Cooktown, in tropical North Queensland, might seem an unlikely place to hold the world premiere of a vocal chamber work. But this small isolated town has had a place on the global map for 251 years – for reasons that this contemporary composition explores.

Setting the scene for The Cooktown Cantata are exclamations of confusion from Australia’s First People, performed in the local Guugu Yimithirr language, as they watched HM Endeavour limping into the river mouth, Waalmbal Birri, where Cooktown is now situated. In June 1770, the Endeavour, captained by Lt James Cook, had been badly damaged on the Great Barrier Reef. On board naturalist, explorer and botanist, Joseph Banks, used the time while repairs were underway to collect and describe local flora. Many of these specimens were sketched at the time, others were taken back to England where copper engravings were made. They were not printed until long after Banks died in 1820. In 2018, a selection of 147 plates were printed, known as Joseph Banks’ Florilegium.

The Cooktown Cantata

Derek Rosendale as Tulo Gordon, Margaret Schindler as Vera Scarth-Johnson and Jeffrey Black as Joseph Banks in The Cooktown Cantata. Photo © Greg Harm

The Cooktown Cantata is made up of 12 songs; the words for most of them written by Creative Director of the project, Jan Black. Louise Denson, an award-winning pianist and educator, composed the music.

Jeffrey Black’s extensive experience on opera stages around the globe was obvious in his performance of Joseph Banks as a happy, enthusiastic botanist, discovering unrecorded plants and that bizarre hopping animal!

Margaret Schindler played botanist Vera Scarth-Johnson, her role ranging from childhood memories of England to doing her best to protect the wild land she had come to love against the ravages of mining and land clearing. Particularly poignant was an imagined duet across the centuries with Scarth-Johnson and Banks as two people sharing a passion for the unique flora of the Endeavour Valley. Scarth-Johnson, born in Yorkshire in 1912, moved to Cooktown from Bundaberg in 1972 to paint botanical illustrations of those same plants Banks had discovered and recorded over 200 years earlier.

Helping her search for those plants was local Guugu Yimithirr elder and artist, Tulo Gordon. They developed a strong friendship. Gordon was able to explain their uses as food and medicine for the Indigenous people. Local singer-songwriter, Derek Rosendale was ideal as Tulo Gordon, introducing a relaxed country and western style and including a song of his own.

There were three performances of The Cooktown Cantata in the Vera Scarth-Johnson Gallery at Nature’s PowerHouse in Cooktown (following previews at St Mary’s Anglican Church in Kangaroo Point, Brisbane). Although acoustically sound, the space was rather small for the nine performers and conductor, along with the audience, limited to 55 because of COVID. At times the instruments dominated the words rather than underlining them.

The last song says it all as Australia still comes to terms with white settlement in this country. Banks sings of his 48 days in the Endeavour Valley, Scarth-Johnson of her 27 years, and Tulo Gordon of the 65,000 years his people have lived on the country: “I am this country, and this country is me”. That powerful end brought an enthusiastic response from the audience, both locals and tourists, and suggests The Cooktown Cantata should be seen again and further afield. As a true story incorporating history, scholarship, discovery and intercultural friendship it has significant elements Australia needs to recognise as we move into the future of reconciliation with our First Nations people.

There are many organisations that made The Cooktown Cantata possible, in particular the hard work and generosity of volunteers from the Vera Scarth-Johnson Gallery Association in Cooktown, led by President, Jean Stephan and Honorary Secretary, Jo Wynter.

Jacqui Sykes is a former Cooktown resident and visited for the Cooktown and Cape York Expo 2021