The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change

The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change

by Iain McCalman


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The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change by Iain McCalman

Stretching 1,400 miles along the Australian coast and visible from space, the Great Barrier Reef is home to three thousand individual reefs, more than nine hundred islands, and thousands of marine species, and has alternately been viewed as a deadly maze, an economic bounty, a scientific frontier, and a precarious World Heritage site. Now the historian and explorer Iain McCalman takes us on a new adventure into the reef to reveal how our shifting perceptions of the natural world have shaped this extraordinary seascape. Showcasing the lives of twenty individuals spanning more than two centuries, The Reef highlights our profound desire to conquer, understand, embrace, and ultimately save the world's most complex ocean ecosystem.

Opening with the story of Captain James Cook, who sailed unknowingly into the southwest entrance of this vast network of coral outcroppings, McCalman shows how Cook spent months navigating this treacherous underwater labyrinth, struggling to keep his crew alive and his ship afloat, sparring with deceptive shoals and wary native islanders. Through a series of dramatic tales from intrepid explorers, unwitting castaways, inquisitive naturalists, enchanted artists, and impassioned environmentalists who have collectively shaped our ideas about the Great Barrier Reef, McCalman demonstrates how this grand natural wonder of the world was built as much by human imagination as by the industrious, beautiful creatures of the sea.

A romantic, historically significant book and a deeply personal journey into the heart of a marine environment in peril, The Reef powerfully captures the delicate relationship between humanity and the natural world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374535346
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/12/2015
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 777,026
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.94(d)

About the Author

Iain McCalman is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a historian, a social scientist, and an explorer. He is the author of the award-winning Darwin's Armada, The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro, and Radical Underworld. A professor of history at the University of Sydney, he has served as the president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the director of the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. McCalman has also been a historical consultant and narrator for documentaries on the BBC and ABC, and has been interviewed by Salon and the World Science Festival.

Read an Excerpt



Captain Cook’s Entrapment

JAMES COOK DID NOT KNOW, on Sunday May 20, 1770, two weeks after leaving Botany Bay on the east coast of New Holland, the western portion of the continent, named by the Dutch captain Abel Tasman in 1644, that the HMS Endeavour was sailing into the southwest entrance of a vast lagoon where reef-growing corals began their work. It was a channel that later navigators would call the Great Barrier Reef inner passage. Cook didn’t realize that then, and he never would.

The point, obvious enough in his journals, needs stressing because so many historians inadvertently treat this phase of Cook’s first voyage of exploration to the Southern Hemisphere as if the Great Barrier Reef we know today already existed somewhere in the back of his mind. As if he unconsciously knew he was about to enter into combat with a constellation of deep-water “barrier reefs” that ran more or less parallel with the Australian coast for some 1,400 miles, creating between them and the mainland a shallow lagoon of uneven depths interspersed with three hundred reef-fringed coral cays and striated with sand, rock, and coral shoals. In reality he sailed unknowingly within the reef lagoon for around 500 miles before he became aware of something resembling a coral “labyrinth.” Like explorers before him, he’d had no intimation at all of the possible existence of this freakish phenomenon.

For us to have any glimmer of understanding of the experiences and reactions of Cook and his crew, we, too, must rid our minds temporarily of the existence of this vast geophysical phenomenon—a region of land and sea that in 1770 had never been imagined in its totality by any human being, and that would remain substantially unimagined even after the Endeavour had sailed through it.

Cook had at this point partially completed his mission. He had fulfilled the orders of the Royal Society to make accurate observations of the transit of Venus from Otaheite (Tahiti), and was now faced with two larger and more covert tasks: to best the war-vanquished French by upstaging their scientific and imperial ambitions in the Pacific; and to discover, chart, and claim for the King of England—with the agreement of any native peoples—the elusive great southern land that geographers had so long hypothesized. Having made landfalls on the isles of present-day New Zealand between September 1769 and March 1770, the Endeavour had on April 19 sighted land along the coast of what Cook called New South Wales. On April 28 he finally managed to land on this tricky coastline, at what would become known as Botany Bay, a paradise of plants only slightly marred for him by the elusiveness and hostility of the native inhabitants.

Since leaving Botany Bay on May 6, Cook had sighted lines of breakers suggestive of submarine shoals on several occasions, but it was only on the morning of May 20 that he was confronted with a long “shoal” projecting eastward from a finger of land he called Sandy Cape, which forced him to edge northeast for several miles before finding clear water. He named the shoal Breaksea Spit, because after weathering it the ship suddenly entered “smooth water,” a consequence of the sheltering effect of the Swain reefs that were far out of sight. Neither was there anything to suggest that the present shoal might be a coral reef rather than an extension of the rocky shoreline, though we now know it to be an extinct coral reef covered in sand.1

What Cook actually understood of the origins and character of coral reefs at this point remains uncertain. He’d read the travel account of Samuel Purchas in Purchas His Pilgrimage (1613), which described serrated deep-sea coral “ledges,” and he’d recently sighted a variety of reef forms in the South Sea Islands, but it was only much later, on his second voyage, that he explicitly echoed the opinion of his onboard naturalists, the Forsters, that coral “rockes” were formed in the sea by “animals.” Before this, Cook, like many science-minded men of his time, was probably uncertain whether these protean rocklike objects were plants, animals, or minerals, or a hybrid of all three.2

Corals had long been a taxonomist’s nightmare, a little-studied phenomenon that early theorists assumed to be some strange sort of plant. In 1724 the Frenchman Jean-André Peyssonnel overturned the work of a colleague in Montpellier with a letter to the Académie des Sciences, arguing for the first time that the so-called coral flower was in reality not a plant, but “un insect” that could create bone. His idea was ridiculed until it was taken up some thirty years later by the Englishman John Ellis, who in 1752 told the Royal Society in London that these creatures were “ramified [branchlike] animals,” after which his classification became increasingly accepted.

For the deeply practical Yorkshire navigator James Cook, it was more important to know that corals produced vast rocklike edifices that could grow up from unfathomable depths, lurk just under the ocean surface, and sink any ship. At that time it was navigators, more than scientists, who wanted to know what corals were up to.3

The Swain reefs responsible for the sudden smoothness of the sea were a collection of massive deepwater coral aggregations some 125 miles to the east that marked the southeastern entrance of the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. In effect, the Endeavour had wafted into a vast natural coral basin resembling a woven Aboriginal fish trap; the latter was designed to snare its victims by enticing them into a wide entrance that narrowed suddenly to entangle them, much as the Reef was about to do by veering sharply northwest toward the mainland. As Cook’s great editor J. C. Beaglehole observed, anyone telling the captain’s story should at this point sound a roll of “premonitory drums.”4

Cook also failed to sight what might have proved the giveaway presence of the coral cays of the Capricornia group, which were lying over the horizon to the east, some forty-three miles off the mainland. Instead, as they coasted along in a comfortable twelve to twenty fathoms of water with the coast in clear view, they skirted clusters of tall, picturesque islands that Cook named the Northumberland and the Whitsunday groups: these were former mainland volcanic mountain chains that had been transformed into islands by raised water levels and coastal subsidence.

Even the recurring “shoals” surrounding these islands—actually fringing coral reefs—caused Cook no real alarm. Shallows, shoals, and banks held little fear for the veteran sailor who had steered dozens of coal transports like the Endeavour through England’s treacherous northern coastal waters, and who had navigated flotillas of warships through the rock-filled Saint Lawrence River during the Seven Years’ War. Though irritating and, as they increased in incidence, time-consuming, shoals like these could be detected and dodged, provided the leadsman sounded the depths continually and the ship’s pinnace was sent ahead to locate deeper channels.5

Cook and his young companion, botanist Joseph Banks, did notice that the ship appeared to be entering a distinct new region. The sun was hotter, the air more humid, the sea warmer, the landscape rockier, and the flora more reminiscent of the West Indies. For the first time since leaving Tahiti, they observed palm nut trees and “the true mangrove.” These familiar plants convinced Banks that they were departing “the Southern Temperate Zone” and should expect to see more tropical flora. From now on, too, he and Cook would use the tropical West Indies as their template of comparison for the environments encountered. As in the Caribbean, hammer oysters and small pearl oysters were abundant, and both men speculated on the possibility of a future pearling industry for the British Empire. A brief landfall on May 29 further confirmed the similarities with Jamaica, though the lack of water and the presence of barbed grass, clouds of mosquitoes, slimy mangrove mud, and huge tides gave a bleak impression, generating the place name of Thirsty Sound.6

The shoal dodging continued as they sailed a slow zigzag course between each new crop of continental islands and the shore. On June 9 they anchored near a small inlet, slightly east of a rocky eminence that Cook named Cape Grafton. It repeated the pattern of high “stony” and “barren” landscapes recently passed at Cape Upstart, Magnetical Island (now Magnetic), Dunk Island, and Cape Sandwich. Here, at the site of today’s Yarrabah community, Cook and Banks scrambled up another stony peak to gaze down on yet another mangrove swamp worryingly devoid of fresh water. Spires of “smooks” (smoke trails) indicated the nearby presence of Indigenous people, but none were sighted. That the explorers were being watched, however, is suggested by a faint red painting of a three-masted square-rigger scored on the underside of a barely accessible rock overhang that looks out over present-day Mission Bay.7 When the Endeavour embarked from this bay at midnight on June 10, 1770, under a bright moon and in a slight breeze, Cook had no idea that a chain of coral reefs and cays belonging to what we now know as the outer Barrier lay pincered in toward the northeast, around fifteen miles from the ship. True, he and Banks did note the presence of a cay on a coral reef near their previous anchorage. Cook named it Green Island after the ship’s astronomer, Charles Green. Banks suspected that it was “laying upon a large Coral shoal, much resembling the low Islands to the eastward of us but the first of the kind we had met with in this part of the South Sea.”8

Even so, this isolated coral novelty failed to engender alarm or to change what had become their habitual pattern of sailing off the coast. Night visibility under a glowing moon was good, and a seaman was, as usual, standing at the bows swinging the lead to measure the depth. Cook assumed there was ample time to change course should shoals be indicated. But the retrospective entry in Cook’s journal, dated Sunday June 10, serves as our drumroll and presages the end of their innocence, “because,” he wrote grimly, “here begun all our troubles.”9

John Hawkesworth, the clever hack writer who produced the popular Admiralty edition of Cook’s papers through which details of this voyage would reach the public for the next eighty years, and who would often insert his own imaginings of Cook’s inner state of mind, has the navigator reflect to himself at this moment:

Hitherto we had safely navigated this dangerous coast, where the sea in all parts conceals shoals that suddenly project from the shore, and rocks that rise abruptly like a pyramid from the bottom, for an extent of two and twenty degrees of latitude, more than one thousand three hundred miles; and therefore hitherto none of the names which distinguish the several parts of the country that we saw, are memorials of distress; but here we became acquainted with misfortune, we therefore called the point which we had just seen farthest to the northward, Cape Tribulation.10

A mild scare during dinner when they crossed the tail end of a shoal was quickly succeeded by deep water, so Cook and Banks retired for the night, only to be rudely awakened around 11:00 p.m. when the water shelved suddenly from twenty fathoms to nothing and the ship struck heavily on a reef. Being twelve miles from the shore and still surrounded by deep water, Cook instantly realized that they must have hit coral.11

Thanks to Hawkesworth’s dramatic account, the crew’s subsequent thirteen-hour ordeal, as they fought for the survival of the ship, has become an explorer’s classic. We envisage the men, with horror frozen on every face and oaths stifled in their throats, staggering to retain balance as the ship tilts and beats against the rocks with a grating that can be felt through every plank. We watch helplessly while the sheathing and false keel float away in the moonlight; we hear the repeated splashes of more than fifty tons of cannon, ballast, lead, and coal being tossed overboard in a futile effort to float the impaled hull off the coral. Stark disappointment greets the risen tide’s failure to reach the ship’s bottom, let alone float it free. There remains only the faint hope that the night tide will be fuller.

Hours later there is the sound of the returning tide rushing through the leak, combined with the frantic heaving of successive hands, Banks included, working the three unbroken pumps against the rising water. We feel their exhaustion as they slump on the tilted deck, oblivious of pump water gushing over their bodies. There is a surge of hope on every face as they make an unexpected gain on the leak. Then a last desperate heaving on the capstan and windlass, pulling against the taut anchor chains that radiate from the center and stern, in an effort to jump the ship off the coral. Finally, at 10:20 a.m., the Endeavour is heaved into deep water; soon after the young midshipman Jonathan Monkhouse’s brilliant fothering (leak-stopping) expedient temporarily plugs the leak. He fills canvas with loose clumps of oakum, wool, and sheep’s dung, “or other filth.” Cook explains that this canvas must be “hauld from one part of her bottom to a nother until the place is found where it takes effect; while the Sail is under the Ship the Ockham [oakum] &c is washed off and part of it carried along with the water into the leak and in part stops up the hole.”12

According to Hawkesworth, Cook—tough and phlegmatic seaman though he was—“anticipated the floating of the ship not as an earnest of deliverance, but as an event that would probably precipitate our destruction.” Cook assumed, too, that anarchy would ensue as the men sloughed off their naval discipline and fought like beasts for one of the scarce places on the boats, never realizing in their panic that a worse fate awaited them should they actually reach land:

… we knew that if any should be left on board to perish in the waves, they would probably suffer less upon the whole than those who should get on shore, without any lasting or effectual defense against the natives, in a country, where even nets and fire-arms would scarcely furnish them with food; and where, if they should find the means of subsistence, they must be condemned to languish out the remainder of life in a desolate wilderness, without the possession, or even hope, of any domestic comfort, and cut off from all commerce with mankind, except the naked savages who prowled the desert, and who perhaps were some of the most rude and uncivilized upon the earth.13

Still, with the leak reduced and hope resurgent, the ship limped for the shore, butted by contrary winds and dodging awkward shallows while waiting for the master in the pinnace to find a suitable channel and a landing place to repair the hull. By Thursday, June 14, he’d discovered a narrow passage leading to a spot on the mangrove banks of what Cook would later call the Endeavour River, the site of modern-day Cooktown. With the wind blowing a gale, the ship “intangled among shoals,” and a real danger of being driven onto other reefs to leeward, Cook investigated the master’s channel, “which I found very narrow and the harbour much smaller than I had been told but very convenient for our purpose.” Even so, they endured three further days of squalls, gales, and groundings on river shallows before they were safely beached.14

On June 19, the day after the Endeavour had been careened on a rough wooden stage in preparation for repairs, Cook climbed the steepest hill behind the makeshift harbor to get a sense of the countryside where they were marooned. His eyes met “a very indifferent prospect” marked with “barren and stoney hills,” salt-infused mangrove swamps, and scrubby trees. He gave no hint, though, of the particular cultural lens that refracted this view: Was it that of a Scottish Enlightenment man of reason hoping to see the cultivated landscapes of civilization, a British imperialist scouting for economic opportunites for future colonists, or simply a nostalgic Yorkshireman yearning for the lush green fields of Great Ayton and the Esk Valley? Perhaps at some level Cook was all of these things, but his journal reveals only an anxious naval professional. For the next six weeks of their land stay, he would fret over the most acute crisis that can face a ship’s captain: the survival of his crew in an alien environment, and the feasibility of continuing their voyage home.

To his relief the immediate problem of making the ship seaworthy looked soluble. The carpenters discovered a leak large enough to have sunk a ship with double the number of operative pumps. The Endeavour had been saved by a providential lump of coral—the size of a man’s fist—that had jammed in the wound to provide a nucleus for the fothered wool and dung. Patching this hole and rebuilding the false keel seemed practicable, but Cook remained worried about the ship’s ultimate seaworthiness, especially when it was revealed that the central planking and seams had also been damaged by the strain of careening the ship on land. This resulted in a plethora of new leaks.

On top of all this, the surrounding countryside looked to be devoid of natural resources for the crew. Food was urgently needed because scurvy had struck. Numbers of men were showing the early symptoms of loose teeth, including Banks, who was dosing himself with lime extract. Charles Green and Tupaia, their Polynesian translator, had developed the putrid gums and livid leg spots characteristic of the advanced stages of the disease. Not even the English scurvy expert Dr. James Lind had yet produced a certain cure for this terrible “Explorer’s disease.” Cook knew from experience, though, that fresh vegetables and fruit always had an ameliorative effect, so he requested Banks to help find these immediately.

The ambitious young naturalist saw this sojourn on land as a chance to gather potentially useful seeds, plants, fruits, and grains for future cultivation, and to discover new specimens to extend Linnaeus’s taxonomic scale of the divine order of nature, “in which species had been created and fixed.” Banks, who also sympathized keenly with Cook’s anxiety about locating nutritious food, alas soon reported that suitable plants were not to be found in this soil, “by nature doomed to everlasting Barrenness.” The sailors collected everything they could find, but it proved to be a thin array of cabbage palms, “very bad” beans, fibrous plantains, stone-filled native wongai plums tasting like “indifferent Damsons,” and a type of wild kale resembling the West Indian cocos. Even Cook, who liked to set an example by wolfing down any form of fresh food, found these cocos roots too acrid to stomach, though he and Banks ineffectually tried to convince the ship’s hands that the cooked leaves tasted “little inferior to spinach.”15

The bizarre animal life around the river, which appeared to be the product of an alternative creation, offered little better. At first the kangaroo seemed a promising source of fresh meat, even if it was an animal that Banks and his colleagues struggled to define. They compared it variously to a greyhound, a giant rabbit, and a local equivalent of the tiny hopping “jerboa” rodent of Africa. Whatever it was, Banks thought it new to science and “different from … any animal I have heard or read of.” The first specimen killed was “capital eating,” but after this the creatures easily evaded Banks’s greyhounds in the long grass, and the only other specimens to be shot consisted of a rank-tasting elderly male and a joey carrying little meat.16

Ducks, cockatoos, bustards, and parrots were equally shy and elusive: pigeons proved to be the only edible bird slow enough to be shot, but never in sufficient numbers to feed the hands. Neither did anyone manage to kill the yellowish wild dogs or “wolves” that a few seamen sighted. An “opossum” that brought Banks great joy because the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon, thought them exclusive to America also escaped the pot. One old salt reported seeing an animal “about as large and much like a one gallon cagg, as black as the Devil & had two horns on its head, it went but slowly but I dard not touch it.” Hawkesworth pardoned the man’s timorousness on the grounds that “the batts here … have a frightful appearance, for they are nearly black, and full as large as a partridge.” Perhaps the sailors would have eaten this plump-looking flying “devil”—they are a delicacy in Vanuatu today—but nobody managed to shoot one.17

After all these efforts, the only person to show a marked improvement in health was the translator Tupaia, who’d set up camp independently on the foreshore and dosed himself on a diet of fish caught in the river. Unfortunately, similar efforts to catch fish for the crew using the ship’s net proved too unreliable to make a noticeable difference. This paucity of resources began to look ominous for reasons other than the state of the crew’s health. The first was revealed by another hill climb, on June 30, aimed at locating a passage through the maze of reefs encountered on the way into the Endeavour River. “Mr. Banks and I,” Cook recorded, “went over to the south side of the River and travel’d six or 8 Miles along shore to the northward, where we assended a high hill from whence we had an extensive view of the Sea Coast to leeward; [this] afforded us a Meloncholy prospect of the dificultys we are [to] incounter, for in what ever direction we turn’d our eys Shoals inum[erable] were to be seen.”

Cook and Banks agreed that finding a northward passage “among unknown dangers” seemed the only option, because, as the botanist bluntly put it, the southeast trade wind “blew directly in our teeth.” Successive surveys by the master in the pinnace had disclosed a worsening picture. He reported glumly that he could find no clear passage: the ship was blocked in every direction. It seemed increasingly likely that they would remain marooned for many months, until the trade winds altered and permitted them to sail back along the track from which they’d come.18

A further disappointment followed their meeting with the local “Indians,” who’d been sighted several times but were skittish and evasive about making closer contact. Eventually a series of cautious encounters on July 8 and 9 with small numbers of naked warriors carrying “terrible” lances broke the ice. Both Cook and Banks formed the impression that these tribesmen were lively, intelligent, and athletic, but the explorers’ hopes of repeating their South Seas pattern of trading beads, mirrors, cloth, nails, and trinkets for fresh food and vegetables were dashed. Their offerings were received with obvious indifference and then thrown away when the whites departed. Even Tupaia, who won the tribesmen’s trust sufficiently to be presented with a few small gifts of food, was no more successful in trading for larger supplies. Only once, when offered a small fish, did the warriors express pleasure and animation, a sign that their desire for nourishing food matched that of the visitors.

The eventual solution to Cook’s food crisis came literally out of the blue. During one of the many failed attempts to discover a navigable passage, the master chanced to see large numbers of green turtles basking on the surrounding reefs. After a party of sailors managed to capture a substantial haul of these huge beasts, Banks described the relief and elation felt by all the crew, for “the promise of such plenty of good provisions made our situation appear much less dreadfull; were we obligd to Wait here for another season of the year when the winds might alter we could do it without fear of wanting Provisions: this thought alone put every body in vast spirits.”19

Should their ship manage to escape from the present coral trap, moreover, captured turtles could be kept alive to sustain the next stages of the voyage. By July 15 Banks was gloating at the turtles’ huge bulk—between two and three hundred pounds each—and deliciously flavored fat. “[W]e may now be said to swim in Plenty,” he crowed. How they were able to find such a plenitude of turtles so close to the many Aboriginal clans that depended on them is a puzzle. Modern Guugu Yimithirr knowledge custodians suggest that the Endeavour’s presence coincided with a period when the clans prohibited the taking of turtle so that their numbers could replenish.20

If so, this was an added reason for Guugu Yimithirr displeasure when they saw the Endeavour’s decks crawling with enough green turtles to feed their people for a considerable time. On July 19, ten warriors armed with spears boarded the ship in a determined mood. When their leader’s request for a gift of one of the thirteen turtles was refused, angry warriors tried to carry two of the massive creatures to a waiting canoe. Several sailors quickly manhandled the men from the gunwales and retrieved the turtles, while Cook tried to appease his visitors with an offer of bread, but “they rejected [it] with scorn as I believe they would have done any thing else excepting turtle.”

Infuriated, the clansmen leaped ashore and deftly set fire to the long dry grass adjoining the ship’s tents—an act that threatened to destroy the fishing net drying nearby. Cook retaliated by firing a musket loaded with birdshot, wounding one of the offenders. Though the man ran off with relatively little loss of blood, this marked a tragic moment. In a sense, the first British–Aboriginal resource war had broken out, and a fatal pattern of incitement and retaliation had begun.21

Yet, if turtles had triggered an environmental war, they also occasioned the first reconciliation between Europeans and Aboriginal Australians. Hawkesworth, with his usual flair for drama, describes at some length the remarkable subsequent encounter between Cook and a group of these warriors:

I set out, therefore, with Mr. Banks and three or four more, to meet them: when our parties came in sight of each other, they halted; except one old man, who came forward to meet us: at length he stopped, and having uttered some words, which we were very sorry we could not understand, he went back to his companions, and the whole body slowly retreated. We found means however to seize some of their darts, and continued to follow them about a mile: we then sat down upon some rocks, from which we could observe their motions, and they also sat down at about a hundred yards distance. After a short time, the old man again advanced toward us, carrying in his hand a lance without a point: he stopped several times, at different distances, and spoke; we answered by beckoning and making such signs of amity as we could devise; upon which the messenger of peace, as we supposed him to be, turned and spoke aloud to his companions, who then set up their lances against a tree, and advanced toward us in a friendly manner: when they came up, we returned the darts or lances that we had taken from them, and we perceived with great satisfaction that this rendered the reconciliation complete.22

This moving encounter was undergirded by a stroke of luck of which Cook was blithely unaware. Guugu Yimithirr oral tradition tells us that the inlet where the Endeavour had beached was actually an ancient meeting ground for all the surrounding clans of the district. Here they traded goods, negotiated disputes, dispensed trans-clan justice, and enacted key joint rituals of initiation, marriage, death, and mourning. Failure to share the good fortune of turtle bounty in such a place was thus all the more reprehensible, yet it did not override the clan’s ultimate sense of obligation to restore peace.23

In spite of the peaceable outcome, Cook later expressed surprise at the sudden deterioration of relations over the issue of turtles. He conceded that the “Indians” might regard turtle flesh as “a dainty”—as did eighteenth-century urban Englishmen—but it never occurred to him that the Guugu Yimithirr might depend on these animals as a staple. Neither did he realize that the “Indians” practiced food sharing and expected it of others, nor that they considered wild creatures like turtles to be the produce of their own estate, which could not be taken without permission by strangers, white or black. Banks at least sensed something of the tragedy that “they seemd to set no value upon any thing we had except our turtle, which of all things we were the least able to spare them.”24

Thanks to Hawkesworth’s literary leanings, Cook is sometimes portrayed as having viewed the Aborigines of Endeavour River through the prism of a “noble-savage” romantic, though it seems doubtful that the practical, taciturn captain would have idealized “primitives” in the manner of Rousseau. Yet Cook was more than capable of recognizing the skill of the Guugu Yimithirr in managing an environment where the far greater part of soil “can admit no cultivation,” where fresh water was scarce, and where the seas were filled with terrible hazards such as coral reefs: an environment, in short, that had in a mere five weeks tested the civilized European sailors to their limits. As Cook noted in one of his most quoted passages:

… in reality they are far more happy than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniencies so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquility which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: the Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Houshold-stuff &c, they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholsome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing and this they seem to be fully sencible of, for many to whome we gave Cloth &c to, left it carelessly upon the Sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for. In short they seem’d to set no value on any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities.25

Cook praised the Aborigines’ ability, with spear and boomerang, to kill birds, fish, and animals so shy that the Europeans “found it difficult to get within reach of them with a fowling-piece.” His detailed description of the technology and use of the woomera, or throwing spear, verged on professional awe.

Their offensive weapons are Darts, some are only pointed at one end and others are barb’d, some with wood others with the Stings of Rays and some with Sharks teeth &c, these last are stuck fast on with gum. They throw the Dart with only one hand, in the doing of which they make use of a peice of wood about 3 feet long made thin like the blade of a Cutlass, with a little hook at one end to take hold of the end of the Dart, and at the other is fix’d a thin peice of bone about 3 or 4 Inches long; the use of this is, I beleive to keep the dart steady and to make it quit the hand in a proper direction; by the help of these throwing sticks, as we call them, they will hit a Mark at a distance of 40 or 50 yards, with almost, if not as much certainty as we can do with a Musquet, and much more so than with a ball.26

He was impressed, too, by their “facility” in the use and spread of fire, and their skills in building outrigger canoes fourteen feet long, using only shell, coral, stone, and the abrasive leaves of the wild fig tree. He even conceded that their smaller, cruder bark canoes perfectly matched their owners’ needs and habitats: “These canoes do not carry above 2 people … but, bad as they are do very well for the purpose they apply them, better than if they were larger, for as they draw but little water they go in them upon the Mud banks and pick up shell fish &c without going out of the Canoe.”27

This last observation was additionally pertinent when Cook and Banks learned from the master on July 19 that he’d found no passage forward or back, northward or southward, suitable for a ship of the Endeavour’s size and draft. Banks neatly summarized Cook’s dilemma, coining a term to describe the surrounding “reefscape” that everyone, including the captain, would quickly adopt. “We were ready to sail with the first fair wind but where to go?—to windward was impossible, to leward [leeward] was a Labyrinth of Shoals, so that how soon we might have the ship to repair again or lose her quite no one could tell (italics added).”

On August 6, after warping out of the harbor and embarking hesitantly behind the pinnace on a northeast course, Cook quickly had to take a fresh survey. He dropped the sails, anchored the ship against the buffeting gale, then climbed the masthead, but still saw no passage. This most decisive of captains was at a loss: “… as yet I had not resolved whether I should beat back to the Southward round all the shoals or seek a passage to the Eastward or to the northrd, all of which appear’d to be equally difficult and dangerous.” He resembled Theseus trying to circumvent the Minotaur, the monstrous man-bull that lurked in the maze of the Labyrinth, but in Cook’s case there was no prospect of an Ariadne to lead them to safety.28

Reconnoiters the following day from the headland promontory of Cape Flattery revealed a further shock—what Banks called a “ledge of rocks” or “a Grand Reef” that blocked them from entering the open sea. They’d sighted for the first time what we today call the outer Barrier. On August 11, Cook and Banks rowed to the steepest of a group of three nearby islands in the desperate hope that “the shoals would end.” Climbing the highest hill dashed this hope. “When I looked around,” recorded Cook, “I discovered a Reef of Rocks, laying about two or three Leagues without the Island, and extending in a line N.W and S.E. farther than I could see on which the sea broke very high.” Straining his eyes further, however, he could detect some faint fissures in the long chain of white breakers that might prove to be channels through the Reef. On their way back down to the beach, they named the place Lizard Island, after the giant monitor lizards they saw crashing through the underbrush.29

Within hours Cook and his officers agreed they must attempt to navigate one of these small channels into the open sea, rather than risk being “locked in by the great reef,” which would likely “prove the Ruin of the Voyage” by forcing them to turn back, lose the prevailing winds to the East Indies, and run out of provisions. On August 13 the Endeavour followed the pinnace into a narrow channel earlier reconnoitered by the master. Once through the breakers, they found themselves in “a well growen sea rowling in from the SE,” with no ground at 150 fathoms. Once again Hawkesworth imagined the unspoken thoughts that underlay Cook’s much terser journal entry.

Our change of situation was now visible in every countenance, for it was most sensibly felt in every breast: we had been little less than three months entangled among shoals and rocks, that every moment threatened us with destruction; frequently passing our nights at anchor within hearing of the surge that broke over them; sometimes driving toward them even while our anchors were out, and knowing that if by any accident, to which an almost continual tempest exposed us, they should not hold, we must in a few minutes inevitably perish. But now, after having sailed no less than three hundred and sixty leagues, without once having a man out of the chains heaving the lead, even for a minute, which perhaps never happened to any other vessel, we found ourselves in an open sea, with deep water; and enjoyed a flow of spirits which was equally owing to our late dangers and our present security.30

Perhaps they celebrated that night with a feast of turtle?

*   *   *

At this point Joseph Banks delighted in the paradox “that the very Ocean which had formerly been looked upon with terror by … all of us was now the Assylum we had long wish’d for and at last found.” Yet his elation was short-lived, for hardly had the crew finished exulting in the freedom of the open sea than Cook, instead of steering northeast as everyone expected, set a course westward, straight back toward the Reef.

In retrospect this seems an insanely risky act, like a scorched moth returning to circle a flame. Cook later justified himself on the grounds that he was afraid to miss the passage that could confirm whether New Holland and New Guinea were separate continents rather than a single landmass. The chance to make this discovery, which would eclipse the achievements of the mighty Portuguese explorer Fernandes de Queirós, had been on his mind ever since they first sighted New Holland, and he could not bring himself to let it go.31

The fruits of this folly were soon upon them. Cook woke at 4:00 a.m. on August 16 to the sound of the surf “foaming to a vast height.” With no wind to give them motion and no ground for the anchor, the ship was carried toward the Reef by the powerful current. Banks recognized this as a unique moment of peril.

All the dangers we had escaped were little in comparison of being thrown upon this Reef where the Ship must be dashed to peices in a Moment. A Reef such as is here spoke of is scarcely known in Europe, it is a wall of Coral Rock rising all most perpendicular out of the unfathomable Ocean, always overflown at high-water generally 7 or 8 feet and dry in places at low-water; the large waves of the vast Ocean meeting with so sudden a resistance make a most terrible surf breaking mountains high …32

Two hours later, despite strenuous efforts to tow the ship clear with the longboat and yawl, “we were,” Cook observed, “in the very jaws of distruction.” Banks was certain their last moment had come: “a speedy death was all we had to hope for.”33

Just then a few intermittent puffs of wind gave them enough leeway to kick the ship one hundred yards from the breakers, bringing into view a channel through the Reef about a boat-length wide. Cook’s immediate attempt to thread this needle was, however, rebuffed by the strong ebb tide, which pushed the ship a quarter of a mile back out to sea. Anxiously they waited for the tide to turn, while the master in the pinnace looked for and eventually located another narrow channel, a quarter of a mile in breadth. Once again hopes rose. “The fear of Death is Bitter: the prospect we now had before us of saving our lives tho at the expence of every thing we had made my heart set much lighter on its throne,” wrote Banks. When the flood tide eventually rushed in, “we soon enter’d the opening and was hurried through in a short time by a rappid tide like a Mill race which kept us from driving againest either side.” The portly Endeavour shot through like a nimble canoe. Once they were back within the inner reef lagoon, they dropped anchor in nineteen fathoms on a “Corally and Shelly bottom.”34

Delighting in the calm, Banks and a few sailors took a small boat to the Reef to hunt for shellfish and turtle. The coral, no longer an emblem of terror, seemed for the first time to be a source of scientific curiosity and aesthetic pleasure. After first collecting three hundred pounds of great cockles for the pot, Banks found himself entranced by “Corals of many species, all alive, among which was the Tubipora musica. I have often lamented that we had not time to make proper observations upon this curious tribe of animals but we were so intirely taken up with the more conspicuous links of the chain of creation as fish, Plants, Birds &c &c. that it was impossible.”35

*   *   *

Though relieved at having orchestrated yet another hair’s-breadth escape, Cook’s mood was now altogether darker. The inconsistency of his actions in first leaving and then reentering the Labyrinth was obvious to all. “How little do men know what is for their real advantage,” Banks reflected, “two days [ago] our utmost wishes were crownd by getting without the reef and today we were made happy by getting within it.” This philosophical reflection on the foibles of man appeared to carry no judgment against his captain, but Cook knew he could not presume the same tolerance from his employers in the Admiralty or the gentlemen of the press. The despair and anger that washed over him at this thought led to an unusual spurt of self-vindication.

… such are the vicissitudes attending this kind of service and must always attend an unknown Navigation … The world will hardly admit of an excuse for a man leaving a Coast unexplored he has once discover’d, if dangers are his excuse he is than charged with Timorousness and want of Perseverance and at once pronounced the unfitest man in the world to be employ’d as a discoverer; if on the other hand he boldly incounters all the dangers and obstacles he meets and is unfortunate enough not to succeed he is than charged with Temerity and want of conduct (italics added).36

A recent Cook biographer has seen this cri de coeur as a clue to Cook’s “deep character” and a revelation of his tendency to self-pity, paranoia, and a “mortal fear of being … found wanting,” as well as of his overweening hunger for fame. Perhaps this was so, though a historian’s judgment is easy to make thousands of miles from the roar of the breakers. To me the moment seems significant more as the disclosure of a profound dilemma: navigating this maze was not only Cook’s greatest ever test of maritime skill and physical stamina, but it also confronted him with the explorer’s most insoluble moral and psychological nightmare—whether to endanger his men or fail his mission.37

From now on he determined to sail northward hugging the coast, “whatever the consequences might be.” On Tuesday, August 21, 1770, after a relatively smooth if laborious passage through the remainder of the Labyrinth, including the vortices of currents, shoals, and fringing reefs around the Torres Strait, he was now confident of being “about to quit the eastern coast of New Holland.” He therefore landed with a group of sailors and marines on a small stony island to perform a formal ceremony of acquisition: “I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took posession of the whole Eastern Coast from the above Latitude [38] down to this place by the name of New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbors Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast (italics added).” That he had not, as his Admiralty orders prescribed, consulted with and gained the prior agreement of the Indigenous peoples must have been an oversight.38

There remained some tricky navigation around the barren, guano-covered rock off the tip of Cape York that he named Booby Island, but his crew accomplished it without difficulty. They were by now perfectly drilled in combating the swirling currents and sudden shallows of this capricious sea country. A gentle wind and rolling swell from the southwest convinced the captain on August 23 that the Endeavour had passed the northern extremity of New Holland and entered the open sea that lay westward, “which gave me no small satisfaction, not only because the dangers and fatigues of the Voyage was drawing near to an end, but by being able to prove that New Holland and New-Guinea are 2 separate Lands or Islands.”39

Despite his relief, Cook still felt the need to pen a small apology to posterity. He hoped that a less hazardous passage through the Torres Strait would one day be discovered, never doubting that “among these Islands are as good if not better passages than the one we have come thro’.” But James Cook the navigator was exhausted by his battle with the Labyrinth and had “neither time nor inclination” to explore further, “having been already sufficiently harass’d with dangers without going to look for more.”40

He wanted, in fact, to get out of there as fast as the Endeavour could take them, having accomplished his key tasks. Along with assessing and claiming for England the land of New South Wales, which might or might not be a new continent, separate from the westerly land that the Dutch called New Holland, he’d achieved his own personal goal of determining whether or not New Guinea was detached from the northeast coast of New South Wales.

Cook did not know how important it would one day become for British trading ships to have a speedy, thoroughly charted passage through the Torres Strait: for the time being, his protracted route would do. As for the coral Labyrinth, he probably guessed, rightly, that it would interest his masters less as a scientific wonder than as an annoying obstacle for future navigators. But then neither he nor his readers ever realized the true vastness of this coral maze.

These issues were unfinished business, and would one day become the lot of another British explorer-navigator, Matthew Flinders.

Copyright © 2013 by Iain McCalman

Table of Contents

Map ix

Prologue: A Country of the Mind 3

Part I Terror

1 Labyrinth: Captain Cook's Entrapment 13

2 Barrier: Matthew Flinderss Dilemma 34

3 Cage: Eliza Eraser's Hack Writer 55

4 Bastion: Joseph Jukes's Epiphanies 78

Part II Nurture

5 Hearth: Barbara Thompson, the Ghost Maiden 99

6 Heartlands: The Lost Lives of Karkynjib and Anco 119

7 Refuge: William Kent Escapes His Past 140

8 Paradise: Ted Banfield's Island Retreat 164

Part III Wonder

9 Obsession: The Quest to Prove the Origins of the Reef 187

10 Symbiosis: Cambridge Dons on a Coral Cay 208

11 War: A Poet, a Forester, and an Artist Join Forces 229

12 Extinction: Charlie Veron, Darwin of the Coral 249

Epilogue: A Country of the Heart 275

Notes 283

Bibliography 305

Acknowledgments 315

Index 319

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The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
janie25 More than 1 year ago
This is a most informative, descriptive, and scholarly written book. Yet it is an enjoyable read for the lay person. I have never seen the Reef however, I have a deep respect for it and now a deeper appreciation of it.