In the Beginning was Captain Cook

by Chris Healy

© all rights reserved

In June of 1933 a small cottage in the Yorkshire town of Great Ayton was bought at auction by an Australian, dismantled, transported to Victoria and, in the following year, reconstructed in a Melbourne park. It was a gift from Russell Grimwade to the people of Victoria in what was fashioned as that State’s centennial year, a year littered with familiar rituals of historical commemoration marking a century since permanent European occupation. Grimwade fixed on the cottage in part because it was advertised as ‘the Home of Captain Cook’s Early Days’ and because he wanted ‘to introduce some solid reminder of the old world to this young country’.

Despite repeated attacks from the enemies of simulation, Grimwade achieved his aim of solidity — the building is still there today, a (former) dwelling made of clean bricks joined to a stone stable bordered by an elaborate English cottage garden, the whole package surrounded by a hawthorn hedge. The cottage is shaded by Moreton Bay fig trees in a quiet spot barely half a kilometer from the eastern boundary of the city grid where, in the 1980s, cranes perched on ascending office-block sites delighted nearby politicians. Generations of school children under duress, millions of Australians and non-Australians touring the past, and thousands of wedding parties in search of a scenic backdrop have come to this shrine of ‘the old world’. These visitors have produced and experienced a variety of social memories in that place. Nevertheless, they have been linked by the name of Captain Cook, a name which refers us not to an actual historical figure but to an enduring icon, a huge network of narratives, images and ceremonies that seek to articulate a common reference for Australian historical culture: in the beginning was Cook.

In 1970 that same small cottage became a site where Aboriginal people attempted to remember Captain Cook not as a founding father but as a harbinger of dispossession and death, a sign of white amnesia. That was another anniversary year-used to mark two hundred years since Cook had journeyed along the east coast of Australia and, for some people, discovered a continent. While Cook was celebrated by many non-indigenous Australians as an exemplary progenitor, Koories and their supporters rallied at Cook’s Cottage and marched to the City Square to hear Stewart Murray call for the return of Aboriginal land to Aboriginal people. The event concluded with an all-night vigil held under banners that denounced Cook as an invader. Less than forty years after it was landed in Victoria, the cottage was used by indigenous people for political and historical remembrance of a kind which Russell Grimwade Could not have imagined…

By the end of the nineteenth century the name of Cook had secured a particular and privileged but not an uncontested place in Australian history for non-Aboriginal people. Cook had been massively codified in school and scholarly texts, in pictorial images, place-name s and porcelain; in commemorations and coins, statuary, stamps, poetry, drama and fiction. In these and other forms, Captain Cook had become a discoverer who founded a nation.

There was, however, nothing natural in Cook’s ascension to this status.These historical performances in the life-after-death of Cook, from the worship of Cook in Europe to the transportation of Cook’s cottage to the Fiztroy Gardens in Melbourne, show how historical imagine ation was put to work in joining stories of Cook with places and times far from the theatres of his life. I am interested in how stories of Cook came to have particular meanings in this country as Australia and Cook were connected and reconnected in the time of social memory. Is it possible to identify the rules and patterns of remembrance which gave such an honourable antipodean place to a European sailor? How was an episode in the history of exploration recycled as a story of genesis and to what effects?

Aborigines remember Cook in different, complex and varied ways. Aboriginal histories of Captain Cook have been publicly circulated as oral testimony, myth, legend, history and protest in film, paintings and song. Some Aboriginal histories of Cook work with very different and distinctively creative formulations of time and place, of the connections between past and present and of the imperatives of cultural memory. These histories come from various places ranging from south-eastern Australia to the north and far west of the continent and can be dated to at least the early twentieth century.

I want to suggest that the name of Cook links these diverse Aboriginal histories and provides one way of considering Aboriginal historical cultures. Reading them alongside European accounts is an attempt to take these Aboriginal acts of remembrance seriousIy as histories; to accept them as an invitation to think about the Eurocentric cultures of history that 1, along with many others, inherit and inhabit as one component of a colonial past.

Taking Cook as a name common to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal histories enables me to consider how histories work in different cultural systems, to contemplate not just different versions of history but the category of history itself. In this comparison the historical sensibilities of white Australia emerge not as a chronicle of progress, the march of time, God’s will or chance, but as particular products of culture. These forms of historical imagination are deeply obsessed with material evidence and that which can be quantified. Yet at the same time, they are histories fixated with universal themes and aspirations, with plotting, naming and knowing the character of a whole people. Western histories have their virtues and pleasures to be sure, but they also have an unwarranted confidence in proclaiming their knowledge in relation to the past as history, singular and trite. Thus Aboriginal histories have been derided as just myth or (unjust?) politics. Western histories also have an in-built imperialism that tends to damn all alternatives as inferior and, with such arrogant assumptions, to restrict the possibilities of historical imagination to that which is already known.

If both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal histories of Cook are culturally peculiar and culturally specific, if they are definite artefacts, this makes them neither wrong nor inadequate but all the more interesting.

Aboriginal histories of Cook are interesting, in part because they suggest that the past has, is and can be known in many ways, a sense that history always has many tellings and never a single epic chronicle. However, my point is neither to invoke banal pluralism nor trite relativism; neither to condemn Western folklore nor celebrate Aboriginal history. Performances of memory are both products of and constitutive of their cultures. Here the ongoing making of histories under the sign of Cook become opportunities to think about the patterns of forgetting, remembering, repeating and reworking as part of the work and structure of culture.

It is worth keeping in mind that Cook is a dangerous starting point in relation to both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal histories, in part, because many of the claims made about Cook are also claims about history itself. For example: Cook has been celebrated by white Australians as foundational in the sense that Australia becomes historical only when Cook inscribes the continent within the known world of Europe. In such accounts, Cook legitimises Australian history because histories of Australia confer on Cook certain historic acts (the discovery and foundation of Australia). His name provides an answer to the question: Where have we come from? Australia makes an appearance within Western culture when it is discovered; in Cook we know the genesis of our collective national past.There are a great many ways in which this formulation can be challenged.

Continents and nations do not materialise as immanent or transcendent objects; they are not entities prior to the historical processes which produce them. Nevertheless European Australians have given pre-eminent status and deep significance to discovery.

Similarly, my focus on Cook as a figure of the historical cultures of Aboriginal people risks giving the impression that somehow Cook inaugurated history for Aboriginal people, that an eighteenth-century historical encounter has somehow been generalised across Aboriginal Australia, perhaps like syphilis or smallpox, making Cook doubly historic — first and fatal. This would be a mistaken impression. It is a matter of historical record that Cook did not bring Aboriginal people into history, except in the sense of history as knowledge which refers only to Europe. However Cook may mark ‘a kind of “beginning” of an epoch’. 1 His name has been used by Aboriginal people as a means of accounting for certain kinds of change and as a metaphor for ethical dilemmas. In these ways Cook can be considered a term which creates a possibility of dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ways of making histories…

Two hundred years after Cook’s voyage along the east coast of what would become Australia, media literate and politically astute Aboriginal people staged articulate protests opposing the celebration of ‘Cook’s Discovery’of Australia. In that year, a feature article, ‘People we hide from the Queen’, appeared in the Melbourne Age. The article managed to combine proclamation — better days are near at hand for’race relations’– with a string of racist cliches. It concluded with the author considering Aboriginal people and wondering:
“Who knows what these sad people really think? I don’t. But a friend of mine was waiting for the bus outside his office in Sydney the other night when a very drunk, very dirty Aborigine staggered up and approached him aggressively. ‘F … your Captain Cook; he muttered. ‘He stole our land.’Then he swayed off into the night.”

It takes a special kind of deafness not to hear such clear enunciation. This brief passage also speaks volumes for the longevity and tenacity of white amnesia. Such statements do not emerge from silence but from a seemingly endless babble about Aboriginal people created by European Australians: testimony not to silence but to the silencing of Aboriginal people. The results of this noisy silencing, can be found in writings and stories, in idioms and place-names, in legislation and speeches, in image making and the relics of Aboriginalia and in much else besides.

Marcia Langton argues that it is through these products and because of “the cultural and textual construction of things “Aboriginal”‘, that ‘the most dense relationship is not between actual people, but between white Australians and the symbols created by their predecessors. They relate to stories told by former colonists”. 2 This is part of the shifting communicative ground of Aboriginality, sometimes characterised by stereotyping, sometimes by what Langton would like to see more of: genuine intercultural dialogue.

Listening and speaking, no matter how appropriate and important these gestures may be in particular situations, have not proved to be an easy antidote for the forgetfulness named by Stanner, nor have they transcended the limits of colonial stories. More often than not such efforts simply raise questions — Who or what are the subjects of dialogue? What kinds of appropriations, translations or re-inscriptions are involved? Who speaks and for whom, in what forms and to what effects?

History is, of course, one of the key modes in which non-Aboriginal people know these ‘stories told by former colonists’. Indeed, history has been constituted as a significant field of force because knowledge of and domination of Aboriginal peoples have been so closely intertwined and because history has been regarded as part of the problem by some Aborigines. This problem is not that too many histories tell bad colonial tales too often (although they do), but more to do with the habits of thinking about relationships between past and present that Australian history has encouraged; it is more to do with history itself. My suggestion is that those, like me, who use the language of history might best contribute to the intercultural dialogue which is emerging in relation to Aboriginality by first attending to the inheritance of white social memory. What about the ‘genesis’ of white Australia: what might happen to European histories of Captain Cook if we were to read them alongside Aboriginal histories of Captain Cook?

Aboriginal histories of Cook provide a powerful sense of the limits of non-Aboriginal social memory, a sense that the historical imagination of European modernity that we all inherit (although in distinctive ways) is not the only valid way of understanding the past. At the same time, these Aboriginal narratives are a contribution to historical understanding because they explore the fissures and absences in the European systems of history. These histories are about the transformations required in continually remaking constitutive imagination within cultures. They do not rely on the convention that history should imitate ‘the historical process’, but perform histories in ways that foreground social memory as appropriations of the past in the present. Aboriginal histories of Cook interpret the past as forms of analogies and structural correspondences with the hopes and tribulations of the present.

These histories refuse to make categorical distinctions between the past and the present, explicitly speaking the affective and symbolic dimensions of history and acknowledging the audience of the present. In these histories we hear a whole range of alternative forms and plots which handle time/space differently, experiment with identity differently, juggle continuity and discontinuity’ differently and take as their structures not progress or heroism, but morality, culture, land and law.

Yet, like Captain Cook’s Cottage or the spirit of the navigator lurking on Australian beaches, these forms of social memory cannot simply be claimed for history: they are histories between the particular and the universal, between the affective and the scientific, between narrative and theory. It is in this sense that Aboriginal histories of Cook are anti-historical: they are beyond history as a disciplinary form of social memory sanctioned by institutional procedures. Certainly they share with European-derived histories a realist touchstone and a project of interpreting the past by making it textual. Even more, they show considerable interpretative respect for the European imagination of Cook as embodiment of a trinity — discovery/possession/heritage — yet at the same time these histories refuse to accept the triumphal dominance of European progress.

Instead of the sea-based chronicles of happening upon a silent continent, these histories speak from land that cannot be discovered. Instead of possession as a commedia dell’arteperformance that only later comes to be recognised as conferring legal authority or founding a nation, these histories propose a narrative of intense dispossession acted out across colonial deathscapes. Instead of an inheritance of a working-class navigator made good, these histories remember Captain Cook as posing a continuing problem for white Australia, a problem of how to both acknowledge and rewrite the plot of ongoing colonial ruination.
Chris Healy teaches Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne. This piece is extracted with permission from From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social MemoryCambridge University Press.


1. A point made by Charles Mitchell cited in Bernard Smith, Imagining the Pacific, Melbourne University Press, 1992 p 235.

2. Marcia Langton, Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on television, Australian Film Commission, Sydney 1993, p33.

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