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Captain Cook: navigator or coloniser?

Storm warning - Indigenous canoes at the site where Captain Cook came ashore at Kurnell, Sydney, in April 1770. Photo: Alec Smart


Captain James Cook is under the spotlight again after two women were arrested for spray-painting graffiti on his statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park in the early hours of the morning on 13 June. One of the alleged perpetrators is a part-time employee of NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge.

The 1879 bronze life-sized statue of Cook, which is stood atop a granite plinth with his arm extended, was last targeted in Aug 2017, when the words ‘No pride in genocide’ and ‘Change the date’ were spray-painted on the statue, the latter a reference to a growing campaign to change Australia Day from 26 January to a date more agreeable to Australia’s Aboriginal population.

The vandalism comes as police investigate the defacing of statues of former Australian Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard in Ballarat, Victoria, which were sprayed with red paint.

On 12 June a Perth statue of Captain James Stirling, first Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Western Australia, had its neck and hands painted blood-red whilst an Aboriginal flag was painted over the inscription at the base. A 30-year-old man was charged with criminal damage.

WWII Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, London, was also spray-painted with the words “was a racist” before authorities boarded it up to protect it from further vandalism.

The graffitiing of Cook’s Sydney statue comes a week after a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, was hauled off its stand by Black Lives Matter protestors and rolled through the street before being pushed into the River Avon.

That incident inspired the destruction of a statue of Italian navigator and slave-trader Christopher Columbus in St Pauls, USA, during anti-racist demonstrations across the USA. Columbus, who was sponsored by Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, made four trips to the Americas from 1492, where he exploited and murdered the Indigenous population and forced them to mine gold.

Cook’s statue in Sydney has long been criticised by Indigenous groups because the inscription on the base asserts the British explorer “discovered” Australia on his arrival in 1770.

Cook’s statues in New Zealand have fared similarly. Two Cook statues in Gisborne on the North Island were moved to safekeeping in May and July 2019 after they were graffitied by Maori activists.

In Oct 2019 during the Tuia 250 event organized by New Zealand’s Ministry for Culture and Heritage to commemorate 250 years since Cook’s Pacific voyages, the replica of his ship, Endeavour, was refused permission to dock in Doubtless Bay, Mangonui, by Maori activists.

Who was Captain Cook?
While Cook’s legacy is being questioned, who was he? Was he the advance party for European colonisation of the Pacific islands, a plunderer and rapist like Christopher Columbus, or a gifted navigator following orders to map the world then-unknown to European explorers?

The 39-year-old junior naval officer, who was promoted to lieutenant in 1769 to command his first voyage, was a compromise choice for the three Pacific missions he subsequently led.

In 1768 The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge petitioned King George to finance a scientific expedition to Tahiti to observe the 1769 transit of Venus across the Sun and measure the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

The Office of the Admiralty and Marine Affairs decided to combine Cook’s scientific voyage with a confidential second mission to search the southern Pacific Ocean for the mysterious and elusive great southern territory.

The Royal Society suggested command be given to Scottish geographer Alexander Dalrymple, who accepted under the condition he be granted a commission as a Captain in the Royal Navy. However, First Lord of the Admiralty Edward Hawke refused to give command of a Navy vessel to an academic not educated as a seaman, insisting he would sooner cut off his right hand.

The Admiralty then proposed James Cook, a naval officer renowned as an accurate cartographer and mathematician.

Despite his later reputation as probably the greatest nautical navigator in history, Captain Cook’s relations with the Indigenous peoples he encountered on his three Pacific voyages were complicated and often blood-soaked. The last of these treks resulted in his own clubbing and stabbing to death on a Hawaiian beach on 14 Feb 1779 after an ill-fated attempt at taking King Kalaniʻōpuʻu hostage, to force the natives to return a stolen canoe.

Sometimes the Endeavour crew’s conflicts with natives came about through misinterpretations of their approaches; on other occasions Cook authorised severe punishments for perceived transgressions – such as a Maori who was shot dead for attempting to steal a musket.

For example, in Oct 1769, Cook’s crew sailed into the cove he renamed Poverty Bay and came ashore at Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa (which, a century later, colonialists renamed Gisborne). There his encounter with the indigenous peoples was fraught and led to the shooting death of nine Maoris – likely through a misunderstanding of the Maoris’ warlike greeting ceremony.

Other encounters as he charted New Zealand and the Polynesian islands were sometimes brutal, more often cordial. On his first Pacific voyage Cook utilised the services of Tupaia, a Tahitian arioi (revered spiritual leader) and his apprentice Taiata. Tupaia’s skills in negotiation as well as nautical navigation around the Polynesian isles enabled Cook to communicate effectively with Maori chiefs, trade gifts and secure unhindered passage.

In Australia, Cook also experienced difficult relations with Aborigines, most of whom avoided his advances.

Although the (currently suspended) plan for the replica of Cook’s ship, HMB Endeavour is to circumnavigate Australia in a clockwise direction to mark 250 years since Cook’s first arrival in Botany Bay, Cook himself only sailed the original Endeavour up the east coast.

In fact Cook and his crew only made landfall at four stops – Kurnell, Seventeen Seventy (formerly Bustard Bay but renamed in 1936 to commemorate Cook’s visit), Cooktown at the mouth of the Endeavour River (after a near-catastrophic incident when the Endeavour ran aground on a shoal of the Great Barrier Reef) and Possession Island.

It was the Romans who first coined the term Terra Australis (southern territory) from which ‘Australia’ was derived. Statesman Marcus Tulius Cicero wrote about it in his novel Somnium Scipionis (Dream of Sciopi) in 51 BC and it fuelled a long-held belief that there must be a large southern continent to counterbalance the landmass of Europe in the northern hemisphere.

Cook’s “discovery” of Australia
Cook didn’t “discover” Australia, as many historians have claimed. The first recorded European landing on Australian mainland was Dutch navigator Willem Janzoon who made landfall at the Pennefather River on the western shore of Cape York in north Queensland in Feb 1606 (the first of two visits to norther Australia, the second in July 1618). Ten of his men were killed during several shore encounters with the Indigenous population.

Janzoon charted 320km of coastline, which he thought was part of New Guinea and named the region ‘Nieu Zeeland’ after the Dutch province of Zeeland. Dutch cartologists later applied this name to the two volcanic islands of Aotearoa off the east coast of Australia after Abel Tasman visited them in 1642.

In 1644, Tasman charted the north coast of Australia and named it New Holland, an unofficial nomenclature that remained for over 200 years alongside the more formal Terra Australis, the former of which Cook referred to when he claimed the “Eastern coast of New Holland” for Britain in Aug 1770.

Cook’s commission to observe and measure the 1769 transit of Venus past the sun chose the mid-Pacific Ocean, one of three locations (including Norway and Canada) that astronomer Edmund Halley (for which Halley’s Comet is named) recommended in 1716 for the viewing.

Beginning 3 June, 1769, Cook, British naturalist Joseph Banks, British astronomer Charles Green and Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander recorded four phases of the transit from a portable observatory in Matavai Bay on the northern tip of Tahiti. It was important to take accurate measurements because Venus’ next transit would not occur until 1874.

Afterwards, Cook opened sealed orders from the British Admiralty for the second ‘secret’ mission of his Pacific voyage – to search for the legendary and as yet undiscovered “Terra Australis Incognita” (unknown great southern land).

However, it is doubtful these orders were actually ‘secret’ to Cook or the crew. Although the expedition departed England on 26 August 1768, two London newspapers The St. James’s Chronicle, and The Public Advertiser, reported on 11 and 13 June respectively that two ships would be sent to recently-discovered Tahiti and from there to “attempt the Discovery of the Southern Continent.”

From Tahiti, Cook sailed first to the Society Islands, which he surveyed and claimed for Britain, then on to New Zealand where, beginning Oct 1769, he mapped the complete coastline of the North and South islands. His crew also had some bloody encounters with Maoris resulting in lives lost and later attributed to misunderstandings, for which Cook expressed regret in his journals.

On 4 Nov 1769 Cook anchored in Mercury Bay to observe the transit of Mercury from Cook’s Beach, and on 15 Nov he formally proclaimed British sovereignty over New Zealand in Mercury Bay in a flag raising ceremony.

Australia sighted
On 1 April 1770 the Endeavour left New Zealand, heading south-west. Lieutenant Zachary Hicks sighted Australia’s south-eastern coast on 19 April 1770, the first recorded European to have observed the east side. Following Cook’s naming tradition, Hicks was awarded with a gallon of rum and the site named after him – thereafter Point Hicks (now in Victoria).

However, Cook inaccurately recorded the coordinates of Point Hicks’ geographic location, as he’d also done earlier with Rakiura Island off the southern tip of New Zealand and the island of Tasmania, which some historians suspect was a deliberate tactic to confuse French vessels looking to establish military bases in the South Pacific region.

On 23 April, whilst charting the east coast as the Endeavour sailed north, Cook recorded observations of Aborigines at Brush Island near Bawley Point (250km south of Sydney), but couldn’t distinguish whether they had dark skin or were wearing black clothes.

On 28 April the Endeavour sailed into Kamay – the Eora nation people’s name for the bay that Cook initially called Stingray Bay (because they saw so many in the water) and later renamed Botany Bay due to the vast number of botanical specimens that were discovered. The Endeavour anchored alongside the southern peninsula the Aborigines called Kurnell, the regional name that remains today.

The following morning, Sunday 29 April 1770, Cook rowed ashore with a party of men in two boats to meet the natives of the Gweagle tribe resident in the small collection of bark huts on the Milgurrung Beach shoreline (now known as Silver Beach).

It was not a friendly encounter, as Cook’s party violated protocol by not awaiting an invitation to come ashore. The Aborigines quickly fled into the surrounding forest (albeit leaving behind a handful of children to whom Cook later gave beads), apart from two men who threw stones, fishing darts and a spear as Cook’s landing party approached.

From the boat Cook fired a warning from his musket aimed between the two, then fired a second loaded with ‘small shot’ (probably lead pellets), some of which struck one man in the leg, who grabbed a defensive shield instead of retreating.

A third shot fired over their heads had the effect of dispersing the two, then Isaac Smith, cousin of Cook’s wife, stepped ashore, achieving the distinction of being named the ‘first European to set foot on the Australian mainland’ (which wasn’t quite accurate) and he steadied the boat so Cook could disembark.

Cook’s party remained anchored in the bay for another eight days, gathering botanical specimens and documenting flora and fauna before continuing north, bypassing Sydney Harbour to the north (known to the Indigenous people along its south shores as Cadi), which Cook named Port Jackson and called ‘a safe anchorage’, despite not entering.

Three months later, after a near-cataclysmic running aground on a shoal of the Great Barrier Reef (which necessitated emergency repairs and a delay of seven weeks), on 22 Aug 1770 Cook reached an island in the Endeavour Strait off the northern tip of Cape York peninsula. Cook claimed possession of the entire east coast he had just charted for Britain and named the island Possession Island.

During their week in Botany Bay, Cook’s party had several skirmishes with the Indigenous population, who refused gifts of cloth and a dead bird, although they accepted nails and beads that were left in their deserted camp.

The Britons also buried seaman Forby Sutherland, for whom the region south of Botany Bay is now named, after he succumbed to tuberculosis.

Cook’s crew sourced water from a hole the Aborigines dug in the sand on Milgurrung Beach, fed by a small stream that still trickles into the bay, which Cook described as “ample fresh water”. That description was key to the First Fleet choosing Sydney as the site for its penal colony 18 years later, enthusiastically endorsed by Cook’s celebrity naturalist Joseph Banks (he who famously described the newly-claimed continent as ‘terra nullius’ – empty of people).

Joseph Banks was the main driving force for the British colonisation of Australia for a convict settlement, eventually launched as a flotilla of ships known as the First Fleet.

However, upon the First Fleet’s arrival in January 1788, Captain Arthur Philip noted Cook’s water supply at Kurnell was not sustainable for a garrison of marines, settlers and collection of 732 convicts, and relocated to the next harbour north, Cadi (Port Jackson). There they found a more reliable water supply in Warrane (Sydney Cove) from where the colony of New South Wales began.

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