Eight Months in a Leaky Boat

Eight Months in a Leaky Boat
Uncovering the National Library's James Cook Related Collections
16 March 2018

We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the Murramarang region mentioned in this blog post.

As we enter 2018, marking the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s first voyage of the Pacific, the Library’s special project to undertake preservation and digitisation of Cook related material is winding up. Thanks to the generous donors to the 2016 End of Year Appeal, the Library has been able to undertake vital collection management and preservation work, as well as selected digitisation of unique collections by and about Cook and his contemporaries. Senior Project officer Lisa Joseph looks at what has been achieved.

Over the past eight months, I have travelled through the pages of log books, journals, navigation notes, letters and rare books, where I have learned about topics such as Conchology, the study of molluscs and discovered the 18th century collecting craze for shells from the Pacific and beyond. I have read personal letters revealing the life and fate of Captain Cook’s widow Elizabeth and their children. I was fascinated to read about the culinary requirements of 18th century naval voyages (as well as the amount of alcohol consumed) and the different trades and their supplies that were necessary to keep the ships afloat for the many years the ships were at sea. 

Illustration of shells

Sowerby, G. B. (1825). A catalogue of the shells contained in the collection of the late Earl of Tankerville : arranged according to the Lamarckian conchological system ; together with, An appendix containing descriptions of many new species, nla.cat-vn3776218

Colleagues from various Branches within the Library have worked collaboratively to successfully complete a variety of tasks. Preservation staff have repaired and stabilised fragile collection materials and produced specialised housing for unique and rare collections, ensuring access for current and future generations. Project staff have updated and expanded catalogue records and created Finding Aids to enhance the description and discovery of selected Manuscript collections. Digitisation and Document Delivery staff have captured around 5500 individual pages that are now available to readers in Australia and around the world who want to research, understand and question Cook and his complex legacy.

Letterbook handwritten by James Cook

Cook, James & Great Britain. Admiralty. (1771-78). Letterbook of James Cook, MS 6

The most extraordinary item I have studied so far is MS 3 – The Log of the H.M.S. Endeavour. Being a log and not a journal, it contains concise entries documenting the ship's course, location, weather conditions, daily duties of crew members and occasional entries such as the success (or not) of fishing attempts by the crew. Whilst conducting quality control of the digitised images of MS 3, I was struck by a number of entries that made me re-examine my own knowledge of Australian history.

Either I wasn’t paying attention in history class at school or, this fact was never discussed in detail, but I was always led to believe that Cook first sighted mainland Australia at Botany Bay. Thanks to the entries and more importantly the co-ordinates recorded in the Log, I discovered that the crew of the Endeavour first sighted mainland Australia at Point Hicks in South East Victoria.

The second and most important realisation for me was that shortly after land was sighted, the Endeavour crew recorded seeing people ashore and evidence of camp fires on the beach. I have subsequently learned that it was members of the Budawang community that the Endeavour crew saw, and today that location is known as Murramarang, an important meeting place for local First Nations groups. The concise, matter of fact entries of the Log prompted me to refer to Cook’s Endeavour Journal, which was digitised some years ago and contains far more detailed daily entries. I was astounded to read Cook’s entry from 21 April 1770, where he records seeing “the smook[sic] of fire in several places a certain sign that the Country is inhabited”. As an Australian in 2018, it is impossible for me to reconcile the entries by the crew of the Endeavour recording the land as inhabited and yet the British went on to claim Terra Nullius, a doctrine that was overturned by the Mabo decision in 1992.

It has been a challenging experience for me to work on this project, at a time when there is increased debate about recognising the ramifications of British settlement of Australia and our First Nations, a direct consequence of Cook’s explorations. I am however, extremely proud and grateful to be working at an institution that holds such important historical records such as the Endeavour Log and Journal alongside the Papers of Edward Koiki Mabo.

I have been reminded that the role of the National Library is to enable all Australians to understand our diverse social, cultural and intellectual histories and through the digitisation of our unique and rare Cook related collections, we are providing access to anyone, at any time, from anywhere, to primary source materials that are crucial in supporting research that contributes to debates around issues of contemporary significance.



Fabulous to read that about the Endeavour log and the first sighting! I am a huge Cook and Flinders fan and read anything I can get hold of. I cannot wait to see the latest exhibition, thank you too!
Thank you Lisa for sharing your discoveries in this project, and it's significance for re-examining colonial history!