Australia Day, Captain Cook and Australian ‘Invasion’

In the 1990s Captain James Cook has been the subject of debates between historians triggering a political divide around the notion of the ‘black armband’ version of Australian history.  While the matter had hitherto been confined within the corridors of academia and politics, earlier this year (2020) the matter turned destructive with any number of statues of Cook being vandalised. The point of the increasing controversy is about whether Australia was ‘settled’ or ‘invaded’. Were John Ford, James Ford or Richard Cornish ‘settlers’ or ‘invaders’?

As John Greenham acknowledges, genealogy is perhaps the most basic form of history (Tracing Your Irish Ancestors 4th Edition, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin 2012: xxii.)  In this respect the genealogist seeks to understand the past through documenting lines of ancestral descent. 

A genealogist is perhaps unfazed by the context of the lives with whom they are involved.  It is really of no consequence, except perhaps as a curiosity, if one’s family was born under Habsburg kings or Viking overloads. Tracing one family is a matter of simply connecting the dots.  But as family historian I seek to understand the lives of my ancestors endeavouring to appreciate the decisions they made which would eventually effect their own, as well as mine, place in the world. In searching and documenting my own family’s line of descent I find I am confronted with a past that is now divided and contested.

In writing about my ancestors who made the perilous passage to Australia in the mid 1800s I first need to clarify exactly what and who they were. Were they ‘settlers’ as generations of Australians have accepted or are they deemed ‘invaders’ as now instructed in schools or by public opinion?  Did my ancestors ‘settle’ in Australia or were they more like vikings who came plundering and looting taking over a land that did not belong to them?  The generations who arrived in Australia certainly were not armed like viking warriors.  Many had their wives and children with them.  There is no indication that my ancestors, the Fords, the Cornish’s, the Hall’s, or the Trezise’s thought of themselves other than accepting the invitation of a free passage, or paying for one, in the hope of setting up a new life in a new country.  In this they followed millions of others.

Captain James Cook

The figure of Captain James Cook looms large in the history of the South Pacific Ocean and Australia in particular.  In Australia there any number of statues, memorials and institutions all bearing the name, Captain James Cook.  But Cook has more recently become the target of derision, ridicule and vandalism.

What then has Cook got to do with the current divide?  As I will outline, there is more than a little confusion about the connection between Cook and Australia but separating fact from fiction, myth from the archival record, and history from ideology is no easy task.  The matter is further complicated by associating Captain James Cook’s navigation of the East coast in 1770 of what then was misleadingly known as Terres Australes, with the arrival of the First Fleet under Captain Arthur Phillip at Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788.

Additionally, further confusion is almost assured as Captain Phillip and the First Fleet initially arrived at Botany Bay, the same place Cook had visited in 1770.  Finding Botany Bay unsuitable for the needs of the First Fleet, Phillip had everyone relocate to Sydney Cove where water was available and land available for the growing of crops

This entanglement of events, that of Cook’s landing with that of Phillip’s arrival, helps in cementing the confusion which many Australians have about their own history.  January 26 is now an Australian public holiday in remembrance of Phillip’s arrival, not of Cook’s landing.  

Further confusion surrounding the birth of Australia is all but confirmed when a replica of Captain Cook’s HMB (His Majesty’s Bark) Endeavour was built and sailed around Australia in 1995.   The vessel then became part of a BBC documentary about Cook and appeared in the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World staring Russell Crowe, another Australian icon, before becoming part of the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney where, at certain times, you can serve as crew on the vessel for five or ten day cruises or rent a room for dinner with your friends.

The kaleidoscope of images that revolve around the Endeavour, Captain Cook, and by association Sydney, create the impression that Cook had more to do with the founding of Australia than did the arrival of the First Fleet.  It should be remembered that Cook, on board the Endeavour, did not enter Port Jackson, later to become Sydney Harbour, but sailed on by.  Furthermore, at the time when the First Fleet under Captain Phillip landed at Farm Cove (1788) Cook had been dead nine years having been killed on his third circumnavigation of the globe in Hawaii on 14 February 1779.  But one wonders if those sipping martins on the Endeavour’s quarterdeck consider such details.

This process of conflating historical events by overlaying one historical event with another is further confused when aided by what is taught in schools across Australia at the present.  Here is an example.

The above painting by J. A. Gilfillan (1957) depicts the act of possession by Cook on Possession Island just before sunset on Wednesday 22 August 1770. Cook, having satisfied himself that he had rounded the northern point of the extended eastern coastline, Cape York, and could see blue water stretching westwards, declared the coast a British possession:

“Notwithstand[ing] I had in the Name of His Majesty taken possession of several places upon this coast, I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast by the name New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast, after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were Answered by the like number from the Ship.”

The full reference may be found here.

The lower image is an engraving of the painting by J. A. Gilfillan.  This image is essential a copy of the original but on closer scrutiny there are some addition people painted into the picture.  In the foreground there appears to be three indigenous people kneeling on the ground two of whom appear to be for digging yams.  The third person, a male apparently, has his hands over his ears as if he does not like what is being said by Cook.  On the left of the picture there are some additional European characters included in front of the tent, one of whom appears to be butchering a kangaroo.  This image has effectively changed the story of the original. Possession Island, as photographed by Google Maps, is a small island about one and half kilometres from Cape York some three and half kilometres long and some six hundred meters wide.  One would suspect that no fresh water would exist there except after rain. This island, known by the indigenous name of Bedanug, forms part of the Torres Strait group of island inhabited by Torres Strait Islanders, an indigenous group with a history and culture different to Aborigines.

The fact that people might dig yams on the island is just as questionable as the fact that an indigenous person was understanding what Cook was saying or one might find a  convenient kangaroo to butcher.  Yet this is not what year four students, ages nine to ten, are invited to discuss. Here is the ‘background information’ which accompanied the second image;

This is an engraving by Samuel Calvert of an oil painting which was exhibited at the 1866─1867 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition. The original painting, once in the collection of the Royal Society of Victoria, is now lost. The Union Flag depicted in the illustration is an anachronism. It is a flag used after the union with Ireland in 1801, not the flag of 1770. Also, the ceremony being recorded actually took place on Possession Island; the artist seems to have erroneously depicted the scene at Botany Bay.

The fact the original painting is clearly labeled as a image of Captain Cook taking possession of the whole of the East coast of what he named New South Wales at Possession Island and has nothing to do with Cook’s landing at Botany Bay.  The whole point of the ‘manipulated’ image lies in encouraging students to discuss what Aborigines might have thought about Cook’s landing at Botany Bay, not his proclamation on Possession Island.  While there is distinct similarity between the images the obvious differences between the paintings are not discussed.  The reference may be found here.

The only thing of real historical relevance is the fact that the Union Jack is not applicable to the times (1770), Ireland having yet to join the union. 

So the question begs, why use a modified image of a picture of events that occurred on Possession Island to frame a discussion about Botany Bay?     

Unfortunately, it is now the case than even this confused history has become a matter of contest, particularly by indigenous Australians and their supporters. Significantly, it was not until after the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January 1901 that a national day of celebration was considered and then it took until 1935 to actually formalise the date, 26 January.  The salient point being that it was not until after Federation that the role of Cook and Phillip had been considered worthy of much discussion.

It is now the case that many Aborigines see Australia Day as ‘Invasion Day,’ the day that initiated the take over of the land from its traditional owners.  Many Australians also support such notions leading to demonstrations and the vandalising of a number of monuments and statues of Cook.   But for the moment it is worth recognising, again, how Cook gets caught up in events which actually followed the First Fleet.

While school children are invited to discuss Captain Cook and Botany Bay there are others with an ideological axe to grind.  Here is what appears on the Creative Spirits blog site administered by Jens Korff;

If you grew up being told that Australia was largely peacefully colonised or settled it is understandable that changing this to ‘invaded’ feels uncomfortable at best and revolting at worst.

But did you know the word Captain James Cook used in his own journal? In 1774 he wrote:

“We enter their ports without their daring to make opposition, we attempt to land in a peaceable manner, if this succeeds it’s well, if not we land nevertheless and maintain the footing we thus got by the superiority of our fire arms, in what other light can they then at first look upon us but as invaders of their country?”

Note also how Cook has no issue with changing the initial “peaceable” approach to one using the “superiority of fire arms”. If he doesn’t get what he wants he takes it by force.

Remember also that Australia’s history is littered with reports of massacres on Aboriginal people, and that there were frontier wars which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Aboriginal people. These events seem to be incompatible with settlement, a term usually associated with peaceful undertaking.

The reason I draw attention to this particular article is that is an example of how the current ‘debate’ about Australia’s formation is framed.  Korff is not alone as there are any number of public sites that engage is such activity.  Rather than engaging with the facts, these sites effectively become, and perhaps are designed, as ideological weapons targeting those who dare challenged such gross misrepresentation of history.

The image created by Jens Korff is that Australia was invaded whereby tens of thousands of Aborigines were killed in massacres and wars all started apparently by Captain James Cook.  Lets look at the facts and begin with the full quote and not the truncated version cited by Korff.

The full quote which I have taken from J. C. Beaglehole, The Life of Captain James Cook, A. and C. Black  Ltd, Wellington 1974: 406-7 may be found here.  The extended version of the Korff quite reads,

He [Cook] had further reflections, consistent with his intentions as a humane discoverer, not always consistent with facts. ‘I cannot say what might be the true cause of these people shewing such a dislike to our makeing little excursions into their Country’—a naturally jealous disposition, hostile visits from their neighbours, quarrels amongst themselves? They seldom or never travelled unarmed. ‘It is possible all this might be on our account, but I can hardly think it, we never gave them the least molestation, nor did we touch any part of their property, not even Wood and Water without first having obtained their consent.’2 Some of that was true: his last request had been for permission to cut down a casuarina, a hard wood with which to repair his tiller, found to be sprung just as he was ready to put to sea. But there was the incident of the wooders firing on the boys; there was the fact that he had landed only after a show of force, whether that were justified or not. There was the fact that all his precautions could not control events. His last day, before he wrote those words, was marred by an incident that made him the volcano of fury. Some logs were being brought on board, the usual guard was on shore, the usual assembly pressing round the landing place. The sentry ordered them back, at which one of them presented his bow and arrow as if to shoot. Cook, who was near, thought this was only a matter of form; he was astonished when the sentry fired, and with ball. The man was killed. Patten, for whom Cook sent at once, could do nothing; the people fled. It was an outrage, a crime, the sentry was flung into irons, and was to be flogged. The officers took his side; there was apparently an argument of much warmth between them and Cook, who finally remitted the flogging, but gave what he considered a faithful account in his journal.1 Had he not set his face like stone against this sort of thing ever since Poverty Bay? He could turn back a page or two in his journal and find his own, cooler yet clear, comment:

thus we found these people Civil and good Natured when not prompted by jealousy to a contrary conduct, a conduct one cannot blame them for when one considers the light in which they must look upon us in, its impossible for them to know our real design, we enter their Ports without their daring to make opposition, we attempt to land in a peaceable manner, if this succeeds its well, if not we land nevertheless and mentain the footing we thus got by the Superiority of our fire arms, in what other light can they than at first look upon us but as invaders of their Country; time and some acquaintance with us can only convince them of their mistake.

Clearly, by any sensible reading of the entry we gain an insight into Cook’s dilemma.  As commander he was responsible for his men and his ship and any resort to ‘superiority of arms’ only came after peaceful attempts had failed and his men where directly threatened.  In a note of pathos Cook can appreciate that at such times he could understand the inhabitants with whom he came into contact would conceived of him and his men as ‘invaders’.  But to suggest, as does Korff and many of his ilk, that Cook led an invasion force is fanciful in the extreme and would have been in direct contradiction of his orders.

Further, the reference which Korff draws upon for his argument that Cook initiated an invasion of Australia has, factually, nothing to do with Australia.  The incident and the quote come from Cook’s second voyage in the Resolution from 1772 to 1775 during which time he did not visit Australia, again demonstrating either an ineptitude with which many Australians approach their own history, or a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts.

Korff’s point concerning massacres of Aborigines is valid but his claim of ‘frontiers wars’ is again another example of an ideological embellishment which plagues Australian history.  The so-called ‘frontier wars’ is a term coined by historians to cover what were sporadic mass killings of Aborigines initiated by local farmers and station hands, often in retaliation to attacks by Aborigines.  Yes, these massacres do not make easy reading.  But apart from what was reported in the newspapers of the day most Australians lived along a narrow coastal band far from the areas of conflict.  During the decade 1850-60 some 6.7 million immigrants landed in Australia, none off whom came to Australia expecting to join in a war, particularly a war that had no formal act of declaration.

So how is it that Cook is now the subject of derision and hostility?  If the examples given above are indicative of what is taught in Australian schools and what appears on the public record one can understand how ideological agendas can readily manipulate the perceptions about Cook and Australian history.   Under such circumstances, it is best perhaps to put the record right.

Cooks Voyage and His ‘Secret Orders’

When Cook sailed in 1768 he took with him seventy-three sailors, twelve marines, an astronomer, along with Joseph Banks.  Banks himself was accompanied by two naturalists, two artists, a secretary, and two servants.  The prime object of Cook’s voyage was to observe the transit of Venus and then to ‘essay the discovery of the Southern Continent,’ Terra Australia incognito, the unknown Southern Land. This was to be a voyage of scientific discovery not a prelude for invasion.

Before departing Cook had been given his orders but like any naval commander, such order where only to be opened when his ship was under way. Not that Cook’s voyage was a matter of national secrecy as the newspapers reported on the much herald event of observing the transit of Venus from a point in the Southern Hemisphere.  Once Cook had completed his mission in Tahiti and recorded the transit of Venus he was free to open his next orders which have now been dubbed ‘Cook’s secret orders’.

Historians and media have made much over these so-called ‘secret orders’ the transcript of which was only made public in 1928 in turn perhaps adding to the intrigue.  But it is these orders which underpins much of the controversy surrounding Cook’s ‘discovery’ of Australia.  The important thing to remember is not the fact that the orders were secret, all orders to commanders are secret, but it is the contents of those orders that were rather sensitive.

To understand some of the implications it is necessary to go back to England when in February 1768 the Royal Society sought the permission of the monarch, King George III, to approve a voyage to the southern hemisphere in order to observe the Venus transit.  At that time the Royal Society proposed that the expedition be lead by Alexander Dalrymple, a Scottish geographer who was convinced that there was a large land mass, Terra Australis Incognita, populated by some 50 million inhabitants lying somewhere to the south of Tahiti. The strategic importance of such a venture did not escape their Lordship’s interest for it would be in Britain’s best interest to establish contact with the view to begin trading.  However, when the plan was put before the First Lord of the Admiralty, Edward Hawke, it was rejected on the grounds that no civilian would be in command of a naval vessel.  As a result, James Cook was proposed to replace Dalrymple and was accepted by all parties to the venture.

If the history of Australia is somewhat hazy it is about to get murkier.

Terra Australis Incognita is not to be confused with Australia.  Indeed the name is familiar as it was another able navigator, Captain Mathew Flinders, who proposed the name Australia when he returned to England on 23 October 1810 following his circumnavigation of that continent confirming that Australia was a very large island.

The map above is that of Jacques Nicholas Bellin Carte Réduite des Terres Australes pour Se ravir a l Histoire des Voyages, 1753.  To translate, Reduced Map of the Southern Territories to delight in the History of Travel.  The French do have a way with words.  This map was in circulation throughout Europe well before Cook departed 1768.  There was no ‘secret’ land mass here.  In fact when it comes to ‘discovering’ Australia, Captain James Cook was rather late on the scene as there were some forty independent documented landings before the arrival of the Endeavour.  Note also that part of New Zealand is also included on Jacques Nicholas Bellin’s map.  The missing east coast is what Cook is about to traverse on his journey back to England.  Importantly, Cook had been travelling westwards while the all those who had earlier chartered parts of Australia had been travelling to the East.

Above is a copy of the orders which Cook opened following the completion of the first part of his mission and after he had cleared Tahiti.  Here is the transcript of the so-called ‘secret orders’.

Whereas the making of discoveries of countries hitherto unknown and the attaining of a knowledge of distant parts, which, though formerly discovered, have yet been imperfectly explored, will redound greatly to the honour of this nation as a Maritime Power, as well as to the dignity of the Crown of Great Britain, and may tend greatly to the advancement of the trade and navigation thereof.

And, whereas there is reason to imagine that a continent, or land of great extent, may be found to the southward of the tract lately made by Captain Wallis in His Majesty’s ship the Dolphin (of which you will herewith receive a copy) or of the tract of any former navigators in pursuits of the like kind; you are, therefore, in pursuance of His Majesty’s pleasure, hereby required and directed to put to sea with the bark you command, so soon as the observation of the transit of the planet Venus shall be finished, and observe the following instructions:

You are to proceed to the southward in order to make discovery of the continent above mentioned until you arrive in the latitude of 40 deg., unless you sooner fall in with it: but, not having discovered it in that run, you are to proceed in search of it to the westward, between the latitude before mentioned and the latitude of 35 deg., until you discover it or fall in with the Eastern side of the land discovered by Tasman and now called New Zealand.

If you discover the continent above mentioned, either in your run to the southward or to the westward, as above directed, you are to employ yourself diligently in exploring as great an extent of the coast as you can…. You are also to observe the nature of the soil and the products thereof…. You are likewise to observe the genius, temper, disposition and number of the natives, if there be any, and endeavour, by all proper means, to cultivate a friendship and alliance with them, making them presents of such trifles as they may value, inviting them to traffic, and showing them every kind of civility and regard, taking care, however, not to suffer yourself to be surprised by them, but to be always upon your guard against any accident.

You are also, with the consent of the natives, to take possession of convenient situations in the country in the name of the King of Great Britain; or, if you find the country uninhabited, take possession for His Majesty by setting up proper marks and inscriptions as first discoverers and possessors.

But, if you should fail of discovering the continent before mentioned you will, upon falling in with New Zealand, carefully observe the latitude and longitude in which that land is situated and explore as much of the coast as the condition of the bark, the health of her crew, and the state of your provisions will admit of, having always great attention to reserve as much of the latter as will enable you to reach some known Port, where you may procure a sufficiency to carry you to England, either round the Cape of Good Hope, or Cape Horn, as from circumstances you may judge the most eligible way of returning home….

Given &c the 30th of July, 1768, ED. HAWKE, PY. BRETT, C. SPENCER.”

Now we can appreciate why these orders were not revealed until after Cook cleared Tahiti. The great land mass, Dalrymple’s Terra Australis Incognita and its 50 million inhabitants, lay directly south of Tahiti where no other European power had explored.  Cook’s orders were to travel south from Tahiti is search for this mythical land mass and cultivate a friendship and alliance with the inhabitants.  Clearly, their Lordship’s plan was to secure a trading partner in that part of the world conducive to England’s quest for global power. Alternatively, if no such land mass was discovered Cook was to traverse east and chart New Zealand after which he is to return to England either around the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horne.

Cook travelled as far south as 40 degrees without sighting any land mass, no land was discovered to take possession of, no inhabitants found with whom to make an alliance.  That part of his orders had now been carried out with the result that the clause ‘If you discover the continent … ‘ no longer applying.   Cook then, in compliance with his orders, duly plotted a course for New Zealand and on completion of his work charting and navigating the two islands was free to return to England by whatever route he choose.

It should now become apparent that Australia is not mentioned in Cook’s so-called ‘secret orders’.  Cook having navigated his way around New Zealand had only one order left to fulfil, to return to England.  How he got back to England was left to Cook.

However, given the existence of Bellin’s map and Cook’s navigating skills, it is probably the case that Cook chose to continue on his westward odyssey anticipating that land lay in that direction.  Cook’s instincts were right sighting land on 19 April 1770 and recording,

the Southermost Point of land we had in sight which bore from us W1/4S I judged to lay in the Latitude of 38°..0′ S° and in the Longitude of 211°..07′ W t from the Meridian of Greenwich. I have named it Point Hicks, because Lieut t Hicks was the first who discover’d this land.  

The southern extremity of the missing east coast of Bellin’s map had been discovered.

For the next four months Cook navigated his way north charting the coastline from the deck of the Endeavour.  Cook only landed on Australia soil at four places, Botany Bay, Bustard Bay, now known as Seventeen Seventy, Endeavour River and Possession Island.

Cook made contact with Aborigines at Botany Bay and Endeavour River where he was forced to repair the Endeavour having run aground on the barrier reef which stretches some 3000 kilometres adjacent to the northern Australian coastline.  Although both occasions resulted in confrontation as muskets were fired and Aborigines being wounded Cook was not under any order to negotiate with these inhabitants.

Much has been made of Cook’s ‘secret orders’ and the particular requirement, ‘with the consent of the natives, to take possession of convenient situations in the country in the name of the King of Great Britain‘.  The current argument by many is that Cook ‘took possession’ of Australia without such consent.  But, as already pointed out, those requirements contained in Cook’s order where designed in the event that Cook discovered Dalyrymple’s Terra Australis Incognita, the mythical southern land supposedly lying to the south of Tahiti, not Australia.

Further, and realistically, how would any ‘consent’ have been communicated if, perchance, Aborigines understood the full implications of what it was that they were actually consenting to?  Again, there is nothing here to indicate that Cook was somehow in contradiction of the orders given to him on his departure from England.  Clearly Cook had carried out his orders faithfully and conscientiously as ever good commander should.

So, how is it that Cook bears the derision and antagonism directed at him from particular sections of the Australian population?  To understand why Cook is targeted we need to go back to England.   

In the mid 1700s Britain was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution.  It was a time of enormous social change.  A significant part of that change was the movement of tenant famers, hitherto beholden to their local laird for land to grow food for themselves, moving off the land seeking paid employment in the expanding activities created by the revolution.  Sail had yet to give way to steam even as steam powered tugs hauled their canvas covered blue water cousins up estuaries and into docks.  It was the railways, upon which much of the internal traffic depended, that drove the economic expansion that set nation against nation.    

As the population moved into paid employment ordinary people, most of whom could neither read nor write, were forced into cities where living condition were cramped, unhygienic and crowded, and where crime became an increasing problem.  Smuggling was still rife as was graft and corruption.  The pedantic nature by which the law was imposed created conditions where crime and prostitution were rife.

In the eighteenth century there were some 200 offences which were punishable by hanging.  Those not sentenced to death where transported to America as penal convicts.  But British jails were full mostly of what we might consider minor offenders more to do with stealing food or pickpocketing.  Poverty was a way of life.  Many magistrates were known to be reluctant in imposing a death sentence for minor matters but recorded a death sentence before imposing some other punishment, often transportation to a penal colony. In a further effort to relieve the jail population insolvency Acts were passed which at least allowed debtors to be released from overcrowded prisons.

But as Britain was coming to terms with the social ramifications of the Industrial Revolution it was also engaged in fighting a war of independence in America which lasted 1776 to 1783.  When Britain lost America it also lost its avenue for transporting convicts.  Old warships now no longer needed, hulks really, become convenient prisons moored along the London docks.  But this too became a serious problem.  The answer, it was proposed by their Lordships, lay over the horizon, at the other ends of the earth. 

Although Captain Cook had returned from his first voyage in 1771 his charts and diaries lay dormant.  However, with the loss of the American colony the need for a replacement penal colony became an imperative.  As a result, the journals of Cook were dusted and reread with renewed urgency.  The land mass that Cook had named New South Wales was restudied with the object of creating a penal settlement.  With these thoughts in mind, and with an eye to the increasing importance of navigation and commerce could make to the English exchequer, a committee was formed chaired by Sir Charles Bunbury to select a suitable location.

In the process of their deliberation the committee called upon Joseph Banks, now President of the Royal Society.  Banks had accompanied Cook of his voyage and recommend Botany Bay as a suitable site as it ‘had a Mediterranean climate’ and there was ‘little probability of any opposition for the native’.  The site for this new enterprise was to be Botany Bay.

As we now know the first Europeans to arrive on Australian soil with the aim to establishing a colonial base were led by Captain Arthur Phillip. Having found that the recommended Botany Bay site was unsuitable for settlement Phillip ordered the party to move to Farm Cove arriving on 26 January 1788.  Cook, in reality, had nothing to do with the settlement of Australia.