Where Do I Begin: Claire G Coleman

To find out how the story ends, we need to understand how it began. How have our brutal beginnings endured to this day, and how do we reckon with our history of dispossession? When did we start to see ourselves as a bunch of battlers, larrikins and top blokes in the land of the fair go? And what fibs, both big and small, help our leaders stay in power? Claire G Coleman shares an opening address on Australia’s foundational myths.

A transcript excerpt of a podcast recorded for MWF in 2021.

Not many Australians know their history, so not many are aware of Cook’s real place in the historical narrative, in the foundational stories of the continent. Our current Prime Minister, who seems to be absent more often than he is present, desired to spend millions on re-enacting Cook’s circumnavigation of the continent, an event that never happened. Therefore Morrison’s proposal is, technically, an enactment.

Around the time that Morrison announced his Cook enactment, his education minister of the moment explained to us that January 26 should be celebrated as the date when Captain Cook came ashore with the first fleet, despite the fact that by the time the first fleet arrived on this continent Cook had already been dead for nine years … having been speared then strangled in the surf off Hawaii and then having the flesh cooked off his bones.

Yes, Cook really got Cooked.

Australians love to idolise Cook for things he never did.

Researchers, interviewing or polling Australians, have discovered that a large number of average Australians, perhaps the majority, have no idea what January 26 commemorates. The average Australian also seems unaware that Cook’s greatest achievement on this continent, the most important contribution he made to the development of a colony, was mapping the east coast and suggesting a site for a colony on Botany Bay, where the colony was definitely not established because frankly it was a terrible place for a British colony but paradise for the Gweagal people who belonged there.

No, Cook did not discover Australia—that had been done countless times before. He was not the first person to set foot on the continent—an Aboriginal person was. He was not the first non-Indigenous person—an Indonesian probably was. He was not the first European—Janszoon, a Dutch captain was. Cook was not even the first Englishman to find the continent—that honour belongs to the captain of the Tryall who sunk off Western Australia or to William Dampier, the privateer who went looking for the Tryall, or most importantly, for its cargo.

Most historians would agree that the most important thing Cook did to aid the establishment of a colony on this continent was to claim the east coast of the continent for the crown. I said it carefully—he only claimed the coast, having only landed crew and set foot on the continent three times. Once in Gweagal Country that he called Botany Bay, once when he had to fix his ship after banging into the Great Barrier Reef (he was probably the first European to crash into the reef, I have to give him that) and then finally on what is now known as Possession Island.

His journals stated he had laid claim to the coasts and harbours of the east coast—only the east coast because he was unambiguous that the crown of England has no claim to the north, south or west coasts because the Dutch were there first. Only the coast, specifically. He did not explore inland—he was looking for harbours for the admiralty and for British traders.

So, it seems certain Cook’s greatest achievement was navigating to the continent now called Australia against the trade winds, from the east, then sailing up the coast and mapping it. He really was a great navigator and an impressive cartographer. And he had the aid of a navigator from Tahiti, called Tupaia, who was expert at navigating by stars and currents and probably knew the way.

But, to reiterate, Cook did not discover Australia. There are maps that predate him, maps he would have had access to.

So, what did he do for the foundation of the colony?

He claimed the east coast of Australia, where most people live, for the crown. I suppose that’s something.

He, according to his published journals, stood on Possession Island and claimed possession of the east coast of the continent in a move that is comparable to standing on the Isle of Man and from there claiming the entire west coast of Europe, which is incidentally smaller than the east coast of the continent now called Australia. Once he had made that claim, England had the right to claim the continent and set up a colony in Botany Bay, where they definitely didn’t set up a colony.

Unless he did nothing of the sort.

What does it mean for the mythology of the nation some people call Australia if the story of Captain Cook claiming the continent for the crown is fake news?

There were two journals published of that voyage: one from Lieutenant Cook, called captain merely because he was captain of the ship, whose claim to this continent carries so much weight in the mythology of this colony … and another from Joseph Banks, the ship’s botanist. A learned man, a noble man, whose opinion was almost certainly more important than that of the captain, who was a great navigator but, we should all remember, a commoner, a mere seafarer.

Both these journals agree on most points, including when Cook shot the first person he met on the continent. You didn’t know about that? Cook’s and Banks’ journals agree that when Cook landed a longboat in Gweagal Country, in what they called Botany Bay, there was resistance against their landing from two men. They were the first natives of the continent the crew of the Endeavor had met, and Cook shot one of them. It’s there in his journals and in those of Joseph Banks. Bits have been edited out of Cook’s journals but not that bit—he was proud of shooting that man.

There was one important point on which the journals of Cook and Banks disagreed but first, we need to talk about the nature of the journals and their publication. That of Banks was edited by the man himself and was published soon after the voyage he shared with Cook. Cook, by then, was away on his next voyage and didn’t have time to edit a journal into publishable form so, someone else did the job, after Cook had apparently edited them himself and perhaps made some changes that might suit the aims of the admiralty and, perhaps, gain him a promotion.

Nobody needs to hear me reading out Cook’s and Banks’ journals in their original language. It’s an archaic form of English where spelling, sentence structure and grammar were not really set in stone, or even in custard. It would be easier if I just paraphrased in a more modern vernacular while avoiding the temptation to go too street (because Cook was, after all, a working-class bloke).

On August the 23rd 1770, Cook’s journal said, and remember I am paraphrasing:

‘Having claimed Botany Bay and the place where I dragged my ship ashore after I nearly sunk for the monarch, I have just now claimed the coast from where I first saw it to here, where I am leaving it tomorrow. We fired muskets to celebrate and the ship replied with cannons.’

On the same date, on the same island, Joseph Banks records in his journal:

‘We couldn’t find a way through between the islands, so we went to an island, climbed a hill and from the top of the hill, we saw a way through to clear ocean. Oh, and there were some natives but we scared them off.’

Bear in mind, again, that Banks had nothing to gain—Cook’s claim was used to justify the colony—and don’t forget Banks’ journal was published under his supervision and almost immediately; Cooky’s way later without his direct hand or voice in the editing process. I often say that when two sources disagree, the best way to determine which is telling the truth is to ask who has the most to gain from lying. In this case, it’s Cook and his editors.

Cook’s journal is the primary source for the history, for the story of Cook claiming Australia.

So, I want you to understand this: the evidence is not clear that Cook claimed Australia on Possession Island.

So where does that leave us and where does that leave Cook? Well, for a start, the narrative on which Australia is built—Cook discovering Australia and claiming it on Possession Island—is shaky ground on which to build a national legend. In reality, it was the arrival of a fleet of convict ships, led by commodore, soon to be Governor Phillip, on the continent on the 26th of January 1788 that laid claim to this continent, if it was empty, which it was not. It was the first fleet that started the colony, yet that is not as good a foundation legend, perhaps, as the mythical discovery by Cook of an empty continent.

Phillip’s arrival with the first fleet was a stronger legal foundation for a colony than Cook’s claimed discovery or claim of possession but nations are not built on law, they are built on legend, on story. If Cook’s claim loses its value, what then does Australia have? Perhaps that is why some people, those who are more interested in colony than truth, have raised a minor figure to the status of legend.

Claire G Coleman is a Noongar woman who writes fiction, essays, poetry and art writing while either living in Naarm (Melbourne) or on the road. Her latest work is Lies, Damned Lies: A personal exploration of the impact of colonisation.

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