Sydney takes ~ a James Cook story

Sydney takes ~ a James Cook story

2 June, 2021


James Cook, a farm labourer’s son would climb
jagged Roseberry Topping, a Jurassic sandstone cap
trapped on the edge of the Yorkshire moors
to see the sea and watch Whitby Cats, working
colliers sailing back and forth to London.

Cook’s accuracy with charts and navigational skills
attracted attention and he was chosen to lead
the expedition to observe the transit of Venus.
Lieutenant Cook took command of the Earl of Pembroke,
a Whitby Cat, like the ships he watched as a boy.
They were slow, stubby, broad beamed, clumsy
and flat bottomed, but handy to beach for repairs
and could carry supplies for a long voyage.
‘No sea could harm her’ Cook said. The Navy
renamed her, the Endeavour and refitted her
at Deptford with rooms for Joseph Banks
(who paid handsomely) and his eight staff.

95 men shared the ship with cattle, sheep, goats, pigs
and dogs, nearly as many people as her hundred feet,
but without Harrison’s improved chronometer for longitude
because Harrison was arguing over his fee.

Cook, a superb navigator, found Matavai Bay, Tahiti
without difficulty. The idea was to time the transit
and calculate the distance of Venus to the Sun
from which the scale of our solar system.
The transit can take 6 hours, but has to be measured
within a second for useful results. The Black Drop effect
from atmospheric turbulence fogged the image of Venus
and messed their measurements. It was a failure.

Cook opened sealed orders – sail south and west,
search for Terra Australis Incognita, and to,
‘with the consent of the natives take possession
of convenient locations in the name of the King.’

They set sail after giving two crewmen two dozen lashes
for being ‘strongly attache’d’ to two girls and deserting.
The surgeon’s roll call found 24 seamen and 9 marines
with lesions (either syphilis or yaws, a close cousin).

Cook was not cruel by the standards of the time, but would
whip sailors for breaking rules. At Madeira, he had two
lashed with a cat for refusing to eat fresh beef.

October 1769. Cook landed near present-day Gisborne.
A Ngāti Oneone leader, Te Maro, was shot and killed
by one of Cook’s men. It seems likely that the Maori
were undertaking a ceremonial challenge, but the crew
thought they were under attack. More deaths followed.

For six months they charted New Zealand’s two worlds, tiring,
methodical work. The crew had to stay alert and work the sails.
A traditional 2-watch system of 4 hours on, 4 hours off
wrecked a good sleep so Cook introduced three watches.

He set course for Van Diemen’s Land which Abel Tasman
had come upon on his way to New Zealand. Gales threw
them north and they sailed through a gap in sandstone cliffs
up to 40 metres high and made their first landing
by the southern headland bristling with Angophora costata.

The harbour beaches and coves were busy
with men spearfishing from the shore
and women from their bark canoes.

Cook’s journal describes landing on the 29th of April 1770.
They were challenged by two men from the Dharawal nation’s Gweagal clan:
one of them took up a stone and threw at us which caused my fireing a second Musquet load with small shott, and altho some of the shott struck the man yetb it had no other effect than to make him lay hold of a shield or target to defend himself. Emmidiately after this we landed. Cook[i]

Until very recently commemorations celebrated the landing
with recreations of the event, including actors shooting muskets.

Banks and his fellow naturalist, Daniel Solander,
a student of Linnaeus, revelled in the new land.
They collected 132 plant species, the first scientific
collections of Australian flora. They called the bay
‘Sting-Ray Harbour’, then ‘Botanist Bay’
and finally, the familiar name ‘Botany Bay’.

Cook rejected his first cook, a ‘lame infirm man’, but
had to accept his replacement who had only one hand.
They had fresh food when available, but their diet
was mostly thin porridge for breakfast, then thin boiled soup
with some meat and sauerkraut with a biscuit named Hard Tack
for a reason. Weevils liked them, which the crew would eat
or tap the biscuits hard to lose them.
If a rat was caught it was often cooked and eaten.

The voyage lasted three tough years. Over forty members
of the expedition lost their lives. Cook’s crew complained
that he had more sympathy for the locals than them.

What as happened since has been a disaster for Aboriginal people, their cultures and their natural environments but I think it is unfair to blame Cook. He was a brilliant man and was under orders. He tried to avoid bloodshed and tried to communicate with the various Aboriginal people he met. If it wasn’t Cook, someone else would have taken that first step to upend the Aboriginal world.

The problem is that, as Paul Daley points out, ‘Captain Cook’s legacy is complex, but whether white Australia likes it or not he is emblematic of violence and oppression . . . in this country’s Indigenous consciousness he remains largely emblematic of the colonial and postcolonial violence and oppression that came after Arthur Phillip’s invasion 18 years later.’ [ii]

‘Police on watch as statues of historical figures defaced around Australia.’ [iii]

‘Xiaoran Shi and Charmaine Morrison-Mills were arrested after allegedly spray-painting ‘sovereignty never ceded’ and ‘no pride in genocide’ on a statue of Cook in Hyde Park.’ [iv]

Prime Minister Morrison doesn’t get this image problem. He says he wants Australians to better understand Cook’s legacy as the 250th anniversary approached. The government allocated $48.7 million to celebrate the milestone including $6.7 million for a replica of the HMB Endeavour to circumnavigate the country starting in March, a journey that had to be suspended earlier this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. [v] That money could go to Aboriginal health and housing.

Statues have been torn down ever since they were erected. There a wonderful photograph by Bruno Braquehais of Napoleon who once stood on the imperial column in the Place Vendôme, lying in the dust courtesy of the Paris Commune, 1871.

I recall a green Pickup towing a statue of Lenin (or Stalin) around Prague in the spring of 1990, and people kicking it and spitting on it.

The 19th-century bronze memorial to slave trader Edward Colston is on display in Bristol’s M Shed Museum, almost a year since it was dragged from its plinth by Black Lives Matter protesters and hurled into Bristol harbour. He lies recumbent, damaged, faced bloodied with paint.

I lived in Bristol for a while and we sometimes met up by his statue on Colston Avenue, just down from Colston Hall.  since 1895 as a memorial. I knew nothing about him and had an utter lack of curiosity about his philanthropic works, or how he made so much money.

The effects of the statue being pulled down triggered similar acts the world. Nearly 70 tributes to slave traders, colonialists and racists across the UK have been removed since last summer’s BLM protests


Besides the park sits the Domain, and the Art Gallery of NSW. It used to have one of the best pictures in the world. A picture window with a view of the harbour and naval vessels moored at Garden Island. There were chairs there for many years, but now the view is blocked by a large gleaming statue.

Michael Parekowhai’s The English Channel’, 2015, highly polished steel.

‘Resting on a sculptor’s working table with his feet suspended above ground, this Cook seems to be reflecting on his legacy in the contemporary world. At the same time, his dazzling surface collects the reflection of everything around it – including viewers looking at it. Despite the sculpture’s considerable height and weight, this mirror-like surface lends The English Channel a slippery and elusive presence, as if to suggest how perceptions shift depending on where one is standing.’[vi]



[i] Captain Cook’s Journal During his First Voyage Round the World, intro Capt. W Wharton, 1893.
[ii] Paul Daley, ‘Captain Cook’s legacy . . .’, The Guardian, 3.10.2019.
[iii] The New Daily, June 15, 2020.
[iv] SMH 15 June 2020.
[v] Charis Chang, ‘Why Captain Cook came to be so hated in Australia: Captain Cook has become a divisive figure in Australia and this map highlights why there’s so much confusion about him’, 14.6.2020

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