Astronomer Charles Green and Green Island on the Great Barrier Reef

Green Island_17 November 2012_Nick Lomb

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.

Nick Lomb

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4 responses to “Astronomer Charles Green and Green Island on the Great Barrier Reef

  • I see that this thread is old, but there is one place in Australia named after an astronomer, and a city at that. Brisbane is name after Sir Thomas Brisbane, Governor of New South Wales Colony.

  • After reading Cook and Banks manuscript journals, I would say Green Island was named so, because of its’ appearance.
    I have been told story’s about Cook in this part of Queensland waters before. I was told one Island Cook must have past the next day, was named by Cook the “NEXT time he was here”.

  • Great story Dr Lomb.

    I have always feel a bit sorry about Charles Green and feel that his contributions have been too much downplayed. Rotters like the Royal Astronomer Neville Maskelyne seem to be the central culprit, who seems unable to support anyone else for their astronomical contribution – all seemingly for the sake of promoting ones own ego. His absolute determination of undermining and maligning of others, and Green seems typical no exception in such treatment. All this was made worse by the death of Green just after leaving Batavia, and whom, was not able to defend himself back in England.

    Cook deserves credit here, as he stands steadfastly by Green’s observations and contributions.

    Green was responsible for other things too, which is not often highlighted. This is more to do with the development of navigational observations at sea, which seems to have been shrouded in much mystery – being all ‘sensitive’ material, especially in light of the competing foreign naval powers at the time. I personally think (mere speculation, certainly) much of what was learnt was all placed in Green’s head rather than being written down. (Hidden in case it fell into ‘enemy hands.’) This was of course all lost when he died on 28th January 1771 at only the age of thirty-five.

    Secondly, he was also seemingly a deft teacher, and used his time on the ship, teaching some of the crew and officers the art of navigation at sea. No doubt, the use of a newly designed sextant was a priority in testing or observations of the moon and Jupiter’s moons, produced an important relationship between Cook and himself. It would have been interesting conversations to hear – if only for prosperity and our interest.

    It is exactly as Cook says in his Journal of the voyage;

    In justice to Mr. Green, I must say, that he was indefatigable in making and calculating these observations, which otherwise must have taken up a great deal of my time, which I could not at all times very well spare; not only this, but by his instructions several of the petty Officers can make and calculate these observations almost as well as himself. It is only by such Means that this method of finding the Longitude at Sea can be put into universal practice; a Method that we have generally found may be depended upon within ½ a degree, which is a degree of Accuracy more than sufficient for all Nautical purposes.

    Whether Green Island was named after him or not, is would be an appropriate remembrance of his contribution to nautical knowledge, even if it were shrouded in some degree of unknowing.

    I do strongly support your views and sentiment here.

    • Thanks for that Andrew. Yes, Charles Green’s early death is rather sad even if it may have been partly self-inflicted. According to a contemporary newspaper report, ‘He had been ill for some time, and was directed by the surgeon to keep himself warm, but in a fit of phrensy he got up in the night and put his legs out of the portholes, which was the occasion of his death.’

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