Born to humble beginnings, Cook received recognition during his life for his many achievements but would likely be surprised at the extent and longevity of his legacy.
For two centuries the dominant narrative about Cook has seen him simultaneously revered and reviled. For some he is a hero, for others he is quite the opposite.
There is no denying Cook occupies a central role in the history of modern Australia and the challenge today is how best to tell and hear that story as the complex narrative it is.
When the past is not what it seems
How, for example, do we make sense of the way Cook’s journals from the HMB Endeavour voyage were edited and changed before they were originally published? In particular, how do we understand the reasoning behind leaving out some of the more ‘enlightened’ entries—such as Cook's final impressions of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people he encountered during the voyage?
These final observations were written in late August 1770, as the HMB Endeavour set sail for Batavia (Java), leaving the island where Cook is said to have claimed possession of the east coast of Australia as ‘New South Wales’ for the British.
The entry below took a long time to surface and has opened the door to a more complex understanding of the story commonly told.
‘From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholy unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniencies so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb'd by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life; they covet not Magnificent Houses, Houshold-stuff &Ca. they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholsome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing and this they seem to be fully sencible of, for many to whome we gave Cloth &Ca. to, left it carlessly upon the Sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for. In short they seem'd to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this, in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no Superfluities.’
The portrayal and acknowledgement of the Aboriginal inhabitants being ‘happier than we Europeans’ does not sit easily with ‘taking possession’ of the land. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why it was originally left off the public record.
Cook's final observations are notable for their content, especially today. But they also stand out because of the way they are written. Cook was known for his pithy writing style. His journal entries were generally short and to the point—he was not one to waste words even when he was recording the most complex matters, dramatic events or the death of a crew member with whom he was close.
The entries Cook wrote about New Holland after the HMB Endeavour departed Bedanug (Possession) Island are markedly different. They are detailed, reflective and philosophical—sometimes including considered insights that were at odds with the thinking of the day.
It is worth noting the HMB Endeavour spent four months, from mid-April to late August 1770, travelling north along the east coast of the continent. During that time the crew went ashore infrequently and spent even less time with the Aboriginal inhabitants.
Had the ship not hit a reef and been forced to stay at Waalumbaal Birri (the Endeavour River) for repairs, the observations made by Cook and others who kept journals, would have been based on the short time spent at Botany Bay, where the people showed virtually no interest in them or the ship.
As it was, the enforced stay at Waalumbaal Birri resulted in weeks of friendly interactions between the crew and the Guugu Yimithirr people. It also is considered by many to be where the first act of reconciliation took place. Perhaps the time spent there inspired Cook to pick up his pen and record his observations a little differently from his usual notes.
Towards a richer history of modern Australia
The ‘lost’ entries from Cook's journals offer just one example of why history should not be thought of as a set of unchanging, chronological facts. There is never just one version of events, one narrative; there are many different chapters, many lost stories to be told. It is by filling in the gaps, by listening to all of the perspectives, that we will create a richer version of the past and gain a better understanding of the events that shaped modern Australia—a shared journey of two cultures that began 250 years ago.