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By sheer coincidence, and with acknowledgement to the irony of the times we find ourselves in, I began writing this essay on the 250th anniversary of the landing of Lieutenant James Cook at Kurnell - 29th April, 2020. The coincidence is purely that, coincidence. The irony of the times is that here in 2020 we are living through the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus that is killing thousands and thousands of people across the globe which is not too dissimilar to all the viruses Indigenous peoples were exposed to in the wake of Cook’s ‘voyages of discovery’, beginning with the small pox epidemic in 1789 which followed the First Fleet’s arrival.
The artwork I have chosen to respond to is Brenda L Croft’s gelatin silver photograph, Michael Watson in Redfern on the Long March of Freedom, Justice and Hope, Invasion Day, 26 January 1988. This photograph was taken almost by chance when Croft ran into Michael Watson in between stints of interviewing people for an Invasion Day broadcast for Radio Redfern. “The image was not staged, I just asked Michael if I could take his photograph, as a friend and as a proud Aboriginal man solidly standing his ground. It was very quick, he turned to face me, raised his arms with no direction from me and I pressed the shutter. That was it, and I was off up the road taking more pictures and interviewing people.”
This image captures a moment in time on the day that most Australians call ‘Australia Day’ and which a growing number refer to as ‘Invasion Day’: the 26th January. In 1988 on this date, it was the Bicentenary anniversary. There were massive protests in Sydney which Croft captured with her camera. This image was one amongst many. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people came from all over the country to rally in Sydney in protest of the national celebration of the declaration that our country was 200 years old.
That Michael Watson was wearing a tee shirt which asks ‘Cook Who’ rather than one which displayed a slogan denouncing Governor Phillip - whose 200th anniversary it was of the arrival of the First Fleet he led, which the nation was celebrating and Watson was protesting against - is telling. Cook is viewed by a great many Indigenous Australians as the ‘founding father’ of all the misery that was to follow his claiming of Australia for the British Crown. For it was Cook who told the First Lie. Even though he shot at and wrote of the Aboriginal people of Kamay in his journals - going so far as to observe that, “all they seem’d to want was for us to be gone”, he would later claim the land uninhabited in order to fulfil the secret orders to seize the land for Britain. It is from this lie that every act visited upon us has stemmed.
The name ‘Captain Cook’ has become synonymous for all the lies told by every figure of authority since. It matters not that Governor Phillip and the 26th January 1788 has become conflated with Cook in 1770. Many people today insist James Cook sailed into Sydney Harbour and planted the flag for Britain near modern day Circular Quay. The Biennale of Sydney made this claim in one of their video’s released for online viewing during the 2020 pandemic lockdown. Politicians have also made similar claims in recent times.
However, for Indigenous people it is more than just conflating the two historical figures and events with each other. It is more to do with the lie of terra nullius that Cook’s name holds currency. Every figure of authority or a holder of power since Cook who makes false promises to Indigenous people or who invents a false narrative for their own benefit which has a direct negative effect on Indigenous people, is given the dubious nickname of ‘Captain Cook’. We have seen many, many ‘Cooks’ in the last 250 years - politicians, government departmental workers and those in positions of leadership within media, educational and cultural institutions to name a few.
I remember working on a project for a gallery where that institution was to finally present work by the Indigenous artists of its region. One of the workers of the institution in question claimed that there was no art produced by the local Indigenous people prior to this particular project and that because of the project, art was created by Indigenous people for the first time. That person immediately became known by the local Indigenous artists as Captain Cook.
Croft’s beautiful photo of a defiant Michael Watson wearing his ‘Cook Who Cook-oo’ tee shirt on Invasion Day, 1988 beautifully captures not just the mood of that day, but also how the name and the man, ‘James Cook’, has become the archetype of all the evil enacted upon Indigenous Australians since.
 Croft, B 2010, National Gallery of Australia website. Retrieved 29th April, 2020 https://cs.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?irn=96504
 Cook’s Journal: Daily Entries, 30th April, 1770. National Library of Australia website. Retrieved 3rd May, 2020 http://southseas.nla.gov.au/journals/cook/17700430.html