harbour in his logs and journals — first to Botanists Bay and then to Botany Bay. The original journal entry was amended to read:
In the evening the yawl returned from fishing, having caught two stingrays, weighing near six hundred pounds. The great quantity of New Plants &c Mr. Banks & Dr. Solander found in this place occasioned my giving it the name of Botany Bay.
Banks continued to use the name Stingrays Bay in his journal. James Mario Matra, a midshipman born in North America, was not aware of the name change when he published his unofficial and anonymous Journal of a Voyage Around the World, in His Majesty’s Ship Endeavour in 1771, a few months after the ship reached England. ‘We sailed from the bay, which we named Sting-ray Bay, from the great quantity of those fish which it contained,’ wrote Matra.
SHARK AND STINGRAY TABOO
The Eora of Port Jackson, Broken Bay and Botany Bay were forbidden to eat sharks and stingrays (daringyan). The Port Jackson shark was called walumil and the grey nurse guruwin.
First Fleet observers after 1788 noted the Aboriginal taboo against eating stingrays and sharks around Sydney. David Collins (1795:455) wrote: ‘… the sting-ray was (wee-re) bad; it was a fish of which they never ate’. The stingless ray was named yuluwigang.
Bungaree, who came from Broken Bay, north of Sydney, held firmly to this east coast taboo in northern Australia in 1802 while sailing on HMS Investigator with Matthew Flinders during his coastal survey of the continent. Bungaree refused to eat a stingray he speared for the ship’s crew at the English Company Islands, about 600 kilometres east-west of Darwin, and was persuaded by Flinders to eat some mullet instead.
Flinders (Terra Australis 1814: 2: 238-9).wrote:
The natives of Port Jackson have a prejudice against all fish of the ray kind [stingrays] as well as against sharks; and whilst they devour with eager avidity the blubber of a whale or porpoise, a piece of skate would excite disgust.
It seems only poetic justice that some of the Endeavour’s crew fell ill after eating stingrays. According to Pickersgill the stingrays were ‘serv’d to ye Ships Company in stead of Salt Provisions it was very strong and made a Number who eat of it Sick’.
Or else the huge amount of stingray they ate might have been too much of a good thing, as Midshipman Bootie noted it was ‘served 5 lb. per man’. Like many other crewmen he died before reaching England.
On his first visit to Broken Bay in March 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip observed that fish was the chief food of the people there. ‘The shark, I believe they never eat,’ he added. ‘Sharks of an enormous size are found here,’ wrote Watkin Tench. ‘The Indians, probably from having felt the effects of their voracious fury, testify the utmost horror on seeing these terrible fish.’
The word taboo was introduced into the English language, after his death, by James Cook, who first heard the word in July 1777 at the Pacific Island of Tonga, when Toobou and Mareewagee, with some ‘inferior chiefs’ who came on board his ship Resolution were not able to eat together. Tapu or taboo in Tongan meant ‘forbidden’.
This was Cook’s third and last Pacific voyage, taking home the Polynesian Mai (Omai) who had been in England. Cook wrote in his journal:
When dinner came upon table, not one of them would sit down or eat a bit of any thing that was served up. On expressing my surprize at this, they were all taboo, as they said; which word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden. Why they were laid under such restraints at present was not explained.
HOOKED ON COOK
Keith Vincent Smith
One winter day in London in February 1967 I took the tube to Notting Hill and walked through the Portobello Road market. It was cold and overcast. I was intrigued by some old books that were protected from the rain under a plastic sheet. When sleet began to fall I took shelter with the bookseller under his umbrella, and examined the small, time-damaged quarto I had selected.
The title page stated:
A Compendious history of Captain Cook’s LAST VOYAGE performed in the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1780 : in which all the interesting transactions are recorded, particularly those relative to his unfortunate death ; with a map of the new discoveries and the track of the ships … a new edition, London, Printed for G. Kearsley, at no. 46, in Fleet Street, 1784. Abridged edition, Price three shillings, sewed.
It was in poor condition and obviously a mass-produced 18th century work, with a detached front board and no back cover at all, with a damaged spine and a torn and spotted folding map. The stall-holder asked for £8, but I eventually settled for £5. I had discovered James Cook, the navigator who opened up the Pacific Ocean, sparking the European settlement of my own country Australia.
I was hooked on Cook, who was killed in 1799 at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, during this third and last voyage.
In 1992 I visited Whitby, Staithes and other scenes of Cook’s early life in Yorkshire, UK. I later went to Bora Bora and the site of Fort Venus in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, where in 1769 Cook, Banks and others first mingled with Indigenous Polynesians while observing the transit of the sun across the planet Venus.
In 2005 I gave an eight-week course titled Confronting James Cook 1770 to adult education classes at WEA in Sydney and I have since written about the Polynesian artist Tupaia and the Scots Quaker artist Sydney Parkinson for the Electronic British Library Journal. See my article Confronting Cook, online at
In the intervening years, with more research, I came to realise what Alan Moorehead termed ‘The Fatal Impact’ on the Indigenous People of the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia that would follow in his wake.
Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2018