03 April 2011


[A fragment]
by Kenneth Slessor

Flowers turned to stone! Not all the botany   
Of Joseph Banks, hung pensive in a porthole,   
Could find the Latin for this loveliness,   
Could put the Barrier Reef in a glass box   
Tagged by the horrid Gorgon squint
Of horticulture. Stone turned to flowers   
It seemed—you’d snap a crystal twig,   
One petal even of the water-garden,
And have it dying like a cherry-bough.
They’d sailed all day outside a coral hedge,   
And half the night. Cook sailed at night,   
Let there be reefs a fathom from the keel   
And empty charts. The sailors didn’t ask,
Nor Joseph Banks. Who cared? It was the spell   
Of Cook that lulled them, bade them turn below,   
Kick off their sea-boots, puff themselves to sleep,   
Though there were more shoals outside
Than teeth in a shark’s head. Cook snored loudest himself.

(You can read this amazing poem in its entirety at the Poetry Foundation website.)

The illustration of a coral above is by Eugenius Johann Christoph Esper from his c.1798 book Die Pflanzenthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Farben erleuchtet nebst Beschreibunge.

That translates roughly to: "Images from nature of animal-plants, illuminated with color and descriptions." For more scans of Esper's work, see the digital gallery of Germany's Humboldt University.

HMS Endeavour. 1768. Thomas Luny.

Joseph Banks was the botanist/naturalist who sailed aboard HMS Endeavour on James Cook's first voyage voyage of exploration between 1768 and 1771. 

Among their many shared adventures was a near-sinking after weeks of entrapment (occasionally escaping, only to get sucked back in by winds or currents) in the maze of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. 

Eventually Endeavour was holed on a reef and Cook's men were forced to lay her ashore for seven weeks of repairs. Cook wrote with unusual feeling about his adventures in the coral shallows:

It is but a few days ago that I rejoiced at having got without the Reef, but that joy was nothing when Compared to what I now felt at being safe at Anchor within it, such is the Visissitudes attending this kind of Service & must always attend an unknown Navigation where one steers wholy in the dark without any manner of Guide whatever.

(Les Gibson. Photo by Julia Whitty.)
The site of Endeavour's repairs is today known as Cooktown—home then and now to the Guugu Yimithirr people, who taught Cook's men the word ganguru (kangaroo) and who kept them alive with gifts of food and natural history lessons in an unfamiliar landscape/seascape.

I wrote at some length about the Guugu Yimithirr and Cook's legacy in my Mother Jones article Listen to the Lionfish: What Invasive Species Are Trying to Tell Us

In the photo above, Les Gibson, a Guugu Yimithirr, is showing me how to "hunt" (fish) near the place where Endeavour limped ashore 232 years earlier.


James Cook. c. 1775. Nathaniel Dance.

After his sojourn with the Guugu Yimithirr, after enjoying the bounty of their vibrant world, Cook concluded:

In reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholy unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniencies so much sought after in Europe.

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