Flat White

Cook’s contribution to civilisation

28 April 2018

4:28 PM

28 April 2018

4:28 PM

In a decision that will send many of the Left fleeing to the nearest safe place—i.e. Twitter—to find solace against the latest patriarchal assault upon their delicate political sensitivities, the federal treasurer, Scott Morrison, has announced that there will be a new memorial constructed in honour of Captain James Cook and Australia’s ‘first’ inhabitants.

(I say ‘first’ in adverted commas because the true history is that the aboriginal people Cook encountered were not the original inhabitants, but were themselves the third wave of invaders to have conquered the land. See here as well as the thesis by Phyllis Turner, “The Colonisation of Australia Prior to European Settlement” and especially Chapter 1, The First Australians, in the book Australia: A Nation of Immigrants by Tim Dare)

Now is probably the best time to pause and pose the question, ‘What would our nation be like if the British—or any other Europeans—never came?’ Would it be a utopia of Afrofuturism that so many progressives believe? I recently came across a statement by Prof Manning Clark, in the 1962 edition of his book—subsequent editions have the offending passage expurgated—A History of Australia, who wrote:

Civilisation did not begin in Australia until the last quarter of the eighteenth century … The early inhabitants of the Continent created cultures, but not civilisations.

Clark’s statement intrigued me. I decided to re-read the internationally feted Time Magazine art critic, Robert Hughes, who also wrote the early history of British penal settlement in Australia, The Fatal Shore. Hughes received the W. H. Smith Literary Award for this work. He had earlier established his reputation as part of the Sydney ‘Push’, a group of influential Australian artists, writers and intellectuals, Clive James being one of them. In 1997 he was voted as one of our National Living Treasures. As a piece of additional trivia, Hughes is the former uncle of Lucy Turnbull, the wife of our present Prime Minister.


However, what struck me in reading this celebrated history of Australia are his observations of the Iora people living in the Sydney region at the time. Significantly, Hughes came to the same conclusion as Clark, stating:

Aborigines … lived in a state approaching that of primitive communism … What, in short, was “noble” about these “savages”? The Tahitians could be seen as the last survivors of the classical Golden Age; with their fine canoes and intricate ornaments, strict rankings and plentiful supply of free coconuts, they clearly had superfluity, the paradisiacal ancestor of property, as well as strong class instincts to back it up … The Tahitians might live like prelapsarian beings, illiterate Athenians; compared to them, the Iora were Spartans. They exemplified “hard” primitivism.” (14-15)

Hughes’ work is no longer politically correct, and would almost definitely fail the newspeak criteria currently in vogue at many of our leading tertiary institutions, but it nonetheless seeks to provide a factual and unvarnished snapshot of the cultural standards of that time. For instance, Luke Slattery wrote in The Australian as recently as last year, that this was Hughes’ ‘masterpiece’ and that:

Three decades after its publication The Fatal Shore remains the most influential work of popular Australian history written — certainly the most widely read.

What follows is a verbatim summary of Hughes’ description of aboriginal life at the time of the First Fleet with the pertinent page numbers to the 1987 edition in brackets.

  1. Government. ‘The Australians divided themselves into tribes…The tribe did not have a king, or charismatic leaders, or even a formal council. It was linked together by a common religion, by language and by an intricate web of family relationships.’(9)
  2. Treatment of Women. ‘The unalterable fact of their tribal life was that women had no rights at all and could choose nothing. A girl was usually given away as soon as she was born. She was the absolute property of her kin until marriage, whereupon she became the equally helpless possession of her husband. Before and after [marriage], she was merely a root-grubbing, shell-gathering chattel, whose social assets were wiry arms, prehensile toes and a vagina … As a mark of hospitality, wives were lent to visitors whom the Iora tribesmen wanted to honour….If a woman showed the least reluctance to be used for any of these purposes, if she seemed lazy or gave her lord and master any other cause for dissatisfaction, she would be furiously beaten or even speared.’ (16)
  3. Writing. ‘It had no writing, but instead a complex structure of spoken and sung myth whose arcana were gradually passed on by elders to the younger men.’ (9)
  4. Architecture. ‘They were far more backward than any Bedouin or Plains Indian. They used what they could find: the sandstone caves of the harbour shores, with sheets of bark propped up to for crude “humpies.”’(13)
  5. Agriculture. ‘The Iora had no conception of agriculture. They neither sowed nor reaped; they appear to have wrought no changes on the face of the country. They were seen as culturally stative primitives lightly wandering in an ecologically static landscape, which seemed to eliminate any claims they might have had to prior ownership.’ (12)
  6. Technology. ‘Compared to an American Indian birch canoe, they were unstable craft and wretchedly crude, “by far the worst canoes I ever saw or heard of … They had neither outriggers nor sails (the Iora were ignorant of weaving); low in the water, they flexed with every ripple and leaked like sieves.’
  7. Literature / Religion. ‘They had few of the external signs of religious belief: no temples or altars or priests, no venerated images set up in public places, no evidence of sacrifice or (apart from the corrobborees) of communal prayer.’ (17)
  8. Education / Art. ‘They scratched crude patterns on the walls that may be the first works of art ever made in the southern hemisphere – the merest graffiti, compared to the later achievements of aboriginal rock-painting, but clear evidence of some primal artistic intent.’ (9)
  9. Health. ‘Since the Iora never washed, they spent their lives coated with a mixture of rancid fish oil, animal grease, ochre, beach sand, dust and sweat. They were filthy and funky in the extreme.’ (14) Hughes does say that, because they didn’t have any sugar in their diet, the Iora people were quite ‘muscular’ with exceptionally good teeth.
  10. Military. ‘Skirmishing with other clans, or with foreign tribes along the frontier between tribal territories, was an inevitable fact of nomadic life … They had no “specialist” army. They recognized no distinction between fighters and civilians, or between hunter and warrior.’ (15)
  11. Monetary Wealth. No property, no money or any other visible medium of exchange; no surplus or means of storing it, hence not even the barest rudiment of the idea of capital; no outside trade, no farming, no domestic animals except half-wild camp dingoes; no houses, clothes, pottery or metal; no division between leisure and labor, only a ceaseless grubbing and chasing for subsistence foods.’ (14)
  12. Acts of ‘Compassion’. ‘To get rid of surplus children, the Iora, like all other Australian tribes, routinely induced abortions by giving the pregnant women herbal medicines or, when these failed, by thumping their bellies. If these measures failed, they killed the unwanted child at birth. Deformed children were smothered or strangled. If a mother died in childbirth, or while nursing a child in arms, the infant would be burned with her after the father crushed its head with a large stone.’ (17)

And yet, Hughes had been so indoctrinated by the interpretative grid of the ‘black armband’ that he introduces his examination of the subject with the following statement:

A static culture, frozen by its immemorial primitivism, unchanged in an unchanging landscape—such until quite recently was, and for many people still is, the common idea of the Australian aborigines. It grows from several roots: myths about the Noble Savage, misreadings of aboriginal technology, traditional racism and ignorance of Australian prehistory. It is, in fact, quite false; but in the experience of white city dwellers there is little to contradict it.’ (7)

Really? I would have thought that Hughes himself has made the case to establish precisely the conclusion that he rejects.

All of which is to say, that Captain James Cook, the traditional indigenous people and those who have come from many different nations over the last two centuries, have played a key role in the development of Australian society that is, in fact, worth remembering, and even celebrating. Our modern nation grew from very humble origins—both black and white— and we should be thankful for the genius and courage of Cook that made this ‘experiment’ in the Antipodes the amazing and dynamic multicultural reality that it is today.

Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.

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