In his 1931 poem, Five Visions of Captain Cook, Australian poet Kenneth Slessor suggested that eighteenth century mariners were ‘more like warlocks than a humble man’. ‘Those captains drove their ships by their own blood,’ he wrote, ‘till yards were sprung and masts went overboard – Daemons in periwigs, doling magic out, Who read fair alphabets in stars’.
Slessor’s ‘visions’ of Cook – through the eyes of his crew – show us a man whose navigational skill was so magical it changed the world.
Cook sailed at night,
Let there be reefs a fathom from the keel
And empty charts. The sailors didn’t ask,
Nor Joseph Banks. Who cared? It was the spell
Of Cook that lulled them, bade them turn below,
Kick off their sea-boots, puff themselves to sleep,
Though there were more shoals outside
Than teeth in a shark’s head.
Slessor’s ‘spell’ referred to the contemporary admiration for Cook’s stunning navigational achievements, which revealed the rich cultures and places of the southern hemisphere to Europe. Writing during the interwar period, at a time when Australian ties with the British empire were at their height, Slessor’s Cook also helped consolidate the myth of Cook as ‘discoverer’ and founder of the later nations of Australia and New Zealand. This was a different kind of ‘spell’ that remains powerful in some quarters, emphasising some aspects of history but staying blind to others.
Here we are at the 250th commemoration of Cook’s ‘discovery’ of Australia and NZ, and we need to ask – why is the narrative of Cook so powerful?
One reason why Cook’s voyages are celebrated in Australia is because he provides a narrative that mirrors today’s cultural politics. He presents a British genealogy that entails ‘discovery’, conquest and settlement, therefore providing an Anglo heritage for the modern nation. From an Australian perspective Cook offers local commemorations for the east coast, allowing the nation to disregard the earlier voyages that inconveniently touched on the west coast [link to WA Museum website Dirk Hartog in 1616].
Lieutenant James Cook made three famous voyages to the South Pacific for the British Navy.
On his first voyage between 1768 to 1771, Cook reached New Zealand, following 127 years after the first European visit from Abel Tasman. Cook and his crew spent the following six months charting the New Zealand coast, before resuming their voyage westward across open sea. In April 1770 they became the first Europeans to reach the east coast of Australia, making landfall at Point Hicks, and then proceeding to Botany Bay.
Since the 1970s challenges to the ‘spell of Cook’ have come from Aboriginal Australians and Mãori, pointing out the Indigenous side of these exchanges, and their continuing legacies in the present.
However even during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were alternative visions of the pacific and its relationship to Europe. The lineal narrative of British conquest overshadows alternative conceptions of human equality and diversity – such as French voyager Labillardière’s prediction in 1800 of an antipodean ‘great future empire’led by NZ and Australia.
In 1800 Labillardière asked whether the period may arrive, ‘when New Zealand may produce her Lockes, her Newtons, and her Montesquieus; and when great nations in the immediate region of New Holland, may send their navigators, philosophers, and antiquaries, to contemplate the ruins of ancient London and Paris, and to trace the languid remains of the arts and sciences in this quarter of the globe. Who can tell, whether the rudiments of some great future empire may not already exist at Botany Bay?’
Rather than a lineal narrative of British heritage – both in the sense of a direct and one-way line from Britain to Australia, but also in the sense of a familial and exclusive bond –
Labillardière’s alternative vision of an antipodean ‘great future empire’ was grounded in a vision of human equality and unity that imagined the future progress of humankind as a whole. In these alternatives to Captain Cook-style genealogies of British conquest we see more inclusive, Indigenous-oriented, possibilities.
A key difference between the Australian and NZ encounters with Cook is the figure of Tupaia- priest, navigator, artist, translator and intermediary. Historian and anthropologist Anne Salmond argues that for many Māori in New Zealand in 1769, Tupaia was the key figure, not Cook. Here was a learned priest arriving from their homeland who was able to converse with them.
This is the focus of an amazing new film revealing Tupaia’s significant impact on Māori, and the recent detective work that has revealed his navigational and map-making achievements.
By contrast, in Australia, Cook’s encounters were almost non-existent. He misunderstood the complex Aboriginal protocols surrounding meetings, in which the visitor sits quietly, ignored by the hosts until they are ready. They fired and wounded a Gweagal man. As they sailed away from the Gweagal people of Kamay Botany Bay, Cook concluded that ‘we could know very little of [the Aborigines’] customs as we never were able to form any connections with them.’
In June, they encountered the Guugu Yimidhirr when they were beached at the Endeavour River, in what today is N Qld. There was some interaction but when a group of warriors were refused turtles, they set fire to the British camp, and Cook fired a musket at one of them. There were no stories, songs, or conversations such as took place in the Pacific.
This is a key historical difference that has continued to shape popular memory in each country. The historical lack of engagement with Aboriginal people is reflected in the ambiguity of Aboriginal voices today- and most debate has focused upon the return of artefacts. Just weeks ago, the Aus Labor party motion called on the federal government to hasten return of Aboriginal cultural materials – including ancestral human remains – in the name of “truth telling”. Image: Gweagal shield
Where are the Aboriginal stories?
Since the 1970s heated debates in Australia have focused on the memory and commemoration of the nation’s colonial past, often polarized between positions that see the past as a source of pride in the establishment of a nation, or of shame, because of the violent dispossession of First Nations peoples. These debates are comparable with struggles in many other countries about the contemporary value and meaning of memorials – such as civic statues of American heroes associated with slavery.
The notion that the continent of Australia was ‘terra nullius’ – empty and available for colonial settlement – is deeply embedded in the very statement that it was ‘discovered’ by Cook – ignoring Indigenous occupation of the continent of Australia since around 65,000 BP.
From a different direction, the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ is a national Indigenous consensus position on Indigenous constitutional recognition issued in 2017. It seeks a ‘Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.’
Such views have prompted echoes in the present, as artists alternative narratives question Western-centric histories – such as Lisa Reihana’s immersive wall video Emissaries – a stunning re-enactment of eighteenth-century Pacific encounters that brings the Indigenous participants to life.
Our debates about the past are often one-sided and rely on narratives produced by European historical actors such as Cook. Through immersive video art, Lisa Reihana reveals the Indigenous side of these encounters, challenging any unified account of the past and creating a path towards reconciliation.
Where the lineal view of history and progress continues to dominate Australian commemorations of Cook, NZ commemorations have identified the potential of multi-directional, cross-cultural, and many-sided conversations to bring to light more powerful histories. Through these alternative pasts, such emissaries show us how to break the spell of Cook, and instead, re-imagine a shared future.