Relics of early exploration go on display

By Natsumi Penberthy 22 September 2010
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The Royal Society of London has loaned Australia curiosities from the expeditions that put us on the map.

DOCUMENTS AND INSTRUMENTS THAT helped explorers navigate their way around Australia and the South Seas are on loan for the first time from The Royal Society of London.

Displayed at the National Museum of Australia, in Canberra, the collection commemorates the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society – the world’s oldest scientific organisation. Formed in 1660, The Royal Society was a leader in the school of observation, experience and experiment.

“Instead of trying to figure out how many angels could dance on a pin head, The Royal Society posed practical questions to explorers and adventurers,” curator Michelle Hetherington says. “They put a huge emphasis on getting things right.”

One important document on display is an unassuming manual titled, Directions for seamen, bound for far voyages. The work outlined what records should be kept at sea, and it was so useful that it was adopted by The Admiralty, and became the first ship logs. Today, more than 250,000 logbooks dating back to 1660 are helping scientists tackle big questions about climate change.

Putting Australia on the map

The Society’s preserved records, some about 200 years old, show a curiosity about Australia, at the time thought to be a harsh new land.  A detailed letter by Dutch Royal Society fellow, Nicolaas Witsen describes the west coast of Australia, including depictions of rat-like creatures on Rottnest Island (actually quokkas), black swans, and Aboriginal sightings.

In the letter, he created what Michelle calls, “the furniture that decorated people’s heads about Australia”. His words contributed hugely to the success of Captain James Cook’s proposal to map the Australian coastline in 1766.

Another significant piece of paperwork on display is Cook’s response to the huge interest generated by his success with scurvy. Having completed a three-year trip in 1775 with not single death to scurvy, Cook knew he had found a cure. Just what it was however, he wasn’t so sure.

In his letter he outlines how he experimented with sauerkraut, ‘marmalade of carrot’, ‘wart of malt’, eight-hour shifts, and psychological games to get the sailors to eat their vegetables. Although he may never have known exactly how, Cook is widely credited with conquering the disease.

Commemorating the Royal Societies 350th anniversary, Exploration and Endeavour: The Royal Society of London and the South Seas opened Wednesday at the National Museum in Canberra and will be on show until January 30, 2011.

Editor’s note: The image shows a model of the transit of Venus, which was part of the reason for Cook’s journey to Australia and the Pacific. The transit occurs when Venus crosses the Sun, like a lunar eclipse. It happens twice in a row, eight years apart – but only once even 243 years. There was one in 2004 and the second will occur in 2012. Mark your calendars for that one!