ANMM Chairman visits key maritime history sites in Indonesia

Borobodur, Indonesia

Borobodur, Indonesia 2015. Photo by Jeffrey Mellefont

Candi Borobodur, the great 8th-century Buddhist stupa in central Java, is rightly considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. With its backdrop the spectacular, active volcano Gunung Merapi, Borobodur is an hour and half drive from Yogyakarta where the ANMM exhibition Black Armada has just opened. (see curator Dr Stephen Gapps’ recent blogs about setting up and opening the exhibition).

When chairman of the ANMM Council, Peter Dexter AM, arrived in Yogyakarta after an intense schedule of meetings in Indonesia’s chaotic capital Jakarta, and with just a brief Sunday afternoon’s break before the official opening of Black Armada the following day, Borobodur was the absolute ‘must see’ priority. Not just Indonesia’s most iconic ancient site, it offers insights into the maritime significance of our archipelagic neighbour Indonesia, a significance as vital today as in the distant past.

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A pilot steamer for the collection

Model of Pilot Steamer Captain Cook III

Model of Pilot Steamer Captain Cook III. ANMM Collection, bequest of David Radford.

In 2014 the museum was very fortunate to receive a bequest of a model of the pilot steamer Captain Cook III made by David Radford. The pilot ship was constructed at Mort’s Dock in Balmain and was in service from 1939 until 1959, providing a valuable service to both cargo and passenger vessels. A pilot boat is used to transport pilots between land and the inbound or outbound ships they are piloting. Marine pilots typically have extensive seafaring experience and their job is to manoeuvre ships through dangerous or congested waterways such as harbours or river mouths. Continue reading

Mrs Cook’s Valentine’s Day

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.

This embroidered map in the Australian National Maritime Museum collection is attributed to Elizabeth Cook and depicts the western hemisphere and route of Cook's three voyages to the Pacific. The four corners of the cloth are decorated with floral sprigs and the map is marked with lines of longitude and latitude. This intriguing mixture of navigational science and domestic arts seems to suture the schism between a love of service to empire and a love between two people.

This embroidered map in the Australian National Maritime Museum collection is attributed to Elizabeth Cook. It depicts her husband’s three voyages to the Pacific and is decorated with floral sprigs. This intriguing mixture of navigational science and domestic arts seems to suture the schism between a love of service to empire and a love between two people.

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.

Cooktown: The museum heads north for a week

It’s hot. And humid. But what else can you expect for far north Queensland in December? And it could have been worse – however, the southest trades were blowing across the hills on the coast, providing a margin of comfort across the town.

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Cooktown from Grassy Hill, looking to the south west in the evening

Everyone drives a 4WD, but I was on foot, and in Cooktown to undertake a museum outreach project funded through a grant from the Maritime Museums of Australia Project Support Scheme (MMAPSS). My goal was to document and write a management plan for May-Belle, an iron flood boat and ferry from the gold-rush era of the late 1800s, and part of the James Cook Museum collection, expertly managed by Melanie Piddocke.

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May Belle being measured

The real heat was on the Tuesday – with six hours spent in the tin shed annexe where the boat was stored, often down on hands and knees, or lying under the vessel. It was dusty, dirty and over 30 degrees even with the shutter doors open. Plenty of fluids kept things under control and by early afternoon, after an 8 am start, I had enough data recorded to retire to an air-conditioned room and draw out the elements from the dimensions taken, then give it a check. All good at the end the day, and dinner that night with Melanie and former council administrator Darcy Gallop, who retrieved the vessel in 1973, brought out some stories about the social side of the craft, which is now on the Australian Register of Historic Vessels, along with its close sisters up in Coen, even further north.

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Cherry Tree Bay at 6 am

On Wednesday I began writing the report, putting together a comprehensive management plan about the vessel’s history, construction, current condition and how best to conserve, interpret and display the vessel. At lunch Melanie and I met Ian McRae from the regional council, who had overseen putting the Coen boat up for nomination. Ian is a keen supporter of heritage in the area and was about to let the Coen people know their craft had been recognised.

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An indigenous outrigger canoe made in 2010

For Thursday Melanie had kindly organised a meeting with the Indigenous community in Hope Vale, 45 minutes inland. This is the successor to Hope Valley, formerly on Cape Bedford, which had been forcibly abandoned during World War 2. This incident is not well recognised and is one of a series of sad events that have overrun the Guugu Yimithirr community since the goldrush of the 1870s ‒ the event that brought the flood boats into being.

At Hope Vale I discussed the museum’s work and the experience of the conference Nawi – exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft, plus my own particular involvement with building nawi, and heard from them what they knew of their own outriggers. These are hollowed-out logs with a hunting platform at one end, and a single outrigger. Willie Gordon, a well-respected community member and acclaimed leader of tours into his country, was particularly interested. Later in the day renowned local artist Roy McIvor and his wife, Thelma, came by the museum to meet us, hear about the ANMM work and talk about their story too. It was a wonderful exchange, and if the ANMM can host another conference in the future we look forward to inviting more representatives from the Cooktown and Hope Vale area.

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Endeavour river Cooktown, the site where Endeavour was beached for repairs.

As well as the work side there was time early in the mornings and late evenings to walk the coastline bush track, or take in the view from Grassy Hill, where James Cook had stood assessing his situation as Endeavour was being repaired on the shoreline below him in 1770. The James Cook Museum display talks about the community’s stories about this event, too; by 1770 they were accustomed to foreign ships, as Macassan traders been coming for trochus and beche-de-mer for probably 100 years or more before. The Macassans came and went, however, but this visitor in his big canoe did not just come and go in a short time, he stayed for a long time, but did manage to make contact. Both sides of the community, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, recognise the importance of this event. Two key artefacts reside in the museum, the anchor Endeavour lost and one of the cannon jettisoned to make the ship lighter. Through the dry season many tourists come to Cooktown to see these and learn more about the event that dramatically affected this community.

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Endeavour anchor and cannon on display at James Cook Museum

Happy Birthday Captain Cook!

On 27 October 1728, an extraordinary man was born, a man who became one of the greatest all time explorers. He was born in the small village of Marton, Yorkshire to a Scottish farm labourer who had a very modest income.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of his birthday and a time to reflect on all his achievements and discoveries. He was an exceptional navigator and surveyor which is why he was appointed for such a voyage, even though he had never had command of a vessel nor experience of a long sea voyage.

He sadly came to a savage death on his third voyage in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii on 14 February 1779 where four of his marines, four native chiefs and thirteen commoners were also killed. He died at the age of 51.

There are discrepancies about his birthday either falling on 27 October or 7 November. Our curator Nigel wrote a fantastic blog last year, to clear this confusion and explain why there is a discrepancy in the dates.

Captain Cook’s birthday – a matter of supputation!

Most modern references note James Cook’s date of birth as 27 October 1728, however, there are some who believe the correct date is 7 November 1728.  Who is right?

Well it depends on whose calendar you are using.

Cook was born in the period before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in Great Britain and his date of birth by the Julian
calendar was 27 October.  In 1750, Britain passed the Calendar (New Style) Act and from 1752 transitioned to the Gregorian calendar.  By the 18th century the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars was 11 days.

In simple terms, to convert Cook’s Julian calendar birth date to a Gregorian calendar date we need to add 11 days. Which gives the date 7 November 1728.

However, the Calendar Act which came into effect in January 1752 was not retrospective.  To quote the salient clause of the Act:

and that all Acts, Deeds, Writings, Notes and other Instruments of what Nature or Kind soever, whether Ecclesiastical or Civil,
Publick or Private, which shall be made, executed or signed, upon or after the said first Day of January 1752, shall bear Date
according to the said new Method of Supputation

The idea was to bring the calendar back into alignment with the seasons, and for practical purposes of planning and efficiency, to have common agreement throughout Britain and the dominions that the year started on 1 January. The Act was progressive and did not seek to change the past, and from that perspective we believe the correct date of Captain Cook’s birth is 27 October 1728.

Dr Nigel Erskine
Curator, Exploration & European Settlement

Voyage Stories: Volunteering in Darwin

Meet Kit Edwards, who volunteered as a guide and shipkeeper onboard HMB Endeavour while in port at Darwin. We asked him about his time onboard Endeavour.

Kit Edwards volunteer in Darwin

Kit Edwards, volunteer guide onboard HMB Endeavour in Darwin

Which port did you volunteer at?
Port of Darwin at the Stokes Hill Wharf

What made you want to volunteer on the ship?
I’ve always been fascinated by the history of discovery and by the history of watercraft. 

Have you done anything like this before?
Never. Visiting tall ships like the Esmeralda from Chile or the Dewaruci from Indonesia is interesting and exciting (even controversial in the former case) but working as a volunteer on a ship replica with a relevance to one’s own country’s history is a unique experience.

What was your first impression of Endeavour?
Some years ago I saw Endeavour from the cliffs surrounding Botany Bay at the commencement of the voyage to Britain. It looked so small, just like a large yacht. You can hardly imagine how the original ship managed to find space for a complement of ninety four officers and crew, the scientific gentlemen and their servants, as well as supplies livestock and five boats! On board, it’s the smell of the freshly-tarred rigging that first strikes you, forever evocative of a proper sailing ship.

Kit Edwards nightwatch volunteer

Moonlight nightwatch. Slept on deck. Happy.

What was your role as a volunteer? 
My primary role was as a guide-educator for the school groups in the mornings. Families came in the afternoons, the adults curious find out about what had seemed a distant history, but which became tangible immediately upon stepping aboard. I also volunteered to be a ship keeper at night and, with other volunteers, was responsible to the ship’s watch keeper for the safety and security of Endeavour whilst it lay alongside.

What was the best thing about your experience onboard Endeavour? And what was the worst?
A very positive benefit was meeting visitors of all ages and backgrounds. I even met one of the original shipwrights of Endeavour. My fellow volunteers and the professional crew came both from Australia and overseas and I learned lots about their lives and their experiences during this time. The hardest thing was watching the crowds grow and realising how warm it was on the dock. I felt an internal conflict between giving those on board the best experience and welcoming those waiting to visit the museum-on-a-ship. I believe most visitors went away happy appreciating the efforts of the volunteers and crew.

Did you learn anything new while onboard Endeavour?
Aside from the details of the museum exhibits, in particular at the foredeck, in the galley and mess decks, I began to appreciate the amount of preparation the original voyage needed and also the extent of its achievement, scientific and geographical. Similarly, I came to value the vision of this project of circumnavigation by the Australian National Museum and see how it connects with the histories of all Australians, including the Aboriginal and former refugee students who visited the ship with their teachers.

What’s your advice for anyone considering being a volunteer?
Be open to learning lots of new things quite fast. Learn from others. Appreciate the questions from visitors as they lead you to think in new ways. Maintain a sense of humour and be patient even when you’re asked the same question for the umpteenth time.

Would you do it again?
In a flash!

We would like to thank Kit for his generous contribution to the HMB Endeavour Circumnavigation Project.

— Volunteer with HMB Endeavour, find out more on our website —

A French connection to James Cook

A Map of the coast of Newfoundland after James Cook and Michael Lane by J N Bellin, Paris, 1784.


I’ve recently been putting some information together for the museum’s website on a series of charts in the museum’s collection that were made by James Cook and Michael Lane between 1763 and 1768. Interestingly, these maps are all in French.

Cook is famous for leading three voyages of exploration between 1768 and 1779, and for his charts and surveys made on these voyages. But not so well known are his earlier charts of British and French possessions in the northwest Atlantic around Newfoundland and Canada. These charts were to bring his skills to the attention of the Admiralty and put him in a very good position to take command of the Endeavour in 1768.

In fact the charts were so good, even the French copied them. The French and British had been competing for possession of Canada and Newfoundland, with its rich fishing grounds, since the 1600s. When the Seven Years War broke out in 1756, James Cook saw the opportunity to advance his career in the Navy and arrived at Halifax in Nova Scotia in 1758 as Master on the fourth rate HMS PEMBROKE. He took part in the blockade of Louisbourg and gained instruction in surveying and chart making from an army engineer Captain Samuel Holland, who later became Surveyor General of Quebec.

In 1759 Cook was awarded a special payment of 50 pounds for his charting of the notoriously treacherous section of the St Lawrence River called The Traverse, by which the British were able to gain passage to, and successfully assault, the fortified town of Quebec.

Cook’s talents as a surveyor and mapmaker came to the notice of Admiral Saunders and Cook was transferred to the NORTHUMBERLAND. In 1762 he surveyed the coastline around St John’s, the capital of Newfoundland. He returned to England at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, where Saunders arranged for Cook’s charts to be published. The Treaty of Paris saw the French lose all claims to mainland Canada, but given possession of the tiny islands of St Pierre and Miquelon, off Newfoundland. Cook was appointed ‘Surveyor in Newfoundland’ and tasked to survey the two islands before they were returned to French control.

Transferred to the TWEED with Captain Douglas, Cook completed accurate surveys in the remarkably quick time of less than two months. The British Admiralty realised the importance of having accurate charts of these difficult to navigate but strategically important coastlines and between 1763 and 1767 Cook continued to survey the coast of Newfoundland during the summer periods, returning to Britain for the winters to complete the charts for publication.

Cook’s Newfoundland surveys are famous for their accuracy and detail. His charts of the so-called ‘infinite mass of indentations, bays and harbours’ in the Gulf of St Lawrence and eastern Canada region have been regarded as the finest surveys and charts of his career.

During his surveying, Cook had recorded an eclipse of the sun and sent a paper on the event to the Royal Society. Along with his charts, Cook’s observations brought him to the notice of both the Royal Society and the Admiralty, who had combined in planning a scientific and exploratory expedition to the Pacific Ocean.

Cook’s Newfoundland charts were published in various countries for many years afterwards. A collection appeared in England in 1769 and then in the North-American Pilot in 1775. Even the French used Cook’s highly regarded maps, rather than draw their own. The museum has a copy of a folio of eleven charts published in France in 1784. It contains eight charts attributed to James Cook and Michael Lane (master’s mate and assistant surveyor to Cook in 1767-8) of the GRENVILLE between 1763-7.

Surviving French versions of the Newfoundland charts are rare, and it is interesting to see in the museum’s copy of ‘Newfoundland, St Pierre, Miquelon – 1763-1782’, Cook’s amazing handiwork translated into French.

Museum acquires historical treasures from Cook voyage

Exciting news! The museum announced today that it has acquired three amazing historical treasures from James Cook’s second Pacific voyage.

The three artefacts – two carved wooden clubs and a rounded hand club made of whalebone – were collected from Polynesian communities during Cook’s 1772-1775 exploration of the Pacific, giving them a direct link to the great explorer.

Omai Relics

They are also significant because of their association with the Polynesian Omai who joined the expedition and became the first Pacific Islander to be taken to England.

There were two ships travelling together on the voyage – HMS Resolution (commanded by Cook) and HMS Adventure (commanded by Tobias Furneaux). Omai joined Furneaux on the Adventure and they became close friends.

He accompanied Cook and Furneaux when they landed at Tangatapu (Tonga) in October 1773 and was there when the two wooden clubs were gifted by the islanders to the commanders.

In December of that year, Furneaux received the whalebone hand club when the expedition visited Queens Charlotte Sound in New Zealand.

On arriving back in England at the end of the expedition, Furneaux took Omai to his home at Swilly, near Plymouth, to meet his family. He also took great pleasure in bringing home with him his South Seas treasures. The three clubs, now widely known as the Omai relics, remained in the Furneaux family collection until 1986 when they were sold.

The museum purchased the clubs from a private vendor for $622,750 with funding assistance from the Australian Government’s National Cultural Heritage Account of $100,000.

Curator Dr Nigel Erskine examines the Omai relics

Curator Dr Nigel Erskine examines the Omai relics

But what makes these objects particularly significant is their unquestionable provenance. It is extremely rare for objects dating back to this era to remain in private ownership.

We’re delighted these objects are now part of the National Maritime Collection, adding to our existing collections relating to Cook and the European exploration of the Pacific. They will be going on display in the museum in time for the Christmas holiday season.

For more information visit our Newsroom.