We call them pirates

Topic: First Contacts
Student activity

This is the student activity 1 of 8 of the Cook: it was only eight days learning activity.

Key inquiry question #1

How do different groups of people think differently about the events of 1770?

Task No. 1

Compare two paintings of James Cook

Examine the following two paintings of James Cook. One is a traditional artwork and one contemporary.

  • Captain James Cook, by J. K. Sherwin, 1779 (engraving after an oil portrait by Nathaniel Dance).
  • We Call Them Pirates Out Here, by Daniel Boyd (2008), found in the exhibition, Eight Days in Kamay, here.

Answer the following questions:

  • Were they created at the same time?
  • What is similar about them?
  • How are they different?
  • What do you think was the artist’s motivation?
  • Why would the artist put an eyepatch on James Cook?

We often associate an eyepatch with a pirate.

Look up the dictionary meaning of the word ‘pirate’. Write it down.

Look for other pirate references in the modern painting.

Answer the following question:

  • Was James Cook a pirate, according to the definition you wrote down? Why or why not?

Some people feel he was a pirate, as he and his men stole spears, food and other belongings from the Gweagal people, and that he ‘stole’ the land by claiming it for Britain. Other people believe he was just following instructions from his superiors in Britain.

Think about the dictionary meaning of a ‘pirate’ that you have written down. Consider that James Cook had a ‘commission’ from a ‘sovereign nation’ [meaning he had permission from Britain, in fact, he had instructions from Britain, to do what he did].

Answer the following:

  • Given the definition of a pirate, and the fact that James Cook was under instruction to do what he did, do you still think his actions were acceptable?

Debate this with your classmates. Half of you will be arguing what he did was acceptable, and half will be arguing what he did was unacceptable. You will need to consider carefully all the arguments you can put forward, and how the other ‘side’ might rebut them (say they are wrong).

Write a response to the paintings of James Cook we looked at above. Introduce the paintings and the artists and describe what you see. Talk about the following: What do you like or dislike about each painting? How does it make you feel? Has your opinion of James Cook changed after looking at the contemporary painting?

Examine the artwork titled, Captain James Crook (black light) by Jason Wing (2019), found in the exhibition Eight Days in Kamay, here. (Note: it is the fifth painting in the carousel of images.)

Answer the following:

  • Why has the artist covered James Cook’s face with a balaclava?
  • What does ‘crook’ mean and why has the artist used the word in the title?


Task No. 2

A self portrait

Imagine someone was painting your portrait.

  • Write a list of things that could be painted in your portrait that would reveal something about you.

Answer the following questions:

  • If someone were painting your portrait, what would you like to be included to tell the story of you?
  • What would you NOT include?
  • What colours would you suggest? Why?
  • What background would you suggest? Why?

Draw a portrait of someone you know, that tells us about their character, life and choices.

Compare the modern painting We Call Them Pirates by Daniel Boyd (2008), found in the exhibition, Eight Days in Kamay, here, with the traditional painting Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770 by E Phillips Fox (1902), here.

Answer the following questions:

  • List the differences you can see.
  • What messages are the artists communicating?
Task No. 3


Joseph Banks - Endeavour journal, 15 August 1769 - 12 July 1771, p. 245
Joseph Banks - Endeavour journal, 15 August 1769 - 12 July 1771, p. 246
Joseph Banks - Endeavour journal, 15 August 1769 - 12 July 1771, p. 257

The most formally educated person on board the Endeavour was Daniel Solander, the naturalist who worked for Joseph Banks, as he had a university degree in science. Some of the crew would have had only a few years of schooling - learning to read, do simple mathematics and perhaps write, before leaving school to find work at a young age. The men on board who were from wealthier families were taught at home by a tutor or at a boarding school where they studied Grammar, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy, Latin and Greek.

Regardless of how long they went to school for, for the crew of the Endeavour all of their school learning would have been done inside a building, quietly sitting at a desk, with a teacher standing out the front, and using books for information. Learning was done by what is called ‘rote’ (where students had to repeat things after the teacher as a way of memorising them.) Students, sitting in classrooms, were told information by someone they weren’t close to (who wasn’t a family member) in a VERY strict environment. They had to be silent and listen.

Draw a picture of what you think a school classroom may have looked like for those on the Endeavour who had gone to school.

For Aboriginal people, ‘school’ was VERY different. There were no classrooms and there were no books. Learning was different in EVERY way; it was based on story telling, sharing, demonstrating, observing and imitating. The teachers were the people around you, who you knew well, and students studied subjects that related to land, kinship, connection and culture. There was no reading and no writing down the complex lessons they learnt. There were also many people who filled the role of teacher.

This is what Dr Shayne Williams has to say about school for Gweagal children in 1770:

When you’re sitting on the hills, it’s just like sitting in school. They [the uncles and aunties] just teach you all these things. They teach you what to look for. They teach you how to read the climate... (senior Gweagal knowledge holder Shayne Williams, 2020)

A Gweagal elder recalled that the ‘bush is our atlas, our bible, history book, geography book and science book’ and ‘Those middens can tell a story… [a midden] is like walking into a library…’ Gweagal elder Beryl Timbery Beller, 2007. 

Research what a midden is.

Think about how the Aboriginal way of learning compares to the British way of learning.

Answer the following question:

  • Do you think the crew of the Endeavour would have recognised, understood or related to the Aboriginal style of learning? Why or why not?

Joseph Banks commented in his diary, on 28 April 1770, when he was in Kamay:

These people seemd to be totally engag’d in what they were about: the ship passd within a quarter of a mile of them and yet they scarce lifted their eyes from their employment …

Banks also noted, on 4 May 1770:

...a very old man and woman and some children: they were setting under a tree...

You can see where he has written these things in his journal, by clicking on the collection items below. Look closely, and see if you can spot where these quotes are written.

If the crew of the Endeavour were looking to SEE a school that was the same as their experience of school, they saw nothing. To Europeans, the Gweagal people did NOT look like they were at school and so the Aboriginal way of learning could not be understood.

The youngest person on board the Endeavour was Nicholas Young, who was 11 years old. He was a servant to the ship’s surgeon William Monkhouse. If Nicholas had been able to spend time on the shore of Kamay with 11-year-old Gweagal children, how and what do you think he would have learnt? Imagine you are Nicholas. Write a story about your experience of ‘school’ with the Gweagal people.

Task No. 4

Making maps

A chart of the Great South Sea or Pacifick Ocean shewing the track and discoveries made by the Endeavour Bark in 1769 and 1770

James Cook was renowned for his cartography (mapmaking) on his scientific expeditions. He was a very skilled navigator and mapmaker.

Look at the map, showing Cook’s ‘discoveries’ on his voyage, by clicking on the collection item below.

Consider these questions:

  • Did James Cook know everything about Australia at the end of the voyage?
  • What is missing? (Prompt: Is the coastline correct? Is the whole map of Australia correct? Rivers? Hills? Other natural landmarks inland?)
  • Did James Cook have the use of drones, Google maps, satellites or GPS?
  • Think about the tools and information James Cook had available when he set off from England, around the world. If you haven’t already, you can see some of these tools from the collections of the State Library, here.

Print or draw a black and white copy of this map and then use bright coloured pens to annotate it (use drawings, arrows, words, or cartoons) to brainstorm all the information that you know about Australia, of which James Cook wasn’t aware.

(Remember: it wasn’t James Cook’s fault that he didn’t know all the things we know now. Imagine if someone asked you to tell them all about Mars today. In 250 years' time, if someone asked the same question, it is likely that they will know MORE than you do today.)


Did you know this learning activity was just one in a series? To find more, click here