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.
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.
Cook, the usher of the colonial land grab, is an understandable theme of much modern Australian Indigenous art.
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.
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.
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.