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

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - MATHEW TRINCA

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

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