Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Paul Daley on Capt Cook: Hero or bogeyman?

Captain Cook Claims Botany Bay, New South Wales, Australia, 1770 (1886): a wood engraving depicting Cook proclaiming NSW a British possession from Picturesque Atlas of Australasia Vol I by Andrew Garran. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images.

Paul Daley, Flawless hero or bogeyman? Captain Cook still divides along black and white lines, The Guardian, 15 December 2019

As Australia prepares for a $50m celebration of the 250th anniversary of the Endeavour’s anchoring, what is left to learn about Captain James Cook?

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, break-waters, 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 21st-century engineering built in anticipation of Sydney’s now-extant twin perils of over-population 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:

Welcome to Kurnell the Birthplace of Modern Australia

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.

A replica of Captain James Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour. Photograph: Charlotte Graham/CAG Photography Ltd.

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 $50m-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. The 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.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison with the anchor from James Cook’s ship Endeavour during a visit to the Cooktown Museum. Photograph: Marc McCormack/EPA.

Morrison, the member for Cook (named after the navigator and incorporating Kurnell), said, when announcing that $50m 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”.

‘White Australia in all of its guises’

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.”

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.

Cook, the usher of the colonial land grab, is an understandable theme of much modern Australian Indigenous art.
Among the most evocative recent works themed on Cook the evil swindler is Jason Wing’s bronze 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 the work. 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.

‘Welcome to Kurnell: Where Cultures Meet’

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.

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.

Australia knows it emotionally, mythically. But not physically. When I visit with historian Mark McKenna 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 roadside 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:

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This is an edited extract from On Cook, by Paul Daley, Meanjin summer 2019 edition.

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