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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Kindle outsells paperbacks

Amazon Says Kindle Book Sales Exceed Paperback Sales

Considering the bargain-basement pricing of many kindle books, it was inevitable that the time would come when kindle sales would overtake paperback sales, and even those of remaindered hardbacks.

For exactly the same reason, it is no surprise that the surge has had a nasty impact on the company spreadsheet.  As Amazon also says, profits have plunged.
Total sales were up to a tad under thirteen billion dollars for the fourth quarter of 2010, up 36% from last year's report. But operating income declined by $2 million, descending to $474 million.

The company says they sold "millions of third-generation Kindles" in the quarter, and indicates "Kindle books have now overtaken paperback books as the most popular format on" and "this milestone has come even sooner than we expected - and it's on top of continued growth in paperback sales." The company adds that, "since the beginning of the year, for every 100 paperback books Amazon has sold, the company has sold 115 Kindle books."

The data is unclear, or so the pundits say, but it seems abundantly clear to this economic amateur that kindle sales and books sales are rising due to lower prices.  What is murky is whether it heralds a sea-change in the reading habits of the public.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Long and thoughtful comment on student cheating

The Shadow Scholar and the prevalence of cheating in tertiary education

Author and university lecturer Caron Dann wrote a really interesting commentary to my last post, on the booming and lucrative business of pseudonymously writing papers for desperate students. 

As it is rather too long to fit in the comments box, and Caron is a writer I really respect, I take the liberty of copying it below:

I'm a university lecturer and I know this goes on. It's the reason we need to keep exams and they need to be worth a significant percentage of the unit's final mark (40% in the case of the unit I teach).

One young person I know said students can buy essays over the internet for as little as $30.

There's another good way of evaluating students, and that's by presentation, during which they have to answer questions from other students and for which at least a part of the content has some personal element. Even if the material is plagiarised, they at least have to do preparation in order to present it to the class, thereby learning something.

I agree with Ed Dante about the desperation. It's unfair for incompetent students to be passed at first-year level - particularly if they are lazy, haven't the English skills or are just not up to it - because they then end up 'desperate' later on, having learned very little.

I also think schools don't prepare students for tertiary education. In Australia, at least half the high school graduates go directly on to tertiary learning, yet most haven't the faintest idea what it entails. Many - especially private school students - seem to have been coached a lot at school in narrow areas, for the sole reason of getting good marks in their leaving certificate so they can get in to the uni course of their choice. Meanwhile, they don't know the basics of their subject or even of academic writing or how to use a library catalogue. Many first years have no idea that cutting and pasting from the internet is plagiarism.

Meanwhile, classes keep getting bigger and bigger, since we made universities "businesses". Classes are so big that tertiary teachers often can't possibly learn the names of everyone. So the student becomes a nameless face among the masses and if she or he falls behind for any reason, they do indeed become desperate.

Confessions of an academic cheat

How to make a living out of lazy rich kids

A hair-raising article has made its appearance in a no lesser periodical than the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Ed Dante is the pseudonym of a writer on the East Coast of the United States, who makes a very good living writing papers for lazy or incompetent students who are willing to pay.

As he happily confesses, he works for an online company that employs about 50 writers who create original essays for cheating students -- 'scholars' who supply the guidelines of what is needed, and then stump up the bucks on receipt of the paper.  'On any day of the academic year,' he says, 'I am working on upward of 20 assignments.'

He excuses himself and his colleagues by adding that the clients are truly desperate -- so desperate, in fact, that they can't even spell the word: 'I have seen the word "desperate" misspelled every way you can imagine.'   It's also a truly bizarre situation -- these are young men and women in graduate school, without the writing talent to compose something as simple as a grocery list.

Which makes it easy for 'Ed Dante' to blame others for his suspect way of making a living -- 'I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created,' he says.  And though he is fearfully busy, he would like to start a conversation -- a 'discussion about custom papers and how they differ from more detectable forms of plagiarism, or about why students cheat in the first place.'

My initial question would be whether it is plagiarism at all, because presumably the papers are all well researched, and all original.  (One hopes so, anyway, as it would retrieve a little light from the situation.)  I suppose it depends on whether a nitpicking lawyer would charge the wayward student with having pinched the work of the anonymous writer he has paid to write his paper.

The next question -- who on earth would pay to cheat -- is answered in the essay.  Three kinds of clients supply Ed Dante's income:  the students for whom English is a foreign language, the hopelessly incompetent writers, and the lazy rich kids.  Between them, they provide earnings of over $60,000 per annum.

And what about his future, now that he has blown the secret?  He is due to do even better.  Mediabistro has just broken the news that the pseudonymous Ed Dante has signed a contract with Bloomsbury Press to write a book about the business, called The Shadow Scholar.

Shorter reading on your kindle

Amazon Launches First Singles List

Back in October, I mused about the advantages of a new Amazon initiative, of issuing shorter works on kindle at a greatly reduced price.

Now, the idea has come into concrete (or digital) reality.

Amazon has posted their first list of just over 20 Kindle Singles.  As promised, they are short nonfiction digital works -- 'typically between 5,000 and 30,000 words,' they say, which covers a lot of territory.  It is rather hard to tell just what you are buying, too, as there are no page counts. Customers' only way of judging is to guess by the price -- currently ranging from 99 cents to $2.99 -- and kilobyte counts to estimate how much wordage they are getting for their money.

Among the titles is a version of Pete Hamill's piece on immmigration, They Are Us.   Originally lbilled last year as a Little Brown 40,000 to 50,000-word digital original, it failed to appear. Hamill had not delivered as intended, it seems, reportedly backing off the project because of his wife's illness.

Priced at 99 cents and running 91 kilobytes, it would appear to be a shorter version.

Other contributing authors include Jodi Picoult (writing on parenting), Darin Strauss, Evan Ratliff, Mark Greif and Jonathan Littell. The site says the first offerings were "selected by our team of editors."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In awe of Dennis Lehane

I repeat, I am totally in awe of Dennis Lehane.  

Which means that I am ashamed to say that I discovered him when I picked up one of his books in a bargain bin -- and only bought it because the bargain was five books for thirty dollars, and I could find only four authors in the bin I could trust to deliver a good yarn.  This title, A Drink Before the War, looked promising, so I added it to the other four. 

It is billed on the jacket as "A Kenzie and Gennaro Thriller," so I expected a private detective partnership in the Batman and Robin mode, which was exactly what I got -- except that this pair of tough private eyes is not quite the same as anything I have ever encountered in the genre before. Kenzie has a soft heart under the given granite exterior, and though he is in love with the beautiful Gennaro of the melting caramel eyes, he gets utterly nowhere, because she is in love with her husband ... who beats her.  Kenzie has hospitalized him at least once, but it doesn't make any difference. 

An unusual background, do you not agree?

The plot is one of those complicated political ones, which tangles and unravels after Kenzie and Gennaro are given the job of tracking down Jenna Angeline, a black cleaning woman who has stolen confidential papers from the State House in Boston.  Staying alive is the hard part, in a hard-driven story that zips from extortion to gangs to bombed out ghettos to child prostitution.  As the title promises, it all leads to all-out war.

All in all, a page-turner. 

I sallied out eagerly in search of another Dennis Lehane -- and found Shutter Island.   Did it turn out to be another episode in the action-packed life of the Kenzie-Gennaro duo?  No, it did not.

Instead, I found myself racing breathheld through one of the most brilliant psychological mysteries I have ever read, grippingly and scintillatingly written.  I got to the end, turned back to the beginning, and read it again -- that is just how good it is.  The only other time that has happened to me with a book in this genre is Robert Cormier's equally spellbinding I am the Cheese.

Two US Marshalls are summoned to Shutter Island, a stormswept island off the Massachusetts coast that is the site of a particularly grim mental institution -- a place that houses the most violent and vicious of insane murderers, where the danger from the inmates is so great that the patients are outnumbered by the guards.  One of the murderers has vanished from her locked room . . . and a hurricane descends, isolating the island and its mentally tortured inhabitants, along with panicked guards, enigmatic doctors, and the two bewildered marshalls.

But is that a true summation of the situation?  No.  For nothing on Shutter Island is quite what it seems ...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A highly unusual feminist and the pre-cursor of the haiku

What came before the English haiku?

Many of us learned in school about the beguiling Japanese haiku poetry form, which was adapted for English and American use, and is still popular today.  Basically, the poem consists of three lines, the first five syllables long, the second seven syllables, and the last five.  There must also be a reference to a season, and the linking of two poetic images.

An example, from American poet Richard Wright's haiku collection:

Whitecaps on the bay
a broken signboard banging
in the April wind

To my surprise, while researching the short life of Sydney Parkinson, the talented natural history draughtsman who sailed (and died) on the Endeavour, I found that the cousin he admired and loved, Jane Gomeldon, was the inventor of the 'maxim,' the pre-cursor of the English haiku.
The World in general is a State
Of Surprise
Each wondering at the Conduct of their

Jane is more famous (or infamous) for the remarkable life she led than for being the originator of this neat, satirical form of poetry.  Born Middleton, she was a Quaker, born in Newcastle to a family of Quaker glassmakers, and because of this background was unusually well educated for a woman of that time.  Unfortunately, however, she fell in love with a cad at a very young age, and had the bad judgement to marry him.  This was Francis Gomeldon, an officer in a Regiment of Foot. 

Quickly realizing her blunder, she fled to France, where she had many adventures in the guise of a man, including paying court to a pretty young nun, who was silly enough to elope with her.  In 1740 her estranged husband placed an advertisement in the Newcastle Journal, announcing that she had left him.  Jane responded with her own advertisement, describing his cruelty, and accusing him of ransacking the fortune her mother had left her, despite the legal requirement written into it reserving it for her own use.  In 1742 she brought a suit against him, on the grounds of cruelty.

Eight years later, her husband died, but -- surprise, surprise -- left nothing to her in his Will.  Luckily, it seems, she was still solvent, because after cousin Sydney was hired by Joseph Banks to travel with him, she hatched a plan to voyage on the Endeavour, too.  It came to naught, unfortunately.  While she would not have been the first woman to go around the world dressed as a man, she certainly would have written a very good book, revealing who knows what ...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Why DID he call himself TUPAIA?

Bora Bora from Raiatea.  Ron Druett photo

When did Tupaia change his name?

It is currently believed that it was when warriors from Bora Bora invaded Tupaia's home island, Raiatea, and Tupaia was forced to flee to Tahiti, that the high priest changed his name.

The story originally came from the scientist on the Resolution on Captain Cook's second discovery voyage, Johann Forster, who copied down gossip that Tupaia was originally called ‘Parooa’ (Paroa).  Humiliated after the battle where the Raiatean forces were routed, he changed his name to Tupaia, meaning ‘beaten’ -- or so Forster claimed. This is also mentioned by Forster's assistant, Dr. Sparrman, but this is probably because he heard it from his employer, secondhand.

So, how true might the legend be?  It was common enough for Polynesians to change their name following some life-changing event, but 'beaten'?  It seems a strange choice for a man who was as talented and proud as the man who called himself Tupaia, whose considerable talents as a politician and strategist were quickly recognized after he arrived in Tahiti.

There is a chance that the name-change came about later, after the 'discovery' of Tahiti by Captain Wallis of HMS Dolphin in 1767, when the clever high priest proved his value yet again.  Demonstrating a gift for languages, the high priest picked up English fast enough to act as intermediary between the British sailors and his mistress, the glamorous high chief Purea, negotiate with Wallis himself, and communicate Wallis's needs to the Tahitian noblity.  Two years later, when the Endeavour arrived, Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks found this gift for translation even more useful -- so useful, indeed, that they carried the talented linguist with them when the ship left Tahiti on 13 July 1769.

I am informed by Sri Lankan scholar Somasiri Devendra that the Tahitian name ‘Tupaia’ most probably has its root in the Sanskrit word ‘Thuprasis’, since evolved into the word ‘Thuppaiah’, which means . . . wait for it . . . ‘translator’.

Entries called for "layman's" science book prize

Royal Society of New Zealand announces $5000 prize

Seeking to promote popular science writing in New Zealand, the Royal Society is calling for entries for this award.

Time is short.  The deadline for entries (five finished books plus a filled-in form, available on their website) is 4 February.

Judging is equally quick.  The shortlist will be announced 25 March.

And the winner will be announced at the Auckland Readers' and Writers' Festival in May.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The remarkable story of Tupaia's pet bird

From Peter Brown,
New Illustrations of Zoology
 ... plate VII. (London, 1776).
Courtesy National Library of Australia.

 Tupaia’s lorikeet

A heartwarming story from his biography, Tupaia, the remarkable story of Captain Cook's Polynesian navigator.

While it was not unknown for a sailor to make a pet of a bird, fowl were much more commonly stewed and eaten, in an effort to give variety to the shipboard diet. Sydney Parkinson, draughtsman on the Endeavour, recorded in Botany Bay that they ‘saw a great number of birds of a beautiful plumage; among which were two sorts of parroquets, and a beautiful loriquette: we shot a few of them, which we made into a pie, and they ate very well’. So, when Tupaia adopted a lorikeet he had winged, he not only broke with tradition, but he saved a bird from the pot.

Peter Brown, the man who painted Tupaia's bird after it arrived in England, was a natural history artist of Danish descent who exhibited at the Royal Academy, and was botanical draughtsman for the Prince of Wales. He is most famous for his book, New Illustrations of Zoology ..., which includes the earliest published illustration of an Australian bird, described as a ‘Blue-headed and bellied Parrot’ that had been brought to England from Botany Bay, New South Wales, by Joseph Banks. The caption also records that the painting was made on ‘November 3 1774’ — evidence that Tupaia’s bird was still alive on that date.

After arriving in England, Banks gave the lorikeet to Marmaduke Tunstall, a wealthy collector and sponsor of natural history expeditions, who had established a museum and a menagerie of live animals at his home in Welbeck Street, London, and at the same time told Tunstall that the bird had belonged to ‘the unfortunate Tupia, a native of Otaheite’. In 1776 Tunstall moved the entire museum — which, according to his memoir, included ‘a large collection of curiosities brought by Capt. Cook from Otaheite’ — to his estate at Wycliffe in North Yorkshire.

In 1791, a year after Tunstall’s death, the collection was sold to his friend, George Allan of Darlington, for the highly discounted sum of £700 (the birds alone had cost Tunstall £5,000). In 1822 it was purchased by the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle for display in a new town museum. Did it include Tupaia's bird, now dead and stuffed?  No one knows, for that is where the story stops.  The Tunstall collection is now held by the Great North Museum: Hancock, in Newcastle, England, but whether Tupaia’s bird is still there is impossible to tell.  None of the staff can find it.

Design underway for illustrated edition of TUPAIA

The illustrated Tupaia

Yes, the blog had to be put aside.  It was time that had to be devoted entirely (almost) to the design for the beautiful edition of TUPAIA that Random House New Zealand is going to publish in May.  Sorting out the images and writing the captions took up every spare moment over Christmas and the New Year, with the indefatigable Alex Bishop returning to work early January ("It's spooky in the office with no one else there," she confided), to lay out spreadsheets.

Ron was hard at work, too, producing maps and sketches like the one of HMS Dolphin to the right, above.

Now, it is ready to be handed over to the designer, who will work with the first proofs and the images as they come in -- mostly from the amazing collection of the National Library of Australia, but some from the picture collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, too, with also an honourable mention of the oil painting of Robert Molineux that is held by the Hocken Library of the University of Otago, Dunedin.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Lost documents reveal first human dissection in India

Dissection papers unearthed

The Times of India for January 13 has a fascinating story from Kolkata (Calcutta).  Doctors at the anatomy department of the Calcutta Medical College and Hospital have unearthed papers documenting Asia's first human dissection, carried out in secrecy by a Bengali vaidya (traditional Hindu physician), Madhusudan Gupta.

There were complicated social customs behind the undercover nature of the procedure.  While the precursor of the Calcutta Medical College was built in 1822, with the aim of training Indians to assist British army doctors, no examination of human remains was part of the syllabus.  This was because Indian doctors could only be trained in ayurveda (the ancient Hindu science of health and medicine), and unani (medical treatment based on the "four humors," blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile).  Like the lofty physicians of pre-eighteenth century Britain, they could not soil their hands, because of the social stigma of even touching a corpse, let alone dissecting it.

These papers tell a dramatic story from the year 1835, revealing how the college principal and the head of the anatomy department organized the smuggling in of a corpse, a daring feat because of Hindu lookouts who kept vigil on the college to make sure that nothing like that happened.  A local noble, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, was involved, as well as two British doctors, named Gudiff and Bremley.

The corpse, an unclaimed male body, was dissected in an outhouse of the college by Gupta, while Gudiff and Bremley watched.  Every step in the procedure was documented, making up a folder of instructive notes for students -- and it is these papers that have been unearthed, much to the interest of modern anatomists.

In a fascinating coincidence of history, the papers indicate that Gupta was trained in the art of dissection by a Scot named David Hare.  It is an echo of the infamous Burke and Hare story, of two Scottish grave robbers who supplied bodies for dissection at a time when British social customs made it was almost as hard to carry out demonstrations in anatomy, as it was in far-off India. (See illustration above.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Arizona Tragedy Renews Attention on Book of 9/11 Babies

A terrible coincidence of history.

The death of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green in the Arizona shootings has brought national attention to a previously-overlooked 2002 book, Faces of Hope.

The editor and compiler of this inspirational collection, Christine Pisera Naman, gave birth to a son, Trevor, during the terrible events of September 11, 2001.  Inspired, she gathered black and white photos of her child and 49 others who were born on 9/11, one from each state of the union, and gathered little message of hope to accompany the images. 

As the blurb of the 2002 release says, 'these shining faces give hope to our nation as its citizens reflect on the anniversary of September 11."

Christina Taylor Green, felled by an assassin's bullet, was the face for Arizona.

President Obama cited the book in last night's nationally-televised speech, saying: "As has already been mentioned, Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called Faces of Hope. On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child's life. "I hope you help those in need," read one. "I hope you know all the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart." "I hope you jump in rain puddles." If there are rain puddles in Heaven, Christina is jumping in them today."

Kim Weiss, director of communications of the publisher, Florida-based HCI, reported that they were already receiving reorders for the book--including a sizable order from Ingram--prior to last night's speech, and demand has only increased. The company, which prints its own books, will be back on press later today for "a significant number" of new copies.  The content will not be revised.

From Publisher's Lunch, with additional material from Michael Santo.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rave Review from Library Journal


Many accounts of James Cook's first voyage to the South Pacific (1768-71) make scant mention of the Tahitian high priest Tupaia who became an invaluable navigator and translator on Cook's ship Endeavour for the latter part of the voyage. Maritime historian Druett's (Island of the Lost) refreshing, detailed, and insightful biographical history redresses that lack.

Much of what is known about Tupaia comes from the journals of the officers, scientists, and seamen with whom he shared the voyage, and Druett has drawn heavily upon thse sources, showing Tupaia to have had extensive knowledge of South Pacific island locations beyond Tahiti and outstanding skill in celestial navigation. He also helped the Endeavour's crew in translating the language and interpreting local culture on other Polynesian islands where Cook conducted extensive explorations.

Tupaia's legacy is apparent in his fascinating drawings made during the ship's voyage, reproduced here, which provide a glimpse into his perceptions of the world around him.

VERDICT Druett's narrative beautifully captures the essence of Tupaia's world and brings it alive for readers. Her excellent study of an extraordinary and nearly forgotten Tahitian should be enjoyed by readers interested in British maritime history and Polynesian history and culture.

--Elizabeth Salt, Otterbein Univ. Lib., Westerville, OH. Copyright 2010.

Kindle bestseller list for History of Australia and Oceania

It's a triumph of sorts, I guess.

Well, it's the first time I have had two books on an top 100 sellers list.

Island of the Lost is close to the top of the list of kindle titles sold to fans of Australian and Oceanic history -- as it has been for months, particularly since Algonquin let the hardback go out of print.

Now it is joined by Tupaia, Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator (on the second page) -- which is quite a surprise, considering the biography's quiet entrance onto the scene.

And the fact that being issued as a kindle book was not part of the original plan...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Sad news from Los Angeles

One of the great highlights of 2005 for me, was a day of signing books at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, Los Angeles.  It is a famous store, mentioned often in Michael Connolly's books, and host to every Big Name in modern mystery writing.

The owners and staff are tolerant folks.  When a day of signing the latest in the Wiki Coffin mystery series, Shark Island, was arranged, we asked if it was possible for the event to be attended by a crew of pirates, in costume, complete with Pirate Rats.  Without a blink, apparently, they grinned and agreed.  And a great deal of yo-ho-ho fun was had by all, with lots of photographs taken.

More fun for me was signing the 'jailhouse register,' a real prison attendance book, used by the store as a kind of visitors' book, which every author who did an event at the store signed, with often hilarious comments.  Reading through past entries was a Who's Who of mystery writing.  I was honored to add my signature to the illustrious list.

Today, I received this letter:
The Mystery Bookstore

January 11, 2011
Dear Author,

We have very much enjoyed owning the Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles.
We've enjoyed your books and getting to know you, and the kindness and generosity of spirit you've shown us--as well as your visits and signings. Unfortunately, we, too, are going the way of too many independent bookstores. We simply cannot compete with the Amazons of the world and the impact of the economy. We love the bookstore and mysteries and the relationships we've formed with authors and publishers and agents and publicists. But, we do have retirement to think about (not in the near future!), and family and, well, all of those things that require money. So, it is with considerable sadness that we announce that The Mystery Bookstore, Los Angeles, will--after many years (and as apparently the last-standing bookstore in Westwood, other than UCLA's student store)--be closing.

Our last day will be January 31, 2011. We plan to have a "goodbye" and "thanks for the memories" party that evening, starting at 6:00. If you'll be in town, we'd love to have you join us one last time--and love to have you leave one last signature and comment in our "jailhouse register."

Thank you again for everything and for the privilege of selling your books and hopefully broadening your reading audience. We, of course, wish you nothing but bright futures, success, and many bestsellers--and we look forward to spending many an hour of reading enjoyment with your future works. While the Mystery Bookstore might continue only in the nether regions of the internet, your books and your support will always be close to us

Kirk Pasich and Pamela Woods
The Mystery Bookstore
1036-C Broxton Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90024

Thank you, Kirk and Pamela and your staff, for the great memories.  It's a sad day to see that lovely store closed.  I wish you the very best for the future.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Removing the N-word from Huckleberry Finn

The BBC, like a thousand or so other commentators on the arts, has published views on the bowdlerization of Mark Twain's classic, Huckleberry Finn.       

A new edition, coming out next month, has been edited by Twain scholar Professor Alan Gribben to remove the words 'nigger' and 'injun,' replacing them with 'slave' and 'Indian.'

People seem to be able to handle the tidying up up 'injun' (which indicates pronunciation rather than social attitude), but the removal of the N-word has infuriated many, who have let the publisher know about it in various ways. 

A valid point made is that Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, when discrimination was a part of everyday life, is anti-racist.  The constant repetition of the word, which is used 219 times in the book, is supposed to jar and make the reader uncomfortable.

There were plenty of racist words around then, just as there are today.  Is the next move for some academic to remove the word 'Jew' from Shakespeare's immortal Merchant of Venice?

'Jew' had nasty racial overtones then, and Shakespeare was making the same point that Twain made nearly 300 years later.

PS.  There are at least 26 instances of the N-word used in the same fashion in Tom Sawyer.  Is that going to be cleaned up, too?


Engraving of an Australian kangaroo, after a painting by George Stubbs.

The first Australian word to enter the English language

While I have been remarkably silent of late, I don't have the pleasant excuse of having been on holiday.  I've been locating images for the beautifully illustrated edition of Tupaia that Random House New Zealand is launching in May -- and writing captions.  And one of those I found fascinating to research and write was the caption to an engraving of a kangaroo that I found as plate 20 in John Hawkesworth's Account of the Voyages ... (London, 1773, vol III.

‘Land animals are scarce’, declared Captain Cook in his description of the coast of Australia. Those in ‘the greatest plenty’ were ‘the Kangooroo, or Kanguru so call’d by the Natives; we saw a great many of them about Endeavour River, but kill’d only Three which we found very good eating’.   And so a word used by the Guugu Yimidhirr Aborigine tribe at the Endeavour River (in the state of Australia that is now known as Queensland) entered the English language.

Amusingly, it was the word for just one species of the animal, the large gray or black kangaroo.  As Tony Horwitz points out in his lively and informative biography of Cook, Blue Latitudes, if the Endeavours had asked about the small red kangaroo, the word that would have entered the language would have been 'nbarrgali' which does not trip nearly so smoothly off the tongue.  As it was, the vocabulary the officers of the First Fleet of convicts to New South Wales were given was that compiled at the Endeavour River, a totally different language to that used in the present site of Sydney.  'Kangaroo,' hollered the Englishmen, pointing at kangaroos, which the local Gweagal interpreted as any large four-footed animal.  So, whenever the officers pointed at any largish animal, including their own sheep, oxen, and horses, "Kangaroo!" the Gweagal cheerfully replied, much to English irritation. 

Anyway, back to Cook and the Endeavour. No one, apparently, thought of taking a live kangaroo to England — or even carrying one or two for eating along the way — but Joseph Banks did carry back two skins. One of these was inflated (probably over a rubber lining) to look as lifelike as possible, and Banks commissioned George Stubbs to paint the result, complete with an imaginative background.

The illustration engraved from this painting, published in Hawkesworth’s bestselling book, made the kangaroo a popular sensation. Scientists, puzzled by the concept of a pouched marsupial, and not knowing how to classify it, debated vigorously and at length. The public response was much more frivolous: a dance called the ‘kangaroo hop’ was invented, which took Europe by storm. Even the great Dr Samuel Johnson was intrigued enough to gather up his coat-tails, and entertain his friends by jumping like a kangaroo.

(For an interesting account of public interest in the Stubbs kangaroo, see, paper by Des Cowley and Brian Hubber, “Distinct Creation: Early European Images of Australian Animals’, in The La Trobe Journal (State Library of Victoria periodical), no. 66 (Spring 2000) pp. 3-32.)