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Australian history is replete with British-centric narratives of Cook that are contrary to historical documents. Despite the fact the historical documents detail Cook firing upon local Aborigines upon the Endeavour’s arrival in Botany Bay, Cook has been repeatedly depicted in European paintings as embarking on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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