A hostile mob is circling Captain James Cook with rocks in their hands. Their determination to turn a heroic figure of the British Enlightenment into an imperialist ogre is building towards a crescendo as the 250th anniversary of the Botany Bay landing approaches. For them the settlement of Australia by a colonial power was a morally reprehensible act that demands a scapegoat. Not content with Cook’s death in 1779 at the hands of Hawaiian natives, they now intend to carry out a second assassination, this time of his character.
The defacing of Captain Cook’s statue in Hyde Park, Sydney, last year forced the intelligentsia to pick sides. Not for the first time, they sided with the vandals. Don Watson wrote in the Monthly: “Leave out two-thirds of the catastrophe that followed his discovery, and it’s still a wonder that Cook’s statue has been defaced just once.”
Stan Grant took exception to the statue’s inscription, saying the claim that Cook discovered this territory was “a damaging myth”. Why the word discovered should cause such anguish is not entirely clear. If Grant was to express delight in discovering, say, the novels of Dostoevsky, it would not amount to a claim that he was the first to read them.
This essay appears in the June edition of Quadrant.
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In some ways the most dispiriting reaction of all came from Lisa Murray who, as the City of Sydney’s official historian, should surely know better than to offer a justification, albeit rhetorical, for a petulant criminal act. In delivering the 2018 Jim Kerr Lecture at the Opera House in April she questioned if the graffiti should have been removed. “Is challenging the dominant historical narrative a legitimate part of the monument’s heritage?” she asked.
Public condemnation of the daubing of the words “Change the date” and “No pride in genocide” was merely a “conservative backlash”, she said. “The debunking of the discovery doctrine still makes waves in this country because it challenges the cultural power of white Australia.”
According to Murray, “The character of Captain Cook has come to symbolise colonisation and dispossession; more so than Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet … Slave traders and representatives of colonial imperialism are equally on the nose in Britain, parts of Europe and America.”
The casual association of Cook with the slave trade damages not just his reputation, but that of the nation. Cook stopped in Africa not to take on slaves but to take on fresh food to combat scurvy. His voyages were used by the British Navy to conduct a controlled experiment on the curative properties of fresh fruit, sauerkraut, vinegar, mustard and other supposed prophylactics. Cook’s crew were under orders to eat everything on their plate. The Endeavour was anything but a slave hulk; the lower decks were kept aired and dried and Cook ensured his men were kept warm and slept well.
The true purpose of Cook’s expedition is revealed in the Endeavour’s passenger manifest. Cook’s companions on the upper deck were two lieutenants, six midshipmen, a master, a boatswain, two quartermasters, a carpenter, a sailmaker, a gunner, a cook, a surgeon and a marine. They had the arms to defend themselves, but Cook was clearly not preparing for a military offensive.
He found room for an astronomer, three naturalists and two artists. There was no chaplain, however, and most definitely no missionaries. He was setting out on a voyage not to preach but to learn. Cook felt no need for God’s explicit blessing; he would survive on his own reason, aided by the most sophisticated navigation of his day.
The foundational narrative for settled Australia matters, because from that, everything else flows. The intentions of the pioneering settlers determined the nation we are; it either encourages shame or enables pride; feelings of disgust or feelings of respect. It decides whether our institutions should be maintained or torn down; if we should carry on as we have been, or make a sharp turn of course.
Defending Cook’s good name is a vital task to which the federal government is lending modest support. Treasurer Scott Morrison’s pledge of $3 million towards a $50 million project to build a Captain Cook centre at Kurnell may be small change compared to the 1988 Bicentenary or the 2001 Centenary of Federation. That, however, may be no bad thing, for we know from bitter experience that cultural investment can be effortlessly plundered by the intellectual establishment. Since their survival depends on public funds, they have become experts in grant applications and stacking boards.
If Cook’s reputation survives the year intact, it will be by popular acclaim, not government investment. Those who despair at the progressives’ cultural advances need not despair; a nation’s history is determined by its people, not just its intellectuals.
To protect the good names of our founders is to celebrate Australia’s good fortune in being settled in the age of reason, in the 1770s, rather than the 1620s when the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in Massachusetts on instructions from God and early southern colonists were trying to establish a toe-hold in Chesapeake Bay.
Britain’s pre-Enlightenment colonies in North America were dogged by superstition and an inability to apply scientific principles to cultivating the soils. The notion that it was permissible, and even virtuous, to acquire human beings as property, and that their lesser status was determined by God and evinced by the colour of their skin, took hold in the southern colonies, where it quickly became a commercial imperative.
Australia, by contrast, had no witch trials and no slave culture. Cultivation of the soil on the Cumberland Plain was not without its difficulties, but they were overcome by the application of agricultural science. Cook, Captain Arthur Phillip, Governor Lachlan Macquarie and other influential settlers were moulded by the British Enlightenment, distinguishable from the European Enlightenment for its moral sentiments as well as its scientific purpose. The virtues of benevolence, compassion, sympathy and fellow-feeling were rich strands in the eighteenth-century philosophical discourse in Britain. These virtues were held not to stem from reason or self-interest but from human nature. “Man naturally desires not only to be loved but to be lovely,” wrote Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). “We desire both to be respectable and to be respected. We dread both to be contemptible and to be condemned.”
Religion was notably absent from the dialogue of the British Enlightenment, as Gertrude Himmelfarb perceptively explains in The Roads to Modernity (2004). Whereas the Pilgrim Fathers would instinctively appeal to God’s mercy at every turn, Cook and Phillip had a more secular disposition. The dozen references to God in Cook’s journals are confined to anthropological accounts of the behaviour of native tribes.
Cook’s faith was in human reason and the natural goodness of humankind. It was not the romantic belief of Rousseau in the innate virtue of the natural life and its corruption, but faith in natural virtue and the capacity for self-improvement.
The twin strands of the British Enlightenment—rationality and virtue—became the foundations of liberalism, setting the principles on which Australia would be founded and which would become the default position for most of its settled history. The nation has done well when it abided by those principles, and poorly for the most part on the occasions when it has departed from them.
Australian liberalism views Australia as a land of redemption, rather than the fatal shore; a place of opportunity, not punishment. Its philosophical underpinnings were to make the Australian states and New Zealand quite different from any previous colony. Never before had an imperial power settled in a foreign land on the terms under which this land was settled.
The British, unlike the Dutch, did not come here to set up shop, not least because the hunter-gatherers who lived here had little to barter. They did not come here to plunder or pillage. They were not here to build a fortress. They were not here to extend God’s kingdom. And while this was a penal colony, they were not here to build a prison. They were here to practise the lessons of the Enlightenment in a bold attempt to build a new civilisation in the South using the wonders of science and guided by humane principles.
At a time when our colonial foundations have never been more grievously misrepresented, it is important to acknowledge that the honourable intentions of men like Cook, Banks, Phillip and Macquarie contributed to a distinct Australian culture—positive, rational, egalitarian and practical—that made it the exceptional nation it has become.
It was an ethos that suited the conditions in a generally dry and unforgiving continent which does not give up its wealth without a struggle. The classical liberal thinkers who conceived the pattern of settlement in New South Wales shared with the Pilgrim Fathers the desire to build a better society starting from scratch. The First Fleet and Pilgrim Fathers similarly embarked on bold experiments, but the European settlement of the United States and Australia differed in a crucial respect. The Pilgrim Fathers claimed Massachusetts with the imprimatur of God, while Captain Arthur Phillip sailed for Australia with the imprimatur of science.
Australian intellectuals have been trying to subvert this narrative for decades. Manning Clark acknowledges the liberal sentiments, at least in part, before dismissing them as idealistic and ineffective, in his influential six-volume History of Australia. Robert Hughes does the same in The Fatal Shore, summarising the purpose of penal transportation more or less correctly as to “sublimate, deter, reform and colonise”. But his appetite for rum, sodomy and the lash gets the better of him in a masterly literary work that focuses more on shame than redemption.
The harshness of transportation might not conform with contemporary ideas of penal reform, but revisionist historians seldom compare it to contemporary alternatives. They won’t tell you, for instance, that at least forty convicts who arrived on the First Fleet had been sentenced to be hanged. For them Australia was not so much a better life as a chance to live. Their transportation reflected a moral uneasiness with the death penalty.
The British penal transportation system was more humane than the French, which started in the 1850s, a decade after New South Wales had stopped receiving convicts, and continued until 1938. For French convicts in New Caledonia or French Guiana, harsh treatment was the rule, rather than the exception. Their opportunity to enter civil society was considerably less. Emperor Napoleon III, who introduced the system to deal with rising crime and insufficient colonists, had little interest in social reform; the system was designed to cleanse the French mainland of the criminal class who would be banished into servitude, never to return.
Encouraged perhaps by the success of their misrepresentation of the fate of Australia’s penal settlers, the revisionists have embarked on their boldest expedition of all: an attempt to portray Australia as the land of slavery it consciously was not.
A false equivalence between the fate of Aborigines and the African slaves forcibly abducted, shipped and sold in the Caribbean and United States has long been part of the extreme Left’s narrative. A notable proponent was the feminist and Soviet sympathiser Jessie Street, whose work on behalf the British Anti-Slavery Society contributed to the successful constitutional changes in the 1967 referendum.
Today the loose use of the concept of slavery has taken a more determined path. The familiar techniques of the shame crusaders have been fine-tuned and embraced once again. The definition of the word slavery has been widened to incorporate almost any historical indignity, and the aberrant behaviour by some settlers has become conflated with official policy.
Take, for instance, the notorious behaviour of alleged blackbirders, settlers like Robert Towns and John Mackay who saw immigrant labour from Asia and the Pacific as the solution to labour shortages in Queensland. Their employment practices may not have met the standards demanded by the Fair Work Commission, but they were a long way from those on American cotton plantations of the time. African slaves were not offered twelve-month contracts at ten shillings a month with food and housing, and a provision that they should be repatriated if they wished, the deal Towns offered to Melanesians. In evidence to a royal commission into the alleged kidnapping of natives of the Loyalty Islands in 1869, Towns called for recruiting ships to be licensed and manned by an official “duly accredited by the Government to prevent any abuses”.
Yet Jeff McMullen, writing last September in the New Matilda, finds Towns and Mackay guilty of trafficking and deception: “Few will disagree that it was a form of tyranny and oppression that was imposed on the estimated 62,500 people who were lured, deceived and coerced to labour in conditions akin to slavery on Australian sugar plantations and other farms.” McMullen makes no distinction between the behaviour of individual settlers and behaviour sanctioned by law. He gives Australia no marks for its ability to correct aberrant practice, for holding royal commissions, prosecuting offenders and, if necessary, tightening the laws. He makes no allowance for the naked self-interest of workers’ movements in exaggerating the plight of non-European labour in order to protect the interests of White Australia.
It is tempting to think that this perverse, self-loathing, uninformed account of our history will crumble once others see it for the sham that it is. The notion of making Cook accountable for all of Australia’s failings, real or imagined, that happened after his death surely exceeds his own statute of limitations.
The unchallenged absurdities of today have a habit of becoming the accepted narrative of tomorrow. For this reason, Captain Cook needs a hand by setting the historical record straight now on his legacy and contribution to Australia’s settlement.
Nick Cater is Executive Director of the Menzies Research Centre.