The recent 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s landing at Botany Bay was always going to be contentious. It was an inauspicious start to European intrusion. Cook wrote that when he approached the shore, the Indigenous people watching “all made off except two men who seem’d resolved to oppose our landing”. Cook threw some beads ashore in a bid to befriend them, but then felt the need to fire three shots of his musket, one of which struck one of the Indigenous men.
Having finally scared them off, Cook made it to shore, and his place in Australian history was assured. But how disputed a figure the British explorer has become has been highlighted by, of all people, Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer, Annaliese van Diemen. In a post to her personal Twitter account on Wednesday, she wrote: “Sudden arrival of an invader from another land, decimating populations, creating terror. Forces the population to make enormous sacrifices & completely change how they live in order to survive. COVID19 or Cook 1770?”
It took little time for her tweet to become a target. Liberal health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier led the charge, calling for Dr van Diemen to resign, while former opposition leader Matthew Guy was not far behind, calling it an example of how the state is governed by “hard left nutters”. Even Prime Minister Scott Morrison decided to weigh in: “I applaud the work she is doing as a medical officer in Victoria, that’s her expertise. I would strongly suggest she keep to that, because those sort of comments don’t inspire confidence.”
The Prime Minister has a point. For a senior government official entrusted with giving advice on the deadliest pandemic in a century to be offering up such historical analogies on social media is completely out of bounds. Even a cursory read of the heated debate that has unfolded to mark Cook’s anniversary should have given her some pause for thought before sending out her views.