The view from Billinudgel

Rewriting Australian history
Navigating our past is proving difficult for our politicians

Prime Minister Scott Morrison looks at an anchor from James Cook’s ship Endeavour during a visit to the Cooktown Museum. © Marc McCormack / AAP Image 

Unlike the National Party’s deputy leader, Bridget McKenzie, our prime minister presumably knows that James Cook and Arthur Phillip were not the same person.

They may both be dead white male sailors who served the mad King George III, but they did so in different times and different places. Even Scott Morrison learnt that much at school.

And he probably also knows that Cook did not actually circumnavigate Australia. But what the hell, he could have if he’d wanted to – and this close to Australia Day, why waste a marketing opportunity?

So ScoMo has decided that on the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first and only voyage to Australia, there is to be a re-enactment of the imaginary feat in a reconstructed Endeavour – a spin that some may praise, but which others will deride as around the twist.

For what it is worth, the first Australian to circumnavigate the continent was Bungaree, a Kuringgai man who accompanied Matthew Flinders (English) and the cat Trim (born at sea) during their 1801–1803 exploration on the Investigator. Oh well, that leaves time for another anniversary celebration – better start preparing for it immediately, because the election campaign is almost upon us. So much fake history, so little time.

But while we are waiting, it may be worth checking on what actually happened, before Morrison and his mates rewrite the record entirely. As far as we know the first people to arrive were the First Nations people; they came either by sea or by a land bridge or both some 65,000 years ago.

Over the centuries there were no doubt many visitors from other parts of Asia and the Pacific, but they were not white and therefore did not count. The first Europeans, the Dutch, landed in the early 17th century.

The first Englishman to arrive in Australia was the ex-pirate and navigator William Dampier, who dropped in on the west coast in 1688 – a century before the so-called First Fleet arrived with Phillip.

So when Cook reached Botany Bay in 1770 he was already something of a blow-in. Nonetheless, he formally took possession of the east coast, conveniently ignoring the royal direction that this should be done with the consent of Indigenous inhabitants. And like many absentee landlords, he then buggered off home, before embarking on two more epic voyages. A peerless navigator, a great explorer – but not the discoverer of Australia, let alone the inaugurator of the society we have today.

But Morrison seems somewhat obsessed with the man after whom his electorate is named. Perhaps he knows more history than we give him credit for; in Cook’s third and fatal voyage, when he stopped on the islands of Hawaii, some of the residents believed he was the reincarnation of their god Lono.

Perhaps ScoMo feels that this divinity has been passed on to him, and that is why he can transform political fiction into historical fact. But there is a catch: the Hawaiians realised that Cook wasn’t a god after all, and killed him. Morrison would not want to take the comparison too far.

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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