How might Aboriginal Captain Cook narratives be used in Australian History?

Captain Cook’s landing on Australia’s eastern shores in 1770 has sparked a variety of differing narratives throughout Australia about the mythical figure of Captain Cook and the colonisation of Australia that followed. Depending on whether you choose to engage with a European or Aboriginal narrative of Cook, you are likely to understand Cook and the significance of his landing upon Australia’s shores in a remarkably different way.

European narratives of Captain Cook tend to portray Cook as a courageous and adventurous explorer who ‘spread the seeds of modernity’ throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The discovery of the isolated and mysterious continent of Australia is a further feat attributed to Cook. These are the narratives that many of us are likely familiar and comfortable with.

Australian history is replete with British-centric narratives of Cook that are contrary to historical documents. Despite the fact the historical documents detail Cook firing upon local Aborigines upon the Endeavour’s arrival in Botany Bay, Cook has been repeatedly depicted in European paintings as embarking on Australia’s shores ‘peacefully’, encountering Aborigines but he himself causing no harm (see image below). Of course history contains errors and can never be perfect. This example however demonstrates the interpretative aspects of history and reveals a tendency to recognise events that legitimise the English part of our history whilst delegitimising other histories.

“The landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770” by E. Phillips Fox

In contrast to European narratives of Cook, which tend to minimise the cultural exchange that occurred between Aborigines and Cook, Aboriginal narratives of Captain Cook centralize this theme. Cook is used symbolically to represent Cook and his successors, whereas Aborigines are represented as indigenous landowning people who suffer from European oppression. In these narratives Cook may coalesce into two or more people or appear in locations unaccounted for by traditional historical evidence. The seemingly paradoxical element of these narratives has been the subject of much criticism from historians, labeling these narratives as myths, feats of the imagination, or simply harmless fairytales. These critiques ultimately fail to engage with the complexities of these narratives.

According to anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose, the Aboriginal perspective of oral history regards historical truthfulness as an understanding and recounting of the meaning and moral content of events that took place, rather than an account of the factual details per se. Aboriginal narratives of Cook are essentially relaying the effects of colonisation on Aboriginal people.

Clearly, we must understand that both European and Aboriginal narratives of Cook do not portray a perfectly accurate depiction of the events that took place upon Cook’s arrival in Australia in 1770 and the colonisation that followed. Both are essentially interpretations of long past historical events. Nor do these narratives portray an actual historical figure as such. Cook’s existence in the world is more than just material; the way we think of Cook is how he exists.

In order fully appreciate what Aboriginal Cook narratives have to offer Australian history we need to understand the historical context from which these narratives were produced.

Much Aboriginal history has been silenced within Australian history. Europeans’ massacres of Aborigines have been previously concealed, not to mention the fact that Aborigines are still fighting to be officially recognised for their previous war efforts for Australia.

      

Cook taking Possession of the Australian Continent, on Behalf of the British Crown AD, 1770’ by Samuel Calvert;  1889 reprint by T. A. Gilfillan Heckwell titled ‘Captain Cook Proclaiming New South Wales A British Possession, Botany bay 1770’.  The 1889 reprint of this picture excludes the Aborigines that were previously depicted in the scenery (bottom right), leaving no Aboriginal presence in the image. This is a perfect example of how Aboriginal history has been silenced in Australian history.

Aborigines have undergone significant trauma resulting from European colonisation. Vast amounts of sacred lands are no longer accessible to Aborigines or have been destroyed. Many Aborigines were forcibly removed from their families and told they were deficient and lacking. This sentiment has further been perpetuated with the lack of basic civil rights for Aborigines for much of the past two centuries.

Historian Bain Attwood suggests that trauma, by its very nature, renders the mind incapable of making cognitive and emotional sense of the event. Truth, under these circumstances, can only be represented symbolically and referentially, and therefore not in any empirical sense. By understanding Aboriginal Cook narratives through Attwood’s theory of trauma, we can begin to view Aboriginal Cook narratives as valid histories in their right that have a useful and important place within Australia history.

Aboriginal Captain Cook narratives might be used in Australia history in order to reveal understandings of the impact of European colonisation on Aboriginal people that are usually unavailable to non-Aboriginal people. The absorbing figure of Captain Cook is able to reveal underlying oppression within Australia’s Aboriginal past. As such, we can begin to redress past silences within Aboriginal history and further gain an understanding of the underlying power effects contained within European histories.

Aboriginal Cook narratives ultimately call for a rethink of the current European practices that still seek to dominate and suppress Aboriginal today and for a future that restores moral law and sovereignty to Aboriginal people. They should provide an opportunity for their readers to understand their relationship to a post-traumatic culture and thus create an opportunity to work through the problems that continue in the present.

It is ultimately only by acknowledging Aboriginal perspectives that we can fully appreciate the richness of Australian history.

Sam Wyper

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7 comments on “How might Aboriginal Captain Cook narratives be used in Australian History?

  1. Jennifer McLaren says:

    Hi Sam,

    I was looking forward to your blog because you’ve chosen such an interesting area of research. It’s so well written, setting out the contrast between the received Imperial history and the history as told by indigenous Australians very clearly. I particularly like “the way we think of Cook is how he exists” – that sums up the whole history/memory/perception dilemma very well.

    Your work demonstrates how different the Aboriginal peoples’ transmission of ‘history’ is from the western written tradition, and also why it should be taken seriously. Form the bit of research I did on frontier violence last year, the non-written indigenous version of Australia’s history still struggles immensely to be heard and to be accepted as just as legitimate as the written history. I’m sure there’s scope for a lot more research in this area.

    Although you don’t have pictures etc – I don’t think the blog needs them because your writing is so clear. Excellent!

  2. samwyper says:

    Thanks a lot Jennifer for your generous reply 🙂 I actually included a number of European paintings in my essay in order to highlight how Cook is socially constructed. The first two links below are an interesting example of how Aborigines have been expunged from Australia. The first link has a picture of Cook’s arrival in Australia with three Aborigines to the bottom right of the picture. The second link shows a later reprint with the Aborigines no longer there!

    The third link shows a very famous painting of Cook arriving at Botany Bay with his right arm outstretched whilst members of his crew erect the British flag and aim firearms towards two local Aborigines who herald spears. According to Cook’s diary, and other historical documents, Cook fired upon the Aborigines depicted in this image. The painting shows something else together I think, ‘Cook the humanitarian’.

    I’m also glad you picked up on the ontological part of my argument, although I’m sure many would accuse me of being too postmodernist 😉

    Well, I guess it would be a bit cheeky of me if I included a comment on my own blog as one of my two comments 🙂 Glad you enjoyed! Cheers!

    Emanuel Phillips Fox, “The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay,” 1770, M.S. Museum Syndicate, available at:
    http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=30737

    ‘Cook taking Possession of the Australian Continent, on Behalf of the British Crown AD, 1770’ by Samuel Calvert.
    http://www.antiqueprintclub.com/p-1288-captain-cook-proclaiming-new-south-wales-a-british-possession-antique-print-c1886.aspx

    Emanuel Phillips Fox, “The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay,” 1770, M.S. Museum Syndicate, available at:
    http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=30737

  3. samwyper says:

    The images don’t appear to be uploading on the blog. Pls refer to reference above. Cheers.

  4. Ron Chambers 40849783 says:

    Hi Sam,

    James Cook is another of my historic heroes, so I especially enjoyed reading your blog. The points you make about the British-centric historiography of imperialism and colonisation are spot-on. And the need take indigenous (Aboriginal, Polynesian, Melanesian etc) perspectives into account if we’re to have a balanced view of this history is a point well made. One of the recurring themes after reading Cook’s own words in his diaries are the deep regret he seemed to feel about European contact with aboriginal people. He could see what was happening – simple people being overwhelmed by powerful alien foreigners – and he could see the inevitability of the negative outcomes for the native peoples the expedition came into contact with. In Cooks defence – in the first voyage at least – he always tried his best to use the lightest touch consistent with carrying out his mission, and was often compassionate. And of course, Cook wasn’t the only person involved with contact of aboriginal people. The man who substantially funded the “Endeavour” voyage – Joeseph Banks – was also a major influencer on how the indigenous people were treated.

    Excellent blog Sam. All the best,

    Ron Chambers

  5. David Hughes says:

    Hey Sam,

    David Hughes here, Not sure if you will receive this message
    but if you do then firstly:
    I just read some of you article and found it interesting.

    Secondly, I wanted to ask your experience with Bush regen, I’ve been looking
    at some of the tafe courses for it recently and was interested in you opinion.

    Cheers,

    David

    davohughes@hotmail.com

  6. William Wu says:

    Hi Sam,

    A really well written article and kudos for writing in such an interesting area of Australian history. I was just wondering if it’s possible to provide me with the sources that you have used? I am personally interested to go deeper in this area. My email is jinsta5@gmail.com

    Cheers,

    William

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