Informed and rounded perspective incorporates view from ship and shore
Only now is much of Australia appreciating the impact of Cook’s arrival on the First Peoples
In the collection of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra is an embroidered silk sampler, fashioned by hand in the late 18th or early 19th century, that maps the voyages of maritime explorer James Cook.
The needlework was made by a young Englishwoman who painstakingly drew her map on silk to a pattern based on Cook’s charts of the Pacific. Her delicate embroidery reveals the popular motivation to memorialise the seafarer’s feats, which grew in fame in the years after his death in 1779.
Cook’s place in history is assured by the scale of his achievements in navigating halfway round the world and mapping the Pacific on three successive voy- ages of exploration. Not just in Britain and Australia but in New Zealand, Europe, North America and around the world, Cook’s name is honoured and revered.
I am old enough to remember the 200th anniversary celebrations of Cook’s 1770 voyage along the east coast of the Australian continent in the Endeavour. Like many other children of my generation, I was given a 50c commemorative coin that marked the bicentennial of what was widely understood as a foundational moment in the nation’s history.
Now, on the back of national discussion about Cook, and with the 250th anniversary of the Endeavour voyage approaching, it is timely to consider how we might best memorialise this history, in all its dimensions. If nothing else, the impassioned debate of recent weeks has shown just how much we care about our past.
The anniversary to come, in 2020, allows us to profitably revisit the view from the ship, one that is predominantly drawn from the journals and accounts of Cook, gentleman naturalist Joseph Banks and other crew members. But we also have a historic opportunity to consider the view from the shore, and to tell the stories of the First Peoples who had lived on the continent for many thousands of years before the Endeavour’s arrival.
How should we properly honour and pay tribute to those along the east coast of the continent who witnessed the ship’s passage and encountered the crew, notably at Botany Bay and Endeavour River? After all, their descendants are with us today, proud inheritors of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures whose stories of the continent stretch back at least 65,000 years, based on the latest evidence.
We cannot, and should not, shy away from the fact the first encounter, at the place we now call Kurnell, was marked by violence that reverberates still in the nation’s memory. That first fateful meeting stands as an emblem of the failure of dialogue that characterised so much of what was to come.
At Cooktown, by contrast, the meeting of those from the ship with the people ashore was mark- edly different. The local Aboriginal people, the Guugu Yimithirr, tell the story of an elder’s efforts to avoid conflict and make peace with Cook and his crew, who had been forced to careen the Endeavour for repairs after it was holed on the Great Barrier Reef. It is, they say proudly, the first act of reconciliation between this nation’s first and settler peoples.
Understanding these complex interactions demands the best part of ourselves.
The view from the shore — one left largely unknown and ignored by the conventional historical record — deserves our attention and reflection today. It is incumbent on us to search for ways of knowing and acknowledging those people who experienced the Endeavour’s journey along the coast. How did Cook’s visit and his legacy affect their lives?
At the National Museum, we are constantly looking at how we can use objects to reveal the past. The silk sampler speaks eloquently of the time in which it was made and shows us how Cook’s contemporaries came to value his achievements. That knowledge does not preclude us from focusing today on things that detail our understanding of the view from the shore. We can honour Cook and his achievements, and acknowledge the impact of 1770 and all that came after on Australia’s First Peoples. One does not negate the other.
Historical understanding proceeds through a process of accretion, not erasure. Nor is it a question of choosing between one perspective or another. The sampler remains an important popular reflection on Cook’s seafaring and navigational enterprise. His was one of the great undertakings of the Enlightenment age. Our challenge is to add to this narrative in ways that honour the cultures and experiences of indigenous Australians, as well as those of Cook and his crew.
I am reminded of the words of Muran elder Don Christophersen, of the Cobourg Peninsula, who contributed to the National Museum’s groundbreaking Encounters exhibition of early Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artefacts from the British Museum in 2015.
“I think with any story about anything you need all the angles,” he said, “and for so long it’s always been the person who collected, the person who could write, the person who could construct all that information, they were the ones who told stories, and kept the information, kept the materials … You have to listen to both versions, the indigenous version of our history and the non-indigenous version of our history, because they’re both telling the truth but they’re both not the same story.”
I often reflect on these sentiments and those of many other Australians who want to embrace our history with all its richness, diversity and challenge. Ours is a compelling story with its own unique and distinctive qualities. We have the opportunity now to remember Cook’s voyage in ways that allow us to present all the angles and cherish every dimension of this remarkable tale.
If nothing else, the impassioned debate of recent weeks has shown just how much we care about our past
An embroidered silk sampler in the National Museum memorialises Cook’s feats