Tag Archives: Captain

Cook commemorations are mute on intimate encounters and their profound impact on Indigenous women



Artist: John Pickles, Author provided

Katie Pickles, University of Canterbury

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.


History is always selective, particularly when it is tied up with national identity. Certain stories are recovered, while others remain silent.

Intimate encounters are often muted, even though we know they played a central part in first encounters during the colonial era.

Tuia 250, a government-sponsored series of events to commemorate 250 years since Captain James Cook arrived in New Zealand, focused on Pacific voyaging and first onshore encounters between Māori and Pākehā (non-Māori) during 1769–70, at the expense of reconsidering private history.




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


Colonial comfort

The laborious maps and longhand entries in explorers’ journals, their sketches of specimens gathered during their long journeys – these can all be seen as skillful antiques of a bygone era. But they also represent potent past tools of imperialism.

Tuia 250 was about both voyaging and encounter histories, but it seems that re-enacting traditional sailing was easier than restaging the intimate encounters that were central to the colonial enterprise.

Captain Cook charted New Zealand during his voyage in 1769.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

Commemorations of voyages across the open oceans sailed clear of the awkward topic of intimacy. The history of intimate encounters remained consigned to a private space, perceived as outside of the making of history and national identity.

But as historian Anne Salmond has written, bodily contact involved Cook’s sailors exchanging items such as nails for sex with women.

In her book The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, Salmond describes the Endeavour’s arrival at Anaura Bay, where Cook’s party went ashore, and the expedition’s official botanist Joseph Banks commented about Māori women being less accessible than Tahitian women.

Banks remarked ruefully that they ‘were as great coquettes as any Europeans could be and the young ones as skittish as unbroke fillies’. If the local women were reluctant to make love with the strangers, however, they were wise, because by Cook’s own reckoning several of his men had stubborn venereal infections, and at least half of the rest had contracted venereal diseases in Tahiti.

In historian James Belich’s view, described in his book Making Peoples, sexual contact became the initial intercultural trade in New Zealand.

The sex industry began at first contact in 1769, and from the 1810s it became large and important – very probably preceding wool, gold and dairy products as New Zealand’s leading earner of overseas exchange.

But Hazel Petrie has argued that intimate encounters have to be considered within the context of cultural practices that emphasised hospitality.

Contemporary Western attitudes sometimes led to characterisations of more casual sexual activity between Māori women and visiting Pākehā men as ‘prostitution’, and in our own time such liaisons have been deemed to represent a ‘sex industry’. But these perceptions may be in large part the result of the different moral codes of the narrators and seeing sexual relationships through different lenses. Māori society may have more typically viewed short- to medium-term relationships with sailors or other visitors in terms of manaakitanga or the normal extension of hospitality with expectations of a courteous material response.




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


Women as agents of history

According to historians, Cook disapproved of the sexual behaviour of his officers and men, but was unable to stop it. In his journal, Cook wrote:

A connection with Women I allow because I cannot prevent it, but never encourage tho many Men are of opinion it is one of the greatest securities amongst Indians, and it may hold good when you intend to settle amongst them; but with travelers and strangers, it is generally otherwise and more men are betrayed than saved by having connection with their women, and how can it be otherwise since all their Views are selfish without the least mixture of regard or attachment whatever; at least my observations which have been pretty general, have not pointed out to me one instance to the contrary.

Sailors embodied the complex, disease-ridden, sexual shipboard culture of the 18th century, combined with western unequal attitudes towards women and the perception of Polynesian women as exotic.

As indigenous and cultural studies scholar Alice Te Punga Somerville puts it:

Gender is so central to the story of Cook. And how Cook, and everything that came after, has done so much to gender in this region.

Māori women were entangled in the encounters as two worlds met. First contact marked the beginning of changes to customary processes (tikanga Māori), ended pre-colonial balance and had profound effects on Māori women’s lives, as the work of indigenous scholar Ani Mikaere has shown.

Mikaere has argued that:

It is often assumed that, according to tikanga Māori, leadership was primarily the domain of men and that men in Māori society exercised power over women. However, evidence abounds which refutes the notion that traditional Māori society attached greater significance to male roles than to female roles.

It came to pass that Māori women, white women missionaries and settlers were all integral to history. As feminist scholar Anne McClintock pointed out of women in imperialism, they were not “hapless onlookers”. They were variously colonisers and colonised.

Just as women were a central part of those first encounters in 1769-70, they continued to be agents of history. Some women, as the helpmeets of Empire, taught generations of schoolchildren about Cook the hero as part of an imperial curriculum.

Navigating a shared future needs to recognise women’s part in colonial encounters. It needs to consider that in the present, as with the past, public and private spaces are interconnected.The Conversation

Katie Pickles, Professor of History at the University of Canterbury and current Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi James Cook Research Fellow, University of Canterbury

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


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



David Crosling/AAP

Maria Nugent, Australian National 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.


In 1970, the bicentenary of the Endeavour’s voyage along the east coast of Australia contributed to a renaissance of storytelling about Captain James Cook.

While government-sponsored commemorations celebrated Cook as an Enlightenment explorer and national founder, Aboriginal people provided their own viewpoints on Cook and his legacy.

During this commemorative period, Indigenous stories about Cook were recorded in the Kimberley region, Arnhem Land and the Wave Hill region in the Northern Territory, along with places on the Queensland coast.

Coinciding with an emerging national movement for Indigenous land rights, these renditions of Cook provided radically different accounts of colonisation and its enduring structures and effects.

These stories questioned the settler mythologising that rendered Cook’s actions as heroic, benign or of historical interest only. And they politicised in unprecedented ways the figure of Cook and the longstanding traditions around the ways Australians remember and celebrate him.

In time, these alternative accounts transformed the ways we understand Cook in Australia – both his own time here in 1770, as well as the cultural production of him as a historical figure in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Captain Cook’s Landing Place Park.
Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

The stories told by Hobbles Danaiyarri

Deborah Bird Rose.
Wikipedia

I began thinking quite differently about my own research on Cook’s encounters at Botany Bay in 1770 after reading the stories told by Hobbles Danaiyarri, a senior Aboriginal lawman and knowledge holder, to the ethnographer Deborah Bird Rose.

Danaiyarri considered Bird Rose a consummate listener, faithful recorder, intelligent interlocutor, incisive interpreter and generous executor. And as Bird Rose later recounted, almost from the moment she arrived to do anthropological fieldwork at Yarralin in the Northern Territory in 1980,

Hobbles had been telling me about Captain Cook and the hidden history of the north.

For nearly three decades, she wrote about the gifts of knowledge – and ways of knowing – he shared with her. Danaiyarri’s spoken-word poetic history – which focused quite extensively on Cook – is one of the great pieces of Australian literature, yet it is still not as widely known as it should be.

The power of a greeting

There’s one section in Danaiyarri’s epic narrative – or saga, as Bird Rose calls it – in which he describes Cook’s failure to say “hello” to the people whose territory he had entered on the east coast. He explains:

[Cook] should have asked him – one of these boss for Sydney – Aboriginal people. People were up there, Aboriginal people. He should have come up and: ‘hello’, you know, ‘hello’. Now, asking him for his place, to come through, because [it’s] Aboriginal land. Because Captain Cook didn’t give him a fair go – to tell him ‘good day’, or ‘hello’, you know.

Portrait of Hobbles Danayarri 1980, from the book Balls and Bulldust.
Håkan Ludwigson

This sharp accusation that Cook’s monumental failing during his initial trespass into Aboriginal territory was “not saying hello” – rather than, for instance, opening fire – draws attention to the social and cultural expectations, values and dynamics that should have governed such an event.

Danaiyarri’s account peeled back the curtain to show us how this first encounter might have looked from “the other side of the beach”.

Until this time, such critical Indigenous knowledge had not penetrated the vast amount of settler storytelling devoted to Cook’s first landing on the shores of Botany Bay.

The stories we inherited of this episode had cast the Aboriginal people Cook encountered as either ferocious warriors or pathetic cowards. They were not properly seen as bosses for the country, who would expect a stranger to recognise them in that way and act accordingly.

Without acknowledgement of that fundamental principle, our interpretations of Cook’s landing were lacking a full understanding of this moment, specifically what motivated the local people’s responses to his forceful entry onto their land.




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


Responding to the crew’s presence

What does it mean to accuse Cook of failing to say hello? Why was this such a blunder and what were the implications of this impolite behaviour?

Curious about the implications of what Danaiyarri said, Bird Rose asked Yarralin people what would have happened if Cook had asked properly to enter the local people’s land. She explained,

I was told that either he would have been denied permission and therefore would have gone way, or he would have been allowed to stay but only on terms decided by the owners of the country.

Cook was in Botany Bay for eight days, and throughout that time, the local people sought to impose the terms on which the crew stayed.

They kept their distance from the strangers and never opened up direct communication with them. But they also did not abandon the country to Cook’s crew. Rather, they orchestrated as best they could the crew’s presence – keeping them contained within a limited space.

They behaved, as Danaiyarri would put it, as bosses should.

Understanding why the ‘beach’ is so important

One of the marketing slogans for this year’s (now suspended) 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyage along the east coast was

the view from the ship and the view from the shore.

While it implies equal weighting would be given to understanding both sides of the story of Cook’s landing, it’s a wrong-headed idea. It suggests each party remained – and can remain still – suspended in their own separate worlds: on the ship or on the shore.

Missing from the tagline is the “beach” – the literal and metaphorical space where cross-cultural encounters, misunderstandings and, too often, violence has taken place.

As Danaiyarri reminds us, Cook did come ashore and the way he did set some of the terms for future colonial-Indigenous relations.

These encounters are challenging and complex to understand. Aboriginal stories, like those told by Danaiyarri, tell us what ought to have happened on the beach. And they ensure none of us forget where, how and why the troubles between Indigenous and other Australians began.

This year’s 250th commemoration provides yet another occasion to grapple with this difficult history – but the opportunity will be lost if we remain blinkered in seeing things only from one, or other, vantage point.The Conversation

Captain Cook’s Landing Place Park.
Wikipedia, CC BY-NC-SA

Maria Nugent, Co-Director, Australian Centre for Indigenous History, Australian National University

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


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



Tuia 250

Peter N. Meihana, Massey 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.


Commemorations of Captain James Cook’s 1769/70 Pacific voyage began late last year in New Zealand, marking the first encounters between Māori and Cook’s crew 250 years ago.

A flotilla of traditional twin-hulled ocean voyaging vessels and tall ships, including a replica of Cook’s Endeavour, sailed along the coast for more than two months as part of Tuia 250, a government-sponsored series of events framed around New Zealand’s voyaging heritage.

The events have polarised many communities. Māori in several areas protested, while others took part enthusiastically. The community to which I belong – Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne and Ngāti Apa – made up the latter.

Local Māori perform a formal welcome ceremony (pōhiri) as the Tuia 250 flotilla arrives in Gisborne.

For us, Tuia 250 was about many things, but least of all about James Cook. We inverted the “Cookfest” in the same way our ancestors took European technologies and put them to customary use.

Insight into our world

My ancestors were present in Tōtaranui/Queen Charlotte Sound, at the top of the South Island, when James Cook arrived in 1770. Fifty years later, the area was invaded by tribes from the north, armed with muskets.

The inter-tribal conflicts that occurred in New Zealand during the 1820s and 1830s are known as the “musket wars”. While the weapon technology was new, the causes for conflict between tribes were customary and many were settled in accordance with custom, primarily through marriage.




Read more:
Explainer: the significance of the Treaty of Waitangi


The Treaty of Waitangi was signed by tribal chiefs and Crown representatives in 1840.
CC BY-ND

The musket wars led up to 1840, the year tribal chiefs and representatives of the Crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi. By then, the geo-political situation in the northern South Island was quite different from 1770.

I mention these events – Cook’s expeditions, the musket wars and the treaty – because they have framed our historical experience and influence our contemporary response. When the government announced its plans for Tuia 250, we saw an opportunity to revisit the past, re-imagining it in order to create a new reality in the present.

We knew that our ancestors had met Cook, but more importantly, they had established a relationship with Tupaia, the Ra’iātean navigator who had joined the expedition in Tahiti. The intensity of that relationship is reflected in the lament composed by our ancestors when they heard of Tupaia’s death.

A traditional ocean voyaging canoe sails into Wellington.
CC BY-ND

Custom goes to court

The muskets wars certainly influenced the history of the northern South Island. From that point on the area was occupied by new tribes whose “take whenua” (occupation rights) were based on “raupatu” (conquest). But my tribal community soon faced a far more formidable opponent – the Crown and British settlers.

Following the signing of the treaty, the Crown imposed its native policy. Fundamentally this meant relieving Māori of their “idle” lands. Through the Native Land Court system, judges were asked to determine who held rights to certain areas according to native custom. Despite having heard evidence from my tribes, the court decided that they had been conquered and had therefore lost their rights to land they claimed through “take tupuna” (ancestry).

These issues were revisited 110 years later. The Waitangi Tribunal, a specialist commission of inquiry, found that Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne and Ngāti Apa had retained rights following the invasion and that the Crown had failed them. The Crown subsequently apologised and compensated the tribes in 2014.

All of these factors influenced why and how my tribes engaged with Tuia 250. The fact that the flotilla included voyagers from East Polynesia reminded us of the relationship our ancestors forged with Tupaia 250 years earlier. Cultural imperatives demanded that our guests be received in an appropriate manner.

The Tuia 250 flotilla sailed along New Zealand’s coast for more than two months.
Tuia 250, CC BY-ND

Pragmatic solutions

The events following Cook’s arrival and the musket wars were significant but did not constrain the aspirations of coming generations. The boundaries that were later imposed on us through Crown policy were both artificial and ultimately temporary.

Few people had the opportunity to witness the pōhiri (traditional welcome) for the flotilla at Meretoto/Ships Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound last November. It was an interesting example of custom whereby tribal leaders worked to accommodate each other’s cultural practices.

Despite a history of conflict and ongoing disputes, the pōhiri demonstrated that Māori are also pragmatic and search for solutions that maintain the mana (status, authority) of all – at least on this occasion.

A waka festival signified the Tuia 250 voyage’s final stop at the Mahia peninsula.

Tuia 250 also showed that Māori history continues to unfold, both in relation to the Pākehā (non-Maori) world, and independent of it. With the government’s recent announcement that New Zealand history will be made compulsory in schools, it will be interesting to see how these diverse realities are incorporated into the curriculum.




Read more:
Why it’s time for New Zealanders to learn more about their own country’s history


Another theme of Tuia 250 is the notion of shared futures. The rekindling of a relationship that began 250 years ago was strengthened through the retelling of oral traditions, and the creation of new ones. This was a reminder that we are a Pacific island nation and our shared future is here, not in London or Whitby.The Conversation

Peter N. Meihana, Lecturer, Massey University

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


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



‘The Founding of Australia 1788’, an oil painting by Algernon Talmage.
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

John Gascoigne, UNSW

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.


After Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage in 1770, the east coast of Australia was drawn on European maps of the globe for the first time. Yet, in terms of European contact with the continent, there was an 18-year lull in between Cook’s 1770 landings and the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

The main reason for this was Britain’s preoccupation with subduing its rebellious colonists in the War of American Independence from 1776-83.

Britain’s defeat in that war brought forth an urgent problem that eventually led to the colonisation of Australia: what it saw as a need to dispose of convicts who were overflowing the available prisons at home.

Previously, many British convicts were transported to the American colonies but after independence this option was no longer available.

Cook’s chart of Botany Bay.
British Library

The next penal colony: let the search begin

Discussions about alternative penal colonies meshed with Britain’s larger strategic and commercial goals at the time. Many hoped a new convict settlement would provide a base for extending British power in the wake of the American debacle and be “advantageous both to navigation and commerce”.

The search began in 1779 when the House of Commons established a committee under the chairmanship of British politician Sir Charles Bunbury. Various locations were considered, in particular, Senegal and Gambia on the west African coast.

But a new destination soon emerged with the testimony of Joseph Banks, the botanist on board the Endeavour, who had recently been elected president of the Royal Society. Botany Bay on the Australian coast, he contended, would be the best site for a penal colony since it had a Mediterranean climate and would be fertile. Banks added, too, that

there would be little Probability of any Opposition from the Natives

It was a prediction that would ultimately prove incorrect.

Why Botany Bay?

The search for a penal settlement lost momentum during the war, but regained some sense of urgency with its end in 1783.

James Matra, an American-born seaman aboard the Endeavour, circulated a proposal among policy-makers about establishing a new settlement at Botany Bay. It was based on his own first-hand knowledge of the coast, as well as his discussions with Banks, who remained the most influential advocate for the site.

Matra’s most immediate concern was to provide a home for the American loyalists – those, like his own family, who had lost their property in the new United States because of their loyalty to the British crown during the war.

Matra’s proposal also appealed to some key strategic and commercial concerns:

  • flax and timbers could be brought from New Zealand to grow in the new colony, providing the British navy with much-needed supplies;

  • the planting of spices and sugarcane would reduce Britain’s reliance on the Dutch East Indies;

  • the site could be used as a base for those engaged in the lucrative fur trade in America; and

  • the settlement could act as a strategic base to challenge the Dutch in the East Indies and the Spanish in the Philippines and even South America.

Another serious contender emerges

After Matra submitted his proposal, another House of Commons committee was established in 1785, chaired by Lord Beauchamp. Both Matra and Banks gave evidence in favour of Botany Bay, with Banks arguing,

from the fertility of the soil, the timid disposition of the inhabitants and the climate being so analogous to that of Europe I give the place the preference to all that I have seen

The committee, however, opted for an African site. It believed Das Voltas Bay, in southwest Africa, could reduce British dependence on the Dutch Cape of Good Hope in what is now South Africa and serve as a refuge for the American loyalists.

Before venturing down the path of establishing a colony, however, an exploratory voyage was sent to the African coast. It concluded the site was unsuitable as it lacked an effective harbour and fertile land.

Botany Bay was back in serious contention.

Dreams of Pacific trade

Other supporters soon emerged to sing the praises of Botany Bay.

Sir George Young, a naval officer and former East India Company officer, argued a colony at the site could serve as a base for trade with South America and underlined its strategic importance. If war broke out with Spain in the region, Botany Bay could be a place of refuge for British naval vessels.

Another advocate, John Call, an engineer with the East India Company, saw the advantages of a secondary settlement on nearby Norfolk Island. Flax grew in abundance on the island, he said, and the mighty Norfolk pine tree would be ideal for the masts of ships.




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


These observations were based on reports from Cook’s second and third Pacific voyages. The second included a visit to Norfolk Island, while the third ventured to the northwestern coast of America and traded furs in China, further fuelling British aspirations for Pacific trade.

Such arguments eventually led Prime Minister William Pitt and his Cabinet to accept the proposal to establish the settlement at Botany Bay.

A drawing by John Webber depicting the arrival of Cook’s ship in Nootka Sound in April 1778 on his search for the Northwest Passage.
British Library

A costly endeavour

Such a settlement demanded an unprecedented degree of state planning and financing.

The First Fleet, for example, consisted of 11 ships (no larger than the Manly ferry) that carried, among other things, a supply of seeds from Banks to help establish a “new Europe” on the other side of the Earth.

The convicts sent to New South Wales also incurred considerable state expense compared to those sent to America. From 1788-89, the new colony accumulated expenses of over 250,000 pounds, which equated to 100 pounds per convict per annum.




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


The fact it cost considerably more to transport a convict to New South Wales than to keep him or her in a British jail supported the view held by some in England that the penal colony was a subterfuge for broader strategic goals.

Rival nations also thought the British were trying to deceive them. Alejandro Malaspina, who captained a Spanish expedition that visited Sydney in 1793, thought the settlement could be a potential naval base for an attack on Spanish America.

A list of female convicts onboard the Lady Penrhyn in the First Fleet.
Wikimedia Commons

A repository for convicts

And yet, in the end, the settlement at New South Wales did little to advance British strategic goals.

The site lacked a naval base and its defences were so weak, François Péron, a naturalist aboard the French Baudin expedition that circumnavigated much of Australia from 1801-03, thought it could be easily captured.

In fact, no naval expedition was mounted from New South Wales during the Napoleonic wars of 1803-15. Nor did New South Wales live up to the commercial benefits some had invested in it. Tropical fruits and spices would not grow in Sydney, and Norfolk Island proved a disappointment as a source for naval supplies.

The American loyalists also chose to resettle in nearby Canada instead of distant New South Wales.

But New South Wales proved to cater to the most immediate reason for British settlement: a repository for convicts.The Conversation

John Gascoigne, Emeritus Professor, UNSW

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


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



Vincent Namatjira, Western Arrernte people, Northern Territory, born 1983, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Close Contact, 2018, Indulkana, South Australia, synthetic polymer paint on plywood; Gift of the James & Diana Ramsay Foundation for the Ramsay Art Prize 2019.
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, photo: Grant Hancock

Bruce Buchan, Griffith University and Eddie Synot, UNSW

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 Vincent Namatjira’s Ramsay Award winning Close Contact (2018), the artist construes Captain James Cook as the reverse image of his own self-portrait. The colonising presence of Cook looking toward a colonial future is satirised by making another present: Vincent Namatjira’s self-portrait looks out in a diametrically different direction.

Towards what, exactly?

Australia’s link to Cook has always been mediated by iconography. Cook was a promise recollected in pigment, bronze and stone to a nation at war with its first inhabitants and possessors.

Cook, and the violence of colonisation in his wake, embodied a claim to a vast inheritance: of Enlightenment and modernity at the expense of peoples already here.

Since his foundational ritual of possession, First Nations people have called for a reckoning with Cook’s legacies, and in recent years First Nations artists have reinvigorated this call.

By invoking the presence of Cook, they ask their audience to recognise how colonisation and empire rendered them all but absent – and his celebration today continues to do so.

Taking possession

In Samuel Calvert’s 1865 print, Cook Taking Possession of the Australian Continent on Behalf of the British Crown, the noisy presence of the newcomers’ industry and weapons drives two huddled Aboriginal men into the bush.

Captain Cook taking possession of the Australian continent on behalf of the British Crown A.D. 1770 (c. 1853-1864), colour process engraving.
National Gallery Victoria

Wathaurung Elder Aunty Marlene Gilson re-worked Calvert’s image in The Landing (2018): widening the lens to show peoples living in the landscape.

Gilson imaginatively runs together Calvert’s imagery with accounts of Governor Phillip’s later landing. As the flag is hoisted ships hover in the bay. Colonisation was a process of denying who was already there, the First Nations families and figures Gilson captures in lively habitation on land and water.

The landing, 2018, Marlene Gilson, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2019.
© Marlene Gilson

Gilson challenges the mythology of empire: that empty territory needed no treaty.

Gilson’s image is also a homage to Gordon Bennett’s earlier reworking of Calvert in Possession Island (1991). Bennett deliberately obscured Cook and his companions, with the exception of one dark-skinned servant. The presumptuous act of possession is only glimpsed behind a Jackson Pollock-like forest of lines. Visual static intervenes. Terra nullius interruptus.

This obscurity stands in marked contrast to Christian Thompson’s Othering the Explorer, James Cook (2015). Part of his Museum of Others series, his images invite us to consider the effacement of First Nations people by colonial authority and knowledge.

Dr Christian Thompson AO, Museum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook), 2016. c-type on metallic paper, 120 x 120 cm, from the Museum of Others series.
Courtesy of the artist & Michael Reid Sydney + Berlin

Thompson superimposes Cook’s head and shoulders on the artist’s own. His choice of images is deliberate, the 1775 Nathaniel Dance portrait of Cook in full naval regalia glowering over his Pacific “discoveries”.

Official portrait of Captain James Cook, c 1776, by Nathaniel Dance.
National Maritime Museum, United Kingdom

Since European colonisation, the assertion of the discoverer’s right to possess has erased the rich tapestry of prior ownership and belonging. In Thompson’s wry self-effacement, Cook’s superimposition is a reminder of someone already there. This was always the coloniser’s ploy. Presence as absence is a conceit of colonisation.

The presence of absence informs Daniel Boyd’s re-imagination of Cook’s landing in We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2006), a re-working of E. Phillips Fox’s Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay (1902).

E. Phillips Fox, Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, c1902.
National Gallery of Victoria

Phillips Fox portrayed Cook restraining his men from shooting the distantly pictured “natives”. This was empire as it wished to be seen: peaceful, British, white and triumphant.

Boyd plays on the flattery of imperial self-imagining by exposing the wilful piracy of colonial possession. Boyd’s Cook cuts the same imperial dash, but with an eye patch and skull and crossbones on the Union Jack behind him empire is revealed as the pirate’s resort.

Daniel Boyd, We Call them Pirates Out Here, 2006, oil on canvas, Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2006.
© Daniel Boyd

Challenging mythologies

The growing First Nations challenge to Cook’s iconography highlights his continued presence in our nation’s colonial mythology.

It is a challenge to Cook’s elevation as hero of the modern Australia built on Indigenous erasure. Jason Wing’s bronze bust of a balaclava-wearing Captain James Crook (2013) symbolises that challenge.

Jason Wing, Captain James Crook, 2013, bronze, 60 x 60 x 30cm, edition of 5. Photograph by Garrie Maguire.
Image courtesy of the Artist and Artereal Gallery.

Wing’s addition of the balaclava forces us to confront Cook’s legacy not as the projected shining icon of Enlightenment, but as a mythic presence built on deliberate theft, dispossession and violence.

These are only a small collection of artists reconsidering the place of Cook in our collective memory. Provocative, challenging, arresting, often satirical and sometimes funny, First Nations artists powerfully challenge us to reconsider Cook and our nation’s iconography.

Within the art lies an open invitation to reflect on who we have become and where we are headed.

This invitation is highlighted in Fiona Foley’s most recent retrospective, named for a song by Joe Gala and Teila Watson performed in Badtjala and English: Who are these strangers and where are they going?




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


The song weaves together the narratives of the First Nations people who first saw the Endeavour make its way along the coast. Together with the photographs and installations drawn from across Foley’s long career, the retrospective is a powerful affirmation of continuing presence: in 1770, in 1788, and today.

As we confront the Cook commemorations, Foley’s and the Badtjalas’ question, like Namatjira’s double-sided self-portrait, is a nudge to our nation’s future. Who are these strangers and where are they going?

By reminding us that the question was asked of Cook’s sudden presence in 1770, we must ask it again of ourselves to confront the absence his possession still makes present for us 250 years on.The Conversation

Bruce Buchan, Associate Professor, Griffith University and Eddie Synot, Centre Manager, Indigenous Law Centre, UNSW

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


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.

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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”.

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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.

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‘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.


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