Category Archives: England

Explorer, navigator, coloniser: revisit Captain Cook’s legacy with the click of a mouse


Justin Bergman, The Conversation; Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, The Conversation

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today.

Click through below to explore Cook’s journey through the Pacific, his interactions with Indigenous peoples and how that journey led to Australia becoming a penal colony 18 years later.

You can see other stories in the series here.


Click through to explore the interactive.The Conversation

Justin Bergman, Deputy Editor: Politics + Society, The Conversation; Sunanda Creagh, Head of Digital Storytelling, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, Multimedia Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


‘They are all dead’: for Indigenous people, Cook’s voyage of ‘discovery’ was a ghostly visitation


Alison Page, University of Technology Sydney

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.


On a recent trip to Cape York, I was privileged to sit with Kaurareg/Gudang Yadhaykenu man Uncle Tommy Savage, on a beach in the town of Umagico.

We listened as he sang a song called Markai an Ghule (meaning “ghost ship”), composed by his ancestors when James Cook arrived at Possession Island in August 1770.

A new series from The Conversation.

A sad lilt permeated the song, an expression of the grief the Kaurareg people felt at having to hide their cultural system, while they determined what the arrival of this preternatural being and his big ship was all about.

We recorded Uncle Tommy’s song for inclusion in The Message, a film commissioned by the National Museum of Australia and opening in April to coincide with 250 years since Cook arrived.

While researching the film, I spent much of last year travelling Australia’s east coast interviewing historians, curators and traditional owners, piecing together stories from the ship and the shore. Here are the stories that have stuck with me.

A voyage of the dead

What is so often described as Cook’s “voyage of discovery” has been viewed consistently by Indigenous people as a voyage of the dead; a giant canoe carrying the reincarnation of ancestral beings.

At the first encounter in Botany Bay, two Gweagal warriors throw stones and spears to Cook, saying “warrawarrawa,” meaning “they are all dead” (not “go away”, as it is often translated).

Perhaps this explains why Banks and Cook write of Aboriginal people persistently declining any of the gifts they were offered. You would have to be crazy to take gifts from the dead!

The warnings about these ghostly visitors were quickly and accurately sent by fire, smoke and message stick up the coast, adding a deeper meaning to the many fires Banks and Cook noted as they travelled north (“Saw several smooks along shore before dark and two or three times afire in the night,” Cook writes).

A collision of beliefs

When the Endeavour smashes into the reef in Cooktown and is forced to stay for 48 days on the river for repairs, Cook and his crew captured “eight or nine” turtles (tellingly, Banks refers repeatedly to “our turtles”).

A contingent of local Guugu Yimithirr men board HMS Endeavour and try to take at least one turtle back, but Cook’s men soon wrest it away – refusing to share or acknowledge the possibility they’d taken too many.

Lamenting this environmental loss, a group of warriors light the grass fires in protest (“I had little Idea of the fury with which the grass burnt in this hot climate, nor of the dificulty of extinguishing it when once lighted”, Banks writes) and Cook shoots one of the Guugu Yimithirr men.

The rising tension is then released by an older man who stands forward in an extraordinary act of governance and breaks the tip off a spear to signify “weapons down”.

‘… in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans’

The incident brought together threads still relevant in Indigenous-settler relations today: environmental care, reconciliation and cultural governance. And this collision of beliefs, it seems, was not lost on Cook.

As he sailed off from the tip of Cape York, Cook wrote an unusual diary entry:

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 wholy unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniencies 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, Houshold-stuff […]

[…] they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholsome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing and this they seem to be fully sencible of, for many to whome we gave Cloth to, left it carlessly upon the Sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for.

In short they seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this, in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no Superfluities —

For a working class man from Georgian England to see and appreciate the cultural values of Indigenous people is remarkable, considering that clarity of understanding is only just dawning on the average Australian.

The role of Joseph Banks

After all the conversations I’ve had over the last year with historians, traditional owners and curators, I’ve come to believe that history has been unkind to Cook. He is blamed for the many wrongs inflicted on my people.

Joseph Banks, however, emerges as a much colder, unkinder figure. It was Banks who convinced the British government that Australia would be perfect for a penal colony, given it could no longer send convicts to America.

Banks’s view that Australia was “thinly inhabited” (and he speaks frequently of savagery and simplicity of its people) fed directly into the declaration of terra nullius. Banks never went inland, but declared with great hubris that it was almost certainly “totally uninhabited”.

In the end, the decisions made in the 18 years between Cook leaving and the First Fleet arriving have shaped modern Australia far more than those early fleeting ethereal encounters.

There are so many lost chapters in the story of Australia.

But as a nation, we can invite Uncle Tommy and his people – and all those other excluded songs and stories – to come out of hiding.

Revealing our shared history is the only way to make peace with those ghostly visitors of the past. But we will only find that peace in the truth and it’s the truth of our history, which will be our new voyage of discovery.


Alison Page was commissioned by the National Museum of Australia to create the film The Message for the museum’s Endeavour 250 exhibition, opening on April 8.The Conversation

Alison Page, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The stories of Tupaia and Omai and their vital role as Captain Cook’s unsung shipmates



Portrait of Mai, also known as Omai or Omai of the Friendly Isles.
Wikimedia Commons

Kate Fullagar, Macquarie University

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people.


Several recent exhibitions on James Cook have sought to include discussions of the Indigenous people who journeyed with him on his Pacific voyages.

In exhibitions marking the 250th anniversary of the Endeavour’s departure from Britain in 2018, for example, both the British Library and the National Library of Australia focused in part on the priest Tupaia, who travelled with Cook from Tahiti to Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in 1769.

These exhibitions emphasised Tupaia’s navigational prowess, but didn’t provide extensive detail on the role he played in the British enterprises.

Likewise, little to no attention has been paid to the islander who journeyed with Cook the longest, Mai, who joined the captain’s second and third voyages.

A new series from The Conversation.

Shining a light on the islanders who travelled with Cook is necessary to put his achievements in proper context. Cook was more reliant on their assistance for his empire-expanding project than is often acknowledged. And these islanders had more agency during the so-called Age of Discovery than is typically believed.

The stories of Tupaia and Mai highlight the central role Indigenous people played during this period, which for too long has been described as one of only European exploration. And they also question the way Cook has been portrayed throughout history – as a lone genius, connecting the world more closely through his unique abilities.

It turns out many different people contributed to globalisation in the 18th century.

Tupaia’s motivations for joining the Endeavour

Mai, or Omai as he was mostly known by the British, shared many characteristics with Tupaia. Both were motivated to journey with Cook because of intense dramas playing out on their home island of Ra‘iatea in what is now French Polynesia. And both became useful to the British voyagers by brokering introductions with other islanders in the Pacific.

But in other ways, the two men differed. They were from separate social ranks and they experienced very different fates.

Tupaia’s chart of the islands surrounding Tahiti.
Wikimedia Commons

Tupaia was of the exalted ari’i rank, a leading priest of the ‘Oro sect that ruled most of the Tahitian archipelago during this era.

Because of his high status, he was directly involved in a tumultuous war between Ra‘iatea and neighboring Bora Bora in the 1760s, which eventually ended in defeat for the Ra‘iateans. After the war, he became a refugee in Tahiti, where he came into contact with the Endeavour and befriended the naturalist, Joseph Banks.




Read more:
A failure to say hello: how Captain Cook blundered his first impression with Indigenous people


For Tupaia, the motivation to join the Endeavour voyage was complex and political. He saw in the British tallships an opportunity to gain arms, knowledge and possibly even men for a restorative offensive against the Bora Borans at Ra‘iatea.

Some descendants today also suggest he joined the crew as a way of continuing a long-established practice of voyaging – returning to islands he had previously visited in his own waka (canoe) and by his own navigational techniques.

And Banks saw in Tupaia’s adventurousness a chance to fulfill a dream to study man in a so-called “state of nature” back home in Britain.

Tupaia’s assistance during the voyage

Tupaia joined the Endeavour in July 1769. Cook, until now skeptical of including islanders in his crew, acquiesced partly because he saw it appeased Banks and partly because he judged Tupaia

a Shrewd, Sensible, and Ingenious Man.

The captain learned a great deal from Tupaia. Not only did Cook listen to and attempt to document all of Tupaia’s recitations on the scores of islands around Tahiti, he also gained rare insight into Pacific voyaging.

Most of all, he had Tupaia’s help when he met wary islanders in other archipelagos. With Tupaia mediating, these encounters went smoothly.

A drawing by Tupaia depicting trade between a Maori man and Joseph Banks.
Wikimedia Commons

Tupaia was ill through much of the Endeavour’s stay at Botany Bay. Unfortunately, his health only worsened and he died during the ship’s layover in Batavia, thwarting Banks’ long-term aim of bringing him to Britain.

Perhaps, though, Tupaia fulfilled at least part of his own dream to travel the Pacific once more.

Mai’s fierce determination to join Cook

Banks was not on Cook’s second voyage, but the captain carried with him the memory of the naturalist’s hopes to study a Pacific islander.

As I recount in my latest book, The Warrior, the Voyager, and the Artist: Three Lives in an Age of Empire, Cook found that man when he encountered Mai in 1773.

Like Tupaia, Mai was also displaced by the Bora Boran invasion of Ra‘iatea. A generation younger than Tupaia, Mai had been a child at the time and also lost his father in the conflict. In Tahiti, his lower social rank meant he had fewer concessions as a refugee.




Read more:
My ancestors met Cook in Aotearoa 250 years ago. For us, it’s time to reinterpret a painful history


Arguably these conditions made Mai even more determined to join Cook’s expedition when the chance came.

Mai travelled to Britain on Cook’s second ship, captained by Tobias Furneaux. The Englishman admired Mai and remarked several times on his maritime and culinary skills. Mai also helped translate and mediate with other islanders they encountered. This wasn’t because he sympathised with the British; rather, he was eager to speed up their return to Britain.

Mai’s mission in London and return home

Arriving in London in 1774, Mai met with Banks, who assumed responsibility for his accommodation. Due to his high-profile patron, Mai encountered and bedazzled much of the glamorous set in London, including King George III.

Omai, 1777 engraved by James Caldwall after William Hodges.
Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Australia

Mai seemed to enjoy himself well enough, but his mind was always focused on his larger mission. Everyone who met him recorded that his aim in Britain was not to impress or assimilate but to gain support for his mission of retaking his home island of Ra‘iatea from the Bora Borans.

Mai found himself aboard Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific in mid-1776, with promises from Banks and the Admiralty to take him home and provide him with British goods to help him achieve his goals.




Read more:
Terra nullius interruptus: Captain James Cook and absent presence in First Nations art


Once again, he provided critical assistance to the captain during negotiations with other Pacific islanders, as well as with Indigenous people in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Only when the expedition neared the Tahitian archipelago did Mai start to doubt Cook’s good faith.

He saw Cook give away much of the livestock that had been promised to him and watched as he held long meetings with assorted elders. Mai realised Cook planned to dump him on another island rather than fulfill the Admiralty pledges to land him on Ra‘iatea.

Mai was devastated. After four long years away, his life project had collapsed.

Grand ambitions only partly realised

Historians like to recount the emotional farewell between Cook and Mai in late 1777, noting Mai’s desperate wailing and Cook’s misty eyes. It’s usually depicted as a touching example of how Mai had grown to love the British and, equally, of how Cook had a softer heart than most believed.

From Mai’s perspective, though, the moment likely had a far different meaning.

Neither Tupaia nor Mai had achieved their ultimate goals in joining the Cook voyages, but this does not discount the grandness of their ambitions.

Both undertook epic feats of exploration. And their missions were just as political as Cook’s had been. Instead of imperial expansion, however, these men had sought a continuation of their Indigenous ways of life.

And it’s worth pointing out that Cook failed in his ultimate goal in the third voyage, too. He had been tasked with finding a northwest passage for imperial trade and to deliver Mai home according to his wishes. Instead, he ended up assassinated in Hawai’i.The Conversation

Cleveley, James, active 1776-1780. Cleveley, James fl 1776-1780 :[View of Huaheine, one of the Society Islands in the South Seas. Drawn on the spot by James Cleveley, painted by John Cleveley, London, F. Jukes aquatt. London, Thomas Martyn, 1787]. Ref: C-036-020. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22325887.
National Library of New Zealand

Kate Fullagar, Associate Professor in Modern History, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia, and other myths from old school text books



A picture titled ‘Captain Cook taking possession of the Australian continent on behalf of the British crown, AD 1770’. Drawn and engraved by Samuel Calvert from an historical painting by Gilfillan in the possession of the Royal Society of Victoria.
Trove/National Library of Australia

Louise Zarmati, University of Tasmania

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here, and an interactive here.


Approaching the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first journey to the Pacific, The Conversation asked readers what they remembered learning at school about his arrival in Australia.

Most people said they learnt Cook “discovered” Australia – especially if they were at school before the 1990s.


Screenshot from Facebook.com

Depending on when you went to school, you may have learnt differently about Captain Cook’s role in Australian history. To find out how the teaching of Cook in Australian schools has changed, I examined textbooks used in the 1950s until today.


Screenshot from Facebook.com

School years 1950s and early 1960s

Conquering the Continent, 1961.
Author provided

If you were at school after the second world war to the mid-1960s, Australia still had strong links to the British Empire.

Cook was portrayed as a one of the greatest explorers in history and textbooks presented clear messages Cook “discovered” Australia and “took possession” of the land for England.

The 1959 Queensland text Social Studies for Standard VIII (Queensland) by G.T Roscoe said Cook “landed on Possession Island, hoisted the Union Jack, claiming the country for the King of England”.

A new series from The Conversation.

In Conquering the Continent (1961), C.H. Wright mentions some contact with Indigenous people at Botany Bay, but there is no mention of conflict. Wright writes

The blacks offered little resistance; they quickly stood off after being frightened by gun shots.

C.H. Wright, 1961. Conquering the Continent: The story of the Exploration and settlement of Australia.
Author provided

School years 1965 to 1979


Birth of a Nation, 1974., Author provided

If you went to school between 1965 and 1979, you were learning during the era of the Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke governments.

This was when awareness was beginning to grow of the negative impact of colonisation on Australia’s Indigenous people.

E.S. Elphick’s 1974 Birth of a Nation continued the “discovery and possession” narrative, but acknowledged Indigenous people were in Australia beforehand:

The first Australians came here at least 30,000 years ago, and for all but the last 200 years of this period enjoyed uninterrupted possession of the land they came to[…] The white man, in fact, took a very long time to arrive.

Paul Ashton’s chapter in David Stewart’s Investigating Australian History Using Evidence (1985) encouraged students to “work as historians” by examining primary sources (in this case old maps) and evaluating interpretations of history.

Ashton emphasised the importance of the scientific “discovery”:

Cook’s achievements were indeed great, as were his talents as a navigator. At last, a reasonably accurate chart of the east coast of Australia could be added to European knowledge of the continent, along with a mass of natural and scientific discoveries. However, the discovery was not as yet completed […]

School in 1981 to 1995

If you went to school in the 1980s and early to mid ‘90s, you may have learnt history from a more inclusive perspective that included the lived experiences of those who were largely left out of the traditional narrative, such as children, women and Indigenous people.




Read more:
‘I spoke about Dreamtime, I ticked a box’: teachers say they lack confidence to teach Indigenous perspectives


But in Australia: All Our Yesterdays (1999), author Meg Grey Blanden presented a benign account of Cook facing no resistance from Indigenous people:

On a small island now named Possession Island, Cook performed the last and most important official task of his entire voyage. Like others of his time, Cook was undeterred by the presence of native people on the island. He noted that they obligingly departed and left the Europeans to get on with their ceremony.

School in 1996 to 2015

In the first decade of the 21st century, history was embedded into social studies in all states and territories, except New South Wales. Australian colonial history focused on “discovery”, foundation and expansion was relegated to years four to six.

Some teachers may have chosen to use critical inquiry to teach about Cook’s expedition in year nine. Most tended to focus on the more complicated 20th century history of world wars and progress in year nine and ten syllabuses.


Screenshot from Facebook.com

The Australian Curriculum, which was implemented in all schools from 2012, has maintained this chronological divide of historical knowledge. In year four, students learn about Cook by “examining the journey of one or more explorers of the Australian coastline … using navigation maps to reconstruct their journeys”.

It would be unusual for secondary teachers these days to teach their students about Cook because the topic is not in the secondary curriculum.

This means if children do not learn about Cook’s achievements in the primary years it’s quite possible if they were asked what they learnt about Cook in school, they may not know anything about him.The Conversation

Louise Zarmati, Lecturer in Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Education, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Botany and the colonisation of Australia in 1770



Botanist Joseph Banks recommended Botany Bay as the site for a penal colony.
Charles Gore (1788) / State Library of NSW

Bruce Buchan, Griffith University

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.


James Cook and his companions aboard the Endeavour landed at a harbour on Australia’s southeast coast in April of 1770. Cook named the place Botany Bay for
“the great quantity of plants Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander found in this place”.

Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander were aboard the Endeavour as gentleman botanists, collecting specimens and applying names in Latin to plants Europeans had not previously seen. The place name hints at the importance of plants to Britain’s Empire, and to botany’s pivotal place in Europe’s Enlightenment and Australia’s early colonisation.

A new series from The Conversation.

‘Nothing like people’

Joseph Banks became one of Britain’s most influential scientists.
National Library of Australia

Cook has always loomed large in Australia’s colonial history. White Australians have long commemorated and celebrated him as the symbolic link to the “civilisation” of Enlightenment and Empire. The two botanists have been less well remembered, yet Banks in particular was an influential figure in Australia’s early colonisation.

When Banks and his friend Solander went ashore on April 29, 1770 to collect plants for naming and classification, the Englishman recollected they saw “nothing like people”. Banks knew that the land on which he and Solander sought plants was inhabited (and in fact, as we now know, had been so for at least 65,000 years). Yet the two botanists were engaged in an activity that implied the land was blank and unknown.

They were both botanical adventurers. Solander was among the first and most favoured of the students of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and colonial traveller who devised the method still used today for naming species. Both Solander and Banks were advocates for the Linnaean method of taxonomy: a systematic classification of newly named plants and animals.

When they stepped ashore at “Botany Bay” in 1770, the pair saw themselves as pioneers in a double sense: as Linnaean botanists in a new land, its places and plants unnamed by any other; as if they were in a veritable terra nullius.

The plant specimens Joseph Banks collected were taken back to England, where they remain today in the Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

Botany in ‘nobody’s land’

Terra nullius, meaning “nobody’s land”, refers to a legal doctrine derived from European traditions stretching back to the ancient Romans. The idea was that land could be declared “empty” and “unowned” if there were no signs of occupation such as cultivation of the soil, towns, cities, or sacred temples.

As a legal doctrine it was not applied in Australia until the late 1880s, and there is dispute about its effects in law until its final elimination by the High Court in Mabo v Queensland (No. II) in 1992.




Read more:
Terra nullius interruptus: Captain James Cook and absent presence in First Nations art


Cook never used this formulation, nor did Banks or Solander. Yet each in their way acted as if it were true. That the land, its plants, and animals, and even its peoples, were theirs to name and classify according to their own standards of “scientific” knowledge.

In the late eighteenth century, no form of scientific knowledge was more useful to empire than botany. It was the science par excellence of colonisation and empire. Botany promised a way to transform the “waste” of nature into economic productivity on a global scale.

Plant power

Wealth and power in Britain’s eighteenth century empire came from harnessing economically useful crops: tobacco, sugar, tea, coffee, rice, potatoes, flax. Hence Banks and Solander’s avid botanical activity was not merely a manifestation of Enlightenment “science”. It was an integral feature of Britain’s colonial and imperial ambitions.

Banksia ericifolia was one of the many species given a new name by Banks.
Natural History Museum

Throughout the Endeavour’s voyage, Banks, Solander, and their assistants collected more than 30,000 plant specimens, naming more than 1,400 species.

By doing so, they were claiming new ground for European knowledge, just as Cook meticulously charted the coastlines of territories he claimed for His Majesty, King George III. Together they extended a new dispensation, inscribed in new names for places and for plants written over the ones that were already there.

Long after the Endeavour returned to Britain, Banks testified before two House of Commons committees in 1779 and 1785 that “Botany Bay” would be an “advantageous” site for a new penal colony. Among his reasons for this conclusion were not only its botanical qualities – fertile soils, abundant trees and grasses – but its virtual emptiness.




Read more:
From Captain Cook to the First Fleet: how Botany Bay was chosen over Africa as a new British penal colony


Turning emptiness to empire

When Banks described in his own Endeavour journal the land Cook had named “New South Wales”, he recalled: “This immense tract of Land … is thinly inhabited even to admiration …”. It was the science of botany that connected emptiness and empire to the Enlightened pursuit of knowledge.

One of Banks’s correspondents was the Scottish botanist and professor of natural history, John Walker. Botany, Walker wrote, was one of the “few Sciences” that “can promise any discovery or improvement”. Botany was the scientific means to master the global emporium of commodities on which empire grew.

Botany was also the reason why it had not been necessary for Banks or Solander to affirm the land on which they trod was empty. For in a very real sense, their science presupposed it. The land, its plants and its people were theirs to name and thereby claim by “discovery”.

When Walker reflected on his own botanical expeditions in the Scottish Highlands, he described them as akin to voyages of discovery to lands as “inanimate & unfrequented as any in the Terra australis”.

As we reflect on the 250-year commemoration of Cook’s landing in Australia, we ought also to consider his companions Banks and Solander, and their science of turning supposed emptiness to empire.The Conversation

Bruce Buchan, Associate Professor, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Cooking the books: how re-enactments of the Endeavour’s voyage perpetuate myths of Australia’s ‘discovery’



Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal) with Doug Nicholls on Frenchman’s Beach, La Perouse, on April 29 1970. During the Cook bicentenary protest, activists declared a day of mourning for Aboriginal nations.
Image from the Tribune collection from the 1970 Cook Bi-centenary protest, to be featured in the State Library of NSW’s upcoming exhibition ‘Eight Days in Gamay.’

Kate Darian-Smith, University of Tasmania and Katrina Schlunke, University of Tasmania

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people.


Prime Minister Scott Morrison stumbled on the word “re-enactment” when outlining his government’s (now suspended) plans for commemorating the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s mythologised “discovery” of Australia.

Certainly, the planned route of the replica HMB Endeavour with 39 stops (and funded at A$6.7 million) could not be described as such: Cook never circumnavigated mainland Australia nor visited Tasmania on the Endeavour.

Morrison quickly clarified that the only gesture of historical accuracy would be a “retracing” of Cook’s voyage up the eastern seaboard.

Historical re-enactments of Cook’s landing are not new to settler Australia. They have focused on Cook’s landfall at Botany Bay, south of Sydney, where the Endeavour’s crew first stepped onto the continent on April 29 1770.

His journal recorded they were greeted by two Dharawal men “who seem’d resolved to oppose our landing”. Cook fired his musket at the men three times, including aiming directly, forcing their retreat.

Cook’s active role in British hostility to Aboriginal peoples was erased from subsequent performances of the Botany Bay landing.

These have also been embellished with Cook claiming the east coast of Australia — this actually occurred some months later at Possession Island in the Torres Strait.

Such popular “re-enactments” of national “foundation moments” have elements of fantasy, compressing time and history into palatable narratives for mainstream Australia.

The history of Cook re-enactments

Cook’s arrival was commemorated as early as 1822, when Sydney’s Philosophical Society erected a plaque at Kurnell, on the headland of Botany Bay. By 1864, the Australian Patriotic Association had located the “exact” site a kilometre away.

Following the 1870 centenary of Cook’s landfall, annual pro-British “celebrations” at Botany Bay involved the presence of the governor, flag-raising, gun salutes, and military displays.

In a society eager to erase its convict stain, Cook was a more acceptable founder than Governor Arthur Phillip, who had established the penal colony in Sydney Cove in 1788.

Considerable confusion existed then – and continues today — about the historical roles of Cook and Phillip. Even during the 1888 Centennial of the First Fleet, the largest triumphal arch in Sydney was adorned with Cook’s image and a model of the Endeavour.

The inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia in January 1901 provided the impetus for a major re-enactment at Kurnell, headlined as the “Second Coming of Cook”. The spectacle attracted a crowd of over 5,000, with 1,000 enjoying a champagne luncheon in an enormous marquee.

Monument of Captain Cook in Kurnell, Sydney.
Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

The re-enactment began with the arrival of the Endeavour, represented by local fishing vessel “Fanny Fisher”. Once ashore, Cook and his sailors and marines encountered 25 Aboriginal men armed with spears and decorated with feathers and ochre. A gun was fired overhead, then Cook ordered a sailor to shoot at the Aborigines before making his imperial claim on the continent. Cook, Joseph Banks and a nymph symbolising Australia gave speeches on the “greatness” and unity of the Britannia of the Southern Ocean.

Although an Aboriginal community lived at La Perouse on the opposite shore of Botany Bay, the re-enactment involved a troupe of Indigenous men from Queensland. They were directed by parliamentarian and entrepreneur Archibald Meston, who had previously toured Indigenous performers in his “Wild Australia” show.

It is unknown under what circumstances the Aboriginal men were recruited for the Federation re-enactment, or if they were paid.

Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, by E. Phillips Fox (1902)
National Gallery of Victoria

Despite dramatising a beach-side skirmish between the Aborigines and British, the Federation performance cemented Cook as the conquering peacemaker. This was promoted by E. Phillips Fox, who was commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria to paint The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770 (1902).

This monumental work is a tableau – or frozen re-enactment — of Cook striding purposefully up the beach, stretching out his hand as he takes territorial possession. It was widely reproduced and circulated, becoming the best-known and influential image of Cook’s landing across Australia.




Read more:
An honest reckoning with Captain Cook’s legacy won’t heal things overnight. But it’s a start


The evolution of performances

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the anniversary of the Endeavour’s arrival at Botany Bay was marked by performative gestures to the past. Dignitaries arrived by steamship, coming ashore to give speeches situating Cook as founder of the nation.

For instance, in 1930 at the height of the Depression, spectators were exhorted to “practice self-denial and self-reliance as exemplified in Captain Cook’s exploits”.

Although a full-scale re-enactment was staged in 1951 for the Federation jubilee, interest in Cook waned and the formalities were abandoned.

This changed dramatically in 1970, with the bicentenary of Cook’s Australian landing. Cook was suddenly everywhere, with government funding supporting pageants, memorials and other Cook novelties around the nation.

The nationalistic climax of months of events was an elaborate re-enactment at Kurnell, performed for the visiting Queen Elizabeth and her entourage. Directed by musical theatre aficionado Hayes Gordon, the spectacle was designed for global television, with actors selected after a nationwide search. Held on “Discovery Day”, it attracted a crowd of over 50,000 people.

Re-enactment of the first fleet arrival in Domain, Sydney, in 1938.
The Royal Botanical Gardens Sydney

Promoted as portraying the “birth of modern Australia”, this re-enactment capitalised on the groundswell of popular interest in Australia’s past. Emphasis was placed on historical accuracy, although nothing challenged the well-established nonsense of Cook’s party briefly confronting Indigenous peoples before peacefully claiming the continent.

To show how far the nation had progressed, “multicultural” schoolchildren and boy scouts and girl guides rose and fell in waves along the beach.

Protesting and mourning

Amid this “celebration”, diverse Aboriginal protests were under way, although they were little covered by the press.

At La Perouse, Aboriginal poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) was among hundreds of protesters who boycotted the re-enactment and released funeral wreaths into the sea.

A silent vigil had been held the night before, and a “day of mourning” was observed at Sydney Town Hall and in other Australian cities.

Wreaths thrown into Botany Bay to mark the day of mourning, April 29 1970.
Image from the Tribune collection from the 1970 Cook Bicentenary protest, featured in the State Library of NSW’s upcoming exhibition, Eight Days in Gamay, opening late April.

In 1970, a second re-enactment was held in Cooktown, also witnessed by the queen. The original Endeavour had spent seven weeks there, undergoing repairs after running into the Great Barrier Reef.

Cooktown has a long record of Cook-related performances, though initially these were sporadic. But from 1960, the Cooktown Re-enactment Association organised an annual event.

The performances evolved from a battle with Aboriginal people to Cook landing and taking possession and, more recently, celebrations of acts of conciliation.

Queen Elizabeth greeted by a group of Indigenous children at a ceremony marking the bicentenary of Cook’s arrival in Cooktown.
www.abc.net.au

Future direction: same old or new path forward?

Until coronavirus and social distancing made all public events impossible, the federal government had slated to spend A$5.45 million on the Cooktown 2020 Expo, including a re-enactment of the landing of Captain Cook and his interactions with the Guugu Yimithirr bama.

As this historical overview of over a century of re-enactments of Cook’s landing has shown, these events have served to reinforce Australia’s imperial and British connections. They ignore the violence of Cook’s encounters with Aboriginal people and Indigenous resistance, and perpetuate the myth of Cook’s discovery of Australia.

You can hear Kate Darian-Smith discussing these ideas in an episode of our podcast, Trust Me, I’m An Expert, over here.The Conversation

Kate Darian-Smith, Executive Dean and Pro Vice-Chancellor, College of Arts, Law and Education, University of Tasmania and Katrina Schlunke, Associate professor, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Captain Cook wanted to introduce British justice to Indigenous people. Instead, he became increasingly cruel and violent



‘Death of Captain Cook’ by George Carter. 1781. Oil on canvas. The painting depicts the killing of Cook during a skirmish with Hawaiians on his third Pacific voyage in 1779.
National Library of Australia collection

Shino Konishi, University of Western Australia

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people.


In The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere describes James Cook as a Kurtz-like figure, inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.

He suggests Cook initially saw himself as an enlightened “civiliser”, bringing a new vision of the world to the so-called “savage lands” of the South Seas.

A new series from The Conversation.

But over the course of his three voyages, Cook instead came to embody the “savagery” he ostensibly despised, indulging in increasingly tyrannical, punitive and violent treatment of Indigenous people in the Pacific.

Cook’s evolution was triggered by Indigenous people’s seeming refusal to embrace the gift of civilisation he offered, such as livestock and garden beds sown with Western crops and a justice system modelled after Britain’s.




Read more:
A failure to say hello: how Captain Cook blundered his first impression with Indigenous people


After revisiting Tahiti on his third voyage, he was dismayed to discover that despite a decade of European encounters and exchanges, he nonetheless found

neither new arts nor improvements in the old, nor have they copied after us in any one thing.

He became increasingly frustrated by their determination to maintain their own laws and manners, especially their tendency to “steal”.

‘Hints’ for fostering good relations

For his first expedition on the Endeavour, Cook received a document called Hints prepared by the Earl of Morton, president of the Royal Society, providing advice on how to deal with Indigenous people.

The earl reminded Cook’s crew that Indigenous peoples were the “legal possessors of the several regions they inhabit” and

No European Nation has the right to occupy any part of their country … without their voluntary consent.

He also advised Cook and his naturalists to:

Exercise the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the Natives of the several lands where the ship may touch. To check the petulance of the Sailors and restrain the wanton use of Fire Arms. To have it still in view that shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature.

Cook decided the best way to prevent violence and foster good relations with Indigenous people he encountered was to demonstrate the “superiority” of European weapons, assuming

once they are sensible of these things, a regard for their own safety will deter them from disturbing you.

A passage from Hints.
National Library of Australia, Papers of Sir Joseph Banks

Cook’s early attempts to promote British justice

Cook was determined, however, to follow Morton’s instructions to the letter and ensure his crew, under threat of punishment, treated Indigenous people respectfully.

He enforced this rule in April 1769 during their first sojourn in Tahiti, when the ship’s butcher threatened to slit the throat of the high chief Te Pau’s wife when she refused to exchange her hatchet for a nail.

Outraged, Te Pau told the botanist Joseph Banks, with whom he had developed a close relationship. Cook then ordered the butcher to be publicly flogged in front of the Tahitians so they could witness British justice.




Read more:
‘They are all dead’: for Indigenous people, Cook’s voyage of ‘discovery’ was a ghostly visitation


Yet, instead of being satisfied, the Tahitians were appalled to witness this form of corporal punishment.

A few days later, Cook’s resolve to maintain peaceful relations was tested again when their quadrant was stolen from a guarded tent. This scientific instrument was essential for observing the transit of Venus, a central aim of the expedition.

According to Cook’s journal, his first response was to “seize upon Tootaha” [Tutaha], the chief of Papara in western Tahiti, or

some others of the Principle people and keep them in custody until the Quadt was produce’d.

But he soon realised this would alarm the Tahitians. After realising Tutaha played no role in the theft, Cook ordered his men not to seize him. And Banks, tipped off by Te Pau as to the quadrant’s whereabouts, soon retrieved it.

On these occasions, Cook attempted to demonstrate what he saw as the fairness of British law to the Tahitians.

Johann Reinhold Forster, naturalist on Cook’s second voyage, also suggested Cook’s reactions were tempered by the presence of the naturalists, who were not subject to his authority.

A change in temperament

By his third voyage on the Resolution and Discovery from 1776-80, however, Cook would no longer be so measured in his treatment of Indigenous people.

This was evident during his almost three-month stay in Tonga, then known as the Friendly Islands.

Chart of the Friendly Isles, published in 1777.
Wikimedia Commons

In May 1777, Cook visited Nomuka, and after exchanging gifts with the leading chief, Tupoulangi, he set up a market where the British received great stores of fresh meat and fruit.

Despite the efforts of both Cook and Tupoulangi to ensure order in the market, however, thefts still occurred.

On one occasion, an islander was caught trying to steal a small winch used to make rope, and Cook “ordered him a dozen lashes”. After the man was “severely flogg’d”, his hands were tied behind his back and he was carried to the market where he was

not releas’d till a large hog was brought for his ransom.

William Anderson, a surgeon on the expedition, thought the lashes were a justifiable punishment and deterrent. However, he said what came after would

not be found consonant with the principles of justice or humanity.

Cook later complained the chiefs were ordering their servants to steal from the market and “floging [sic] made no more impression” on them since the chiefs would “often advise us to kill them”.

Reluctant to resort to execution for stealing, Cook’s crew soon found an alternative method of punishment: shaving the heads of offenders. This, he said,

was looked upon as a mark of infamy.

A month later, the expedition moved to the island Tongatapu. Here, there was a radical shift in Cook’s conduct. As anthropologist Anne Salmond described it, he was “guilty of great cruelty” even in the eyes of his own men.

Historian John Beaglehole believes Cook was “at his wits’ end” by the thievery at Tongatapu and responded by applying “the lash as he had never done before”.

Instead of shaving the heads of thieves, Cook again ordered them to be severely flogged and ransomed.




Read more:
My ancestors met Cook in Aotearoa 250 years ago. For us, it’s time to reinterpret a painful history


Cut-throat retribution

The Discovery’s master, Thomas Edgar, kept a tally of these punishments and noted that in a two-week span, eight men were punished with 24-72 lashes apiece for stealing items such as a “tumbler and two wine glasses”.

Cook even punished his own men with the maximum 12 lashes for “neglect of duty” when thefts happened on their watch.

He also resorted to punishments which midshipman George Gilbert deemed “unbecoming of a European”, including:

cutting off their ears; fireing at them with small shot; or ball as they were swimming or paddling to the shore; and suffering the people (as he rowed after them) to beat them with the oars; and stick the boat hook into them; wherever he could hit them

Edgar described how one Tongan prisoner who received 72 lashes and then was dealt “a strange punishment” by

scoring both his Arms with a common Knife by one of our Seamen Longitudinally and transversly [sic], into the Bone.

This horrific and excessive carving of crosses into the man’s shoulders is most reminiscent of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

Blind hypocrisy

Cook’s increasingly violent punishments reflected his sheer frustration over the refusal of Indigenous people to recognise the superiority of Western ways and Europeans’ concepts of property.

Of course, while they were very protective and jealous of their own possessions, Cook and his crew were blind to any Indigenous concepts of property.

As he journeyed through the Pacific, Cook, like other European voyagers, freely collected water and fruit, netted fish and turtles, hunted birds and game and cut down trees for wood, never thinking Indigenous people would regard these valuable resources as their property nor construe such actions as theft.

When the expedition reached Endeavour River, near present-day Cooktown in far-north Queensland, the Guugu Yimithirr people tried to reclaim turtles Cook’s men had fished from their waters. They were rebuffed by Cook’s men and angrily set fires in retaliation.

Cook, however, did not recognise this as punishment or retribution for the stolen turtles. Instead he thought their actions were “troublesome”, so was

obliged to fire a musquet load[ed] with small short at some of the ri[n]g leaders.

Throughout his voyages, Cook faithfully followed the Earl of Morton’s advice to show off the superiority of European might, but he increasingly failed “to check” his own “petulance” and “restrain the wanton use of Fire Arms”.

Most, significantly, through his administering of rough justice against Indigenous people for apparent thieving, Cook forgot Morton’s edict that

shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature.The Conversation

Shino Konishi, ARC Research Fellow, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Make no mistake: Cook’s voyages were part of a military mission to conquer and expand


Stephen Gapps, University of Newcastle

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here.


The military nature of the Endeavour’s voyage – as part of an aggressive reconnaissance and defence against Indigenous resistance – has historically been overlooked or downplayed.

But musket fire was used many times to teach lessons of British military superiority. Violence underscored almost all of Cook’s Pacific encounters with Indigenous peoples.

In the broader strategic sense – as all 18th and early 19th century scientific voyages were – Cook’s voyages were part of a European drive to conquer. The aim was to claim resources and trade in support of the British Empire’s expansion.

At its heart, Cook’s first voyage was first and foremost a Royal Navy expedition and he was chosen as a military commander who had a background in mathematics and cartography.

A new series from The Conversation.

Imperial science and ‘ships of force’

During the “great age” of Pacific voyaging, expeditions always had several goals at once.

Cook’s first voyage in 1769 occurred during the perennial cold war of Anglo-French rivalry after what has been regarded as the first global conflict, the Seven Years War (1756-1763). This was also at the height of the promotion of “imperial science” – the idea that scientific advancement and colonial expansion were twin goals.

As industrialisation drove upheaval in Europe, scientific “discovery” was seen as a critical part of establishing, developing and controlling an empire.

The seeds of Cook’s “secret instructions” to seek out the fabled southern continent were sown by an astronomer, Professor Thomas Hornsby.

In 1766 Hornsby called for a “settlement in the great Pacific Ocean” led by “some ships of force”. This expedition would be advantageous to astronomers, but also “add a lustre” to a nation already distinguished “both in arts and arms”. It seemed a natural fit to the scientist Hornsby that the Royal Navy spearhead a British presence in the Pacific.

Even Cook, as was expected of any sea-going commander visiting distant stations, made military reconnaissance notes.

In November 1768, when the Endeavour reprovisioned at Rio de Janeiro, the local Viceroy was suspicious of a voyage supposedly to observe the transit of Venus. He suspected Cook of seeking to extend British influence in the Pacific.

Cook duly noted in his journal the state of local defences in and around Rio de Janeiro and that

it would require five or Six sail of the Line to insure Success.

Cook felt insulted at being carefully watched and had a low opinion of the Viceroy’s scientific ignorance. But, in fact, the Viceroy was correct.

After opening his supplementary instructions (so-called “secret orders” issued by the British Navy) Cook headed off to attempt to find and claim for Great Britain the supposed southern land thought to exist in the vast southern ocean.




Read more:
The stories of Tupaia and Omai and their vital role as Captain Cook’s unsung shipmates


Policy emanated from the barrel of a gun

Every European ship that voyaged the Pacific was, in the first instance, a floating fortress; an independent command with the ability to send out small shore parties or to concentrate firepower as needed.

And this was at the heart of all contact, all encounters, all attempts at communication with Pacific and other peoples. Make no mistake, restraint in British policy and conduct with Indigenous peoples in the Pacific emanated from the barrel of a gun.

Cook’s voyaging did not take place on a blank canvas, but across a rich tapestry of thriving, voyaging cultures that were ultimately the target of European aggression.

Cook has often been feted as one of the few 18th century voyaging captains renowned for his “tolerance” of Indigenous people and cultures. But ultimately, this was a tactic used in pursuit of domination. The best military commander only rarely has to resort to open conflict.

A lesson learned well before Cook

Cannon – such as those Cook dumped overboard to lighten his ship after he struck the Great Barrier Reef in 1770 – make good museum objects and monuments in public parks.

But like those on Cook’s ship the HMB Endeavour, the fact is many cannon on later voyages were hardly used – if ever. The power of artillery fire had been swiftly learned by Pacific peoples since Europeans first arrived in the 1500s, many years before Cook.

Resistance warfare occurred across the Pacific from the 1500s right through to conflicts such as Samoan resistance to German imperial rule in 1908. But like the Australian Frontier Wars, these conflicts have often been neglected by military historians.

Yet conflict across the Pacific was surprisingly inter-connected, and influenced military thinking back in Europe.

A long history of oceanic warfare and navigation

One such example is The Battle of Mactan in 1521, in which Indigenous warriors in the Philippines fought and defeated an overconfident, numerically small Spanish force fighting under Portugal’s Ferdinand Magellan (famous for circumnavigating the globe).

And in 1595, the Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendana was searching for “Terra Australis” when he arrived in the Marquesas Islands. He was met by several hundred canoes and more than 200 Marquesans were killed in the ensuing conflict.

European voyagers were often unaware that many major island groups across the Pacific were in regular communication with each other.

At least 174 years years after the Spanish devastation in the Marquesan islands, Tupaia – the Tahitian priest and navigator with knowledge of more 70 islands in the Pacific – joined the Endeavour voyage, in effect as a pilot and intermediary.

Tupaia drew a map with more than 130 islands on it, and included the Marquesas Islands on it. He described to Cook and Joseph Banks how, in the distant past, four islands were visited by ships similar to the Endeavour. His map drew on Pacific knowledge of previous conflicts and navigation techniques.

Tuaia’s first map of the Pacific islands.
Wikimedia

When the British captain Samuel Wallis arrived at Tahiti in the HMS Dolphin in 1767, just two years before Cook, according to Jean-Claude Teriierooiterai, the Ari’i Amo (king) of Tahiti probably recognised these voyagers as the same white people who had attacked the Marquesans.

Around 100 double war canoes loaded with stones attacked the Dolphin for four days until Wallis fired his cannon into the Tahitian fleet (and at villages ashore for good measure). The Tahitians rightly regarded this firepower as all but invincible and soon became hospitable.

Attack of Samuel Wallis and his crew aboard The Dolphin by the people of Otaheite, Tahiti.
Royal Museums Greenwich

When the French voyager Louis-Antoine de Bougainville arrived at Tahiti a year later, he thought the Tahitians the friendliest people in the world, living in a paradise. He did not know that he had Wallis’ cannon fire to thank for his reception.

It is important to remember the military factors in Cook’s and all other voyagers experiences in the Pacific and around Australia. They remind us of what underlined, if not defined, cross-cultural encounter moments.

Addressing the fact that these expeditions were all of a military nature reminds us that European colonisation was resisted from its very first moments.The Conversation

Stephen Gapps, Conjoint Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Diary of Samuel Pepys shows how life under the bubonic plague mirrored today’s pandemic



There were eerie similarities between Pepys’ time and our own.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ute Lotz-Heumann, University of Arizona

In early April, writer Jen Miller urged New York Times readers to start a coronavirus diary.

“Who knows,” she wrote, “maybe one day your diary will provide a valuable window into this period.”

During a different pandemic, one 17th-century British naval administrator named Samuel Pepys did just that. He fastidiously kept a diary from 1660 to 1669 – a period of time that included a severe outbreak of the bubonic plague in London. Epidemics have always haunted humans, but rarely do we get such a detailed glimpse into one person’s life during a crisis from so long ago.

There were no Zoom meetings, drive-through testing or ventilators in 17th-century London. But Pepys’ diary reveals that there were some striking resemblances in how people responded to the pandemic.

A creeping sense of crisis

For Pepys and the inhabitants of London, there was no way of knowing whether an outbreak of the plague that occurred in the parish of St. Giles, a poor area outside the city walls, in late 1664 and early 1665 would become an epidemic.

The plague first entered Pepys’ consciousness enough to warrant a diary entry on April 30, 1665: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City,” he wrote, “it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.”

Portrait of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (1666).
National Portrait Gallery

Pepys continued to live his life normally until the beginning of June, when, for the first time, he saw houses “shut up” – the term his contemporaries used for quarantine – with his own eyes, “marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there.” After this, Pepys became increasingly troubled by the outbreak.

He soon observed corpses being taken to their burial in the streets, and a number of his acquaintances died, including his own physician.

By mid-August, he had drawn up his will, writing, “that I shall be in much better state of soul, I hope, if it should please the Lord to call me away this sickly time.” Later that month, he wrote of deserted streets; the pedestrians he encountered were “walking like people that had taken leave of the world.”

Tracking mortality counts

In London, the Company of Parish Clerks printed “bills of mortality,” the weekly tallies of burials.

Because these lists noted London’s burials – not deaths – they undoubtedly undercounted the dead. Just as we follow these numbers closely today, Pepys documented the growing number of plague victims in his diary.

‘Bills of mortality’ were regularly posted.
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Image

At the end of August, he cited the bill of mortality as having recorded 6,102 victims of the plague, but feared “that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000,” mostly because the victims among the urban poor weren’t counted. A week later, he noted the official number of 6,978 in one week, “a most dreadfull Number.”

By mid-September, all attempts to control the plague were failing. Quarantines were not being enforced, and people gathered in places like the Royal Exchange. Social distancing, in short, was not happening.

He was equally alarmed by people attending funerals in spite of official orders. Although plague victims were supposed to be interred at night, this system broke down as well, and Pepys griped that burials were taking place “in broad daylight.”

Desperate for remedies

There are few known effective treatment options for COVID-19. Medical and scientific research need time, but people hit hard by the virus are willing to try anything. Fraudulent treatments, from teas and colloidal silver, to cognac and cow urine, have been floated.

Although Pepys lived during the Scientific Revolution, nobody in the 17th century knew that the Yersinia pestis bacterium carried by fleas caused the plague. Instead, the era’s scientists theorized that the plague was spreading through miasma, or “bad air” created by rotting organic matter and identifiable by its foul smell. Some of the most popular measures to combat the plague involved purifying the air by smoking tobacco or by holding herbs and spices in front of one’s nose.

Tobacco was the first remedy that Pepys sought during the plague outbreak. In early June, seeing shut-up houses “put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell … and chaw.” Later, in July, a noble patroness gave him “a bottle of plague-water” – a medicine made from various herbs. But he wasn’t sure whether any of this was effective. Having participated in a coffeehouse discussion about “the plague growing upon us in this town and remedies against it,” he could only conclude that “some saying one thing, some another.”

A 1666 engraving by John Dunstall depicts deaths and burials in London during the bubonic plague.
Museum of London

During the outbreak, Pepys was also very concerned with his frame of mind; he constantly mentioned that he was trying to be in good spirits. This was not only an attempt to “not let it get to him” – as we might say today – but also informed by the medical theory of the era, which claimed that an imbalance of the so-called humors in the body – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm – led to disease.

Melancholy – which, according to doctors, resulted from an excess of black bile – could be dangerous to one’s health, so Pepys sought to suppress negative emotions; on Sept. 14, for example, he wrote that hearing about dead friends and acquaintances “doth put me into great apprehensions of melancholy. … But I put off the thoughts of sadness as much as I can.”

Balancing paranoia and risk

Humans are social animals and thrive on interaction, so it’s no surprise that so many have found social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic challenging. It can require constant risk assessment: How close is too close? How can we avoid infection and keep our loved ones safe, while also staying sane? What should we do when someone in our house develops a cough?

During the plague, this sort of paranoia also abounded. Pepys found that when he left London and entered other towns, the townspeople became visibly nervous about visitors.

“They are afeared of us that come to them,” he wrote in mid-July, “insomuch that I am troubled at it.”

Pepys succumbed to paranoia himself: In late July, his servant Will suddenly developed a headache. Fearing that his entire house would be shut up if a servant came down with the plague, Pepys mobilized all his other servants to get Will out of the house as quickly as possible. It turned out that Will didn’t have the plague, and he returned the next day.

In early September, Pepys refrained from wearing a wig he bought in an area of London that was a hotspot of the disease, and he wondered whether other people would also fear wearing wigs because they could potentially be made of the hair of plague victims.

And yet he was willing to risk his health to meet certain needs; by early October, he visited his mistress without any regard for the danger: “round about and next door on every side is the plague, but I did not value it but there did what I could con ella.”

Just as people around the world eagerly wait for a falling death toll as a sign of the pandemic letting up, so did Pepys derive hope – and perhaps the impetus to see his mistress – from the first decline in deaths in mid-September. A week later, he noted a substantial decline of more than 1,800.

Let’s hope that, like Pepys, we’ll soon see some light at the end of the tunnel.

[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Ute Lotz-Heumann, Heiko A. Oberman Professor of Late Medieval and Reformation History, University of Arizona

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Tall ship tales: oral accounts illuminate past encounters and objects, but we need to get our story straight



Two Dharawal men opposing Cook’s arrival at Kurnell.
Wikimedia

Maria Nugent, Australian National University and Dr Gaye Sculthorpe, The British Museum

Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. We will be publishing more stories in this series in the coming week.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.


In the early Sydney colony, newcomers commonly quizzed Indigenous locals about their memories of Captain Cook and the Endeavour.

They believed the arrival of a shipload of British men who stayed for a week was an incredibly memorable event; and assumed that details of it would have been preserved — even treasured — over time.

The accounts given are hardly ever a straightforward recounting of what Cook did. And they rarely tally with what is recorded in the voyage accounts.

Rather, they carry those common qualities of remembering: telescoping, conflating, rearranging time, stripping back detail, and upping symbolism and metaphor. Unpicking the threads of these memories is vital for historians wanting to find agreement on details and interpretations, and provenance of items that changed hands during early encounters.

A new series from The Conversation.

Recollecting memories

Some oral accounts were written down – either at the time they were heard or later. Records reveal accounts extracted out of curiosity, to assist with commemorations, or simply to pass the time.

Efforts are underway to clarify the history and provenance of items like this bark shield, held by The British Museum.
The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

One account comes from the early 1830s. Two priests stationed at St Mary’s Cathedral near Sydney’s Domain met an Aboriginal man from Botany Bay. They asked him “if he had any recollections of the landing of Captain Cook”? He was born too late to have witnessed it himself, but he shared a reasonably long story he had inherited from his father, the recollection of which one of the priests later published.

Similarly, in a recent prize-winning essay, historian Grace Karskens reconstructs a tantalising conversation between Aboriginal woman Nah Doongh and her settler friend Sarah Shand.

“Shand was intensely curious about Nah Doongh’s memory of her first contact with white people”, Karsken explains, but was frustratingly incapable of seeing she was implicated in the dispossession of Aboriginal people, including Nah Doongh.

Nah Doongh offered her a story about Cook, whom she presented as big and evil, violent and greedy, in a way that anticipates late 20th-century Aboriginal oral narratives.

Cook emerged as an erstwhile topic in cross-cultural conversations across colonial Sydney, but the substance of what was said and why was less dependent on the details of what Cook and his crew had done in 1770 than on the conditions, contexts and purposes of the chats.

As many have noted, discourses about Cook in Australia are neverending; but their contours and emphases change in relation to – and contribute to change in — broader Australian culture and politics.

Who is speaking?

Sometimes it is not the account given of Cook that is of primary interest, but the identity of the narrator.

Dharawal woman Biddy Giles lived around the Botany Bay area for much of the 19th century. An account she gave of Cook’s landing was written down after her death by a white settler.

He recalled she’d said: “They all run away; two fellows stand; Cook shot them in the legs; and they run away too!”.

Dharawal woman Biddy Giles (left) with Jim Brown, Joe Brown, Joey, and Jimmy Lowndes.
State Library of NSW

This economical account is faithful to longer Endeavour voyage renditions. But researchers are more exercised by biographical information showing Giles was briefly married to a much older man, Cooman. Speculation swirls that Cooman’s grandfather, also called Cooman, was one of the two fellows shot.

When historian Heather Goodall in her book Rivers and Resilience returned to Giles’ life, she made it clear she thought historians who relied on documentary sources should not attempt such jumps.

Repatriation requests

Not all researchers have been so circumspect. In 2016, speculations about the identity of one of the two men shot contributed to formal requests to museums in Britain for the return of artefacts either known to have been collected at Botany Bay during the Endeavour voyage (four spears at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge) or believed to have been (a shield at the British Museum in London).

The repatriation claim repeated historian Keith Vincent Smith’s assertion one of the two men was Cooman.

When asked for advice on this repatriation request, I (Nugent) concluded there was no consensus about that assertion, noting it was unfortunate that:

historical claims which derive from inconclusive evidence, are based on questionable interpretative leaps, and are not presented in ways that recognise and respect the complexities of writing “early contact” history from fragmentary sources […] were being relied upon.

Other arguments would serve applications for return far better.

The request was unsuccessful, but the process was productive and generally positive. More work has taken place since, both further historical research and object analysis, and importantly, renewed and enriched relationship-building.

Building a material history

Retracing the speculative leaps made between the historical encounters, collected objects, and related written, oral and visual sources reinforces the urgent need for well-resourced, critically reflexive, and multimodal methods of interpretation. This is particularly true when the return of an object and the knowledge it embodies is strongly desired.

A variety of fishing spears, shields, stone hatchets, clubs and swords by Charles Alexandre Lesueur (1807)
Mitchell Collection/State Library of NSW

This year we will commence a new ARC-funded project, Mobilising Objects to draw together objects in international collections, images, written records, oral accounts, and contemporary expertise to generate a material history of early colonial Sydney.

The project aims to build knowledge about exceptional, but poorly-documented, Aboriginal objects from Sydney and the NSW coast (circa 1770-1920s) in British and European museums. We hope to build strong relations between Aboriginal communities and overseas museums and lay robust foundations for future projects seeking the return of Indigenous cultural heritage.

Gathering together records of oral accounts given by Aboriginal people about Cook and other seaborne interlopers, and grappling with the interpretive challenges they present, will be a vital aspect of this work.The Conversation

Maria Nugent, Co-Director, Australian Centre for Indigenous History, Australian National University and Dr Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator & Section Head, Oceania, The British Museum

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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