This week marks 250 years since Lieutenant James Cook explored the east coast of a largely unknown southern continent in the Endeavour and ultimately claimed the entire land for the British. Despite significant protests, the Australian Government recently planned extravagant events and monuments at enormous expense to celebrate that history*.
Regardless of your views on settlement and the events leading to it, Cook’s journey of exploration was monumental in the development of the country that we now know as Australia. Like it or not, that visit by Cook was ultimately devastating for Aboriginal People and culture as British invasion brought death and destruction to our shores.
Reading through Cook’s journals we know that Cook wasn’t welcomed when he first landed and encountered the Aboriginal People of Botany Bay. We also know that he was heavy handed in his approach when he was unable to appease them with trinkets. He quickly decided that the people he met here did not meet his definition of “civilised”. Later, when stranded for seven weeks at Endeavour River (near today’s Cooktown) Cook and his men lived alongside a local tribe and witnessed a harmonious and fulfilled society who wanted for nothing. Despite interacting peaceably and benefitting from the hospitality of the locals Cook went on to declare Australia terra nullius (belonging to no-one) and claimed the land for his country.
However, this is not the story Australians have been taught. Cook, and the settlers that followed, have been given a heroic role in the history of Australia. In the 80s, when I was at school, I found myself participating in celebrations of Cook and his successors without any understanding of what these events meant for my People. There was never any inclusion of the Aboriginal perspective or a hint that these much-celebrated events had a negative impact on the existing population.
I often think about the day my mum sent me to school dressed as a settler. I wore a beautiful lemon dress that had long sleeves and a full skirt, very similar to the dresses that women wore back then. I was excited – that dress was pretty – the photos from the day are all about the dress as I showed it off, unaware of what we were really celebrating and how my mum must have felt sending her Aboriginal child off to school to celebrate the beginning of the destruction of her culture. It’s a feeling that I will not have to face as a parent. My generation, and those to follow, know it is our choice not to participate. And that choice is increasingly respected by the wider community.
However, imagine the possibilities if we, as a nation, had simply acknowledged the truth from the outset – that Australia was invaded and Cook’s visit began an onslaught that would change the Aboriginal way of life forever. Imagine where we could be if we didn’t spend centuries learning a false history and arguing about the injustices that occurred. If instead we accepted that the injustice happened and resulted in disadvantage; that the travesties occurred in another time when those actions were not seen as wrong; and that Australia was a result of all past actions, good or bad.
Would we have spent centuries compounding the damage? Would we, as a nation, be more willing to see the impact and acknowledge the resulting disadvantage? Would we be more willing to work towards a solution? Would we have made greater progress in the work towards reconciliation?
We will never know. But this week, as the nation talks about Cook and his great ship “discovering” this land, Aboriginal land, don’t forget to also talk about the People who were already here. You don’t need to assign a good role and a bad role. We just need to respect and acknowledge both perspectives and recognise the truth of our history. It isn’t pretty but it is only with truth that we that can move forward.
* Covid-19 has meant that these events have not proceeded in 2020.
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