James Cook: Captain? Discoverer? Invader? Coloniser? Cook, the Endeavour, and Possession Island.

It is 250 years ago, today, since British sailor James Cook “took possession” of the continent we know as Australia—a land that he named New South Wales—on behalf of the reigning monarch of one of the dominant world powers of the day, the British Empire.

We know Cook as “Captain Cook”. Technically, at that time, he was still Lieutenant Cook, although he was indeed captain of the ship HMS Endeavour, in the middle of a government-sponsored expedition in which he circumnavigated the globe.

During this journey, Cook and his crew observed the transit of Venus across the sun in 1769, circumnavigated both islands of New Zealand, and then mapped the eastern coastline of Australia, laying claim to the whole continent at the place he named Possession Island, before heading home via Batavia (now Jakarta) and the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).

After he had travelled the length of the eastern coastline of Australia, Cook landed on Possession Island, in the area we now call the Torres Strait. It is known as Bedanug or Bedhan Lag by one of the indigenous peoples of the islands, the Kaurareg, whose country includes the lower western Torres Strait islands grouped around Muralag.

(The Ankamuti also lay claim to being indigenous to the island. They were based on the western side of Cape York, but frequented Bedanug, Muralag, and other islands off the coast.)

Today, Possession Island is located at the centre of the Possession Island National Park, an area of 5.10 km2 established as a protected area in 1977 and currently managed by the Queensland Parks and a wildlife Service.

See https://parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/possession-island/about/culture

There, on Possession Island, just before sunset on Wednesday 22 August 1770, Cook declared the land to be a British possession:

Notwithstand[ing] I had in the Name of His Majesty taken possession of several places upon this coast, I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast . . . by the name New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast, after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were Answerd by the like number from the Ship.

A monument in recognition of this event has been erected on the headland above the beach where Cook raised the flag in 1770. It states:











AUGUST 22nd 1770

See https://www.monumentaustralia.org.au/themes/landscape/exploration/display/100194-possession-island-


Cook and the HMS Endeavour play a dominant role in our Australian historical awareness. The (misleading and inaccurate) claim that Cook “discovered Australia” is made even in our own times—when we should know better. Western scientific and historical knowledge now correlates strongly with Indigenous narratives that indicate that the land had long been inhabited and cared for, by the peoples we know call Aboriginal.

See https://www.aboriginalart.com.au/aboriginal_australia.html and http://www.workingwithindigenousaustralians.info/content/History_2_60,000_years.html

Our history did not start with Cook, however. Indeed, if we read the observations made by Cook in his journal as he sailed his ship alongside the eastern coast of New South Wales, we find that he was observing, not only the unfamiliar flora and fauna of the continent—but also the indigenous people of the land.

See my blogs on the time that Cook sailed along the eastern seaboard of Australia, at





So all along his journey beside the eastern coastline, Cook had recorded signs that the land was inhabited, and he even reported that he had met a number of the Aboriginal inhabitants. In his journal, on Saturday 21st April (at the southernmost point of this leg of his journey), Cook wrote:

Winds Southerly a gentle breeze and clear weather with which we coasted along shore to the northward. In the PM we saw the smook of fire in several places a certain sign that the Country is inhabited.

But he still pressed ahead with his report that he had claimed all the lands for the British Crown. This, despite the fact that he knew there were inhabitants in the land.


Cook, of course, was acting in accord with his royal orders. And those orders had been promulgated under the Doctrine of Discovery, a long-standing understanding amongst European trading nations, that they had every right—indeed, a divine right—to explore, invade, colonise, and convert the “natives” of distant lands.

On the Doctrine of Discovery, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/how-was-aboriginal-land-ownership-lost-to-invaders and my reflections at https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

So Cook planted the British flag on the continent of Australia. This action demonstrated how the imperial colonising power operated: the land, and the people, were to be subsumed under imperial rule, simply because the imperial power wished that to be so. The people already living in those places were simply to bend in obedience to this greater power. And, as we know, if they resisted, although there might be some initial attempts to live together peaceably, ultimately they would be met with force, violence, and murder.

What became a cause of enduring conflict over many decades was the subsequent activity of settling on the land, erecting fences, planting crops, farming animals, protecting the property and claiming exclusive rights to the crops and animals now installed on the land.

To those who had formerly lived on this land, this was theft from their land. To those who had established a “civilised” lifestyle on the land, the former inhabitants were irritants to be kept at bay, and eventually enemies to be removed.

Thus murder was normalised in the years of settlement. And the original inhabitants experienced this as aggressive invasion and enforced colonisation.

See https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/18/endeavour-by-every-possible-means-to-conciliate-their-affections/


On this day, as we remember the actions and words of Cook, on behalf of the British monarch, we need to make a commitment to tell the truth, on behalf of the indigenous peoples, whose land was invaded, whose lifestyle was disrupted, whose peoples were massacred, whose families were torn apart, over the decades and indeed centuries that followed.

We need to tell the truth on behalf of these First Peoples, who have cared for this land for millennia, who have nurtured community, strengthened family, traded and visited amongst the 270 language and culture groups which existed prior to Cook and the subsequent British invasion.


The church in which I serve, the Uniting Church, is committed to telling truth. This truth is confronting and challenging. In the revised Preamble which was adopted a decade ago by the Uniting Church, we sought to tell the truth.

Drawing on the voices of Indigenous Peoples, we have named the settlement of this continent as a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. We must continue to prioritise this commitment to tell the truth.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

Likewise, at the 14th Assembly, meeting in Perth in 2015, we decided to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, that medieval theological foundation upon which the worldwide invasion and colonisation of lands was based—including the invasion and colonisation of Terra Australis. This has been part of our commitment to tell the truth.

See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

As a result of this, the Uniting Church is committed to talking treaty. We are supportive of the formalisation of treaties with the various nations of Peoples who have inhabited, nurtured and cared for this land since time immemorial. This commitment is based on a recognition of the Sovereignty of each of those nations, sovereignty over the land that the people have inhabited, nurtured, and cared for over those many millennia.

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/hear-the-statement-from-the-heart/

Sovereignty, as articulated in the Statement from the Heart of 2017, is understood by the First Peoples as a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples

See https://ulurustatement.org/

Also https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/ and https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/

And we need to listen to the voice of the indigenous peoples, in this a statement, and in other ways.

For an indigenous perspective on Cook, see https://www.nla.gov.au/digital-classroom/senior/Cook/Indigenous-Response/Maynard

There are fine resources on the website of the National Museum of a Australia relating to Bedanug (Possession Island) at https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/endeavour-voyage/bedanug-thunadha-bedhan-lag-tuidin-possession-island

As we remember Possession Island, 1770, may this be the legacy of Cook, 250 years on: that we remember his observation that the Country is inhabited, that we value those people who had long inhabited this land and held sovereignty of the land, who continue to live in our midst today, and that we tell the full history of this country.

James Cook, the Endeavour, twelve turtles and the Guugu Yimithirr (3)

Ngahthaan gadaai thawun maa naa thi hu. “We come to make friends.”

As the story is told amongst the Guugu Yimithirr people of the area we call North Queensland, one of the elders of the people, Ngambri Yarrbarigu, said these words to James Cook, captain of the HMS Endeavour, 250 years ago this week. The ship had been laid up on the land of the Guugu Yimithirr for some weeks, as the British sailors repaired its hull after it had struck a reef in May 1770.

The men withdrew, placed their spears on the ground, and sat down. They were acting in the manner prescribed, in their culture, to signal friendship.

What had caused this desire to seek reconciliation? That was the incident relating to the turtles, from the penultimate visit to the ship by the Guugu Yimithirr. That took place on 17 July. That visit severed the relationships that had grown over recent weeks, which they then sought to repair.

The British had been engaging with the Guugu Yimithirr on and off over the weeks that they were beached, beside the river which Cook names the Endeavour River. To the people of that land, this was Waalbumbaal Birri, the river wending its way to the sea from the nearby mountain Gaya.

Waalbumbaal Birri
(Endeavour River)

It was their land. They had their own customs, their own practices. They had every right to expect that the visitors would adhere to these customs and practices. It was their land, their river—they had been custodians of the land since time unknown. They had stories in their collective memory of times past (what we white folk later would call “the Dreamtime”).

On 15 July, Cook wrote in his journal: “Gentle breezes at South-East and East. P.M., got on board the Spare Sails and sundry other Articles. In the A.M., as the people did not work upon the Ship, one of the Petty Officers was desirous of going out to Catch Turtles. I let him have the Pinnace for that purpose, and sent the Long boat to haul the Sean, who caught about 60 fish.” The invaders must surely have rejoiced at this haul of sea creatures, destined, no doubt, to be cooked and eaten.

The next day, Cook’s journal records, “In the evening the Yawl came in with 4 Turtle and a Large Sting ray, and soon after went out again; but the Pinnace did not return as I expected.”

Then, on 17 July, another journal entry: “In the evening the Pinnace returned with 3 Turtles, 2 of which the Yawl caught and sent in”, recording the arrival of yet more bounty—before continuing with a lengthy technical discussion of astronomical phenomenon: “At 7 hours 41 minutes 17 seconds p.m. observ’d the first Satellite of Jupiter to Emerge …”

The area surrounding the Waalbumbaal Birri (Endeavour River)

What are we to make of this regular fishing-and-catching activity of the British? From one point of view—from the perspective of the invading sailors, arriving at this place from their sea journey—this natural bounty was there to be caught and used for their own purposes. There was no sign that announced “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”. There was no expectation, in their minds, that these animals were there for any other reason, than to be observed, analysed, caught, and eaten.

But from the point of view of the people on the land—the Guugu Yimithirr who had lived on and cared for the land for millennia—this was their land, their river, their ocean, and their creatures. Theirs, not in the sense of personal possession and ownership; but theirs, in the sense of given over to them to care for and nurture, for which they bore an enduring custodial responsibility. What would they have made of the regular forays to capture their fish and turtles?

(The indigenous understanding of relationship to the land, articulated as one of sovereignty, is clearly expressed in the Statement from the Heart; see https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement. On the Uniting Church attitude towards the sovereignty of the land of Australia, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/13/on-covenant-reconciliation-and-sovereignty/)

Statement from the Heart
Uluru, 2017

So on 18 July, the British encountered the Yuugu Gimithirr once again. Cook writes, “Mr. Banks, Dr. Solander, and myself took a turn into the woods on the other side of the water, where we met with 5 of the Natives; and although we had not seen any of them before, they came to us without showing any signs of fear. 2 of these wore Necklaces made of Shells, which they seem’d to Value, as they would not part with them.” This encounter, as previous ones had been, was congenial and mutually respectful.

Cook continues, “In the evening the Yawl came in with 3 Turtle, and early in the A.M. she went out again. About 8 we were Visited by several of the Natives, who now became more familiar than ever.” He notes that he and Banks then took a trip along the shore for 6 or 8 miles, before returning, and noting that “we return’d to the Ship … and found several of the Natives on board. At this time we had 12 tortoise or Turtle upon our Decks, which they took more Notice of than anything Else in the Ship, as I was told by the officers, for their Curiosity was Satisfied before I got on board, and they went away soon after.”

The focus of attention was now very clearly on the turtles. They had obviously become a point of contention for the Yuugu Gimithirr. Were the British aware of this?

Twelve Turtles, by Wanda Gibson

The next day, 19 July, another group came to the British—this time, 10 or 11 of them. “Most of them came from the other side of the Harbour, where we saw 6 or 7 more, the most of them Women, and, like the men, quite naked.” It was clear that they had come to retrieve “some of our Turtles” (as Cook wrote). In the attempt to remove some turtles, “they grew a little Troublesome, and were for throwing every thing overboard they could lay their hands upon.”

Cook offered bread, which “they rejected with Scorn, as I believe they would have done anything else excepting Turtle”. The aim of the exercise was clearly to take some turtles with them.

Cook’s journal then reports the dramatic events that ensured: “one of them took a Handful of dry grass and lighted it at a fire we had ashore, and before we well know’d what he was going about he made a larger Circuit round about us, and set fire to the grass in his way, and in an instant the whole place was in flames.” The cordial relationships had turned to fierce antagonism.

“As soon as they had done this they all went to a place where some of our people were washing, and where all our nets and a good deal of linnen were laid out to dry; here with the greatest obstinacy they again set fire to the grass, which I and some others who were present could not prevent, until I was obliged to fire a Musquet load with small Shott at one of the Ring leaders, which sent them off.” The man whom Cook wounded with a musket shot ran away.

Cook reports that the fore “spread like wild fire in the Woods and grass”, and reports that one man was injured: “we saw a few drops of blood on some of the linnen he had gone over”. Cook and Banks stepped out and met 3 or 4 men. “As they had each 4 or 5 Darts, and not knowing their intention, we seized upon 6 or 7 of the first darts we met with. This alarm’d them so much that they all made off.”

The British pursued the Yuugu Gimithirr; “after some little unintelligible conversation had passed they laid down their darts, and came to us in a very friendly manner. We now return’d the Darts we had taken from them, which reconcil’d everything.”

The journal report then concludes, “all came along with us abreast of the Ship, where they stay’d a short time, and then went away, and soon after set the woods on fire about a Mile and a half or two Miles from us.” Descendants of the Yuugu Gimithirr recall, today, this encounter as a sign of reconciliation.

However, Cook appears to have omitted a significant detail at the critical point. Mark McKenna, an Australian historian, has explored this encounter by reading the journals of both Cook and of Banks, as well as interviewing descendants of the Yuugu Gimithirr, Alberta Hornsby and Eric Deeral. They told McKenna stories which have been passed down amongst their people. Those stories add other elements to the events that took place while the British and the Yuugu Gimithirr interacted.

(You can read a review of McKenna’s book, From the Edge, at http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/n4634/pdf/book_review03.pdf)

They claim this as an important historic event, as it is believed that this is the first recorded reconciliation between Europeans and Indigenous Australians ever. The explanation that Alberta Hornsby provides is fascinating, and revealing.

She tells McKenna the story she knows. Angered by several men who’d set fire to the grass where he’d left a “forge and a sow and a litter of young pigs,” Cook fired his musket, wounding an Aboriginal man, after which the men immediately retreated.

Seizing the spears that they had left behind, Cook and Banks were approached about an hour later by “a little old man” carrying a spear “without a point,” with several men brandishing spears walking only a few metres behind him. As he walked towards them, the old man halted several times, “collecting moisture from under his armpit with his finger” and drawing it “through his mouth.” Cook and Banks “beckoned him” to come closer.

At this point, the old man turned to his comrades, who “laid their lances against a tree.” Then, slowly, they all came forward to meet one another. After they exchanged gifts and greetings, Cook returned their spears, remarking later in his journal that this seemed to have “reconciled everything.”

Alberta Hornsby and her late uncle, Eric Deeral, have explained the story through Guugu Yimithirr law: how the old man, by drawing sweat from under his armpits and “blowing the sweat on his hands into the air,” was performing a ritual known as ngalangundaama, a call for “protection and calm.” In Guugu Yimithirr law, no blood was to be spilt on Waymburr, the land on which Cook had come ashore and fired his musket.

At last it was possible to understand the old man’s gesture of reconciliation from the perspective of the Guugu Yimithirr; it was a request for his law to be honoured and calm to be restored. For Alberta and Loretta, the story represents an inspiring moment of reconciliation; an historic moment in the history of this continent.


I have written a series of blogs on the time that Cook sailed along the eastern seaboard of Australia, at:




See also





“We weigh’d and run into the Harbour”. Cook, the Endeavour, and the Guugu Yimithirr

On 11 June 1770, Lt James Cook and his ship, HMS Endeavour, ran afoul of the Great Barrier Reef and seriously damage was done to the ship’s hull. To avoid sinking, all the crew and stores had to be offloaded in order to free the Endeavour from the reef.

42 year old Cook held the rank of Lieutenant at the time; he was to be promoted to Commander on his return to England in 1771, and then promoted to Post-Captain in 1775. (See https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/captain-cook-society/faq)

Cook provides a dramatic account in his journal for that day, writing “Upon my sounding the 2nd time round the Ship I found the most water a Stern, and therefore had this Anchor carried out upon the Starboard Quarter, and hove upon it a very great Strain; which was to no purpose, the Ship being quite fast, upon which we went to work to lighten her as fast as possible, which seem’d to be the only means we had left to get her off.

“As we went ashore about the Top of High Water we not only started water, but threw overboard our Guns, Iron and Stone Ballast, Casks, Hoop Staves, Oil Jarrs, decay’d Stores, etc.; many of these last Articles lay in the way at coming at Heavier. All this time the Ship made little or no Water.

“At 11 a.m., being high Water as we thought, we try’d to heave her off without Success, she not being afloat by a foot or more, notwithstanding by this time we had thrown overboard 40 or 50 Tuns weight. As this was not found sufficient we continued to Lighten her by every method we could think off; as the Tide fell the ship began to make Water as much as two pumps could free: at Noon she lay with 3 or 4 Streakes heel to Starboard.”

Cook needed to find safe waters for his ship, so he sailed his damaged 368 ton vessel towards the closest river he could find. After trying for some days, he was eventually able to bring the ship into safety.

He wrote in his journal, on 17 June 1770: “Most part strong Gales at South-East, with some heavy showers of rain in the P.M. At 6 a.m., being pretty moderate, we weigh’d and run into the Harbour, in doing of which we run the Ship ashore Twice.

“The first time she went off without much Trouble, but the Second time she Stuck fast; but this was of no consequence any farther than giving us a little trouble, and was no more than what I expected as we had the wind. While the Ship lay fast we got down the Foreyard, Foretopmast, booms, etc., overboard, and made a raft of them alongside.”

The crew set camp and prepared to repair the hull of the ship. Cook’s stay in that harbour was to be his longest onshore stay for his entire voyage. It would not be until early August that he was able to put out to sea once more.

He later named the river “Endeavour” after his ship. It was the only river in Australia that he would name (he named bays, harbours, headlands, mountains—but only one river!). The town which was later established near this site is named Cooktown, in honour of Cook. The mountain that rises behind the river, would become Mount Cook, and the mountain next to it, Mount Saunders. The visit of Cook and his ship would be impressed into white understandings of history. It stands as a seminal moment in white Australian consciousness.

However, the place already had a name, known and used by the Guugu Yimithirr people, who had lived there for millennia: it was Gangaar. The river was Waalumbaal Birri, the mountain was Gaya, the nearby mountain was known as Milngaar. These were the names given and used by the Guugu Yimithirr.

And they called Cook and his men the Wangaar: ancestors who had returned to their descendants, ghostly white as they came from another realm. They perceived their arrival as some form of spiritual encounter. They were, initially, reverent, apprehensive, and deferential. These weeks would be remembered within their stories, passed down over the generations, as well.

(Here I am drawing from the fascinating account of the encounter at Gangaar constructed by historian Mark McKenna, in his book, From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories. See https://www.mup.com.au/books/from-the-edge-paperback-softback and a brief review at https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2016/10/31/the-edge/14764500003843)

This was the sixth place where members of the Endeavour’s crew had set foot on the land of Australia: first at Botany Bay on 29 April, and then at locations which Cook named in his journal: Bustard Bay, Thirsty Sound, Cleveland Bay, and Cape Grafton. The names he gave are retained in contemporary Australian society. The names by which these places had been known throughout millennia of inhabitation by the indigenous peoples, are largely lost to our knowing today.

(On the impact of Cook’s names and the search to find the indigenous names of places further south on his journey, see my posts at https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/23/they-appeard-to-be-of-a-very-dark-or-black-colour-cook-hms-endeavour-and-the-yuin-people-and-country/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/29/three-canoes-lay-upon-the-beach-the-worst-i-think-i-ever-saw-james-cook-at-botany-bay-29-april-1770/)

Today, 17 June, is when the Endeavour sailed into the safety of that river. It remained there for three weeks, as repairs were undertaken. During the time that the Endeavour was laid up, being repaired, Joseph Banks and others from the ship’s crew were diligently exploring the land, collecting botanical specimens. Banks recorded the sightings and the collections made in his journal.

Joseph Banks

A local tourist website portrays the significance of this time for tourists today, in this way:

“Banks and his team of botanists spent their whole time exploring and discovering many botanical and natural history wonders which were totally new to science at the time. Banks and Solander found a large portion of Endeavour’s East Coast botanical collection while here. They discovered many new species of insects, fish, bugs and butterflies.

Daniel Solander

“They saw, for the first time in this country, a crocodile, dingo, flying fox, and many species of lizards, snakes, fish and insects. The crew fished and collected giant clams and turtle for food. They found green vegetables and yams to supplement their diet.”


One of Sydney Parkinson’s botanical drawings

Indeed, this period of time has imprinted itself into the Australian consciousness in another way. It was here, at Gangaar, that white men first saw a kangaroo. The unusual animal was duly shot and killed by the British, who then cooked and ate it. Sydney Parkinson, an artist working with Banks and Solander, drew a sketch of the animal.

Sydney Parkinson’s sketch of a ganguuru

Later, when contact with the Guugu Yimithirr people had progressed to a reasonable level of communication, the name of the animal was understood to be ganguuru—which has lived on in the Australian language as kangaroo. This was one of 130 words recorded by Parkinson, whose diligence has provided a documented collection of the basics of this language.

These three weeks thus have significance for the development of botanical understanding in the late 18th century, and for a unique contribution to the Australian language (and psyche).

But there was something else of great significance that took place during that period of three weeks, as the men of the Endeavour engaged in ongoing encounters with the Guugu Yimithirr people of that area.

And that’s another story for a later day ….


See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/25/on-remembering-cook-and-flinders-and-trim-bungaree-and-yemmerrawanne/