April 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Whitefella visits Kurnell

By James Boyce
A Botany Bay ferry would restore Cook’s landing site as a ‘meeting place’

There is only one bus to the southern Sydney suburb of Kurnell between 8am and 4pm on a Sunday. Unless you own a car or plan a long walk, it’s essential to catch it. The site of the arrival of Captain James Cook’s Endeavour, across the peninsula from Cronulla to Botany Bay, is otherwise cut off.

Near the eastern end of the road into Kurnell, Captain Cook Drive, is the kilometre-long jetty known as the Caltex terminal. Although the refinery closed in 2014 (with the loss of 330 jobs) this remains a restricted site servicing a vast fuel storage facility. The Commonwealth sign closest to Cook’s landing site is an irony-free warning from Border Force to not enter a “customs controlled area”.

Across the water, modest in the skyline, is Sydney Airport, made most evident by the queue of planes whose passengers remain largely oblivious to the significance of their view.

The best stop to alight the bus is located opposite the Endeavour cafe, fronting the Kamay Botany Bay National Park. A short stroll brings the visitor to the rock where the first steps were taken by Europeans on the east coast of the continent on April 29, 1770. When the New South Wales Immigration and Tourist Bureau promoted this site in a 1909 publication, they suggested: “What Plymouth Rock is to the American, so should this memorable spot on the south shore of Botany Bay be to all Australians. Birthplace though it is of the great nation that Australia is destined to be, it is comparatively little known to, and certainly little reverenced by, the great majority.”

But officialdom’s intermittent attempts to give the landing place gravitas have never taken off. In 1822 the newly formed Philosophical Society of Australasia, shown the site by an elderly Aboriginal man who remembered Cook, put up a plaque further along the point celebrating “British science” and giving equal weight to the more aristocratic, intellectual and long-lived naturalist Joseph Banks. But even today, the crusty rock on which Cook’s wife’s cousin – able seaman Isaac Smith – was the first to step ashore is marked only by a modest sign embedded in the natural stone.

The only monument dedicated exclusively to Cook was a private venture. Governor Macquarie had granted the land in 1815 seemingly without consideration of its significance, and it subsequently went through several hands. The environment was largely protected from being intensively farmed by its poor soil and lack of grass. This ensured little happened at the landing place until it was owned by a Yorkshireman. Thomas Holt, keen to honour his fellow countyman, constructed the Cook monument at his own expense in 1869. This simple stone obelisk still sticks out of the dry ground above the landing rock.

Apathy returned after Holt’s effort. A citizens’ committee was formed to encourage an official response to the centenary in 1870, but nothing was done.

It was European-Australian nationalism, and the need for a founding whitefella narrative that came with the move to federation (convicts are complicated on that score), that refocused attention on Kurnell. Unsold land was reserved and in 1899 the site of the landing place was added to it after a buy-back.

The site got its real fillip from the ferry. From the early 20th century, a cheap and short ride connected Kurnell with La Perouse, which made it accessible to city folk keen for a day in the country or a weekend camping adventure. The park became one of those democratic places characterised by uncontrolled camping, hunting, shellfish gathering and fishing. People built weekend huts in the bush, slept in the caves and had picnics on the lawns.

Banks had described a “village” and during the Depression it became one again. While not as famous as Happy Valley across the Bay, the Kurnell bushland was also a refuge for homeless people.

And by glorious paradox, the ferry ensured that Cook’s landing place returned to Aboriginal custodianship.

The Gweagal people of Botany Bay were scattered and dispersed by the late 19th century. Some, like other dispossessed and increasingly harassed Aboriginal people across greater Sydney and beyond, ended up in the reserve at La Perouse. Elders have recorded what Kurnell meant for them once public transport made it readily accessible again. Glorious weekends of freedom sometimes became whole summers. Diving for abalone, gathering cockles and whelks, fishing off the rocks and sleeping out. Physical freedom was complemented by economic opportunity. The people of La Perouse didn’t miss a trick selling souvenirs to the tourists; sales provided Aboriginal entrepreneurs with ferry fares, food and much needed cash.

Dozens of Indigenous people also later earnt a dollar in the carefully planned, well-budgeted, made-for-TV, bicentenary re-enactment of Cook’s landing, which was watched over by the Queen in 1970. This event was not as grimly comical as it now seems. Aboriginal activist Ken Colbung was an adviser, and surely this was the first time most Australians learnt that a gun had to be repeatedly fired by the revered captain and a man wounded before he was able to land.

The ferry service ceased in 1974 when the jetty was destroyed by a storm. And, as the Save Kurnell Committee documented, the integrity and beauty of the peninsula was threatened by the expansion of the port, the possibility of a second Sydney airport, subdivisions, the oil refinery and plans for more industry.

Significant development during the 1970s meant the area lost some of its grandeur. But more land was also protected and the nucleus of Kamay Botany Bay National Park was formed.

Celebratory commemorations interspersed with protests in the late 20th century (especially during the bicentenary of European settlement in 1988) resulted in a muddled landscape of competing flagpoles, memorials and interpretation panels, and an expression that remains in use: since 2008, Kurnell has officially been a “meeting place”. Some of the history panels and pictures attached to an old jetty, and lining the small bridge that crosses the restored creek where Cook’s men collected water, are outstanding examples of their kind. An open-minded visitor with good reading glasses can learn a lot.

But while the site remains popular with migrant communities who gather there on weekends, most of the time it is strangely quiet. Sitting in the bush, looking over to La Perouse and out through the heads, a peace can be found here (especially once the airport shuts down at night). You can be all alone while contemplating the permanent buoy that supposedly marks where the Endeavour berthed (no one has bothered to mark the spot where Arthur Phillip was based for two days in January 1788 before decamping for Port Jackson, even though this was long enough for Botany Bay to be immortalised in popular culture), although on a warm weekend evening the rocks remain alive with fishermen, some defying the signs banning the collection of shellfish that are unhelpfully written only in English. Apparently, their harvesting has been happening at unsustainable levels.

Contemplating this contested country made me unexpectedly appreciative of our nation’s approach to the past. While a reluctance to face historical truth and deal with its consequences represents Australia at its worst, the fact that we never created our own Plymouth Rock surely speaks to the best. The openly unresolved jumble of stories at Kurnell shows the attempt by John Howard and other culture warriors to create a single national story has comprehensively failed. An inscription on the footpath under the Cook monument reads “Everything that has happened … has its roots in this area”. Who can argue with that?

Illegal fishers, shirtless picnickers, old caves and the still-singing bush combine to make the oversized flagpoles seem slightly ridiculous and the landscape only more human for that.

A couple of years ago it did seem that a new order might be coming to Kurnell. As prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull visited with the local member and federal treasurer, Scott Morrison, to announce a massive injection of funds to mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing. For $50 million (half to be provided by the state government) there was to be a new visitor centre, cafe, exhibition space, artworks (including a large aquatic one), a refurbished obelisk, new toilets and rebuilt ferry wharves at Kurnell and La Perouse.

This was to be part of an even larger pool of government money to be spent from Canberra to Cooktown to commemorate Cook’s east coast voyage. Two years on, with April 29 looming, little has happened. A proposed $6.7 million circumnavigation of the continent by a replica Endeavour (most of it to be along coast that Cook never saw) has been pushed back to May and the promised government website to promote the various events is yet to be seen. As I write this, the only sign of action at Kurnell is that the Cook monument is shrouded in sackcloth and most of the loos are closed for a makeover, although apparently new artwork is imminent.

Political fickleness served Kurnell well in the past. But if the federal government is serious about reconciliation, it must honour one pledge that was made when announcing the big spend. The management plan for the national park was clear that the priority of the local Aboriginal community was the reintroduction of a ferry service. Providing the community of La Perouse and the people of Sydney with the promised access to Kurnell across Botany Bay is essential if the site is to be a true “meeting place”. The occasional bus to Cronulla is a long way home for most. Surely the member for Cook, a self-proclaimed fan of the famous captain and the benefits of practical reconciliation, can at least manage that.

James Boyce

James Boyce is a Hobart-based writer and historian. His latest book is Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens.

Cover image of The Monthly, April 2020
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