The Academy of Natural Sciences here in Philadelphia tips its cap to Captain Cook — still revered, as he was in his own time, by many people around the world — by displaying one of the cannons from his first voyage to the Pacific. The Academy, founded in 1812 and now the oldest natural history museum in the United States, sent an expedition to the Great Barrier Reef in 1969 to collect different species of fish and to identify where the Endeavour ran aground there in 1770. (The French explorer Louis de Bougainville had been the first European to discover the reef two years earlier.) The Endeavour’s crew had to throw as much overboard as possible in order to float free of the reef, including the ship’s six heavy cannons, ballasts and anchor, as Cook related in his voyage journal:
Monday, 11th. [...] Before 10 o’Clock we had 20 and 21 fathoms, and Continued in that depth until a few minutes before 11, when we had 17, and before the Man at the Lead could heave another cast, the Ship Struck and stuck fast. Immediately upon this we took in all our Sails, hoisted out the Boats and Sounded round the Ship, and found that we had got upon the South-East Edge of a reef of Coral Rocks, having in some places round the Ship 3 and 4 fathoms Water, and in other places not quite as many feet, and about a Ship’s length from us on the starboard side (the Ship laying with her Head to the North-East) were 8, 10, and 12 fathoms. As soon as the Long boat was out we struck Yards and Topmast, and carried out the Stream Anchor on our Starboard bow, got the Coasting Anchor and Cable into the Boat, and were going to carry it out in the same way; but 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; Latitude observed 15 degrees 45 minutes South.
Cook named the area where this occurred ‘Cape Tribulation, because here began all our Troubles’. Divers with a magnetometer found and recovered the abandoned cannons, ballasts and anchor in 1969. One cannon was gifted to the Academy while the others went to museums in Australia, New Zealand and England. It seems appropriate that such relics from one of the most famous European expeditions of exploration of the Earth were recovered just half a year before the first Apollo lunar landing set a new precedent for human exploration.
Images: Alexi Baker.
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