What is Australia’s greatest book? In the National Library of Australia there is a 743-page volume that could lay claim to the title.
It is Lieutenant James Cook’s journal, written on board the Endeavour during his trip down under in 1770.
Warren Brown leafs through these precious pages to discover Cook’s first impressions and trace the beginning of Australia as we know it today.
Investigating National Treasures with Warren Brown is also available for purchase from the NFSA Online Shop.
Like anyone, I love a good read, but what is Australia's greatest book? Is it a work of fiction by Colleen McCullough or Henry Lawson or is it a reference book by Manning Clark, or is it our first book, as published by convict printer George Howe?
No. One book can lay claim to being Australia's greatest National Treasure and it's a Cook book. But there's not a recipe in sight and the author wasn't a chef. That treasure is here at the National Library in Canberra. This is the journal of Lieutenant James Cook. That's right, Lieutenant Cook, because he didn't become a captain until much later. Now, this journal, Cook took with him aboard the Endeavour when he made his first voyage of discovery to Australia in 1770.
Now, I've got my white gloves on because this is a very precious item. And I've got to say, when you feel the pages here it gives you the weirdest feeling inside because this is Cook's handwriting. His hands have been on this paper and he's filled this out, filled up all this blank paper to make this amazing volume.
Now, one of the things that I noticed is the beautiful quality of the paper and how it's survived so well. And that is because it's made from a rag-based product rather than a pulp paper, and apparently rag-based paper can survive for centuries.
Now, Cook made hundreds and hundreds of entries in this journal, but there's one thing I really want to show you. Have a look at this entry. 'Sunday 6th. In the evening the yawl' — which is a kind of boat — 'returned from fishing having caught two stingrays. The great quantity of this sort of fish found in this place occasioned my giving it the name of "Stingrays Harbour".' Now, have you ever heard of Stingrays Harbour? Of course not, 'cause it doesn't exist. When Joseph Banks climbed back on board the Endeavour, he brought with him a whole variety of new and exciting plants and Cook was so impressed that he changed the name from Stingrays Harbour to Botany Bay. Which is probably just as well because (Sings) 'Bound for Stingrays Harbour' doesn't really work, does it? So, with a quick change of mind we have the beginnings of British Australia at Botany Bay in New South Wales.
Within these 743 pages is the beginning of Australia as we know it today¹. The National Library of Australia has described Cook's journal as its foundation document. And that's why it's one of our National Treasures.
¹ Correction: The National Library lists the Endeavour Journal as having 753 pages.