James Cook’s critics can relish the irony that a global pandemic has diminished the planned lavish commemorations of his east coast Australian arrival 250 years ago today.
Many Indigenous people and supporters of their causes and sensibilities rightly view the lieutenant as the doorman for so many ills that followed, including the smallpox epidemic of 1789 that killed as many as seven in 10 Aboriginal people of the new colony for which Cook’s arrival paved the way.
We’ll hear much today about how Cook brought “enlightenment” to a continent that has staged the world’s longest continuous civilisation for 100,000 years. The boosters will insist that commemorating divisive Cook – whose first act on landing on 29 April 1770 was to shoot one of the Indigenous men who challenged him – is also, somehow, the means to Australian reconciliation.
The member for Cook – named in the navigator’s honour – and prime minister, Scott Morrison, summed up one side of the Cook divide when he said: “As the 250th anniversary nears we want to help Australians better understand Captain Cook’s historic [1st] voyage [of discovery] and its legacy for exploration, science and reconciliation. That voyage is the reason Australia is what it is today and it’s important we take the opportunity to reflect on it.”
Over the past century Australia has used Cook’s name, his ethos and “spirit” of adventure when commemorating everything from Australia Day and Anzac, to Remembrance Day, the centenary of the establishment of Melbourne and federation.
There is no doubt Cook was complex, both morally and in legacy. He was the foremost British navigator and cartographer of his epoch, a man who was not born to the admiralty and made his way to the top through merit.
Official commemoration will laud Cook today. But it will do so in isolation from his many complexities and flaws