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 Morrison knows the proposal is contentious. Cook is now 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 the first Englishman in Australia. The ship The Tryall sighted WA in 1622 and William Dampier’s visits in 1688 and 1699 did much to excite the British imagination about the strange southern continent whose natives had “great bottle-noses, pretty full lips and wide mouths.”

Travelling 70 years later, 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 lays 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 and 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 as the Seven Years War raged around him.

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, not discovered until 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 found and 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.

But Cook knew too 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 aboard his ship Endeavour that first spotted land. Cook knew Tasmania lay to the south but powered by a gale headed north before a bay landing on 29 April 1770. Cook had 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” and threw 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 could observe 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 (which 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. For now Cook’s act was one of imagination but was importantly 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 it was Banks’ evidence that 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 remained 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.



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