Discoverer of Worlds, Destroyer of Worlds: Cook in the Pacific

“From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff &c.,

Captain James Cook

I have to confess that if it weren’t for James Cook I would be here- in Sydney the largest city in Australia, once known as the Great South Land before his arrival.

I grew up witha particular view of history in which Cook was placed firmly at the centre as that courageous,rugged individual who met his fears of the unknown and set out to discover new lands on behalf of the British Empire. Although growing up in a strong Irish Catholic community , not always a fan of the Empire, Captain James Cook was vaunted as a Northerner, not of the establishment but a self made man who devoted himself to improving his seafaring skills and mastery of the sea. Therefore all that he accomplished must have been benign..wasnt it?

For the answer to that question we have to be prepared to ask and listen to the responses of the peoples whose lands he visited and cuultures he disrupted.

The Indigenous peoples of Australia, Hawaian Islanders, Tahitians, the Maori of New Zealand, Canadian Indigenous tribes and many others all experienced great change in their lives due to the three voyages of Cook.

In 1770 Captain James Cook met few Aboriginal people on the Eastern Australian shoreline. Because they did not grow crops and because he assumed there were no inland fishable rivers, he concluded that Australia’s interior was empty. Sir Joseph Banks thought the Aboriginal people would run away and abandon their rights to land. They were both wrong, as the Gadigal and other local Aboriginal people later proved by ambushing the convicts who were often sent to work into the bush.”

Anita Heiss

There is no doubt that Cook was a master mariner, devoted to the joy of exploration and the duty of discovery for his King and country. There is no doubt that what he brought to the peoples whose lands he visited was inorexble, unwanted change.

“It is estimated that over 750,000 Aboriginal people inhabited the island continent in 1788. The colonists were led to believe that the land was terra nullius (‘no one’s land’), which Lt James Cook declared Australia to be in 1770 during his voyage around the coast of Australia.”

Aboriginal Heritage Office

“… they were so ignorant they thought there was only one race on the earth and that was the white race. So when Captain Cook first came, when Lieutenant James Cook first set foot on Wangal land over at Kundul which is now called Kurnell, he said oh lets put a flag up somewhere, because these people are illiterate, they’ve got no fences. They didn’t understand that we didn’t need fences … that we stayed here for six to eight weeks, then moved somewhere else where there was plenty of tucker and bush medicine and we kept moving and then come back in twelve months’ time when the food was all refreshed …”
the late Aunty Beryl Timbery Beller

But we as a country are still learning about the past and many of us want to move into a more equitable, aware place in which the culture of our Indigenous peoples becomes a valued commodity in a shared future.

Thiswonderful exhibition ” Cook and the Pacific” is now on display at the National Library of Australia.

“The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”

Mark Twain

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