The view from Billinudgel

The idiot section
The wilful denial of Australian history still drags on

The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770 by E Phillips Fox. Source

Another skirmish in the history wars. A guide – not a directive – to the University of New South Wales Diversity Toolkit has said that Australia was not settled peacefully, it was invaded, occupied and colonized.

And the tabloids and shock jocks were outraged, horrified by this unexceptional suggestion. The Daily Telegraph splashed with what it called an exclusive: “UNSW rewrites the history books to state Cook ‘invaded’ Australia”. In fact, no-one had mentioned Captain James Cook, but the historians of the Tele knew perfectly well that Cook had discovered Australia, whatever anyone else, and especially the Aborigines, might say.

In any case, what would they know? As learned readers explained in the letters pages, the benighted natives did not even know where Australia was – they didn’t even know the name of the place. And indeed they didn’t; but nor, for that matter, did Cook; his instructions were simply “to look for a continent or land of great extent in the southern latitudes” and “to take possession, with the consent of the natives, in the name of the king of Great Britain”.

In the end the consent of the natives was considered irrelevant; after meandering up the east coast, Cook took possession of a deserted island near the tip of Cape York, and went home as fast as possible. The natives barely noticed; but when the first fleet arrived 18 years later and Arthur Phillip made it clear he was here to stay, it became a rather different matter.

To be fair to Phillip, at first he tried to be conciliatory, but as the demand for land expanded, the settlement indeed became an invasion – or at least what that is what the locals called it, and still do. In the past, they had not had any real problems with visitors; Asian traders, mainly Malaccan, had been commonplace for a long time, and Europeans had also dropped in.

The first recorded example was the Dutchman Wilhelm Janszoon in 1606, but there are rumours of Portuguese ships before him. And Cook was not even the first Englishman; that honour, such as it was, belonged to the pirate William Dampier, who landed on the west coast in 1688, a hundred years before Phillip.

So even within the Telegraph’s dubious terms, Cook was a bit of a blow-in. To complain that somehow the inhabitants who had been there for at least 40,000 – and perhaps 60,000 – years had no right to their title and that the land could therefore be settled with impunity did not make sense, either to them or to sensible later immigrants; but in fact the doctrine of terra nullius – the idea that Australia was nobody’s land – prevailed until comparatively recent times.

The University of New South Wales has finally caught up, but clearly the Tele and its supporters have not. And so the history wars – or at least the ones based on a wilful denial of history – drag on. It may be residual white guilt, or it may simply be invincible ignorance. But surely it belongs in the idiot section along with the anti-vaxers and the flying saucers, rather than on the front page – even in the Tele.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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