In the Bicentenary celebrations of 1970 Captain Cook was hailed as the discoverer of Australia. At primary school we received a special booklet telling us about the great navigator and his achievements. There were commemorative coins, badges and postage stamps. Every form of sporting competition had its dedication to Cook – from surf life-saving to greyhound racing to lawn bowls. There were pageants, poems, concerts and cook books. Nothing was out-of-bounds.
The newspapers gave daily reports on the progress of Endeavour II, which was retracing Cook’s voyage from Plymouth to Australia. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited us for the great occasion, enduring a punishing 40 days of public engagements. The highlight was a re-enactment of Cook’s landing at Botany Bay, AKA. industrial Kurnell, in front of a crowd of 50,000 spectators, most of whom never saw a thing. Local Aboriginal people were hired to throw stones at the landing party before surrendering to the blessings of western civilsation.
A protest group, led by Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonucal), threw wreaths into the water at La Perouse, but none of them washed up on the shores of Botany Bay.
Endeavour Voyage at the National Museum of Australia reminds us what a different world it is today, as we commemorate the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing. It’s now considered bad history – and wildly offensive – to claim Cook “discovered” a country that had already been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. The indigenous protesters, dismissed as a fringe group in 1970, are now right in line with public opinion. The pantomime re-enactments of the past are simply unthinkable.
In 2020 Cook is more likely to be regarded as a villain than a hero – an agent of British imperialism who paved the way for the colonisation of the continent and the dispossession of the first inhabitants. This has made the anniversary into a problem for museums and other cultural institutions, and they have largely avoided the issues.
Rather than re-examining Cook’s legacy, most venues – when they have done anything at all – have been content to host an art exhibition with a heavy emphasis on indigenous work, signalling they are on the right side of the debate. The Art Gallery of NSW’s Under the stars deserves some kind of award as the most oblique show about Cook ever conceived.
Endeavour Voyage is by far the best and most comprehensive of the Cook exhibitions, giving us the view from the shore, but also from the boat. We see two kinds of material culture, two different cosmologies. The astronomical theme, which is the ostensible subject of the AGNSW show, is only one component, but it is dealt with in much greater clarity and detail.
The ambitions of the NMA exhibition are encyclopaedic. We trace the Endeavour’s journey from its first landfall at Point Hicks to Possession Island in the Torres Strait, with the most prominent spots on the map identified by both western and indigenous names. The entire show is framed as a dialogue between the explorers and the people on the shore, as we see the same sights from contrasting perspectives.
The educational emphasis is typical of a museum exhibition, as opposed to the greater licence taken by an art gallery. It can be cluttered and cumbersome, with long, explanatory labels, charts and audio-visual aids, but there is at least one significant work of art – the 1776 Nathaniel Dance portrait of Cook from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Of many portraits of Cook, this is the one said to resemble him most precisely. Dance has depicted his subject looking stern, intelligent and self-confident, which seems a fair summation of the great man’s personality.
Other notable paintings, such as George Stubbs’s Kongouro from New Holland(1772) or Benjamin West’s Portrait of Banks (1773), are included in the form of large photo-reproductions, showing us what might have been, had the Museum been able to realise its wish list. By way of compensation there is a wealth of bric-à-brac from Cook’s voyages including an original volume of his journals.
The NMA has been highly creative in commissioning works from indigenous artists, including The Message, an impressive short film by Alison Page and Nik Lachajczak, which takes us into the imaginative world of the people who watched Cook’s arrival.
Perhaps the most important feature of this show – and of The Message – has been the time and effort taken to interview the descendants of those who were living in coastal settlements in 1770. In their stories we not only get a vivid sense of what their ancestors saw and conveyed to posterity, we find a key to understanding that has been missing for 200 years.
It was a huge puzzle for Cook and Banks, and indeed, for Cook’s chief biographer, John Beaglehole, why the local tribes seemed to ignore the sudden appearance of a gigantic sailing ship filled with white people. As the Endeavour drifted into Botany Bay men and women continued with their daily activities as if it were a matter of no great interest. It was only when the landing party tried to disembark that two warriors confronted them, shouting what Cook thought was “Go away! Go away!”
In this show we learn those warriors were actually shouting “Ghosts! Ghosts!”. Cook and his men had been identified as spirits of the dead, and it was believed one must not engage with such supernatural beings. They were ignored because it was dangerous to acknowledge their existence. The two warriors who sought to repel this menace must have felt they were fighting a hopeless battle.
After that encounter, warnings that the spirits were on their way, were sent to northern communities by smoke signals and by runners carrying message sticks. For the people on the shore, Cook’s arrival was like a zombie invasion, as the living dead came to walk among them. The sailors tried to present themselves as well-meaning representatives of a great civilisation, but for the indigenous inhabitants they were the Ghosts from the Coast.
It’s rare that the research towards an exhibition comes up with something so enlightening. There is another startling story about Cook’s men capturing too many female turtles in the place now known as Cooktown, thereby angering the local people, who felt it would upset local breeding patterns. The natives emerge as natural ecologists, the sailors as naïve plunderers.
With our newfound awareness of the damage two centuries of rapacious development have wrought on the planet, we need to abandon the complacent belief that Cook’s party represented progress, and the indigenous people, backwardness. Aboriginal people had different forms of knowledge that showed a far greater sensitivity to the environment. Each side could have learned much from the other.
Endeavour Voyage imagines the dialogue Cook and his men didn’t have with the indigenous people, because of insuperable barriers of language and culture. It takes the voyage itself, and all its consequences as an historical fact that requires no retrospective moralising, recognising that among the many navigators of that time, Cook was not only the most talented, but a man of unusual rectitude and integrity. We look at this show and think of lost opportunities and misunderstandings, but it was also a beginning. Today, if we let it happen, there’s no longer anything standing in the way of those long-delayed dialogues between two worlds.
Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians
National Museum of Australia, Canberra,
20 June, 2020 – 26 April, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September, 2020