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Cook’s arrival the catalyst for division

In 1755 he joined the Royal Navy and steadily advanced. In 1768 he was promoted to commander of the bark Endeavour and sent to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus. He was also slipped secret instructions by The Admiralty to find the mythical southern continent.

A worker paints over graffiti on a Captain Cook statue in Randwick, Sydney, this week.

A worker paints over graffiti on a Captain Cook statue in Randwick, Sydney, this week.Credit:AAP

On April 29, 1770 Cook went ashore at Botany Bay and, the National Library states, took formal possession of NSW for Britain. Cook writes in his log that he shot a musket three times at two Aboriginal men. He says the only effect was to make one man lay hold of a shield. Other reports suggest the man was wounded.

Why is Cook in the news?

Cook was always going to be in the news this year, the 250th since he dropped anchor south of Sydney. A circumnavigation of Australia was planned for the replica Endeavour but the coronavirus pandemic put paid to that. Cook made the headlines instead because two statues to the great navigator in Sydney were defaced. Last week police formed a barrier around the statue in Hyde Park during a Black Lives Matter protest. Then on Sunday police arrested two women after the statue was graffitied. A second 110-year-old statue to Cook in Randwick was daubed with “no pride in genocide”.

A similar attack took place at the weekend on a Captain Cook statue at Edinburgh Gardens in North Fitzroy. Visitors discovered a cross in white paint daubed over Cook’s face and the word SHAME scrawled below it.

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One of two charged in relation to the Hyde Park incident was a part-time worker in NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge’s office. Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the attacks were very un-Australian, disrespectful and wrong. The two charged will return to court on charges of destroying or damaging property after allegedly spray-painting “sovereignty never ceded” on the statue. A similar thing happened in 2017. Hyde Park Cook was graffitied with “change the date”.

It’s not limited to Cook. Statues around the world of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, wartime UK prime minister Winston Churchill, English slave trader Edward Colston, British mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes and Belgium’s King Leopold II have been targeted in recent weeks as the BLM protests gathered momentum.

So what’s the problem and the answer?

There’s a clue in the wording on the statue in Randwick. It states Cook was “the celebrated navigator and discoverer of this territory”. That ignores the fact our First Nations people’s settlement occurred 60,000 years or thereabouts earlier.

Cook’s arrival was obviously the catalyst for division. With the death of the unarmed George Floyd in Minneapolis sparking protest, it was inevitable the issue would resonate in Australia, where the record of Indigenous treatment at the hands of the police is also under fire.

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Bill Shorten, Labor leader at the time of the 2017 attacks, suggested additional plaques. A second plaque along the lines of “Australia now recognises that Indigenous people were the first settlers of this land” might be a start.

Not much has changed in 50 years since the 200th anniversary. The Sydney Morning Herald reporter Margaret Jones covering that event wrote: “Black Australia did not forget Captain Cook yesterday. It commemorated the 200th anniversary of his landing with a day of mourning. While thousands of white Australians crowded into the reserve at Kurnell to watch the re-enactment of the Endeavour’s arrival, several hundred people gathered at La Perouse, across Botany Bay, for a very different kind of ceremonial. Wreaths thrown into the water by Aboriginal leaders were carried out by the tide, and drifted sadly across the bay towards the landing site.”

Ahead of the 250th anniversary, Sutherland Shire Historical Society published a small book called East Coast Encounters 1770, Reflections on a Cultural Clash. Ten academics and historians bring a contemporary and unique insight to the oft-told story.

One chapter by Mark McKenna, professor of history at the University of Sydney, is almost prophetic when read this week. He wrote: “In all the stories that have circled around James Cook since he stepped ashore at Botany Bay in 1770 – the assertations of historical firsts, the discovery narratives, the fierce disputations over Cook’s statue and the countless ex post facto claims freighted onto the shoulders of one brilliant navigator from Yorkshire – it is possible to witness a nation hankering for a foundation narrative and its dispossessed people demanding that they be included in that same story on just terms.”

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