Friday, May 1, 2009
The Death of Captain Cook by Glyn Williams
The union of the colonies in the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 was a key moment in the shaping of the new nation, and the celebrations included a reconstruction of Cook's landing at Botany Bay. There a few Aborigines were scattered by mock musket-fire, while the actor playing Dr Solander shouted after them:
As shadows flee before the dawn of day,
So the dark tribes of Earth in terror flee
Before the white man's ever onward tread;
And all the night of ignorance and sin
Both vanish as the light of Truth's fair day
Dawns in the East and spreads o'er all the Earth.
It was the only reference to the original Aboriginal inhabitants of Botany Bay in twelve pages of poetic declamation.
The twentieth century saw the development of a cult in which Cook, the self-made man of humble beginnings, represented the pioneering virtues of the new nation. The cult began in the classroom, where school texts began their history of Australia with Cook's voyages. By the end there were Cook monuments, Cook playing fields, Cook fountains, Cook hotels and restaurants, Cook stamps, a James Cook University and even a small house built by Cook's father after his son left home which was shipped at great expense from Yorkshire to Australia.
There was something odd about this devotion to a British hero at a time when Australia was moving away in terms of material and sentimental ties from Britain. One of Gail Morgan's characters in her novel Patent Lies explains that, as far as Australia was concerned, 'historically Cook did little more than draw a decent map, but history does not always matter.' He was their Columbus; the fact that the Dutch had charted two-thirds of the Australian coastline more than a century earlier seemed not to count. Hence the excitement when every few years a book appears that challenges Cook's assumed priority with an earlier 'discoverer' from among the ever-growing group of Portuguese, Spanish, French and Chinese navigators. The Australian newspaper headlines that greeted the most recent of these books, Peter Trickett's Beyond Capricorn (2007) are self revelatory: 'another nail in Cook's coffin'; 'New doubts that Cook discovered Australia'; 'Captain Cook scuppered by book'.