Guest blog post: The kangaroo painting that might never have been – following in Cook’s footsteps
The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo) 1772 by George Stubbs. ZBA5754

The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo) 1772 by George Stubbs. ZBA5754

The painting of the kangaroo by George Stubbs would never have existed if it weren’t for an extraordinary bit of bad luck in a very dangerous situation. Famously, Captain Cook aboard the Endeavour confirmed the existence of Australia in 1770. Cook first caught sight of the continent on 19th April. He sailed north, unable to find anywhere safe to land for nine days.

When they did on 28th April, Joseph Banks, the great naturalist aboard spent two weeks collecting plants in the area which they would name Botany Bay, but sailing north along the east coast they made only two other brief trips on land over the subsequent few weeks (for water, unsuccessfully). By this time they had only recorded seeing one Australian mammal (probably a bandicoot) – the voyage was very nearly a zoological disappointment.

Despite the lack of water, they had been incredibly lucky; having unknowing sailed over the treacherous shoals of the Great Barrier Reef for weeks. That luck would run out on the night of 11th June 1770 as they ran aground on the sharp coral, tearing holes in the Endeavour’s hull. The site, Cape Tribulation, is where I found myself last month, and I decided to make a Cook-based pilgrimage.

After six days of pumping water and shedding weight, the Endeavour incredibly found safe place to careen in an estuary a long way to the north, where it stayed for six weeks to make repairs. If it weren’t for this misfortune, the crew would never have seen (let alone caught) any kangaroos and Banks wouldn’t have instructed Stubbs to make the painting. Europe’s knowledge of the animal would have been delayed until the First Fleet arrived (in Botany Bay, on Banks’ recommendation) in 1788.

This encounter is even less likely given that the location (the site of modern day Cooktown) is more or less the northern limit of kangaroos’ range.

My own area of zoology is Australian mammals, and I spend a couple of months a year there on ecological fieldwork for NGOs and universities. I was in the neighbourhood chasing possums around the rainforests of the Queensland Tablelands and Daintree.

View from Cook's statue of the Endeavour river, where the ship was careened (C) Jack Ashby

View from Cook’s statue of the Endeavour river, where the ship was careened (C) Jack Ashby

As a poetic end to a journey which literally started stood in front of Stubbs’s kangaroo in the Queen’s House (I went straight from meetings at Royal Museums Greenwich to Heathrow), I decided to venture to Cooktown to see the site of Britain’s first kangaroo encounters for myself. To follow in his footsteps, I climbed Mt Cook, where he went regularly to plot a safe route for the ship through the coral reefs.

View from Mt Cook, where Cook plotted the Endeavour's route through the Barrier Reef (C) Jack Ashby

View from Mt Cook, where Cook plotted the Endeavour’s route through the Barrier Reef (C) Jack Ashby

Despite finding very many elusive rainforest possums, wallabies and tree kangaroos on my trip, I didn’t actually set eyes on the common and widespread eastern grey kangaroo here, but I did find this statue of Cook, looking over his safe harbour of the Endeavour River.

Cooktown's Cook statue (C) Jack Ashby

Cooktown’s Cook statue (C) Jack Ashby

Blogpost by Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology – where the kangaroo painting will be on tour from March to June 2015