The year 2020 marks 250 years since James Cook’s discovery and exploration of the east coast of the Australian continent between April and August 1770. The 250th anniversary won’t attract as grand a ceremony as the bicentenary in 1970 when Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Princess Anne all came out to see a re-enactment of Cook’s landing in Botany Bay. There will be another ceremony at the landing place in April this year but the major attraction this time should be the circumnavigation of Australia by a replica of Cook’s bark Endeavour, staged by the Australian National Maritime Museum.
The circumnavigation is not quite historically accurate, since Cook and his men first sighted Australian land near the eastern mouth of Bass Strait, sailed north past Cape York, but then left Australian waters for Batavia, the Dutch colony on Java. The new Endeavour will leave Sydney on February 24 and will berth or anchor at thirty-nine locations around the country between then and May 2021, giving many people the opportunity to see for themselves the actual dimensions of the ship and what a breathtaking feat it must have been to sail around the globe in such an unpretentious vessel.
Keith Windschuttle’s January column is republished
to mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landfall at Botany Bay
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However, some likely critical responses to the Australian voyage are already apparent. Before Cook sailed to Australia he circumnavigated New Zealand’s North and South islands, and as part of the global commemorations of his voyage, the replica Endeavour has done the same. The New Zealand government tried hard to involve local Maoris in the voyage, supporting a flotilla of craft to accompany Endeavour, including two double-hulled Polynesian sailing canoes. But the voyage had to be re-directed to steer clear of ports where local Maoris had promised to disrupt proceedings.
This wasn’t enough to stop indigenous activists using the flotilla as a vehicle for the propagation of their own political agenda. When Endeavour berthed at its first port of call at Gisborne on the east coast of the North Island, demonstrators on the shore flew red-and-black Maori flags and burned British flags. They said ceremonies to commemorate Cook were “offensive” and they threatened to put Cook “on trial” for crimes against indigenous people.
Anahera Herbert-Graves, the head of the Ngāti Kahu tribe, said:
He [Cook] was a barbarian. Wherever he went, like most people of the time of imperial expansion, there were murders, there were abductions, there were rapes, and just a lot of bad outcomes for the indigenous people.
Another Maori activist, Tina Ngata, and a group called Kia Mau started an online petition to stop the ship, declaring:
For many communities the return of the Endeavour is anything but healing. It is hurtful, unsafe and unnecessary. It creates contexts for re-entrenching hurtful colonial fictions that underpin racism in Aotearoa.
As a result of this and other unfavourable publicity, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern changed her mind about attending the arrival ceremony at Gisborne. Nonetheless, it was undoubtedly a popular success. Press reports said 10,000 people turned up at the wharves to either welcome the ship or inspect it over subsequent days. In contrast, the Kia Mau petition attracted 3500 signatures from around the country.
In Endeavour’s Australian circumnavigation, the outcome is likely to be much the same. The majority of Australians will support it but a minority of leftists will try to spoil the party. The ship is due to either berth or anchor at a number of Aboriginal locations in Australia’s northern coastline—Yarrabah, Cooktown and Aurukun in Queensland, and Yirrkala in the Northern Territory—but demonstrable political opposition is more likely to come not from there but from our southern shores, especially Melbourne where the police will, as usual, allow leftist protesters to get away with almost anything they please.
At the same time as this schedule has been under way, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has been running its own project to commemorate Cook’s visit by launching a campaign for the repatriation of all Aboriginal items taken overseas by collectors since 1770. It has had strong support from the Australian’s Weekend Magazine, which in November published a long article by Australian lawyer and television celebrity Geoffrey Robertson, whose new book, Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure, argues that all countries with artefacts plundered during previous periods of imperialism should return them. A back-up piece in the magazine by the Australian’s columnist Phillip Adams endorsed this appeal.
Robertson says the most notable Australian item held by the British Museum is the Gweagal Shield, which he wants returned to the Aboriginal clan it came from. Robertson’s story, taken from Aboriginal activists who have gone to the British Museum and publicly protested about its retention, is that it lies at the symbolic heart of Aboriginal resistance to British imperialism. The shield came from the very first contact between Cook’s men and the Gweagal clan of the Kurnell peninsula where Cook landed on April 29, 1770.
As Cook’s rowboats approached the shore, two Gweagal men threatened them with spears. Cook fired on them, wounding one, before they ran off, dropping their weapons and a wooden shield they carried. The shield had been shot through its centre with a bullet from Cook’s muskets. If this story is true, then the shield is indeed a powerful symbol of the clash between indigenous inhabitants and British usurpers.
Unfortunately for Robertson and Adams, the story is just another fabrication. As they would have found had they done even a little fact-checking, the “Gweagal” shield held by the British Museum did not come from Botany Bay in 1770. It came from an assortment of unlabelled objects found in the British Museum in 1978 and wrongly identified as being part of Joseph Banks’s Endeavour collection. It is made of red mangrove wood, a tree common to the northern Australian coastline but whose southern limit is the Richmond River in northern New South Wales. It must have belonged to a warrior in the tropics.
The shield picked up by Cook’s men was not made of wood but of bark, probably from a gum tree, like similar Botany Bay artefacts such as canoes and rooves on Aboriginal shelters. Moreover, paintings made of the shield when Banks returned to London depict an object distinctly different in shape and size from the one held by the British Museum.
There is no excuse for Robertson and Adams to be ignorant of this, since the slightest bit of research—reading and following up an article and footnotes on Wikipedia—would have told them that all the above had been made public by the British Museum in 2018. In response to persistent protests by Gweagal activist Rodney Kelly, the museum commissioned a panel of researchers to examine the shield’s provenance and stage a specialist workshop on its history. The outcome was two papers published in Australian Historical Studies (Vol 49, No 1, 2018) by Nicholas Thomas (Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) and by Maria Nugent (Australian National University) and Gaye Sculthorpe (British Museum), which provide the evidence I have cited here.
Two other sources that would also have raised questions about the story are the journals of Cook and Banks themselves, both readily available online. When the English first landed at Botany Bay they were certainly threatened with weapons (fishing spears) by two local men who signalled Cook’s rowboats to be gone. But Cook did not fire a bullet at them and no bullet went through any shield. Cook’s muskets were loaded with what he called “small shott” or birdshot, which could puncture a man’s skin but not wound him severely. Cook fired at the pair from forty metres away to warn them off, not to kill or even hurt them. He first fired a warning shot above their heads. When this had no effect, he aimed a second shot at the older man. Banks recorded: “It struck him on the legs but he minded it very little so another was immediately fird at him; on this he ran up to the house about 100 yards distant and soon returnd with a shield.” “Soon after,” Cook wrote, “they both made off.”
Banks examined the shield they left behind, and his own description of it should have told everyone who has written about it since that the bullet-hole theory was wrong. He said it had:
an oblong shape about 3 feet long and 1½ broad made of the bark of a tree; this he left behind when he ran away and we found upon taking it up that it plainly had been piercd through with a single pointed lance near the center.
In other words, the hole was either made by the shield’s owner or by an Aboriginal opponent, not Cook or his crew. As a historical symbol it represents nothing more than a relatively harmless incident between Aborigines and British that was their only hostile exchange during all of Cook’s sojourn at Botany Bay.
Will any of these facts matter during the coming commemorations? The left-wing media can be relied upon to ignore them but I hope the more respectable press will do a better job of fact-checking than their competitors.