The last landfalls revisited - Capetown and St Helena, April 2005

The latest and final revisit for New Endeavour took place in April 2005, to Capetown and St Helena.

In Cape Town in 1771 the Endeavour's crew were recovering from the devastating diseases of Batavia (present day Jakarta) while Banks' scientific party was reduced to just Daniel Solander and himself. Solander was still terribly ill but made sufficient recovery to collect specimens of plants from around Table Mountain. My thanks to Jasper Slingsby for his botanical introduction to the mountain. I was able to make several forays in Table Mountain National Park and was pleasantly surprised given its proximity to the city at just how much endemic flora survives in the Fymbios. This is mostly because this terrain is so thin soiled and nutrient impoverished that it was of little value to settlers. Similarly most introduced exotic species find it difficult to get a hold in such difficult territory. A number of now-familiar weed species are significant problems.

I managed to get around hundred digitalspecies records including a good number of endemic species, and learned that it was here that Joseph Banks first learned of French efforts to create a botanic garden on Mauritius to acclimatise plants. This was to be a huge influence on Banks as he went on to become Director of Kew ledGardens and a major advocate of the British developing economic plants around the developing possessions and territories of the empire. Banks was directly responsible for the establishment of satellite gardens from Kew to acclimatise plants - including the Botanic Garden established on St Helena.

In retracing the route from Cape Town to St Helena I travelled in the RMS St Helena, via Walvis Bay in Namibia. The RMS St Helena is the last remaining Royal Mail Ship and the only real link between the island and the rest of the world. The ship carries supplies as well as passengers; both St Helenians and the few travellers and tourists. I was privileged to make the voyage and my thanks to Ct Rodney Young and his crew who looked after their passengers well. The journey gave me a chance to slow down to Cook's pace of ship life for a short while and contemplate life at sea, and I made good progress on my book. Most valuable however was to get some contact with people from the Island and a little understanding of their perspective. The visit coincided with the news that St Helena was to get an airport. This has major implications for an island that has been isolated and dependent on the sea. The issues emerging around this news were actually very significant to my own research and has resulted in several interesting and valuable thoughts on how my chapter relating to the island will now develop.

St Helena is both the start and end of Cook's Endeavour voyage, because it was here more than a century earlier that Sir Edmund Halley failed to record the Transit of Venus. It was the Royal Society's determination to get records of this astronomical event in 1769 that resulted in Cook being ordered to Tahiti in order for observations of this Transit to be made in the Southern Hemisphere, and as we say the rest is history.

I also owe my thanks to Rebecca Cairns-wicks and Vincent the conservation officer on St Helena who gave be the best possible support in the brief time I was able to stay on the island. Twice as long as Cook, but non-the-less only two days. They gave me a privileged insight into the dramatic changes in the fortunes of the island's native (endemic) plant species. Some have not been recorded since Banks and Solander collected there on their one-day visit as the Endeavour struck north back to England. Many other species are now extinct or are perilously close to being so. The small team on St Helena led by Rebecca and Vincent have shown what can be achieved in small trials but it will take much more finance and commitment to ensure the future of the surviving species from the high, cloud central ridge in particular. Ironically the most persistent and major problem species here is flax, which is a dominating monoculture after attempts to cultivate it in the 19th century were abandoned. Ironic of course because it was on the Endeavour voyage that Cook, Banks and Solander were the first Europeans to see how the New Zealand Maori used the plant as a source of fibre for textiles. It was Banks himself who advocated developing it as an economic resource. Today on St Helena it is a cautionary tale of what can go terribly wrong when species are introduced without proper evaluation of the risk.

On my own return I also spent time on Ascension Island and again gathered useful records on endemic plants as well as being fortunate to witness the Green Turtle nesting season. Most significantly I was also able to focus on completing the greater part of another chapter.

Developments to the website continue slowly, following this work more than 250 new species records will be added for the South Africa and Southern Atlantic visits and work continues in earnest on the book.