Artwork in Focus - Sydney Parkinson, Kangaroo, 1770

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

Sydney Parkinson, sketch of a Kangaroo, 1770

In my introductory blog, I included beautiful centuries old rock art of a kangaroo from the Kimberleys, painted by an indigenous artist.

In this blog, I'd like to introduce what is understood to be the first sketch of a kangaroo by a European, drawn by Sydney Parkinson, during Captain James Cook's first visit to Australia in 1770. Cook had chosen the HMB Endeavour not for its speed or ability to sail close to the wind, but for it shallow draught (the ship's keel was not far below the waterline) and storage capacity. This meant if couldn't sail close to the wind, and was slow and unwieldy 1.

John Webber, Captain James Cook RN, 1782, National Portrait Gallery

On 10 June 1770, after Cook had left Botany Bay, and was making his way back along the eastern seaboard of Australia to return to England, the Endeavour struck a coral reef (along the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland - about 13 miles off the coast between Cooktown and Cairns), and started taking in water.

There was no warning. Imagine Cook racing onto the deck in his underwear to order his men to take in the sails to prevent the wind driving the ship further onto the coral.

But, as each wave broke, it would pick the ship up and slam it down again and it seemed as if the ship would sink.

It was a clear night and there was just light enough for the sailors to see pieces of the hull floating free.

Sydney Parkinson, Endeavour at Sea, 1768-1771, pencil, British Library
Sydney Parkinson, Endeavour at Sea, 1768-1771, pencil, British Library

Desperate to lighten the ship, the crew heaved nearly 48 tonnes of material over the side, including ballast, six cannons, casks, ruined stores and drinking water.

Twenty-three hours later, at the next high tide, the Endeavour pulled free, but the leak at the bottom of the hull grew dramatically worse.

Cook wrote "This was an alarming and I may say terrible, circumstance and threatend immidiate destruction to us as soon as the Ship was afloat".

Samuel Atkins, HMS Endeavour off the coast of New Holland, c1794, National Library of Australia