Kangaroo /kæŋgəˈru:/, noun. 1. A marsupial mammal of the family Macropodidæ, remarkable for the great development of the hind-quarters and the leaping-power resulting from this. The species are natives of Australia, Tasmania, Papua, and some neighbouring isles; the larger kinds being commonly known as kangaroos, and the smaller ones as wallabies. Oxford English Dictionary
Among the most gruesome stories of shipwreck is the fateful voyage of the Dutch merchantman Batavia, wrecked off the coast of Western Australia in 1629. The disaster would lead to mutiny and the massacre of almost half of the crew. This tragedy, however, also resulted in the first European sighting of an Australian marsupial. The Batavia was wrecked on a reef of the Houtman Abrolhos, and on these islands Francisco Pelsaert, commander of the ship, discovered numerous ‘cats’: “creatures of a miraculous form, as big as a hare; the head similar to [that] of a civet cat, the fore-paws are very short, about a finger long.” He described in full detail how the young lived in a pouch, growing “with the nipple in mouth”. Other sightings were subsequently recorded by Volckerszoon (1658), De Vlamingh (1697), and Dampier (1699), but it would take another decade before the first image of a wallaby was published. Surprisingly, this illustration appeared in a narrative of a voyage to Russia, written by Cornelis de Bruyn, first published in 1711 and translated into English in 1720 (see illustration). De Bruyn had observed a wallaby in Batavia, in the menagerie of the governor-general, and named it ‘Filander’. This species, however, has been identified as Thylogale brunii or dusky pademelon and is endemic to New Guinea.
These accounts seem to have been completely unknown to James Cook and Joseph Banks. When they saw several Australian kangaroos near Endeavour River in 1770, they consequently believed to be the first Europeans to encounter Australian marsupials. John Gore, second lieutenant of the Endeavour, managed to shoot a specimen; it proved excellent meat, as Joseph Banks noted in his diary. Some skins and skulls were brought back to England where Joseph Banks commissioned the painter George Stubbs to delineate the antipodean creature. Stubbs’s kangaroo was probably a Macropus parryi, a pretty face wallaby or whiptail wallaby, in 1835 named by Bennett after the arctic explorer William Edward Parry, who had brought his pet kangaroo from New South Wales back to England. Stubbs’s painting was the basis for the engraving published in the official account of Cook’s voyage (see illustration, courtesy of Forum Rare Books) and would be copied numerous times in subsequent years.
The kangaroo soon reached an iconic status. Images can be found in many 18th- and early 19th-century natural history works, among them Oliver Goldsmith’s popular hackwork An History of the Earth and Animated Nature, Friedrich Justin Bertuch’s massive series Bilderbuch für Kinder (published between 1798-1830), and Thomas Bewick’s A General History of Quadrupeds. Although the Dutch were the first Europeans to sight a kangaroo, the first Dutch book containing a picture of the pouched animal appeared fairly late. It would seem that Jan David Pasteur’s handsome three-volume children’s book Beknopte natuurlijke geschiedenis der zoogende dieren (Concise Natural History of Mammals), published between 1793 and 1800, was the first Dutch book to contain an image of an Australian kangaroo. The illustration was evidently copied from the engraving in Hawkesworth’s account. (Pasteur, a versatile author, translator and politician, would later translate all three accounts of Cook’s voyages into Dutch, published in 13 sumptuously illustrated volumes between 1795 and 1803.) The author thus familiarized his young Dutch readers with the strange pouched animal that has since become the most popular symbol of Australia.