Sailing headlong into 2020: public historians and the 250th anniversary of James Cook


… by Stephen Gapps

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the waters of considered debate about the commemoration of Australia’s colonial origins, along comes Captain Cook. Again. The famous navigator, once considered to embody the correct set of qualities inherited in modern Australia instead of Governor Phillip and those awkward convicts, is re-surfacing in yet another of the monotonously regular anniversary moments that seem to generate enthusiasm in proportion to insecurity. Cook 2020 looms on the horizon.

We may have thought Cook had achieved his Australian apotheosis in the 1970 re-enactment of his arrival. That display was watched by a young Queen Elizabeth, subverted by a group of Sydney University students in a speedboat with a fake Cook, and protested by Aboriginal people at La Perouse, who threw mourning wreaths into the waters of Kamay-Botany Bay for the re-enactment audience, especially the Queen, to contemplate. The 1970 re-enactment of Cook’s landing – touted as the first ‘authentic re-enactment’ and one made for television ‒ drew together all the previous re-enactments and commemorations that had exhorted Australians to place themselves in Cook’s footsteps and imagine what Cook might have contemplated for Australia and what wondrous cities might arise because of his short stay on the shores of Kamay. Cook has had his fair share of recycling at anniversary moments: from the first tablet to the great man tacked up on a rock in 1822 to the annual pilgrimages of dignitaries on steamships in the mid-nineteenth century who would anchor over the same spot Cook did, to the 1901 re-enactment that was tied to Federation celebrations in order to assert that independence from Britain did not mean abandoning this great symbol of the ‘Mother country’, to the early twentieth-century local politicians who fostered the idea that Kurnell was ‘the birthplace’ of modern Australia.

Rather than, as the refrain went, ‘Cook would surely marvel at what had been achieved’, in his afterlife Cook may have been puzzled by the many uses and abuses of his name. So, what can we expect for the 250th anniversary? Will long-dead self-confessed Cookaphiles such as Thomas Holt or Sir Joseph Carruthers, the local parliamentarians who did so much to make Australia British and who used Cook as a symbol for their projects of acclimatising European flora and fauna to Australian conditions (i.e. introduce feral pests), look down on Botany Bay and find their hard work has borne fruit? Will Australians dutifully build more monuments that, as Holt and Carruthers enthused in the late 19th century, remind Australians of the ‘crimson thread’ of colonisation?

On  25 January, I attended the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) Big Thinking Forum titled ‘Indigenous Australia and Captain Cook: Setting the agenda for 2020’. The panel included Wesley Enoch, theatre director, writer and director of the Sydney Festival, Amrita Hepi, choreographer and dancer, Rachel Perkins, filmmaker, John Maynard Chair of Aboriginal History at the University of Newcastle and was moderated by author, radio host and filmmaker Larissa Behrendt. Their agenda-setting stance was gazumped somewhat by the Prime Minister’s announcement just days before of funding for 2020 events, though these plans found their way into the discussion. The panel made a strong call for recognition of 2020 as an anniversary of the dispossession of First Australians and the beginning of a history of colonial violence against them. Yet most speakers found in this impending anniversary not just the same long struggle trying to assert an Aboriginal voice into proceedings but an opportunity as well: an opportunity for Aboriginal people and their allies to continue to generate a powerful message to rethink the usual repurposed, commemorative, anniversary moment.

PHA member Bruce Baskerville wrote about the announcement of Cook 2020 and the debate around Australia Day, that ‘either this week has been evidence of the existence of parallel universes, or history is fiction and historians don’t exist’. Ever since the 1930s when Cook was wrested from his pedestal of founding father by historians and nationalists wanting to erase the convict stain and propose Phillip as the true founder, people have conflated the two figures. Cook landed in Sydney Cove and Governor Phillip arrived in 1770. Or was it the other way around? It’s a confusing foundational moment indeed, a sign of the elasticity and manufacturing of ‘foundation’ itself.

Historians must be part of setting the agenda for 2020 and the role of the public historian in understanding the ways, means and methods people shape their facts is particularly important. We need to continue to inform history in the public sphere by sifting through the archive to explain the changing ways Cook has been reified in the past. Truth-telling is not just fact-checking.

Dr Stephen Gapps is a PHA member, author of The Sydney Wars – Conflict in the early colony 1788-1817, Vice-President of the History Council of NSW. His PhD thesis was a history of historical re-enactments, with a focus on the re-enactment of Cook and Phillip. He is also a curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum, custodians of the replica HMB Endeavour.

 Image from the State Library of New South Wales with the following caption: Sesquicentenary re-enactment of the landing of Captain Cook [Phillip ?] {sic} at Kurnell

5 thoughts on “Sailing headlong into 2020: public historians and the 250th anniversary of James Cook”

  1. I guess one of the tricky aspects of engaging with the Cook 2020 debate is how much we, individually, know about the history. I have a passing knowledge of the events of 1768-70 and the subsequent commemorations, but it leaves me cautious about stepping into the politics. This may be a situation where collective statements, e.g. a position promulgated by the PHA, might at least give us an anchor (pardon the pun).

  2. It all depends on what is meant by ‘commemoration’. The root of the word says it is about memory. The prefix indicates ‘together’. So this is a public memory making, involving solemnity as well as celebration. The commemoration is at an anniversary date and centres on a place. It will involve reflection. Matthew Trinca at ANM promises a view from the ship and from the shore. What’s wrong with reflecting on the impact of Cook’s arrival? After all we just spent 4 years reflecting on the First World War and a lot of that reflection was not feel-good, self congratulatory stuff, but challenging.

  3. Not a bad idea Peter. In fact it could be a useful ongoing presence on many issues. A ‘statements’ page or something similar.

  4. Bruce I’m not suggesting otherwise. Nothing wrong with reflecting and commemorating especially where it needs be somewhat challenging. The questions I’m interested in are how much of this will be recycling of concocted ‘histories’and how much really will be as you say challenging. I think that analysing the history of commemoration as well as the history of the event itself is a space public historians should be prominent in.

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