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Curators’ acknowledgement

“We pay our respects and dedicate the Unsettled exhibition to the people and other Beings who keep the law of this land; to the Elders and Traditional Owners of all the knowledges, places, and stories in this exhibition; and to the Ancestors and Old People for their resilience and guidance.

We advise that there are some confronting topics addressed in this exhibition, including massacres and genocide. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be advised that there may be images of people who have passed away.”

Laura McBride and Dr Mariko Smith, 2021.

Contested Possession

For his 22 August, 1770 journal entry, Lieutenant James Cook wrote down that he and his crew had landed on an island which he called “Possession Island”, that is in a region now known as the Torres Strait, located to the west of what is now known as the Cape York Peninsula of the Australian mainland.[1] He did not know that one of the traditional names for this island is Tuined, and that it is home to the Kaurareg First Nations people.

Possession Island map

Map of Tuined (Possession Island).

Image: Australian Museum
© Australian Museum

Cook, having decided that the east coast “was never seen or visited by any European before us,” claimed possession of these so-called undiscovered lands by raising the First Union flag on behalf of King George the Third of Great Britain.

The Kaurareg First Nations people, the Traditional Owners of Tuined, reject Cook’s account. Having received advanced warnings through Signal Fires and communications via messengers from other nations and clans, their warriors were prepared for war should the strangers disembark onto shore. The Kaurareg people of Tuined assert that Cook did not come ashore, nor did he raise a flag.

We are the custodians of the Country given to us, everything that is involved with the land and sea. Our heritage is blood-deep, handed down through our father’s and mother’s lines. We know the boundaries of our sovereignty and rights, and we had our systems of recognising other nations. This is cultural diplomacy Elder Willie Wigness, Kaurareg Traditional Owner, 2020.

Did you know?

Other diarists onboard the HMB Endeavour, including Sir Joseph Banks, did not note an annexation ceremony during their passage through the Torres Strait like Lieutenant James Cook did. There is speculation that the event was added into the records later.[2]

The purpose of the “Contested Possession” section of the Unsettled exhibition is to present the various and at times conflicting accounts regarding the event of Cook and Possession Island, hence the title of this section.

In Cook’s journal on 22 August 1770, he refers to leading an annexation ceremony at the place he called “Possession Island” however this account has been contested on the grounds of whether it was a matter of interpretation of Cook’s notes by Dr John Hawkesworth who was commissioned by the British Admiralty to edit Cook’s papers for publication in 1773;[3] or whether there was an underlying political agenda to publicly signal an annexation ceremony to help fend off other European territory claims since the time was one of great competition between imperial powers.[4]

Editor J. C. Beaglehole himself noted in a footnote in his work The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks 1768-1771 (Volume II, 1962) that ‘it is curious how casually Banks records what was one of the greatest moments of the voyage [presumably the annexation ceremony which Cook recorded]’ (p. 110).[5] Banks’ entries for the 21 and 22 August 1770 were about finding a passage through the Strait and observing the local Indigenous people.[6]

Another Endeavour diarist, Sydney Parkinson, a natural history artist who accompanied Sir Joseph Banks, wrote in his journal (A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas in His Majesty’s Ship, The Endeavour, published in 1773) about a landing with some ceremony, but there are suggestions that this may have instead indicated that it was a significant moment more so for the discovery of a clear passage through the strait after some time going slowly through reefs.[7]

The juxtaposition of the viewpoints from the Kaurareg First Nations people and those on the HMB Endeavour is not supposed to suggest that they corroborate, but instead highlight the diversity of assessments regarding that event among the number of participants.


  1. National Library of Australia,
  2. Naval Historical Society of Australia. (2019). Possession Island.
  3. Naval Historical Society of Australia. (2019). Possession Island.
  4. Cameron-Ash, M. (2018). Lying for the Admiralty. Kenhurst: Rosenberg Publishing.
  5. Beaglehole, J. C. (1962). The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks 1768-1771, Volume II, 110.
  6. Banks, J. (1768-1771). The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks05/0501141h.html#aug1770
  7. Naval Historical Society of Australia. (2019). Possession Island.