The view from Billinudgel

Cook and the culture wars
Cook will be honoured, but his actions do not warrant fulsome adulation at the cost of Australian history

Portrait of James Cook, by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland (c. 1775) from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

After 250 years, Lieutenant James Cook is back in the headlines – for all the wrong reasons. The gallant sailor has become the latest focus of the pointless and destructive culture wars between the left and the right, each contending for their version of Australian history.

Fortunately Stan Grant and Peter FitzSimons have provided excellent pieces in Nine Media as healthy correctives to the mindless triumphalism from News Corp. Sure, says News Corp, it was a bit of a downer for the Indigenous population, but Cook was the start of the brilliant process that culminated in the supreme achievement of the Australian story: the life and works of Rupert Murdoch.

But readers may still have been confused: Cook was obviously a riddle. Was the real man a progressive or a conservative?

Well, the answer is simple: he was both. This was the Age of Enlightenment, a time when science and reason were replacing the dogma and superstitions of the past. It was natural for Cook to have become a diligent log-keeper and cartographer, an explorer and investigator.

His original mission to the South Seas was to observe and analyse the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. He encouraged the research of naturalist Joseph Banks and his colleagues, and sought a cure for scurvy, which plagued the ships of the time. And, of course, he was a mariner and navigator beyond compare.

But he was also an 18th-century Englishman, convinced of the innate superiority of his race, his culture and his class. He accepted the fact that his crewmen traded with local women for sex and sometimes raped them; he may not have condoned the practice, but he did nothing to stop it.

And he assumed a right to colonise what he regarded as primitive societies, happily ignoring the ritual pieties of his monarch about seeking “the consent of the natives”. When a handful of them offered resistance to his landing, he fired at them – not one warning shot, but at least three deliberate rounds.

Cook recorded that they were a jolly bunch: “far more happier than we Europeans, being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous, but with the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe; they are … not disturbed by the inequality of condition.” He did not go on to note that they had a natural sense of rhythm. But the patronising tone is unmistakable: these people were not only uncivilised, they were not even fully human. Hence, terra nullius.

This was not racism in the sense it is used today; it was simply a given, as was dedication to God, king and country, and the determination to enlarge and secure the empire – which meant, inevitably, invasion and settlement. And in this context it is hardly useful to talk about ideology, and the divisions between progressive and conservative views.

Cook, like everyone else, was a creature of his time. And although many of the consequences were dire, and must be redressed as far as possible, he should not personally be blamed and his real feats should be and will be remembered and praised.

But this does not warrant fulsome adulation at the cost of history. Posterity deserves better than that – and so does the gallant sailor.

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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