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Let’s rediscover James Cook and his extraordinary voyage

29 April 2020

5:00 AM

29 April 2020

5:00 AM

Today marks 250 years since Captain James Cook and the crew of the HMS Endeavour made their first landing on Australian soil, at what is now Kurnell Peninsula in Botany Bay, New South Wales. In doing so, they would change the course of history. 

Cook initially named the bay in which they had arrived Stingray Harbour due to the great quantity of such cartilaginous fish swimming about. However, he decided to later name it Botany Bay after the ship’s botanists, led by Joseph Banks, collected a remarkable range of unique specimens from the area. Today, Sydney Airport -– one of Australia’s busiest — sits on the north-western side of this bay. 

Cook and his crew had been cautiously waiting for the right opportunity to make landfall. The Endeavour had travelled across the Tasman Sea after circumnavigating, exploring and mapping New Zealand. The crew of the small British ship first sighted the Australian continent on April 20, 1770, near Point Hicks (named after Cook’s second-in-command, Zachary Hicks) before heading north and mapping the coastline until sailing into Botany Bay.  

While the crew were eager to explore the bay and hinterland, the excitement of making landfall must have been somewhat muted following the death of one of the Endeavours crew. Scotsman Forby Sutherland’s life was cut short by tuberculosis on the evening of April 30 while the ship was anchored in the bay. He was the first British subject and likely the first European to be buried on the east coast of Australia. 

The Yorkshire-born Cook led a remarkable voyage of scientific discovery, exploring the South Pacific and helping to redraw the world map. His first expedition, lasting from 1768 to 1771, had two main objectives. The first was to travel to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus across the sun in 1769 (transit observations were used to calculate the size of the solar system which assisted in nautical navigation). The second “secret” objective involved heading south in search of Terra Australis Incognita –– the hypothetical continent speculated to lay somewhere between New Holland (Australia) and South America.  

This expedition was the first -– as far as we know — to explore, survey and chart a significant length of the east coast of Australia. It was also the first recorded landing on the east coast of the Australian continent by Europeans.  

 Cook’s first voyage also ignited Britain’s interest in the Australian continent, which would lead to eventual settlement in 1788 and the birth of modern Australia. After returning to England, the wealthy and well-connected Joseph Banks promoted the idea of establishing a settlement at Botany Bay and he would go on to exert considerable influence during the early years of the New South Wales colony. 

In 1970, Australians celebrated the bicentenary of Cook’s voyage with a televised Botany Bay landing re-enactment, a visit by the Queen and the Prince of Wales, a commemorative coin, the publication of journal entries by Cook and Banks in major newspapers, and large events across the country. New South Wales Premier Robert Askin enthused that Australia would stage “one of the greatest pageants ever held in the southern hemisphere” to commemorate the milestone. 

In stark contrast, this year’s 250th anniversary has barely been promoted. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, governments had very little planned to mark the occasion. Among the relatively few activities and events that were announced, a significant number appeared to be little more than exercises in black armband history indoctrination. 

This is lamentable but not particularly surprising given the virulent form of cultural self-loathing that has firmly taken root in Australia over recent decades. Despite modern Australia drawing most of its founding population and civilisational roots from the British Isles, the country’s British heritage is now largely downplayed or derided. 

Cook has become a hate figure among the Left, who accuse him of being a peccant harbinger of imperialism and the “invasion” of Australia. Cook statues in Sydney and Melbourne have been vandalised. The unhinged Greens leader Adam Bandt recently claimed that we should not commemorate the day Cook set foot on Australian soil because he was “part of a broad colonial venture that was not positive for world history.” 

This follows asinine attacks on Cook by Bandt’s Greens colleague, Sarah Hanson-Young, who repeatedly confused Cook with First Fleet commander Arthur Phillip.  

In the postscript to his book, Captain Cook’s Epic Voyage, the great Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey notes that some contemporary Aboriginal leaders will, understandably, continue to blame Cook for ending their forebears’ long period of relative isolation and the hardships that followed. Yet, as Blainey concludes: 

One of the most remarkable voyagers in the long history of the seas, he [Cook] deserves far more praise than blame. Contrary to the common belief, he admired the Aborigines and facets of their traditional way of life. Above all he grasped this continent and began unknowingly the work of knitting it again to the outside world. On the whole the outside world has gained because of his epic voyage. The settlers who arrived after him eventually made this land so productive that it is capable, almost annually, of feeding tens of millions of people in foreign lands as well as all those in Australia. Here flourishes a democratic society which offers freedom in a world where freedom is not – and never was – the right of most people.

Cook’s extraordinary voyage exemplified the spirit of inquiry and discovery. Those seeking to erase Cook from the national memory or denigrate his legacy would have us all live in ignorance. It would be a great shame if they were to succeed. 

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