A visit to the historically accurate HMB Endeavour replica in Sydney is well worthwhile if you wish to understand the harsh realities of the perilous journey Lieutenant James Cook undertook during his first voyage to Australia, during 1768-1771. Exploring the cramped confines below deck, while imagining what three years aboard this vessel would be like, makes you appreciate the ease of modern travel – especially by sea. Since 2005, the museum has hosted tens of thousands of school students for a visit aboard the HMB Endeavour and now, the Virtual Endeavour program allows you to digitally explore the vessel – even if you are a student sitting in a classroom thousands of kilometres away…
This past September, Kieran Hosty and I travelled to Newport, Rhode Island to assist an ongoing effort to archaeologically document eighteenth-century shipwreck sites in the city’s harbour associated with the American War of Independence (1775-1783). We were invited to Newport by Dr Kathy Abbass, Director of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project (RIMAP), an all-volunteer organisation that has been locating, documenting and investigating the maritime cultural heritage of Newport Harbor and its adjacent waterways since the late 1990s. Maritime archaeologists affiliated with the museum have been working with RIMAP since 1999, and a team comprising Kieran Hosty and the museum’s Head of Research, Dr Nigel Erskine, visited Newport as recently as September of last year to assist with the project.
Our interest in RIMAP’s research stems from the investigation of a fleet of British transports scuttled at Newport during the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778— a story that has already been chronicled in a previous blog by Kieran and an article by Nigel in the scholarly journal The Great Circle. Among these vessels was the Lord Sandwich, a 368-ton bark that attained international recognition under its previous name, HMB Endeavour. Endeavour, of course, is best known for its voyage of exploration between 1768 and 1771 under the command of Lieutenant James Cook, during which it became the first European vessel to reach Australia’s east coast.
On Valentine’s Day in 1779 Captain James Cook was killed in the Hawaiian Islands. Ironically perhaps, his death was the beginning of a long love affair with Cook by generations of people in the Western world who revered the great navigator. It was also the beginning of 56 long years for his wife Elizabeth Cook, without the love of her life.
When news of Cook’s death reached Britain the nation was deeply shocked. We can only imagine what his wife Elizabeth felt at the death of her husband of 17 years. Was the fact he died on Valentine’s Day a recurring wound for her?
Comparatively little is known of Elizabeth. She was born in 1741, the only child of Samuel and Mary Batts, who ran the Bell Alehouse at Execution Dock in Wapping. She was from a family of curriers (leatherworkers) and while not poor, like many women from the lower middle classes of the time, a naval officer with career prospects would have been a reasonable catch. In 1762 she married James Cook at St Margaret’s Church, Barking in 1762. Elizabeth was 21 and James 34 years old. As the eminent biographer of Cook J C Beaglehole put it, ‘it was a respectable rather than socially distinguished union.’
James’ cartographic and navigational skills saw his services in the Royal Navy in increasing demand. This of course meant many long periods at sea. Of their 17 years of marriage, James spent a total of only four years living with his wife.
While James’ career went from strength to strength, Elizabeth’s story is tinged with sadness. When James was away on his ill-fated third voyage, Elizabeth had been busy embroidering a new waistcoat for him made from Tahitian tapa cloth he had brought back from his second voyage. She, and no doubt others, expected him on his return to be required to attend the Royal Court. The waistcoat remained unfinished.
Cook died at the age of 50, but Elizabeth reached the age of 94, surviving the death of her husband by some 56 years. She also outlived all of her six children. Three of them died in infancy, one from scarlet fever in his teens and two while serving in the Royal Navy. Nor were there any grandchildren to comfort her.
Elizabeth never remarried. She dressed in mourning black well after the accepted period of the time. Like many navy widows of the time, she cherished mementos of her husband. She carefully preserved items from her husband’s uniform, including his dress sword and shoe buckles. She continued to wear a cameo-style memorial ring and was wearing this in a portrait painted of her aged in her eighties.
She also kept a small, coffin-shaped, wooden ‘ditty box’ which held a tiny painting of Cook’s death and a lock of his hair. This little relic was carved by sailors on Cook’s last ship, HMS Resolution, as a keepsake for Mrs Cook.
While she lived in financial comfort with a pension provided by King George III and income received from the sale of books detailing Cook’s voyages, hers would have been a lonely family life until she died on 13 May 1835. Many of Elizabeth’s mementos of James were kept by her relatives and are now held in the State Library of NSW collection.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the love between Elizabeth and James was that in later life she burned all the letters she had received from him. Considering his time spent at sea, there must have been many. As time passed after James’s death Elizabeth would have known that with the great reverence of James around the world there would be strong public interest in the contents of their letters.
Should we call them love letters? Although occasionally prone to outbursts of ‘cold rage’ (usually directed at ‘troublesome Natives’ rather than his crew) Cook was generally circumspect and not prone to outbursts of emotion. Were there love letters among them? We shall never know. But the effect of this incineration was that any opportunity for historians to know more about ‘the man’ James Cook and the dutiful yet perhaps forlorn Elizabeth, were lost to years of hagiographical historiography attempting to flesh out the character of the great navigator James Cook.
Our arrival to the island was the culmination of over 24 hours of sailing. The initially projected time became possible thanks to the favorable winds. The captain had suggested 2:00 pm arrival time and at 1:53 pm we were crossing the north end of the island. It was soon clear that arriving to the area did not mean an easy transfer to land.
Anchoring was not an option and it was the Marine Park Authority that came to pick Alex and myself up. One at the time, we were transferred to land. Four meter swells made sure that no object would remain dry in the short trip. After an adventurous entry through the break, coordinated from land, we arrived to a media welcome committee.
The preparations for the Transit of Venus happened without inconvenience, no last minute lost objects or major changes. We went to sleep ready for a great day to come. By the morning, the atmosphere was less positive. The 54 knot wind gusts and horizontal rain was threatening to prevent the observations of the highly demanded planet.
With the equipment already assembled, we reached our destination but it was impossible to setup due to the weather. Instead, we set up base camp at green café, only a hundred meters from the observation site.
By the time of the first contact, at 8:40 am Lord Howe Island time, no evidence of the sun could be seen, although conditions were changing. The wind turned southerly, and hope slowly approached the island. At 10:30 am, hope became fact and the first observations became possible by using solar glasses.
We ran to set up the main telescope on a corner where it would be protected from the wind. The great work of the IT team put us online within 5 minutes and we could finally start streaming over the satellite connection. Given the wind and the unstable weather conditions, the telescope needed to be moved constantly and stable live streaming only became possible over short periods.
By 11:30 am, the wind had calmed down. We were finally able to bring the second telescope into the field. More and more locals arrived in hopes of catching a glimpse of the transit.
The now famous Vu Vu Venus, a projecting device built by Sydney Observatory, made its Lord Howe Island debut shortly before midday. By allowing several viewers to observe the transit at the same time, it quickly turned to be the favorite target for our visitors’ cameras.
The observations continued throughout the day with partial cloud cover. A final shower invited us to break camp. By the time our hopes of capturing the last two contacts were gone, a small opening in the clouds allowed us to re-stage our equipment. We were lucky to observe the planet Venus transiting for the last time in our lives.
A clear calm day would have led to better technical measurements, but the adventures of the trip on board the HMB Endeavour replica and the storm in the morning of the transit served as a reminder of the challenges of scientific observations in history.
It has been an honour to be part of this enterprise; my next adventure will begin in a month when my first child will be born. There are plenty sleepless nights ahead, although that is not a big change for an astronomer. Thanks to all our friends following. Until next time…
It is the 6th day on the HMB Endeavour Replica and with two days separating us from the Transit of Venus expectations are growing fast. The weather is hinting at its power, tightening its patterns and reminding us of any object not tightly secured. Watching the few unattended items drift across the tables is a practical example of the words of Dirk, the 1st officer, about the importance of securing every object.
With a rocking ship as the setting, my first lecture was presented. A brief history of astronomy from the first naïf attempts to marry the skies with our daily lives, to our current understanding of the universe with a focus on the Transit of Venus as part of this learning process.
Despite having a fairly tired audience, everyone was kind enough to try to stay awake and many of them even succeeded. It is my intention to share everything I can about this astronomical event and astronomy in general. Casual conversations about astronomy permeate our free daily hours, all two of them.
Because this is the first sailing experience of this magnitude for many of the crew members, including myself, there is a steep learning curve and great physical strain. As the days go by, emotions shift over an increasingly wide range. Routine starts to settle and people’s core personalities start to emerge. I see this as another part of the value of this trip, it encourages all of us to develop genuine relationships and take care of one another. This also reflects well on the skill of the professional crew and the challenges of working with new members. The more time we spend together, the more respect we gain for their work.
As we approach the final opportunity for our generation to view the Transit, final preparations are commencing. The Australian National Maritime Museum and the Sydney Observatory are holding observation sessions and live streaming to give the public a chance to see this historic event. If you are going to observe it independently, make sure you do it safely. Looking at the sun without protection can be damaging for your eyes. Information about safe viewing, supervised observation sessions and live streaming can be found on either website.
As usual, it will be Dr. Alex Cook updating us on the new developments on this trip next time. I will return on the 5th of June on our arrival at Lord Howe Island. Until then …
The Transit of Venus is an astronomical event that happens in pairs, eight years apart and then more than 100 years of interlude until the next occurrence. In only four days, the second transit of the pair will perform for us, and it will be the last time anyone alive today will see a transit of Venus from Earth. The next one will be in the year 2117.
I am currently writing from the HMB Endeavour replica as the astronomer on the ship on its way to Lord Howe Island where we will set up an observing station for the Transit of Venus. The last transit of the previous pair, in 1882, was observed from this island. The place was Transit Hill, a beautiful landmark that looks east, easily accessible if you are up for a hike.
It is a humbling experience to be part of an expedition that resembles the great voyages of the eighteenth century. It quickly becomes clear that a ship of this nature needs to work as a single entity. It is an organic behaviour where men and ship act in perfect synchronicity moving towards a destiny. Every man has a task, and every place a reason to be. It is only the experience of the professional crew that enables the rest of us to be part of this adventure.
Our setting on the island will be a short distance north from Transit Hill, at the location of the old meteorological station. We will stream live over a satellite connection for the Australian National Maritime Museum. For visitors to the site we will install two other instruments: a telescope for direct observation and a projection screen where the image of the Sun will be visible to a wider number of viewers.
Other activities are planned for the school and the Lord Howe Island Museum. I will be sharing the astronomical details of the event. Dr. Alex Cook will hold a series of talks throughout the day at the Museum. It will be Alex himself writing tomorrow and updating you with the latest news from our trip. I will be back in two days, until then.
There are many ways to start a day. You can wake up, take the train and do your daily routine and that can be a great day. Alternatively, you can do what I did today. After sleeping in a hammock, I woke up to a now-familiar voice, coming from a PA system. By the time I was fully awake I had a harness on and was ready to climb 20 meters. It was not part of a dream; I spent the morning sailing on HMB Endeavour. I am Carlos Bacigalupo and I’m the astronomer on the ship.
It was time to climb the rigging and our destiny was the fore mast. An exciting, yet challenging, climb later I was leaning on the yard arm unfurling a sail, with an unforgettable view of Sydney Harbour. My two team-mates and I could not stop smiling at each other. Several television helicopters circled us, recording our crossing though the heads for the news.
This adventure is only a small part of an expedition to observe the Transit of Venus on Lord Howe Island, the last time the planet Venus will cross the disk of the Sun for over a hundred years. The next transit will be in the year 2117. To embrace this opportunity we will stream live over the internet this June 6th, 2012.
It is our second day on the ship and we are heading to Lord Howe Island. It is an expedition undertaken in commemoration of Captain James Cook’s original voyage in the ship upon which this vessel is modelled – a voyage to observe the Transit of Venus in Tahiti. As an astronomer, it is a privilege to be part of such an expedition. Dr. Alex Cook, the historian on the ship, and I are bringing together the two sides of this unique adventure that combines a rare astronomical event with a major historical one.
Learning how to sail a traditional tall ship is an amazing experience. It is only when you are unfurling the sails from the top of the mast that you become really aware what it means to sail a traditional vessel, and how much skill and work it takes to keep her sailing.
The 18th-century flavour of the trip, and the excitement of observing the Transit of Venus, permeates every moment and I am looking forward to the next chapter. It will be Dr. Cook sharing his side of this experience tomorrow. Bye for now, Carlos Bacigalupo
Object of the Week: Figurine of Captain James Cook
Captain James Cook became a celebrated figure after his death in 1779, and was commonly depicted in books, on plaques and posters. This glazed porcelain figurine of Captain Cook seated next to a round table and holding a chart was produced by the Alpha Factory in England around 1845. It was based on a portrait of Cook by Nathaniel Dance and would have been an expensive item to purchase at the time. High quality porcelain figures were popular items to decorate the home and often commemorated notable British personalities. The Alpha Factory was active between 1845 and 1851 and typically produced standing or seated porcelain figures. All their works required at least three moulds. This Captain Cook figurine was made from eight moulds and was one of the most complex pieces produced by them.
James Cook was born at Marton, North Yorkshire on 27 October 1728. By the age of 20 he was serving an apprenticeship at sea, gaining skills in navigation and mathematics under the coal shipper John Walker. In 1755 Cook joined the Royal Navy and was made master’s mate on HMS Eagle. Soon after he was promoted to master of the Pembroke and conducted survey work on the St Lawrence River in Quebec, and the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
In 1768 Cook was chosen by the Admiralty to conduct an expedition to the Pacific in command of HMB Endeavour, to view the Transit of Venus and locate the Great South Land. He undertook two more voyages to the Pacific for the Admiralty, the second in command of Resolution and Adventure with the hope of still finding the Great South Land and the third in command of Resolution and Discovery to locate the elusive Northwest Passage. It was during this third voyage that Cook visited Hawaii, then called the Sandwich Islands and was killed on 14 February 1779 in an altercation with the Hawaiians.
His extraordinary seamanship skills and discoveries along with his tragic and violent death increased public interest in Cook and generated the production of a variety of souvenir mementoes over the ensuing centuries.
The Australian National Maritime Museum holds a range of objects in its collection relating to Captain James Cook, one of the most celebrated figures in Australia’s maritime history, which you can now browse on-line.