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Journals of Captain Cook Go Online

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
February 7, 2002
 
"Some of the Natives brought a long side in one of their Canoes four
of the heads of the men they had lately kill'd, both the Hairy-scalps
and skin of the faces were on: Mr Banks bought one of the four, but
they would not part with any of the other on any account whatever the
one Mr Banks got had received a blow on the Temple that had broke the
skull…"


In this journal entry describing a dramatic
meeting of cultures in the South Pacific on January 20, 1770, the
legendary explorer Captain James Cook fails to mention the price that
his companion Banks paid for his grisly merchandise.




Cook and his crew aboard the Endeavour roamed the South Pacific from 1768 to 1771, lingering in Tahiti before setting off in search of a long-rumored southern continent. Cook went on to circumnavigate the north and south islands of New Zealand and to sail the entire length of Australia's east coast, which had never before been sighted by a European.

Significant as Cook's journeys were geographically, they were matched by achievements in other fields of scientific inquiry.

The detailed cultural and astronomical observations of Cook and his companions answered many questions, and raised some new ones, back in Europe. Joseph Banks—whose own journal often found him "in the woods, botanizing as usual"—cataloged an array of flora and fauna that was staggering in both scope and scientific value.

The records describe a world that has been forever altered, and peoples whose unique identities would not long remain unchanged.

Now, after more than two centuries, the observations of Cook and his companions during their much-heralded journeys in the South Seas are enjoying a rebirth under a project to make these and similar records of early explorers available online.

Virtual Journey

The South Seas Project is a collaborative effort to "democratize this knowledge so that interested people can tap into it," said team member Vanessa Agnew, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.

Academic and scholarly organizations involved in the project include the Center for Cross-Cultural Research at Australian National University, the National Library of Australia, the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Center at the University of Melbourne, the State Library of New South Wales, H-Net, Humanities and Social Sciences Online, and James Cook University.

The goal is to produce an online "companion" to James Cook's momentous first voyage of discovery, the organizers say. The effort entails much more than reproducing Cook's journals in digital form.

The material will include a vast amount of contextual information that gives readers a much greater understanding of the culture and conditions surrounding the famous expeditions.

Members of the project say they chose the word "companion" to describe the approach because they want the online resource to serve as a "trusted guide" for users, providing not only basic information but also critical reflections on the original writings and other major works of the period.

"Our goal is to bring together, virtually, this wealth of cultural heritage," said team member Paul Turnbull of James Cook University and Australian National University.

The complete text of the holograph manuscript of Cook's Endeavour Journal will be available, along with the full text of the journal kept by Joseph Banks during the voyage and the text of all three volumes of John Hawkesworth's Account of the Voyages Undertaken…in the Southern Hemisphere (1773).

Other resources will include important manuscripts, books, and pamphlets relevant to the great voyages of the period. William Falconer's Universal Dictionary of the Marine (1780 edition), for example, gives readers a comprehensive guide to terms from "aback" to "yawl."

Dozens of other sources expound on topics such as the essential discipline of flogging, the function of an azimuth compass, and the transit of Venus (an eclipse-like occurrence observed during the voyage, when Venus passes between Earth and the sun).

Cross-Cultural Encounters

Such background information is just the beginning, according to Turnbull and his team. The online records will also include more than 1,000 digital images and maps from museum collections. Eventually, the team plans to add digital images of the many cultural artifacts acquired by Cook and others during their voyages.

These artifacts, especially when paired with digital videos and enhanced by the expertise of scholars, will help convey the experiences of indigenous peoples as they encountered the Europeans and witnessed the voyages, the team members say. "It extends history beyond the official record by looking at cross-cultural encounters from different perspectives," said Agnew.

The Endeavour, christened the Earl of Pembroke, was a ship of the North Sea coal trade with ample storage space and quite shallow draught—a factor that may have saved the expedition when the ship ran aground on Endeavour Reef.

Cook sailed the ship with more than 90 people aboard, including scientists, sailors, and, as on every ship of the Royal Navy, a contingent of Marines.

They had frequent encounters with local inhabitants of the South Seas—a range of interactions from trade and music-making to violence and sex. And as the mystery of the previously uncharted territory vanished during the voyages, the exotic life proved irresistible at times.

On Monday, July 10, 1769, Cook somberly noted in his journal the absence of two crew members: "The 2 Marines not returning this morning I began to enquire after them & was inform'd by some of the Natives that they were gone to the Mountains & that they had got each of them a Wife & would not return."

Eventually, the wayward troops were rounded up and returned to the Endeavour.
 

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