Cooktown: Place of endeavour

By Erin O'Dwyer 1 March 2010
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Eastern Australia’s European discoverer is well remembered in the town that honours his name.

Even in history’s pages, celebrity is fickle. In his 2009 book on the discovery of Terra Australis, historian Geoffrey Blainey complained that Captain James Cook had slipped from the national consciousness. The venerable English explorer had become “a blank on the mental map”: more a symbol of British invasion than a modern history trailblazer.


No-one is forgetting Captain Cook on Queensland’s far north coast in his namesake town: breezy coastal Cooktown. Its population of 2000 doubles each June as the community re-enact Cook’s historic landing, complete with replica ship, cannon fire and period costume.

Map of Cooktown, QLD

Map of Cooktown, QLD, with landmarks and visitor information VIEW MAP

Year-round, visitor numbers grow and in 2006 a multimillion-dollar project to seal the main road into Cooktown was completed. It leads into a network of walking tracks and historic monuments, inviting visitors to cast their minds back almost 250 years to how the white man’s landing must have looked and sounded.

The best record of Cook’s landing here comes from his own journal. On 11 June 1770, the Endeavour struck what’s now called Endeavour Reef, off Cape Tribulation. A boat was sent ashore, and five days later Cook careened his ailing ship into what became the Endeavour River.

This was a blessing for naturalist Joseph Banks. In the 48 days it took for repairs and to await safe passage, Banks and fellow botanist Daniel Solander collected more than 200 plant species and illustrated 190 of them. It was the longest time ashore on Cook’s first Pacific voyage and the largest collection made during the three-year journey. Crew members spotted possums, dingoes and cockatoos and were the first Europeans to record sighting a kangaroo. Banks named it “kangooroo”, a transliteration of the Aboriginal “gangaru”.

Cook climbed Grassy Hill several times to plan his route to sea and his journal reveals his impressions of the landscape.

“The Land is pretty well Cloathed with long grass, wood, Shrubs, etc.,” he wrote. “The whole Country abounds with an immense number of Ant Hills, some of which are 6 or 8 feet high. Here are but few sorts of Trees besides the Gum tree. On each side of the River, all the way up it, are Mangroves.”

To supplement provisions, the crew  fished, collected cockles at low tide, dug  for yams and caught sea turtles. A kangaroo “provd excellent meat”, wrote Banks, while turtles were “preferable to any I have eat”.

Banks observed fish bones and crayfish shells around Aboriginal campfires. His journal lists Aboriginal words and he gave specimens local names from the “Indians” he met. But as time dragged, the novelty of being ashore waned.

“Botanising with no kind of success,” Banks wrote on 28 July. “The Plants were now entirely completed and nothing new to be found, so that sailing is all we wish for if the wind would but allow us.”

He got his wish on 3 August when the Endeavour sailed for Torres Strait. It wasn’t until a century later, in 1873 – during the gold rush – that the town was founded and named in Cook’s honour.

Read more from Captain Cook’s journal