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2020 marks the two-hundred-and-fifty-year anniversary of James Cook’s epic voyage along the east coast of Australia in 1770. The Australian nation will be torn between Anglo celebrations and Aboriginal mourning over James Cook’s so-called discovery of Australia. Any Aboriginal understanding recognises that following Cook’s planting of a British flag down upon the soil of Possession Island that cataclysmic consequences were unleased upon the entire Aboriginal population of the continent. Following Cook claiming the continent for the British Crown and in the wake of the British First Fleet arrival in 1788 Aboriginal society would totter on near complete annihilation.

Cook, the Endeavour and his crew had sailed to Tahiti to observe scientifically the transit of Venus across the sun. There was also a set of secret instructions from the Admiralty and as such from the Crown itself that after Tahiti they were to sail south in search of the long rumoured great southern land. The instructions were explicit if found he should chart its coasts, obtain information about its people, cultivate their friendship and alliance, and annex any convenient trading posts in the King’s name. But in the events that unfolded Cook clearly did not open any meaningful dialogue, discussion or gain any consent in claiming the entire east coast of the Australian continent. In fact, when Cook and some of his crew went ashore at Kamay what he first called Stingray Bay and later amended to Botany Bay they were confronted by an Aboriginal man and youth brandishing spears and roaring their disapproval. Cook himself was the man that first fired a warning shot over the heads of the man and boy but received a volley of spears in reply. He redirected his aim and the man was recorded as being wounded before the Aboriginal man and boy withdrew. This was the first of numerous indiscretions on the part of Cook and his crew. They were clearly not welcome. Cook in his journal even acknowledging that all the Aboriginal people seemed to want was for them ‘to be gone’.[1] Cook as already noted was intent on branding landmarks with new names without any thought that they already held significant Aboriginal names. On the south coast he labelled a peak as Mount Dromedary this mountain to the Yuin people was the spiritual place Gulaga.

On the voyage along the coast he recognised an island that was later called Nobby’s just off present day Newcastle. This place Aboriginal people recognised as Whibaygamba. In the same vicinity he remarked in his journal of the many smokes witnessed along the coast. Clear evidence that this was a well populated and occupied country.

From an Aboriginal perspective I myself admire Cook as a master navigator, cartographer and leader of his crews. It is important to understand as well that James Cook was not your normal British Naval officer of the time period. He was not from a privileged or wealthy background. His father was a farm labourer and they came from a poor rural background. This upbringing enabled a capacity to view the world with a far more compassionate understanding. Despite his numerous errors Cook’s background did allow him to make some noteworthy judgement in his recorded journal:

[I]n. reality they are far happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they live in a tranquillity which is not disturbed by the inequality of condition. {T]hey have a good air to breathe and live in a temperate climate. [2]

He also made comment of an Aboriginal camp he observed

there were small fires and fresh mussels broiling upon them; here likewise lay vast heaps of the largest oyster shells I ever saw. [3]

However, in the final analysis Cook rightly

transcends time and space to wreak havoc across the continent upon the Aboriginal inhabitants over the course of the past 250. [4]

He remains our bogeyman.


[1] James Cook Journals 30 April 1770, http://southseas.nla.gov.au/journals/cook/17700430.html

[2] Lawlor, 1991: 70; James Cook Journals,

[3] Fitzsimmons, 2019: 292; James Cook Journals 29 April 1770

[4] Maynard, J (2014) ‘Captain cook came very cheeky you know’ – James Cook an Aboriginal appraisal, East Coast Encounter – Re-Imagining 1770, Lisa Chandler (Ed), One Day Hill Pty Ltd, Melbourne.