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In 1770 the Gweagal people of Kamay (Botany Bay) discovered James Cook and the Endeavour. The Library’s new exhibition — now online and in the Galleries — explores the eight days that followed.

Pirate? Hero? Both? Neither? The way James Cook is remembered in Australia remains deeply contested.  

Countless myths and exaggerations surround the eight days the Endeavour spent in Kamay in 1770. The untarnished ideal of Cook as an explorer and skilled navigator has long been a seductive one, but for many he symbolises one of the darkest and most brutal parts of Australia’s history. 

The Library’s exhibition Eight Days in Kamay explores these conflicting views, and invites you to consider the cultural, social and political context of the Endeavour’s visit from the perspective of the Gweagal people.  

Contested legacies

As an Aboriginal curator, I was at first daunted by the task of trying to commemorate the 250th anniversary of an event that has become so much part of legend it seems to leave little room for correction. 

Was Cook the murdering pirate my family and many others blame for invasion and subsequent colonisation? Or was he a genius polymath and the ‘father of the nation’, as I was taught at school?  

He was both and neither. The murders and mutilations perpetrated by the Endeavour crew are well documented. But Cook’s ‘discoveries’ and skills as a navigator are usually invoked as a defence.  

At the heart of Australia’s ongoing racism is our continuing ignorance about the origins of our nationhood, and the brutal cost Aboriginal people paid to establish it. 

Pirate and hero

Eight Days in Kamay explores through contemporary artworks the Captain Cook most familiar to Aboriginal people. He appears as a spectre, who serves as a symbol of colonisation, invasion and the myth of terra nullius.  

A painting of Captain Cook on the shore with his crew, one of whom is waving a Union Jack with the Jolly Roger painted over it.

We Call Them Pirates Out Here, by Daniel Boyd, 2006, oil on canvas, collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2006; reproduced courtesy the artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © Daniel Boyd

 

Daniel Boyd’s imposing parody of Emmanuel Philip Fox’s famous 1902 painting of the Endeavour landing, We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2006), is a visceral reminder of the fine line between pirate and hero. The post-Federation image of a gentle, patriotic Cook is inverted by Boyd’s work, which cleverly reverses the message of this key piece of colonial propaganda.

Works by Michael Cook, Jason Wing and Karla Dickens invite visitors to see ‘our’ Cook, and to perhaps reflect on how far both versions of Cook’s legend have wandered from the scale and facts of those eight days in 1770.

A painting of Captain Cook and an Aboriginal man at a feast together.

Cook’s Dinner Party, by Vincent Namatjira, 2014, acrylic on canvas, Artbank collection; reproduced courtesy the artist and Artbank © Vincent Namatjira/Copyright Agency, 2020

 

Through paintings by Vincent Namatjira we see Cook as a human figure, someone we can almost relate to today, but who remains iconic and aloof — his legend persisting in even the most mundane settings. 

Seeing without understanding

The core of Eight Days in Kamay is about bringing together the sketches and specimens collected during the Endeavour visit by members of the expedition Joseph Banks, Sydney Parkinson and Daniel Solander, with the original context of Gweagal Country and knowledge.  

The detailed botanical illustrations (along with the thousands of plants and animals taken) were intended to represent the sum of knowledge about this newly ‘discovered’ natural world. But 250 years later, with the help of Gweagal Elders, we can see that the Englishmen may have witnessed the local knowledge, culture, science and agriculture, but they didn’t understand it.

Common stingaree (Urolophus testaceus), pencil drawing by Herman Spöring, 1770

Common stingaree (Urolophus testaceus), pencil drawing by Herman Spöring, 1770, reproduced courtesy the Natural History Museum London, 50. (1:46)

What is missing from almost every non-Aboriginal retelling of Cook’s voyage is a sense of Aboriginal agency or humanity. The Gweagal people are reduced to spectators or surprised victims. Reading Cook’s account now, it is clear that he did observe two things: that Aboriginal people were happier than their English counterparts, and that they wanted these strangers gone. 

By the time Cook landed at Kamay he was impatient to fulfil his mission and probably still reeling from the violence that had transpired in New Zealand. The Endeavour had been thwarted several times in its attempts to make landfall on the coast of Australia, and its movements had been tracked the entire time by different Aboriginal groups, who used smoke signals to communicate with one another.  

Cook’s usual methods of intriguing or frightening the local people had no effect at Kamay. The Gweagal people had no interest in the gifts his crew left for them (after looting their spears, and helping themselves to food from the fire). While their defiance didn’t falter from the moment the crew tried to come ashore, the Gweagal never once drew blood from or injured the strangers, despite throwing dozens of warning spears through the eight days.

Bottles with painted-on images of men in British naval dress, in a rusty metal carrier

Rum Runners, by Karla Dickens, 2018, mixed media, reproduced courtesy the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer Brisbane © Karla Dickens

 

When I read the European accounts of these events as an Aboriginal man, guided by Gweagal Elders, it becomes clear that the welcome protocols of the local people were roundly ignored.

Two men who stood bravely at the shore were painted in ochre, as described in the journal accounts and seen in Parkinson’s sketches and later engravings. But Aboriginal men did not normally wander around with ochre on their bodies. After tracking the Endeavour as it moved up the coast and realising that the crew planned to come ashore, the men must have attempted to follow cultural protocol. Had they been able to stop these strangers at the shoreline, and had they been respected instead of shot at, perhaps the wisdom of the Gweagal people might have been the foundation on which a future nation was built.

Memorial and resistance

The final story of the exhibition uses photographs from the Tribune — a weekly communist newspaper, the archive of which is in the Library’s collection — to recall the 1970 Aboriginal protest that marked the 200th anniversary of the Endeavour visit. It’s a moving reminder that our resistance to the British invasion, and to the one-sided account of nationhood forced upon us, has been unwavering since 29 April 1770.

After casting their wreaths into the bay, Pastor Doug Nicholls (centre) and protesters make their way to La Perouse Point.
View collection item detail

The protest began the night before the anniversary, with a rally and silent vigil, and culminated in the laying of wreaths on the La Perouse side of Kamay, at the same time as the ‘official’ proceedings were underway on the opposite shore. There is perhaps no better illustration of the divide between these two Captain Cooks than these simultaneous events: one dripping with colonial jingoism, the other mournful and steeped in 200 years of loss and violence. 

How these two perspectives will ever be reconciled is difficult to imagine, but as always we must begin with truth. To acknowledge the cost of colonisation will not reverse it, but truth-telling is a vital step in seriously addressing the darkest parts of our country’s past.


Damien Webb is Manager, Indigenous Engagement, and co-curator of Eight Days in Kamay with Ronald Briggs, Curator, Research & Discovery.  

The exhibition Eight Days in Kamay is in the Library’s galleries to Sunday 28 February 2021 and online

This article first appeared in SL magazine, Winter 2020.