The contested legacy of Captain James Cook

cookKnowing his announcement on Saturday was contentious, federal treasurer Scott Morrison said the planned $3m memorial to Captain James Cook in Botany Bay is part of a “very inclusive project” to commemorate the site of European first arrival in New South Wales. By inclusive presumably he means will include “Indigenous elements” though it won’t hurt Treasury there is also a $50m redevelopment to include a museum, cafe, ferry wharves and visitors centre. It won’t hurt Morrison either as the project is in his electorate.

But it will cause hurt. Cook is a highly divisive figure in Australia, seen by many indigenous people as the start of their problems and still seen by many older white Australians as the founding father of settler Australia and the start of Britain’s rule over the country.  He is revered in the names of roads, towns, shires and places across Australia. Yet black lore in Victoria River country in the Northern Territory talks about how Cook came and stole their lands. The history on Cook has always been fuzzy. What his Sydney landing site certainly wasn’t, as the Guardian claimed, was “European colonisers’ first arrival on Australian soil”.

Colonisation of Australia was inevitable given trade globalisation. Europeans had been exploring the coastline of Australia for 160 years when Cook first came calling. The Dutch mapped most of the north, west and south coast and found Tasmania (though did not realise it was an island). They arrived in Cape York in 1605 and a year later Spaniard Luis Torres found the nearby strait that bears his name, a find Spanish authorities kept secret for 150 years.

Cook wasn’t even the first Englishman in Australia. The ship The Tryall sighted WA in 1622 and William Dampier’s visits to the west in 1688 and 1699 excited British imagination about the strange southern continent whose natives had “great bottle-noses, pretty full lips and wide mouths.”

Cook was a meticulous planner and had read Dampier. If Morrison’s monument just celebrated his sailing skills it would not be contentious. Cook was a superb mapmaker and decades ahead of his time in avoiding scurvy on long trips. The Briton has good claim to be the best mariner of all time, certainly of the Pacific Ocean, and his three trips of exploration greatly expanded European knowledge of the Pacific. His first voyage found the Cook Islands, New Zealand and eastern Australia, his second found Norfolk Island and conclusively proved there was no Terra Incognita in the southern oceans. His third explored Alaska and Hawaii, where his growing hubris led to his death in an unnecessary beach clash with natives in 1779.

Destined to go to sea from his young days on the Yorkshire coast, Cook made his reputation in the 1760s as a naval surveyor in Canada, mapping the tricky coastline of Newfoundland, and competently and quickly rising through the ranks of the Royal Navy during the Seven Years War.

When Britain wanted someone to lead a mission to observe the Transit of Venus in newly discovered cloud-free Tahiti in 1769, Cook was the obvious candidate. His discretion and loyalty meant he was also ideal to carry out the secret orders for the second part of his mission. These orders, discovered in 1928, were to head south to find the southern continent Europeans thought existed in low latitudes and take “possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain.”

Possession was always in British minds in the late 18th century, though the supposed continent did not exist. Cook sailed south for as long as it was safe then changed tack and headed west. He mapped both islands of New Zealand and then headed towards New Holland which he knew Dutchman Abel Tasman had laid tentative claim over a century earlier.

Cook knew the Dutch had not mapped the east coast so perhaps there was room for multiple claims in the real great south land. Cook picked up the coast at Point Hicks named for the lieutenant that first spotted land aboard his ship Endeavour. Cook knew Van Diemen’s Land was south but powered by a gale headed north before a bay landing on 29 April 1770. Cook observed smoke along the way and here he saw locals and huts on both sides of the bay. Cook was not welcomed on arrival and when he approached to land two local men “seem’d resolved to oppose” throwing nails and beads at the visitors.

After Cook’s men opened musket fire, the locals ran away and Cook went ashore to investigate. His men searched for fresh water, food and timber but apart from an awkward chance meeting while dredging for oysters, the natives retreated to a safe distance where they observed their uninvited visitors.  To their relief the strangers left on May 7 but not before wealthy botanist aboard Joseph Banks decided the great quantity of plants they found deserved the name Botany Bay.

After completing their sail up the coast of Queensland, and only barely surviving the Great Barrier Reef, Cook made the extraordinary move that outstripped his orders. Realising he was at the top of Australia he came to an island he called Possession Island on 22 July and formally took possession of “the whole eastern coast…by the name New (South) Wales” from Point Hicks to where they stood.

This remarkable declaration remains a foundation stone of Australian law and has never been challenged. Cook did not follow his instructions of seeking the consent of the natives. He knew they were there in numbers thanks to “a great number of smokes” he had seen along the coast and his meetings in Botany Bay and Cape Tribulation.

Without any input, a population of half a million people suddenly had their 50,000-year-old land rights stripped from them – though they were unaware of their loss and their lives went on as before. Cook’s act was one of imagination but was important politically. It was an act of claim especially against the growing naval power of the French who would also land in Botany Bay 18 years later. Compte Laperouse was beaten a few days by Cook’s successor Arthur Phillip and his infant penal colony. By then Cook was dead and Banks’ evidence gave Britain – desperate after the loss of independent America – the excuse to found a colony of prisoners on the other side of the world.

Laperouse was shipwrecked and died (showing Cook’s own skill in avoid that fate). Phillip moved to nearby Sydney Harbour which Cook surprisingly missed though Cook’s legacy remained – the colony became known as “Botany Bay”. British Australia slowly fanned out and the rest was “history”. Morrison will need to tread carefully to sell that history.

He would do well to read the editorial in the Australian on the 200th anniversary of Cook’s arrival at Botany Bay, 29 April 1970.  “We came bearing Christianity,” it began. But, “we also brought rum and smallpox, revolvers and Martini-Henry Carbines to slaughter men, women and children who speared the cattle we released on their land. And when we couldn’t kill them we smothered them – withholding education, banning and banishing them.. They were easy victories, and we are still winning them – every time we shut our eyes, turn our backs, comfort ourselves with the myth that we are the world’s most egalitarian people… The Aboriginal concept of land is much deeper, more meaningful than ours… Should we celebrate our nationhood while ignoring the schism dividing us?”

That schism remains wide almost 50 years later.



Three weeks on the road in North West Queensland

trip3As the editor of the North West Star my patch is enormous. Centred in Mount Isa, it goes from the NT border east to Hughenden and from the Gulf of Carpentaria south to Birdsville, a huge area covering 14 local councils and almost half a million square kilometres. It is the size of Spain (Isa is our Madrid) but with a population of less than 50,000 people. I’ve been lucky to get around a lot of it but even by my standards these last three weeks have been hectic, with several big journeys bookended by two one-thousand-click trips, for 5000km in the car in three weeks.


It started with the Easter races at Boulia. As in previous Easters I began with a drive down to Bedourie to catch up with friends. It is past Boulia, 500km from Mount Isa, on a road parallel to the border and surprisingly all bitumen, though the Mount Isa-Boulia stretch is almost entirely one lane only.


I stopped at the Vaughan Johnson lookout at the border of the Boulia and Diamantina shires to enjoy the amazing view east over the Channel Country. The colours always change up here but this was as brown as I’ve ever seen the view. There is water in the Lake Eyre Basin thanks to flooding further north but little has made it to this part of the system.


The effect of upstream water is confirmed at Bedourie. The roads south to Birdsville and east to Windorah are shut due to flooding. There is an alternative rocky route to Birdsville via Lake Machattie but I’m not keen on that bonejarring experience.


I’m content to drive 20km south of Bedourie to Cluny station and admire the normally empty Kings Creek in full flow though it has hardly rained in Bedourie this year. Kings Creek is part of the Georgina River system and all this water came from the far north west of Queensland and the NT.


On Saturday it was up 200km to Boulia to cover their annual race meet followed by a 300km drive back to Mount Isa that afternoon. It was important to get home before dark as cattle wander the unfenced road at night and give off no reflection. I’m keen on this Indian system to give them glow horns in the dark.


On Easter Sunday I went out to Rigby Falls, a waterhole and waterfall about 50km towards Cloncurry and then another 20km on rugged tracks. It was a beautiful drive though there was little water remaining at Rigby after recent rains.


Having got the Tuesday paper out of the way early Easter Monday, I had time in the afternoon for more local exploration, to East Leichhardt Dam, a reserve supply for Cloncurry Shire, and admire a lovely waterhole near the Dam itself.


The following Saturday it was back to the races, this time Maxwelton, 350km east of Isa. The Maxi bush races are famous around the district but didn’t happen last year due to a bumpy track failing to pass muster. The locals came along anyway, dressed in their finery and had a great day out with footraces replacing the four-legged variety.


Maxi race president Bill Needham plays the fanfare twice with each race, once to announce the horses in the ring before the race, and secondly to announce correct weight. Maxi races were broke and dying a few years ago when Needham and a new committee took over to save it. Needham admits they knew nothing about racing but they knew how important the annual meet is to social interaction in an isolated district.


On Monday it was more equestrian sport, this time 320km up to the Gulf to the campdraft at the dot on the map called Burke & Wills Junction. I wouldn’t normally drive that far for a campdraft but this one doubled up as the national championships decider, a rare honour for a place that boasts just one building – the Burke and Wills Junction roadhouse, with nothing else 200km in any distance.


At the gala dinner that evening caterers from Cloncurry did a remarkable job to feed 300 people from a mobile kitchen hired from the Outback College of Hospitality. They brought in 150 serves of 300g steak, 150 serves of 200g barramundi, 30kgs of potatoes, 10kg of cherry tomatoes, 30kgs of prawns and 5kg of smoked salmon and made 25kg of coleslaw and pumpkin salad in 36 degrees heat outside and 46 degrees in the mobile kitchen. I slept off dinner in the car that night and drove back to Mount Isa on Tuesday.


I was back in Cloncurry on Thursday for a parliamentary hearing into the high costs of regional airfares. One reason I do so much driving is that flying in the bush is outrageously expensive, a hot-button issue in our region. At Cloncurry the federal Senate committee heard from local councils and industry groups and later that day returned to Mount Isa to hear the horrendous experience of locals who forked out $20,000 and more to fly to see sick family members or get their kids to sporting events on the coast.


On Friday I was on the road again, this time to Julia Creek for their annual Dirt N Dust triathlon festival, which I’ve written about before. It’s a great weekend with plenty going on. This year I was unprepared for the enormous amount of flies and bugs. They are in abundance after recent rains and were a pest at Maxwelton (though not at Burke & Wills where there was tree cover). This photo of bugs in the light at the arena does not do justice to their extraordinary numbers, and made life very difficult.


Bugs or no bugs the tri goes on and on Saturday morning we headed 30km west for the start at Eastern Creek. The bikes are taken out in enormous cattle trucks and the competitors, organisers and media are bussed to the start.


The fun starts with a 800m soupy swim (though it can get quite deep and cold) in the creek. Visibility zero, but flies in the billions. Crocs? Well this is a Gulf river system so maybe one or two but they’ll be freshies who might give you a nip if you get too close, not fearsome salties who enjoy the taste of person.


Then the 30km bike ride back to town. Usually they are battling a headwind but this year there is no breeze. The only thing they have to contend with is media crouched in the grass or on the middle of the road looking for that perfect low level heat haze shot (I got one I’m happy with).


Finally it’s back to town for an energy-sapping three laps of the main street in a 5km run to finish the triathlon. Afterwards everyone shrugs off the activewear and rocks a suit or a fabulous dress at the Artesian Express races at Julia Creek’s McIntyre Park, holding the richest race in the region.


I headed back to Mount Isa on Sunday and after filing my Julia Creek stories I had time to head 20km out of town to explore the trails and climb the hills at the Heywood Granite Mine.


This abandoned mine is full of red granite boulders not unlike the more well-known structures at Karlu Karlu – the Devils Marbles.


Two days later it was another 300km round trip. The destination was Dajarra, half way to Boulia. Here Cloncurry Shire Council was holding its monthly meeting and officially opened the small town’s new cenotaph which honours Dajarra’s Indigenous First World War digger Peter Craigie. Peter’s family came down from Mount Isa to celebrate the day, a week ahead of Anzac Day.


The final trip was on Thurday, a lazy 500km to Winton. About half way from Mount Isa is the tiny township of McKinlay. In the centre of town is a statue to John McKinlay, Scottish-born cattle grazier, and leader of the South Australian Burke Relief Expedition, one of the search parties for the Burke and Wills expedition in 1861. McKinlay discovered a river nearby, also named for him and the town briefly prospered with a goldrush in the 1870s. Today its main claim to fame is the Walkabout Creek Hotel, used for filming Crocodile Dundee.


My destination was Winton for the three-day Way Out West festival. The main street was closed to traffic with a music stage across the road from the town’s North Gregory Hotel. The hotel famously heard the first rendition of Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda (though its genesis was inspired by Combo Waterhole, 160kms across the border in McKinlay Shire).


In a break I drove 20km out of Winton to the sparse Bladensburg National Park with its grassy plains, clay pans and mesas, river red gums and gidgee woodlands. The National Park conserves 84,900ha of Mitchell Grass Downs and Channel Country, including unique birdlife, plants and animals. Impressive flat-topped plateaus and residual sandstone ranges provide a scenic backdrop to vast grassland plains, river flats, and rocky scarps.


The Koa People consider Bladensburg part of their traditional country, and it is also important to the Maiawali and Karuwali People. At Skull Hole inside the Park the Native Police and associate posse massacred two hundred Aboriginal people. Norwegian scientist Carl Lumholtz recalled how he in about 1882-84 was shown “a large number of skulls of natives who had been shot by the black police” some years earlier. In 1901 P. H. F Mackay wrote an article to The Queenslander about a massacre at the Skull Hole on Mistake Creek citing property manager Hazelton Brock as a witness and participant who classified the incident as “the Massacre of the Blacks”.


I camped the night at Pelican Waterhole, site of the original township of Winton next to the Western River. The town was moved a kilometre away to its current location on higher ground due to frequent flooding.


The centrepiece of the weekend was the opening of the new $23m Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton. The old visitor information centre and museum was burned to the ground in June 2015 though the statue of Banjo survived the blaze. The Governor-General and Premier of Queensland came on Friday to officially open the new building. I watched that ceremony but could not hang around Winton for the rest of the festival. It was back on the road for a final 500km to Mount Isa and some well deserved time on the couch.

The full itinerary for the three weeks:

Easter Mount Isa – Boulia – Bedourie 1100km return (plus side trips)

Easter Sunday Rigby Falls 120km return

Easter Monday East Leichhardt Dam 100km return

Saturday, April 7 Mount Isa to Maxwelton 700km return

Monday-Tuesday April 9-10 Mount Isa to Burke & Wills Junction 640km return

Thursday April 12 Mount Isa to Cloncurry 250km return

Weekend April 13-15 Mount Isa to Julia Creek 520km return

Sunday April 15 Heywood Granite Mine 50km return

Tuesday April 17 Mount to Isa to Dajarra 320km return

Thursday-Friday April 19-20 Mount Isa to Winton 1100km return (including side trips).

Total 4900km.

Inside Capricorn Caves

The Capricorn Caves are one of North Queensland’s great natural wonders. Situated near the Bruce Highway 30km north of Rockhampton, the Caves are part of the Mount Etna National Park. I’ve driven past the town of The Caves visible from the Highway many times before finally dropping by last year. Caves are awesome places to get a measure of an area’s geology and this one has nice gardens too while waiting for a tour into the cave.IMG_0470

My first surprise as we start the tour is that instead of going down we are going up. These caves are high in the mountains. Aboriginal people have long known of the Capricorn caves, part of the Darumbal people’s traditional homeland. They were rediscovered by settler John Olsen in 1881 and almost immediately opened to the public. In 1988, after four generations of Olsen family ownership, Rodney Olsen sold the freehold property to Ken and Ann Augusteyn. Today, they are the only privately owned show caves on freehold land in Australia.


While wild caving tours are on the menu for the adventurous, the park has also reached out to the wider market with easy walking caves via wooden steps and even wheelchair accessible caves. The Archer Brothers settled in Rockhampton area in the 1850s and named Mount Etna after the volcano in Sicily. From 1914 to 1939, the caves were mined for guano, a natural fertiliser, and from 1925 for limestone. During World War II, commandos trained here. The national park was established in 1975 to protect the caves.


During the Devonian period about 390 million years ago eastern Queensland was covered by a warm shallow sea. Erupting lava gradually built up islands that provided a base for corals, sponges, and shellfish to grow. Their calcareous skeletons accumulated on the sea floors to form the sedimentary Mount Etna limestone. As the limestone emerged from the sea to become land, it was exposed to acidic rain and underground water flowing through cracks. These waters dissolved the calcite in limestone to form the caves. When the water became saturated with the dissolved calcite it redeposited the calcite as cave decorations.


The area has been alternately shaped by, and then starved of, water. Limestone from ancient coral reefs formed rocky karst.


Five bat species roost in Capricorn Caves at different times of the year, mainly in warm wet weather. Little bent-wing bats (Miniopterus australis) visit in their thousands, and Australia’s largest carnivorous bat, the vulnerable ghost bat (Macroderma gigas) is a rare vistor.


Marine fossils of original corals can still be seen in Capricorn Caves. Crinoids (sea lilies) were abundant and stromatoporoids, sponge-like filtering organisms with hard skeletons, built up large mounds of limestone.


The rare fern Tectaria devexa, seen in cave entrances, was threatened with extinction in 2006 after decades of drought. They are spread across southern Asia but Capricorn Caves with its 40 specimens was the only known locality in Australia until April 2001 when an additional smaller population was located at another cave. A threatened species recovery program has helped stabilise the fragile species.


The most popular tour is the Cathedral Cave Tour with its wheelchair access and the natural acoustics of the Cathedral Chamber. It’s a popular venue for weddings, Carols at Christmas and orchestral performances.


The tour meanders through ten chambers from smaller caves decorated with stalactites, cave coral and shawls to the huge domed Cathedral Cavern. In my tour they turned off all the lights in the Cavern while playing a cover version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah which sounded amazing in almost total darkness as candles flickered on the walls.


Because there was only three of us in this session we got a bit of the more adventurous tour. The exit is via the “Commando Crawl” and then a swing rope. Thankfully we we skipped the bit where you squeeze through “Fat Man’s Misery”, a tight fit cave not for the overweight – or claustrophobic.