Green Island from the Coral Sea. Photo Nick Lomb
A few days after the 14 November 2012 total eclipse I visited Green Island on the Great Barrier Reef. This is a coral cay, that is a place where sand has accumulated on the coral, and eventually plant life developed on the sand so that most of the island is covered by rainforest. It is a small island of 12 hectares in area so that it is only a few hundred meters across.
Travel to Green Island is on a 50-minute boat ride from the city of Cairns. Just before reaching the island a crewmember gave a briefing on the PA system and I was thrilled to hear that Green Island was named by Lieutenant James Cook after the astronomer on board his ship, HMB Endeavour. There was also a sign with the same information prominently displayed on the island. That Green Island was named after Charles Green seems to be well known and is mentioned in an article on the astronomer titled Man without a Face – Charles Green published online by the Captain Cook Society.
This is interesting information as there few places in Australia named after an astronomer. Only one other spot comes immediately to mind: Dawes Point in Sydney, the location of the south pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, named after Lieutenant William Dawes, the astronomer with the First Fleet. However, to see if this information correct let us take look at the evidence for the naming of Green Island.
Cook’s journals and a number of other relevant publications are available online from the National Library of Australia. In the entry for 10 June 1770 Cook states that ‘a low green woody Island laying in the offing bore N 35° East- this Island lies NBE1/2E distant 3 or 4 Legs from Cape Grafton — and is known in the Chart by the name of Green Island’. The wording in John Hawkesworth’s official account of the voyage is similar, ‘a low, green, woody island, which lies in the offing, N. 35 E. This island, which lies N. by E. ½ E. distant three or four leagues from Cape Grafton, is called in the chart GREEN ISLAND’.
This wording is slightly odd as the name could equally have been given because of the green rainforest that covers the island. Elsewhere Cook has no modesty in stating that he named a geographical feature plus he often stated his reasons. For instance, in the entry for two days earlier there are these examples:
* Between this Cape and Iron Head the Shore forms a large Bay which I named Rockingham Bay
* this point I named Cape Sandwich [in] Honour ye Earl of that name
* a fine large Bay which I call’d Halifax Bay it is well shelterd and affords good anchorage
So did Cook name Green Island after the astronomer? One theory would be that he did, but did not want to state it publicly as Charles Green was not a sufficiently important person such as, say, Lord Sandwich, mentioned above. This seems unlikely though for Cook did name places after members of his crew such as Point Hicks in Victoria that he named after Lieutenant Zachary Hickes. The official Queensland Government website sits on the fence stating that:
Named on his charts by Lieutenant James Cook RN (1728-1779) navigator, HM Bark Endeavour, 10 June 1770. Named either because of its vegetation appearance, or possibly after Charles Green (1736-1771), astronomer aboard Endeavour. Refer J.C. Beaglehole. Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771. Cambridge (UK) 1968, p.342.
Hence it seems that the jury is out on the origin of the name of the island. Still Green Island is a wonderful place to visit and provides an opportunity to reflect on an astronomer who had an important, yet little known, role in Australian history.