The latest Windows 10 update has basically trashed my computer. The update was installed automatically, so I wasn’t expecting it to happen. I had just turned the computer on and when I returned to it after allowing it to boot, there it was ‘installing.’ Anyhow, it failed and the computer is now unusable.
So what this means is that I will not be able to post in the ‘usual’ way for some time – very disappointing.
Australian scientist Mark Oliphant, who helped push the United States to develop the atomic bombs in World War II, also played a major role during the war in attempting to stop the US dominating the UK in any further development of nuclear weapons.
Oliphant (1901-2000) described himself as a “belligerent pacifist” and his humanitarianism and compassion forms an indelible image of the gentle giant of Australian science.
After studying at the University of Adelaide he moved to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge in the UK. Oliphant joined a freewheeling cabal of atomic physicists led by fellow antipodean Ernest Rutherford. He later took up a position at Birmingham University.
But soon the war was to change everything for him.
Oliphant found that wartime secrecy was totally opposite to the usual culture of open science. The US military police opened his mail, and the FBI interrogated him on his casual attitude to rules.
In September 1944 Oliphant complained of his restrictions to the US Army’s no-nonsense military head of the project, General Leslie Groves. Groves was frustrated with progress and gave Oliphant a lecture on war and security.
In doing so, the cabinet documents on Oliphant’s notes show that the normally circumspect Groves also let slip that the US had no intention of honouring an agreement with the British to share atomic technology after the war. Groves stated that even after the war America needed to prepare for an “inevitable war with Russia”.
Oliphant’s notes added:
In this conversation Groves insisted that he spoke for the armed forces and for every thinking man and woman in U.S.A. He said that any effort U.K. might make must be confined to central Canada. He excluded specifically Australia or any other part of the Empire. Every possible source of supply of raw materials would be monopolised and controlled by U.S.A.-U.K.
How to warn the UK?
Oliphant saw weapons development as merely a vehicle on which to carry the potential of almost limitless energy and he was intent on resuming his open research after the war.
He could not risk his mail being opened again. So he headed from Berkeley, California to the British Embassy in Washington to write a secret report to London detailing his conversation with Groves.
Oliphant had a plan. He proposed that, without delay, the entire British Mission leave the Manhattan Project, return to Britain and restart their own programs. In late 1944 he seemingly had traction and the British project, code-named Tube Alloys, was reinvigorated with new plans tabled to construct uranium isotope plants.
Oliphant’s plan escalated up the chain to Lord Cherwell, then Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s scientific advisor, and to Sir John Anderson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the authority on atomic matters inside the British War Cabinet.
James Chadwick, the scientific head of the British Mission, was furious at Oliphant’s cavalier approach and wrote to the British polity arguing that the British Mission must stay in America to complete the task at hand.
Oliphant’s bombast, confidence and directness is famous. As he approached the door of 11 Downing Street (the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer) on January 9, 1945, he was likely optimistic that his meeting with Sir John would result in a decision to follow his new plan.
But Sir John was in a pessimistic mood. There was still a war on, and the allies were being pushed back by the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge. Sir John put a stop to talk of this scientific rebellion, and ordered Oliphant back to America to complete the job.
The atomic bombs fell on Japan in August 1945. World War II soon ended.
After the war
In mid-1946 the newly formed United Nations debated control of atomic technology and Oliphant was in New York as an Australian advisor. He and other scientists pushed a plan to abolish weapons and throw the science open.
The alternative, the scientists argued, would be an escalation of an arms race. Only openness in science could reduce suspicion between nations.
The US and the Soviet Union almost agreed to the plan. But the Americans refused a Soviet request to first destroy their atomic arsenal and the Soviets refused to allow UN inspections.
The US passed their Atomic Energy Act in August 1946 which prevented any collaboration on atomic technology. Oliphant’s prophecy came true. But the scientists had made another prophecy: atomic secrets cannot be contained.
As the critical mass of international scientists that had gathered together for war radiated back out around the world, they carried with them the secrets of the atom.
The British restarted their bomb project in 1947 and tested their first weapon in 1952, and the Soviets tested their first bomb in 1949. The US monopoly on atomic weaponry was a fleeting moment.
So the opportunity was lost in 1946 to abolish weapons, and today more than 14,000 nuclear weapons exist, held by nine countries. Even in a post-Cold War world this sword of annihilation hangs by a thread over the head of all us.
Captain Cook has loomed large in the federal government’s 2018 budget. The government allocated $48.7 million over four years to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyages to the South Pacific and Australia in 1770. The funding has been widely debated on social media as another fray in Australia’s culture wars, particularly in the context of $84 million in cuts to the ABC.
Closer scrutiny suggests that this latest celebration of Cook may serve as a headline for financial resources already committed to a range of cultural programs, at least some of which could be seen as business as usual. These include the development of digital heritage resources and exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum, National Library, AIATSIS and the National Museum of Australia, as well as support for training “Indigenous cultural heritage professionals in regional areas”.
However, the budget package also includes unspecified support for the “voyaging of the replica HMB Endeavour” and a $25 million contribution towards redevelopment of Kamay Botany Bay National Park, including a proposed new monument to the great man.
So while the entire $48.7 million won’t simply go towards a monument, it’s clear that celebrating the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing at Botany Bay is a high priority for this federal government.
In 1770 Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook, on a scientific mission for the British Navy, anchored in a harbour he first called Stingray Bay. He later changed it to Botany Bay, commemorating the trove of specimens collected by the ship’s botanists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.
Cook made contact with Aboriginal people, mapped the eastern coast of the continent, claimed it for the British Crown and named it New South Wales, allowing for the future dispossession of Australia’s First Nations. He would later return to the Pacific on two more voyages before his death in Hawaii in 1779.
Scholars agree that Cook had a major influence on the world during his lifetime. His actions, writings and voyages continue to resonate through modern colonial and postcolonial history.
Cook continues to be a potent national symbol. Partly this is due to the rich historical written and physical records we have of Cook’s journeys, which continue to reward further study and analysis.
But the other side to the hero story is the dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous peoples from their land. As a symbol of the nation, Cook is, and has always been, contested, political and emotional.
Too many Cooks
There are other European contenders for the title of “discoverer of the continent”, such as Dirk Hartog in 1616 and William Dampier in 1699. However, both inconveniently landed on the west coast. Although Englishman Dampier wrote a book about his discoveries, he never became a major figure like Cook.
Cook’s legend began immediately after his death, when he became one of the great humble heroes of the European Enlightenment. Historian Chris Healy has suggested that Cook was suited to the title of founder of Australia because his journey along the entire east coast made him more acceptable in other Australian states. Importantly, unlike that other great contender for founding father, the First Fleet’s Governor Arthur Phillip, Cook was not associated with the “stain of convictism”.
Australians celebrated the bicentenary of Cook’s arrival in 1970, and the bicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1988. Throughout this period it was widely accepted that Cook was the single most important actor in the British possession of Australia, despite the fact that many other political figures played significant roles.
This perhaps partly explains why Cook has featured so prominently in Aboriginal narratives of dispossession, and why the celebrations in 1970 and 1988 triggered debate around Aboriginal land rights.
Other scholars have examined the Aboriginal perspective on Cook’s landing. In the 1970s archaeologist Vincent Megaw found British artefacts in a midden at Botany Bay. He cautiously suggested that these items might have been part of the gifts given by Cook to the Aboriginal people he encountered.
Historian Maria Nugent has assessed the narratives recounted by Percy Mumbulla and Hobbles Danaiyarri. Both were senior Aboriginal lawmen and knowledge holders who, in the 1970s and ’80s, shared their sagas of the coming of Cook to their lands with anthropologists.
Too pale, stale and male?
Controversy over the celebration of Cook as founding father is not a new thing. It dates back to the 19th century when his first statues were raised.
This latest Captain Cook fanfare comes hot on the heels of broader global debates about the contemporary values and meaning of civic statues of (“pale, stale, male”) heroes associated with colonialism and slavery.
The funding cycle for our contemporary cultural institutions and activities in Australia has been closely linked to anniversaries and their commemoration since at least the 1970 bicentenary. The 2018 budget lists support for programs at a number of cultural institutions and for training Indigenous cultural heritage professionals. It would be interesting to know whether these funds have been diverted away from existing operational budgets and core activities in these institutions to support the Cook celebrations.
The master plan for Kamay Botany Bay National Park has also been in development for some time. While centred on the historical event of Cook’s landing, the plan itself is more about the rehabilitation and activation of this somewhat neglected landscape. Plans have been drawn up in consultation with the La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council.
Should we be devoting scarce financial resources to yet another celebration of Cook? Focal events such as these can divert funds into cultural activities and may allow researchers and creative practitioners to unearth new evidence and develop fresh interpretations. Some of these funds may also go to support initiatives driven by First Nations communities.
There is no escaping the fact that Captain Cook is a polarising national symbol, representing possession and dispossession. Another anniversary of Cook’s landing may give us much to reflect upon, but it also the highlights the need for investment in new symbols that grapple with colonial legacies and shared futures.