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Captain Cook - Forgotten Amidst the Pandemic

This year was meant to be one of commemoration of one of the great historical events, Captain Cook’s voyage, on the ship Endeavour, to the South Pacific. Now, because of the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no ceremonies by either the general public or the indigenous community.

In the circumstances, people who are forced to stay at home can pay their own respect to the events by reading one of the historical biographies written for the 250th anniversary by Geoffrey Blainey or Peter Fitzsimons.

As Professor Blainey tells us, Cook’s voyage was extraordinary. It was accomplished by a crew of 100 sailing in a small coal carrier sailing ship that was the length of a tennis court. It was conducted in a state of high tension because the British and the French were in fierce competition to dominate the Pacific, in much the same way as the United States and China are currently competing over the South China Sea.

The British and the French both believed that there was a ‘Great Southern Land’ that was uninhabited but was probably full of rich minerals. The first country to claim it would be vastly enriched. Both countries were broke: Britain because of the war with the American colonies and the French and the French because of the war with England and the extravagance of their kings.

The French captain, Jean De Surville, had a six months start on Cook and he sailed within 80 kilometres of the east coast of Australia but then headed to New Zealand. Unlike the crew of the Endeavour, his crew was suffering badly from scurvy and needed supplies of fresh food. He didn’t have any luck so he sailed to Peru. There he put on his full ceremonial uniform including sword and medals and set out for shore in a long boat. Unfortunately he jumped out too early, sank to the bottom and drowned.

Cook arrived in Botany Bay on 29 April 1770 and sent a landing party ashore. The aim was for Sir Joseph Banks and his group of scientists to collect samples of the flora and fauna. They were basically ignored by the indigenous inhabitants, who thought that they were evil spirits. Cook was unimpressed by Australia which he described a “second prize” but Banks and the Swedish botanist, Daniel Solander, thought that it was a treasure trove of nature.

The Endeavour then sailed north to Cooktown, stopping only once, so there was very no interaction with the locals. Cook sailed straight past Sydney Harbor: the current theory was that he didn’t want to disclose that he knew that it was a deep water harbor of great potential in case the French found out.

In Cooktown he had to repair the Endeavour which had been damaged by the Great Barrier Reef. While they were there Banks and Solander had much more interaction with local aboriginals and learned a number of words in the local dialect as well as killing and eating their first kangaroo. They gleaned considerable information from the locals about the properties of the plants.

In line with his secret orders from the Admiralty Cook planted the Union Jack and claimed the land for Britain. At no time did he declare it to be ‘Terra Nullius’ and in his own mind it was a place not worth colonizing.

There is no doubt that Cook was a great sailor and a great cartographer. He should be celebrated. At the same time the fact that Australia was occupied by the first peoples, who as Banks noted lived in a state of great contentment, should also be acknowledged and celebrated.

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