William Bradley’s log of HMS Sirius

Bradley’s notes and coastal profiles of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), made on 8 January 1788, less than three weeks before the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove. ANMM Collection 00055232.

Bradley’s notes and coastal profiles of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), made on 8 January 1788, less than three weeks before the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove. ANMM Collection 00055232.

An extraordinary gift to the nation

An extremely generous donation to the museum has brought an important early colonial record back to Australia.

Earlier this year I flew to England a examine a previously unknown log of HMS Sirius, written by First Lieutenant William Bradley, covering the period from the departure of the First Fleet from Portsmouth, UK, in May 1787 to the return of the ship’s crew to England in April 1792 aboard the Dutch vessel Waakzaamheydt. It was a formative period in Australia’s colonial history and the logbook, signed by William Bradley, written in his neat hand and illustrated with maps and small coastal profiles, is an extraordinary gift to the nation.

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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.

Object of the month

Navigation Chart for the Darling River

December is an interesting month for discussion of water conservation and regulation in Australia. At the museum, AQUA: A Journey into the World of Water* opens on 3December with a multisensory experience that promotes a message about the provision of safe drinking water. It asks visitors to ‘make a pledge to save water for the planet’.

Meanwhile, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Draft Basin Plan – which was (pardon the pun) leaked to journalists last week is to be released for 20 weeks of public comment from the end of November. The draft plan has already drawn widespread criticism and comment from both environmentalists and irrigators.

Water is a hot topic at present.

Our historical practices of water usage, management and flow diversion are important areas for maritime history, and for maritime museums. In the past, historians generally wrote about the affairs of people as they moved across, worked, or lived on the land, rivers and oceans. The environment was in effect, a backdrop to the history of humanity; human-nature interactions were a story of how we have harnessed the environment over time.

Yet environmental histories are now more attuned to finding a connectedness between people, their stories and their environments. In museums, we are increasingly looking at objects from the past not merely as records of human progress but as, for example, how they might be records of climate change.

This navigation chart of the Darling River was hand-drawn by paddle steamer captain James B Packer in the mid-nineteenth century. Such charts were commonly made of canvas or sail cloth and were rolled up into a scroll. This chart shows a two hundred kilometre long section of the meandering Darling River from Cuthero Woolshed to the confluence of the Murray and Darling rivers at Wentworth. The chart is just over 1.73 metres in length.

As well as all the important landmarks of homesteads, woolsheds and hotels along the river, Packer’s chart meticulously depicts sandbanks, fallen trees, snags, rocks, and billabongs. It is a paddle steamer navigation chart with critical information for river captains. Yet it is also a snapshot of the river’s landscape – and its health – from over 150 years ago.

Packer’s carefully hand-drawn chart is one of three similar inland riverways maps in the National Maritime Collection. Each one is like a work of art in its own right. They also provide valuable historical information about the environment of the Murray-Darling basin. As the balances of water conservation, river flow restoration and irrigation are debated over the next weeks, Packer’s river chart reminds us of the ongoing importance of such objects in understanding maritime environmental histories.

Stephen Gapps

Curator Environment, Industry and Shipping.

*AQUA: A Journey into the World of Water is created by ONE DROP, an initiative of Guy Laliberté, Founder of Cirque du Soleil®.