Kurnell is a no-fuss, unpretentious place given that it’s supposed to be the cradle of the nation. Stretching along a promontory that looks like a witch’s finger pointing west from the southern shore of Botany Bay, opposite Sydney Airport, Kurnell is a hotchpotch sprawl of fibro modesty and glass-and-steel ambition, where trailered speedboats rest on the verges and Aussie flags snap on front-yard poles. Nestled in Kamay Botany Bay National Park, Kurnell overlooks a mass of water lacking the frenetic beauty of luminous sails and green and gold ferries, and of some of the international signature structures of modernity, that characterise that other vast nearby inlet that the colonists instead chose as the harbour for their penal settlement.
Its cross-bay vista, more Jeffrey Smart than Brett Whiteley, is of the big jets levitating over the ever-frantic north–south runways, the containers, cargo ships, breakwaters, piers and giant straddle cranes of Port Botany and, off to the right, the breakers foaming on the cliffs about La Perouse, home to two French naval ships for six weeks in 1788 and still Sydney’s most enduring Indigenous settlement. As you enter Kurnell along Captain Cook Drive you’ll pass the monolithic tanks of Sydney’s seawater desalination plant, exemplar of twenty-first- century engineering built in anticipation of Sydney’s now-extant twin perils of overpopulation and climate emergency, and, close by, the local community, sports and rec club with its Endeavour Chinese restaurant (a nearby café has the same name) offering Australian, Thai and Malay cuisine.
And just up on the left is the sign, cemented in the ground on a rusting fixture as unambiguously as the claim it stakes for Kurnell’s place in Australian history:
It is a bold, hotly contested proposition, notwithstanding what happened on the rocks a few hundred metres away from here on 29 April 1770. That is when HM Bark Endeavour, in the charge of Yorkshireman Lieutenant James Cook, the most talented and celebrated British navigator of his epoch, anchored in the bay and sent ashore two longboats in the afternoon. There is no denying the historic character of this day. It was the first recorded landing of a European vessel on the east coast of what was already mapped by the Dutch to the north, west and partial-south as New Holland. It was also the moment of initial contact between a civilisation stretching well beyond 60,000 years and another with its roots in an altogether different ‘old world’—one intent on further expanding its colonial claims in the name of the Enlightenment.
That welcome sign has its own complex evolutionary history. We will come to that. But its continued use, as non-Indigenous Australia plans a $50 million-plus jamboree for the sestercentennial of the Endeavour’s anchoring, is a reminder of just how exclusive of Aboriginal sentiment, history, culture and achievement has been—and remains—so much of Australia’s civic celebrations about Cook. For modernity has been, from the dedication of the first Australian monument to Cook in 1822, the celebrated purported consequence of the clash of civilisations on Terra Australis that followed Cook. Never mind that this supposed civilising modernism found expression in the attempted annihilation of people from nations tens of thousands of years old—and a dogged denialism about it that would imbue Australian historiography for generations.
NSW premier Robert Askin, voicing a pervading sentiment of the 1970 Cook bicentenary that endures in some quarters today, said, ‘The Aborigines made some resistance and suffered from their contact with our culture. We are now trying to restore what they inevitably lost from moving out of the Stone Age and into the machine age.’
The words of today’s mainstream political leaders about Cook and what he represents to them have tempered. But their sentiments about his arrival, hinging as most do on the purported improvement of continental life for it, do not diverge greatly. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a big Cook booster. Since his re-election Morrison has appeared in television interviews alongside a small replica of the Endeavour.
Morrison, the member for Cook (named after the navigator and incorporating Kurnell), said, when announcing that $50 million would be spent on 29 April 2020, commemorations including an aquatic monument in Botany Bay and the circumnavigation of Australia by the Endeavour replica (Cook never sailed such a route but the facts rarely impede his mythology), ‘As the 250th anniversary nears we want to help Australians better understand Captain Cook’s historic voyage and its legacy for exploration, science and reconciliation. That voyage is the reason Australia is what it is today and it’s important we take the opportunity to reflect on it.’
Many Indigenous people and promoters of their rights scoff at Morrison’s asserted potential for federal Cook commemorations to further ‘reconciliation’—especially at a moment when his government has rejected the central tenets of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart and its wish that ‘ancient sovereignty … shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood’.
• • •
Cook—Captain Cook, though he never officially held that naval rank—is the behemoth of national non-Indigenous foundation imagination, the venerated hero and white-hatted Columbus of Australia. As a nation we’ve never been good at parsing the moral and human shortcomings of our most prominent colonial leaders such as governors Phillip, Macquarie and Brisbane, all of whom did appalling things to the continent’s Indigenes. Yet Cook, the ‘discoverer’, as non-Indigenous historiography cast him for so long—though not as the invader, occupier or settler—still manages to divide Australia along black and white lines with a passion and hatred that evades those who later oversaw colonialism’s worst violent excesses.
In an essay to accompany East Coast Encounter, a 2014 National Maritime Museum art exhibition exploring Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives on 1770, Worimi man John Maynard, a professor of history at Newcastle University, writes how Cook has evolved into ‘a time-travelling bogeyman to Aboriginal Australia’:
Cook transcends time and space to wreak havoc across the continent upon the Aboriginal inhabitants over the course of the past 243 years. In this manifestation he represents white Australia in all of its guises including invasion, occupation, dispossession and the conducting of a symphony of violence. Does Cook deserve this label as the navy grim reaper? In a counterpoint Cook remains in settler colonial history both misrepresented and mythologised.
In 2018 Maynard again tackled Cook—the man, his legacy and the myth—for the National Library of Australia’s Cook and the Pacific exhibition. Here Maynard, I think, nails the Cook conundrum, writing, ‘Whether he deserves this monster mantle is open to conjecture and challenge from wider non-Indigenous Australia, but from an Aboriginal perspective Cook remains the scapegoat for white invasion.’ Maynard’s East Coast Encounter essay is illustrated with Reg Mombassa’s 2013 charcoal-and-pencil portrait of Cook, Jim Cook Mugshot, featuring the line ‘Jim Cook—Executed for Armed Robbery by the People of the South Pacific—Feb 14th 1779’.
Cook, the usher of the colonial land grab—the doorman for British invasion in 1788, for dispossession and for all of the shootings, massacres, poisonings and stolen children that followed colonisation—is an understandable theme of much modern Australian Indigenous art (and that sympathetic to Aboriginal sentiment). It reflects the pervasiveness of Cook in Aboriginal story and bequeathed memory, his centrality to the spoken history of Indigenous people the continent over—including in places he never ventured anywhere near but where there are nonetheless enduring stories of Cook and his men raping and murdering.
Among the most evocative recent works themed on Cook the evil swindler is Jason Wing’s bronze depicting Captain James Crook (2013), the statue’s face covered with a black balaclava. It riffs off the ubiquity in the Australian psyche and geographic/cultural landscape of Cook’s statuary shape. Even with his face covered like that of a cat burglar or bank robber, Cook’s head and shoulders are unmistakable. I returned to this work over and again when I first saw Defying Empire, the third National Indigenous Art Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia in 2017. In an exhibition electric with provocation about land rights, massacres, deaths in custody and every other colonial Indigenous injustice, Wing’s was, for me, the in-your-face work that most arrestingly exposed the deep, enduring Australian racial fissure on the white national foundation story.
Indigenous experiences of colonisation and its generational legacies have varied, of course. But there is doubtless a deep Indigenous emotional affinity with, and understanding of, Wing’s explanation of Captain James Crook. He writes:
When I attended High School I was taught that Australia was discovered by Captain James Cook. This colonial lie is further reinforced by a huge bronze sculpture in Hyde Park, Sydney, which is situated on a massacre site. Etched in stone are the words ‘Captain James Cook Discovered Australia 1770’. I feel physically ill every time I see this monument so I decided to create my own monument to Captain Cook, who personifies colonisation, in Captain James Crook 2013. There are many politically correct terms such as colonised, peacefully settled, occupied, discovered etc. The truth is that Australia was stolen by armed robbery. History is often written and erased by the victors, so I decided to challenge the colonial history of Australia from an Aboriginal perspective and simply tell the truth. As a result of my subversive Captain Cook bust I received many personal attacks on social media … personal attacks on my physical appearance and Aboriginality, their disgust at my disrespectful and inaccurate version of Australia’s history and my alleged defamation of Captain Cook’s great name.
In his 2019 opus Horizon, the American author Barry Lopez, celebrated for his writings on nature and geography, explores his long obsession with Cook—a complex man he admires, one who, he writes, ‘does not take well to being solved’. Having pointed out what he sees as Cook’s temperamental shortcomings (gruffness, insensitivity, pettiness, tyranny, obstreperousness) and strengths (selflessness, morality and grace), Lopez considers some of ‘what he bequeathed us’ aside from Australia’s east coast: the Hawaiian Islands, New Caledonia, the Cook Islands, ‘the empirical education of [botanist] Sir Joseph Banks’, and the disproving of the existence of a western entrance to the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Lopez writes:
He gave us, I believe, the first three-dimensional sense of Earthly order, something no one in the world before him had ever provided. In a time long before the modern era’s forced rearrangements of political geography, his was a stupendous accomplishment. After Cook, we were able to picture the entire planet, the whole of it at once, a sense of open space that, in the centuries of Western exploration before him, had eluded us. After Cook, the old cartographer’s admission of ignorance, Here Be Dragons, disappeared from the perimeter of world maps.
While walking the shore at Kurnell, Lopez probes his sympathy for Cook:
He did, of course, lay the groundwork for the colossal abuses of colonial exploration, but this was indeliberate and it was preceded by centuries of French, Spanish, English, Dutch and Portuguese barbarism. Cook was no King Leopold, with ten million dead in the Congo, a Lord Kitchener belligerent and imperious at Omdurman, near Khartoum. Yet Cook was murdered for his own unholy transgressions (as they were perceived by native Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay, on the island of Hawai’i). There is no grave to visit because the Hawaiians took his corpse away immediately and cut it up into pieces. What few parts of Cook’s body his men were able to retrieve were buried at sea shortly after his death. Later, perhaps because of Cook’s ‘martyrdom’, his achievements were praised by colonizers and missionaries eager to advance enterprises he might very well have wanted no part of.
I think this lets Cook off too lightly. It’s true—he couldn’t see the future. But for the very reason that centuries of colonisation had preceded his voyages of discovery, Cook would have been conversant with the well-worn patterns of empirical colonisation—including the taking of land and the violent repression of custodians—that Lopez references here. A glance across the Irish Sea would have been prescient enough.
Lopez’s 570-page meditation, the culmination of half a century’s travel and interaction with indigenous people the world over, and many years in the writing, is seeded with authorial musing on Cook’s temperament, achievements and shortcomings. By the last page Lopez has anything but ‘solved’ Cook. That would be to reduce, to oversimplify Cook, as so many (mostly) Australian politicians, poets, journalists and historians have done ever since the Hawaiians chopped him into pieces. Lopez writes, less in conclusion than complexity-fuelling proposition:
Cook is often held out as someone who embodied all that was right about the Enlightenment—informed thinking, curiosity about the world, a commitment to the ideals of humanism. But he also, of course, represented the dark side of the Enlightenment, a belief that there was only one right way to govern, to organize one’s economy, to worship God, and to think. All other ways were primitive (i.e. unenlightened) and those practicing them were assumed to be far behind on Progress’s inexorable path.
Lopez challenges the simple Cook-as-explorer/discoverer/hero trope with limitless questions and buts; generations of hagiographers have had much more time to achieve far less. Chief among them are many of those Australian civic leaders who’ve appropriated Cook’s arrival as a symbolic touchstone not only for ‘first contact’ and the birth of ‘modern’ Australia, but also for Federation, the arrival of the First Fleet, Anzac, and even for the establishment of Melbourne (the closest to which Cook sailed was today’s Point Hicks).
• • •
I’d passed low over Kurnell on that southern approach while flying into Sydney hundreds of times. It’s easy to miss the grassy expanse of Monument Terrace that meanders down to the landing place amid the more eye-catching discs, as they appear from above, of the desalination tanks, and the verdant carpet of national park that ends with the plummeting blond-sandstone cliffs at Cape Solander, named after Daniel Solander, the Swedish naturalist on Cook’s first Pacific voyage.
I’d never been there until this year. Then I went twice in the space of a fortnight, the first with historian Mark McKenna, who gently ribs me for needing a GPS to get in and out of the place. The point he’s making is clear. It’s not aimed at me. What he means is that this part of the Sutherland Shire—or just ‘The Shire’ as New South Wales knows it—where Cook stepped ashore looms large in Australian history and national memory. Yet its geography (it takes well over an hour to drive the 45 kilometres to get there from my place in the inner west but it’s barely 15 kilometres as the cockatoo flies) separates it from the picturesque Sydney much of Australia knows. Australia knows it emotionally, mythically. But not physically. It’s a mild, late winter’s day with little of the breeze that so frequently buffets Botany Bay—a good arvo for sightseeing, yet few people are wandering Monument Terrace or the shore with its dimpled sandstone plateaus, upon one of which Cook first set foot. It’s just after three o’clock and the visitor centre is closed. This is not a well-frequented place.
‘It feels like such a long way away, but the story attached to it has become part of us, in all its various interpretations,’ McKenna says. We laugh while watching a bloke on Prince Charles Parade use a leaf blower to blast the ever-encroaching sand back towards the beach from the big expanse of grass outside his house. Modernity pushing back against the elements. We drive around and look for that welcome sign. We can’t find it, even though it turns out we’ve driven past it perhaps two or three times.
It is McKenna who writes of Cook in his 2018 Quarterly Essay ‘Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future’, ‘We stand forever on the beach with him [Cook].’ It’s an incisive metaphor. McKenna explains:
I wanted to leave the door open on Cook. All too often, we expect history to be definitive, to pass judgement and announce a verdict. But understanding Cook is about much more than apportioning praise or blame. We can’t escape him, and we can’t deny him. For better or worse, we’re entangled with his legacy. He’s one of those figures in our history to whom we’ll always return; ceaselessly searching for new ways to see him and ourselves in one and the same field of vision.
In the essay McKenna explores the provenance of that ‘Welcome to Kurnell’ sign. With the help of local historians, including Sutherland Shire’s research librarian Stephanie Bailey, McKenna recounts how from about 1954, when Captain Cook Drive was opened (an unmade, potholed track, littered with industrial and household garbage, alongside the oil refineries, had previously linked Cronulla and Kurnell) a road-side sign had claimed it was ‘The Birthplace of Australia’.
In June 1981, after lobbying from the council and local members of State Parliament, NSW premier Neville Wran ordered all plaques in The Rocks describing it as ‘Australia’s birthplace’ to be removed. That tribute belonged to Kurnell, he said. Sutherland Shire eventually settled on a sign reading, ‘Welcome to Kurnell, birthplace of the nation’.
In late 1993, with growing awareness of Indigenous land rights amid the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and the High Court’s Mabo decision, Sutherland Shire—‘conscious of the fact that the term currently used by Council, “Birthplace of the Nation”, causes offence to many aboriginal Australians’—came up with the existing sign.
Cook commemorations at this place had long been conducted without deference to either Indigenous sensibility or desire, for 70 years from Federation in 1901 often involving the anchoring of a replica Endeavour, the dispatching of the long-boats and the recreation of shootings of resisting Indigenous people—who were brought from interstate to play the local Gweagal (although sometimes the role was given to whites in blackface). It wasn’t until 2000 before council decided, in consultation with an Aboriginal Advisory Committee, officially to change the tenor of the commemorations, consistent with their new title, ‘Meeting of Two Cultures’.
Bruce Howell, a former high school teacher of Wiradjuri descent, has served on the shire’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee since retiring seven years ago. He has read the diaries of both Cook and Joseph Banks from the Endeavour voyage and he believes the navigator has been ‘mythologised and oversimplified in Australia’ by those who, on one side, have cast him as a flawless hero and, on the other, as Maynard’s ‘bogeyman’.
He is adamant Australia, as it prepares for the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival, can learn from the shire’s annual Meeting of Two Cultures commemorations. Speaking in a personal capacity, he says:
I believe that the way to do it is to firstly ensure that both sides of the 1770 story are told … warts and all, and that it be placed into the proper context of the times. This is what …[happens with] the Meeting of Two Cultures ceremonies … right where the first meetings took place, in Kamay Botany Bay National Park. The premise is that proper respect and acknowledgement should be given not only to all those aboard the Endeavour, but equally to the local people … who were confronted with both the Endeavour and then the landing party on the afternoon of April 29th 1770.
One hurdle is that for so many Australians (myself included) they’ve never been taught our foundational history—many will conflate the events of 1770 and 1788, and will generally know little about either. What fills the void is a mixture of misconceptions, from what used to be the widely held belief that James Cook discovered Australia, to the more modern belief that Cook (literally) declared terra nullius over the whole continent … and to a worrying newly held belief in which James Cook is held up as being responsible for the carnage that confronted Aboriginal Australians across the whole frontier of the expanding colony post-1788. In this context, the resultant contempt held by many, if not the majority of Aboriginal people towards James Cook, is perfectly understandable. But if Aboriginal people hold James Cook in contempt, yet the arrival of James Cook is simultaneously credited by some commentators [and] historians as constituting the ‘birth of a nation’, how can Aboriginal people and mainstream commentators, historians [and other] Australians reconcile their differences at any level?
As Sutherland Shire and the state and federal governments plan the 250th anniversary celebrations of Cook’s arrival—replete with yet another monument—the days of that Welcome to Kurnell sign may be numbered. McKenna writes that it ought ‘be pulled down before it falls down. A new sign should be erected in keeping with the spirit of the annual commemoration of Cook’s landing: “Welcome to Kurnell: Where Cultures Meet”.’
• • •
The Cook foundation myth centres on the first of his three Pacific voyages of discovery, which were undertaken over 12 years to 1780 (he died in Hawaii on 14 February 1779 before he could complete the last) and pretty much ignores the second and third, during both of which his vessels also visited Australia. On the first voyage, from 1768 to 1771, aboard the small, flat-hulled converted coal transporter renamed the Endeavour, he left with orders to observe the 1769 transit of Venus from Tahiti, to visit New Zealand, and to discover—if it existed—the Great Southern Land.
To disprove was as important as European ‘discovery’ for the Endeavour voyage. Cook established there was no Great Southern Land (in a later voyage he also disproved the existence of a western entrance to the Northwest Passage). But he mapped the east coast of Australia, stopping in four places, the first on the shores of Kamay. Australia was not the intended major focus of the first voyage; he spent six months in and around New Zealand, already ‘discovered’ by Abel Tasman, where he mapped the coasts of the main islands and had mixed, sometimes violent, interactions with the Māori.
It is possible, I think, to imagine him as something of a Neil Armstrong of his day, sailing into areas of the great unknown when some still believed in a flat Earth that a boat could tumble off—the Here Be Dragons cosmic void. As Maynard writes, ‘In 2014 I went on board the Endeavour replica … I was struck by what an achievement it was to sail such a tiny craft across such a vast distance and through some terrifying seas.’
The east coast of Australia was but a part—albeit a significant one—of a big brief. Yet Australia rarely wants its context; just as so much twentieth-century Australian military historiography excludes New Zealand (and other dominion troops) in Anzac, the Kiwis—and so much else about Cook’s first voyage—have been omitted in our observance of it. Cook’s secret orders from the admiralty read, in part:
You are … to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives, if there be any and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them, making them presents of such Trifles as they may Value inviting them to Traffick, and Shewing them every kind of Civility and Regard; taking Care however not to suffer yourself to be surprised by them, but to be always upon your guard against any Accidents. You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain: Or: if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.
Cook was also in possession of other advice—‘hints’ from James Douglas, the 14th Earl of Morton and president of the Royal Society in London. In February 1768 the Royal Society successfully petitioned King George III to support the passing of Venus and ‘discovery’ expedition. Douglas, a Scot, was a rare authentic progressive—a natural philosopher, humanitarian and political iconoclast, and a truly enlightened product of the Enlightenment.
Douglas advised the expedition to treat with kindness and understanding any Indigenous people encountered. He urged the scientists aboard Endeavour to show ‘the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the Natives of the several Lands where the Ship may touch’ and to proceed with an understanding that asserted, unambiguously, the Indigenous ownership of the land. Douglas urged them:
To check the petulance of the Sailors and restrain the wanton use of Fire Arms. To have it still in view that sheding [sic] the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature—They are human creatures, the work of the same omnipotent Author, equally under his care with the most polished European, perhaps being less offensive, more entitled to his favour. They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit. No European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country or settle among them without their voluntary consent. Conquest over such people can give no just title; because they could never be the Aggressors.
The contradictions in Cook’s treatment of Indigenous peoples were stark on the first Pacific voyage (and on the subsequent two). That he cravenly acted contrary to the orders from the Admiralty—knowing he did not have permission to possess the land and, indeed, that he was encountering people living idyllically, environmentally and economically who just wanted him gone—is well established. That he also ignored Douglas’s recommendations, less so.
On the afternoon of first contact Cook’s crew shot two Gweagal men who opposed them from the shore. Cook observed, correctly, ‘all they seem’d to want was for us to be gone’. He also noted that they did not want to trade because they:
seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one thing we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities.
Maynard in no way exonerates Cook’s behaviour or arrogance in contravening his instructions:
… clearly Cook did not open up any meaningful dialogue or discussion, nor did he gain any consent in claiming the entire east coast of the continent. As such he was in direct violation of his orders from the Crown …There was no welcome mat of consent rolled out. The arrogance of Cook’s actions in claiming possession of the continent without any alliance with, or consent from, the owners, and the ignorance on this part that it suggests, stands in stark contrast to his glowing written record which speaks of a paradise of equality.
Although his dealings with the Gweagal at Botany Bay—and in his other three east coast interactions—were not personally extensive, Cook had some appreciation of the idyllic nature of Aboriginal subsistence and environmental affinity, if not an understanding of their related economies. What insight he did have was, perhaps, gained through the prism of his sensibility for the plight of the English rural and urban working class and unemployed, and the harsh poverty of their existence. Towards the end of his time on the east coast of New Holland, Cook reflected upon the people:
In reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquility which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life … they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air.
Cook was also taken with the beauty and abundance of the north-east, and its potential riches:
The Coast of this Country, at least so much of it as lays to the Northward of 25° of Latitude, abounds with a great Number of fine bays and Harbours, which are shelter’d from all Winds. But, the Country it self so far as we know doth not produce any one thing that can … become an Article in trade to invite Europeans to fix a settlement upon it. However this Eastern side is not that barren and Miserable country that Dampier and others have discribed the western side to be. We are to Consider that we see this Country in the pure state of Nature, the Industry of Man has had nothing to do with any part of it and yet we find all such things as nature hath bestow’d upon it in a flourishing state. In this Extensive Country it can never be doubted but what most sorts of Grain, Fruits, Roots &C … of every kind would flourish here were they once brought hither, planted and cultivated by the hand of Industry; and here are Provender for more Cattle at all seasons of the year than ever can be brought into this Country.
Perhaps Cook could not have anticipated how the colonial governors, post invasion, would administer their occupation. But it is clear from this that he saw the country as a great place for an imperial cattle run. Post-1788, the unstoppable march of pastoral expansion west, north and south was characterised by massacre and resistance, and a desire to rid the land of its custodians.
Cook looked upon the Indigenous people he met along the coast with wonder, making an effort to learn a few words of their language without communicating with them meaningfully about his intention to take possession of their lands. For the most part he seems to have had the eye and sensibility of an eighteenth-century white anthropologist/ethnologist, his writings freighted with all of the assumptions that the British academy of the day held about racial superiority and inferiority, and Indigenous economies:
Their defensive weapons are Shields made of wood but these we never saw use’d but once in … Botany Bay. I do not look upon them to be a warlike People, on the Contrary I think them … timorous and inoffensive race, no ways inclinable to cruelty, as appear’d from their behaviour to one of our people in Endeavour River … Neither are they very numerous, they live in small parties along by the Sea Coast, the banks of Lakes, Rivers creeks … They seem to have no fix’d habitation but move about from place to place like wild Beasts in search of food, and I beleive depend wholy upon the success of the present day for their subsistance.
Cook and his men had little understanding of how precariously balanced with nature Indigenous food sources were. While fixing the boat after its near-disastrous holing on the Great Barrier Reef at Wabalumbaal (he renamed it Endeavour River), Cook’s men filled the deck with giant green turtles—a planned source of protein for the crew on the homeward voyage. The local men came in a delegation and asked for one of the turtles. The crew refused. A fight broke out and the locals were repelled. One Indigenous man was later shot as the tensions over the turtles—and Cook’s inability to understand the importance of them as a food source to the locals—heightened.
As Banks later wrote in his journal, ‘… they seemd to set no value upon anything we had except our turtle, which of all things we were the least able to spare them’. The turtle incident can be viewed as foreshadowing the lack of situational cultural awareness that laid the circumstances of Cook’s death at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. Cook’s two ships, Resolution and Discovery, arrived in late 1778 at the start of the local harvest, Makahiki. Tensions rose when Cook and the crew took freely to provision the ships. They sailed but returned soon afterwards to repair storm damage to Resolution. Cook and four crew died after going ashore to investigate a theft from Resolution.
Cook was not a typical blue-blood British Navy man. One of eight children in a rural east-Yorkshire family, he entered the navy at the comparatively advanced age of 27 (many officers began in their teens) after working as a Newcastle-to-London coal transporter from Whitby at the mouth of the River Esk. After entering the navy in 1755 he honed his survey and mapping skills in North America. He took part in the Siege of Louisburg (1758) as master of the fourth-rate HMS Pembroke, and during five of his 12 years in North America he surveyed and mapped Newfoundland. He was the best instrument navigator and most accomplished British cartographer of his day.
Cook was, however, also in awe of the non-instrument navigational skills of the people he encountered on his three Pacific voyages, techniques based on the observance of stars, ocean currents, waves, seabirds, winds and weather in both familiar and foreign waters. In the Society Islands the Tahitian Polynesian high priest Tupaia joined the voyage in 1769 and helped direct the Endeavour across the ocean from island to island, eventually to New Zealand and to the east coast of Australia. He drew a chart detailing 130 islands within a 3200-kilometre radius of his island, Raiatea.
Cook and especially Banks admired Tupaia’s skills, if not his character; Cook wrote of Tupaia as a divisive man who expected officers and crew to defer to him—something they were most reluctant to do because he was an ‘Indian’. Cook acknowledged, however, that ‘by means of Tupaia … you would always get people to direct you from Island to Island and would be sure of meeting with a friendly resception [sic] and refreshments at every Island you came to’.
After Tupaia’s death on board Endeavour at Batavia in November 1770, Cook reflected, ‘He was a Shrewd, Sensible, Ingenious Man, but proud and obstinate which often made his situation on board both disagreeable to himself and those about him, and tended much to promote the deceases [sic] which put a period to his life.’ Tupaia was a critical part of the Cook Endeavour Australian east coast experience. Yet he rarely rates a mention in modern 1770 commemorations, unlike in Tahiti and New Zealand, where he is widely acknowledged and celebrated.
Knowing that those he called the ‘Indians’ of Australia wanted ‘us to be gone’, Cook claimed the continent anyway, without their permission, contrary to orders. He hoisted the British colours at Possession Island on 22 August 1770, having first sighted the southern coast of today’s Victoria on 19 April.
That first sighting was (arguably) of Tolywiarar, which Cook promptly renamed Point Hicks. This set the pattern as Endeavour traced the coast, mapping significant landmarks and renaming them along the way from Gulaga (Mt Dromedary), Didthul (Pigeon House), Kamay (Stingray Bay then Botany Bay), Wollumbin (Mt Warning) and so on, all the way to Bwgcolman (Palm Island) and Gangaarr (Cooktown). So began the colonisation—and erasure—of 60,000-plus years of Indigenous nomenclature, a practice that would gather force after invasion in 1788, when parts of the continent were systematically renamed to commemorate not the mass deaths of the Indigenous custodians (eight places in Queensland alone are named Skeleton Creek!) but to celebrate the very acts of murdering them.
When I read copies of Cook’s diaries in the National Library of Australia (the original marked MS1—denoting its most-prized-possession status in an institution regarded as the nation’s memory—was undergoing preservation work when I visited) in his elegant hand, with its elaborate curlicued Ps and flamboyant lyrebird tails on the ds, I wonder how much of what history has apportioned to Cook he would willingly accept.
His words are pervaded with a wonder at all he experiences, and a strong acknowledgement that in Australia he had encountered people completely at one with their environment, happier and healthier than any in ‘civilised’ Europe. He died in Hawaii, having well overstayed his welcome—nine years before Arthur Phillip led the invasion on 26 January 1788. Could Cook have reasonably foreseen all—or any—of what would follow? I wonder. And how would he have taken to being associated with so much of the white pageantry around 1788, Federation, Anzac spirit after the First World War, and the much later establishment of a city with which he had no association? I wonder, too, what he’d think about the 100-plus stone and brass official monuments to him (and many more unofficial ones) across the country—not to mention hundreds upon hundreds of streets, buildings, parks and thoroughfares, and even a town in North Queensland named 1770, dedicated to him.
Stephanie Bailey, the research librarian for Sutherland Shire Libraries, has written extensively about how Cook’s arrival has been commemorated from the mid 1800s. Her work has turned into something of a private obsession as she continues to explore how ‘Cook’s achievements as a navigator and explorer, as well as certain character virtues attributed to him, have been used to commemorate more than that moment of first contact’. Speaking in a private capacity and not on behalf of Sutherland Shire, she says:
From the mid 1800s, inspiration was found in Cook by those who not only sought a foundation narrative free from the messy business of convicts, but a tangible representation of their aspirations for this country. They saw in Cook a man who, despite humble beginnings, accomplished extraordinary feats through determination and hard work—much like, it was hoped, Australia could and would.
In 1901, a re-enactment of Cook’s landing was staged at Kurnell as a ‘fitting climax’ to the festivities in celebration of Federation. In fact, Cook has often been connected—both deliberately and instinctively—with national events and commemorations (like 1788 and Australia Day), along with notions of what it means to be Australian. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that following the First World War, the language used to describe the Anzacs greatly reflects that which had earlier been used in reference to Cook: indomitable will, splendid courage, great endurance, vast energy, tenacity of purpose, perseverance.
• • •
In 2018, as the perennial ‘debate’ about Australia Day raged, federal National Party deputy leader Bridget McKenzie argued there should be no change to 26 January. She said, ‘That is when the course of our nation changed forever. When Captain Cook stepped ashore. And from then on, we’ve built an incredibly successful society, best multicultural society in the world.’
Other politicians, or their offices, have also been confused. In the same year the office of Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young issued a statement (unauthorised, she insisted) saying, ‘Despite an important national debate about changing the date of Australia Day away from Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay, the government has decided to spend taxpayer money it is stripping from the ABC on yet another monument to Captain Cook on the land of the Dharawal people.’ Meanwhile on 26 January 2019, a young Australian woman protesting outside Westminster in London told the ABC, ‘We are here today protesting against Australia Day, which marks the day that Captain Cook landed in Australia …’
Cook, since Federation, has often been invoked to commemorate Australia Day and others of national note, just as the fallacious ‘discovery’ trope has been attached to his Australian memorialisation since the first plaque was dedicated to him in 1822 by Thomas Brisbane, the colony’s governor and president of the Australasian Philosophical Society.
It’s a freezing, overcast and angry early-spring day when I return to Kurnell to look for this plaque (some distance from Cook’s actual landing place) that is affixed to a cliff at a place called Inscription Point. The aircraft whine with maximum mechanical effort as they take off steeply and turn into the 80-kilometre winds that buffet Kamay. There is not a soul about the sculpted lawns of the commemoration area. Today, I think a crime novelist could set a murder—or an illicit assignation—here. There would be no witnesses.
I find the plaque, which was attached to the cliff so that it could not be tampered with. The inscription is striking for two reasons: it gives equal acknowledgement to Joseph Banks as it does to Cook, and because it (probably accidentally given Brisbane’s attitude to the ‘natives’, with whom he’d soon be at war around Bathurst) references an animated landscape that bore witness to the arrival of Endeavour. It reads, in part:
Under the Auspices of British Science
These Shores Were Discovered
James Cook & Joseph Banks
The Columbus and Maecenas of Their Time
This Spot Once Saw Them Ardent in the Pursuit of Knowledge
So much of the pageantry around Cook has played out around the green and the beach, where a modest plinth on a knobbly rock a few metres out at low tide denotes where Cook most likely stepped ashore. A grander monument—a 12-metre obelisk—was dedicated in the 1870s on Burrawang Walk (Monument Track).
In January 1901 an elaborate re-enactment to celebrate Federation unfolded about the obelisk. An old ship, with no resemblance to Endeavour, anchored in the bay, a correspondent for Sydney’s Evening News noting, ‘On either side of her bows, and on the stern, was painted the name “Endevour”, spelt as here given.’ The correspondent recounted how a man posing as Tupaia had tried to tempt the resistant ‘blacks’ with beads:
As the blacks reached the scrub two others … hideously painted, armed with bunches of spears, and yelling loudly, ran to meet the approaching boat. As it drew near the shore, they yelled defiance at it, and threw spears with a consistent inaccuracy that was astounding. Then a gun was fired from the boat, followed by another shot, and one of the two fell, dropping his weapons.
The original weapons—including the infamous Gweagal shield—are now held tightly in the vast Indigenous collection of the British Museum. The shield, replete with a hole from a musket round (although the Museum says it may be a lance piercing), was ‘loaned’ to Australia for a 2015 exhibition, its return to London assured under an obsequiously colonial federal Act, the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act 2013, under which it could not be subject to Australian legal protection if reclaimed by the Gweagal who, naturally, want it back. Would Cook, I wonder, have foreseen that?
It’s instructive that the Gweagal took no part in the 1901 Federation re-enactment of Cook’s arrival. At that event the federal home affairs minister, William Lyne, ‘expressed his gratitude to the Queensland Government for having lent this colony a party of aboriginals for the purposes …’
According to the Daily Telegraph, Māori James Carroll, the native minister of New Zealand:
… said they could not appreciate the peculiarity of his position. He was there as an aboriginal visitor to their shores to witness the birth of their nation. [He said that] On their road to national greatness he would ask them to carefully consider in the administration of their affairs, the interests of the aboriginal race of Australia. He was certain now that they were in the presence of a higher knowledge and a higher being that he could recommend the aboriginals to wait with patience, and their interests would be
The optimism of Carroll, a New Zealand minister in 1901, was misguided; it would be 118 years before an Indigenous Australian would sit in the federal cabinet.
Fifty years later, as part of the jubilee celebrations for Federation, Sutherland Shire held a ‘Back to Sutherland’ festival. It included a re-enactment of the Endeavour arriving at Kurnell. This time members of the Cronulla and North Cronulla surf lifesaving clubs, their skin darkened for the occasion, played the Gweagal resisters. In another later re-enactment in central Sydney they were played by (white) actors from a theatre group.
• • •
When I was a child in Melbourne my mother and I would sometimes spend Saturday mornings in the Fitzroy Gardens. It was where my imagination had allowed me to believe that Captain Cook, the supposed discoverer of Australia, had also long ago lived. I felt that Captain Cook and his cottage were as much a part of my city as the MCG. It made sense. The cottage where he’d dwelt was right there! I’d walked through its tiny rooms with Mum many times and had been on several obligatory school visits to what the teacher had called ‘Captain Cook’s Cottage’.
On a recent late-winter morning I breathed on my hands to ward off the cold while waiting for the cottage to open. I could see the actors inside the visitors centre, dressed in period costume (Were they, I wondered, colonists, or Yorkshire men and women?) and waiting for their working day as welcomers/guides to begin. A British tourist went through the gate ahead of me, saying to his partner, ‘So, this is where Captain Cook lived.’
But he never did. Not in Great Ayton, North Yorkshire, from where the cottage was transported, stone by stone, in 1933–34. And certainly never in Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens. Cook may have visited the cottage, home to his parents, James and Grace, in their later years. Nobody knows; historians have found no empirical evidence to support this proposition. It was certainly never, as it was called when I was a child, ‘Captain Cook’s Cottage’.
But that didn’t stop Melbourne industrialist and philanthropist Russell Grimwade purchasing the cottage and shifting it to Melbourne to mark the city’s centenary of foundation. Cook’s cottage was a miracle of history, a place with no connection to Australia, yet for decades successfully miscast as some nationalistic colonial icon.
As Linda Young points out in her paper ‘The contagious magic of James Cook in Captain-Cook’s Cottage’, a Melbourne journalist and ex-navy man, Herman Gill, was instrumental in getting Grimwade to buy the cottage for the state.
Gill constructed a Cook–Melbourne connection, using the argument that the first Australian coastline observed by Cook’s 1770 expedition, now named Point Hicks in Gippsland, was in what had become the state of Victoria. Since Victoria’s capital, Melbourne, was about to mark 100 years of settlement, Gill suggested that Melbourne should become the ‘proud guardian of the one-time home of the man who had made the centenary possible, Captain James Cook’.
It was a gymnastic stretch of history, yet one that endured throughout—and confused—my childhood perceptions about Cook, as it did many other kids’ in the sixties. ‘Do you have any questions?’ one of the people in eighteenth-century garb asked as I left what is now called, less controversially, ‘Cook’s Cottage’, and where it is now made clear that there is no definite physical link between the great man and the building.
‘Too many,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’
Gill, Grimwade and others might have defended it as ‘Captain Cook’s Cottage’ for a while on the grounds of poetic licence. But decent history doesn’t allow for that.
A few days later and I’m back in Kurnell, standing on the rock that the great British navigator’s foot first, apparently, touched almost 250 years ago. It’s blowing a gale. I shelter in the nearby 1770 Café (a waitress wearing a replica eighteenth-century mariner’s hat serves me), before tracing the bay along Prince Charles Parade. I’m thinking that my childhood’s Captain Cook’s Cottage doesn’t seem like such a stretch given all the other licence Australia has taken on Cook and all the questions that swirl, like smoky phantoms, around his legacies.
Circumnavigation or just the east coast? 1770 and 1788? Cook as some father of Federation, too? Hero or bogeyman? Who—besides history—cares? As McKenna writes, you can love, loathe and misrepresent Cook, ‘but we stand forever on the beach with him’.
As the wind does its best to blow me off the path, I can hear the monotonous mechanical whine of a leaf blower. It’s the same bloke this time, too, defending his lawn in its perpetual, existential war with that beach.
Paul Daley is a Sydney-based author, essayist and award-winning journalist who writes about history, Australian national identity and Indigenous culture in his column ‘Postcolonial’ for the Guardian. Allen & Unwin is publishing his forthcoming novel, Jesustown.
 John Maynard, ‘Captain Cook came very cheeky you know—James Cook, an Aboriginal Appraisal’, in the exhibition catalogue East Coast Encounter, One Day Hill, Collingwood, 2014, p. 16.
 John Maynard, ‘“I’m Captain Cooked”: Aboriginal Perspectives on James Cook, 1770–2020’, in the exhibition catalogue Cook and the Pacific, National Library of Australia, 2018, p. 3.
 Reg Mombassa illustration, in Maynard, ‘Captain Cook came very cheeky you know’, p. 17.
 Barry Lopez, Horizon, Penguin Random House, London, 2019, p. 57.
 Lopez, Horizon, pp. 58–9.
 Lopez, Horizon, pp. 60–1.
 Lopez, Horizon, p. 118.
 Mark McKenna, ‘Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future’, Quarterly Essay, Black Inc., 2018, p. 61.
 Author interviews with Bruce Howell, 2019.
 McKenna, ‘Moment of Truth’, p. 58.
 Maynard, “I’m Captain Cooked”, p. 1.
 Maynard, “I’m Captain Cooked”, p. 2.
 James Cook, Endeavour journal, NLA, MS1.
 Author interviews with Stephanie Bailey, 2019.
 Evening News, 8 January 1901, p. 3, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/114017128>.
 Evening News, 8 January, 1901. p. 3.
 Daily Telegraph, 8 January, 1901, p. 6.