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Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 91 [10]

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Captain Cook’s Kangaroos I

‘Ganguru’: Sydney Parkinson, July 1770

Late in the evening of June 10th, 1770, a clear, moonlit night, Captain James Cook’s vessel the Endeavour struck the Great Barrier Reef and was severely holed. Some extraordinary running repairs were made and, twenty three hours later, on a high tide, the ship, freed from the reef, was able to make toward shore, though it took a full, precarious week before a suitable site was found where more permanent repairs could be attempted. This was at the mouth of what has come to be known as the Endeavour River (Waalumbaal Birri in the local language).

Cook and his crew were there seven weeks. They had glimpsed the strange creatures they would come to know as kangaroos at Botany Bay and various stages of their journey northward, but the ship’s greyhounds had been easily outrun by them, and the American lieutenant Gore, the ship’s crack marksman, had been unable to shoot one.

At Endeavour River they were able to get a better look. On June 22nd Joseph Banks records that a party sent out to shoot pigeons saw ‘an animal as large as a grey hound, of a mouse coulour and very swift’. He was not in that party, nor in the one that, the next day, saw such animals again, but two days later, on June 25th, he was able to record that ‘in gathering plants today I myself had the good fortune to see the beast so much talked of, though but imperfectly; he was not only like a grey hound in size and running but had a long tail, as long as any grey hounds; what to liken him to I could not tell, nothing certainly I have seen at all resembles him’.

Still they could not catch one. By which of course I mean kill. On 6th July they ‘saw 3 of the animals of the country but could not get one’, and the next day again ‘saw 4 of the animals, 2 of which my grey hound fairly chas’d, but they beat him owing to the length and thickness of the grass which prevented him from running while’ – for at last he is beginning to see that these creatures hop – ‘they at every bound leapd over the tops of it. We observed much to our surprize that instead of Going upon all fours  this animal went upon only two legs making vast bounds just as the Jerbua does’.

At last, on 14th July, their luck changed. Lieutenant Gore shot a small(ish) male and they were able to take a closer look (I suspect as it was prepared for the cook): ‘its fore legs are extremely short and of no use to it in walking, its hind again as disproportionaly long; with these it hops 7 or 8 feet at each hop in the same manner as the Gerbua, to which animal indeed it bears much resemblance except in Size, this being in weight 38 lb and the Gerbua no larger than a common rat’.

Another kangaroo was shot on July 27th. This, also male, was much larger, weighing in at 84lb. ‘Dind today upon the animal,’ Banks writes, ‘who eat but ill, he was I suppose too old.’ And on 29th July, two days later, came a third and last killing, this time by the greyhound, of an at-foot or largish pouch joey, weighing 8.5lb. The first were flayed and their skins and skulls preserved – an inventory of specimens brought back on the Endeavour records two skins, two skulls – while the joey, a female apparently, was pickled whole. It has been reported that a small Eastern Grey joey from the Cook expedition, pickled in spirit, was recorded in 1843 in the British Museum. No later record of it appears to exist.


An Eastern Grey, then, the joey. But what species – sooner say what tribes – were the two larger kangaroos? And what, ultimately, does it matter? Well, it does matter, I think, and I’ll come to that very shortly.

Firstly just a note, that the word ‘kangaroo’, ‘ganguru’ or ‘kanguru’ as used by Cook, Banks, Solander and others (e.g. Sydney Parkinson, one of the two artists aboard) on the Cook expedition need not mean ‘kangaroo’ in contemporary terms. It tells us what the aboriginal first asked about it called what Cook (let’s say it was Cook) pointed at, but it does not tell us what – kangaroo, wallaroo, wallaby – Cook was pointing at.

And secondly, that business about mattering. Call it eccentric, deeply personal  if you will, but it seems to me a simple matter of respect to learn – figure out – as much as one can about these creatures, representatives as they are of the billions who slip/have slipped completely unknown and unrecorded, into the maw of time. If only for as long as we are discussing them, so that we don’t fall upon terms like ‘specimen’ or fall back upon the impersonal pronoun. (For the moment [for example] you might like to try, for a few seconds, the admittedly impossible task of placing yourself in one or another of these three creatures’ minds, at the moment they enter history and representation: a sound, a twisting of the ear to catch it, a standing up, in the guard position, to see; a sound like a branch snapping – or is it a fleeing, a snarl? – and the great world, everything, suddenly ending.)

But, for now at least, enough. I’ll endeavour to continue this post tomorrow. I do apologise (smiling) if this leaves you clinging to your chairs in suspense.

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