Over the past 250 years, Indigenous Australians have experienced dispossession and ill-treatment. Their resistance to this has taken many forms – from frontier warfare to organised political protest.

In the past century, there have been many milestones:

1924: Formation of Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association in Sydney, the first all-Aboriginal political organisation

1938: ‘Day of Mourning’ Australia Day protest in Sydney

1965: Charles Perkins and the ‘Freedom Ride'

1966: Gurindji ‘walk-off’ at Wave Hill Station, Northern Territory

1967: Referendum to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census

1972: Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra

1988: Aboriginal protest during the Bicentennial of the arrival of the First Fleet

1992: High Court Mabo decision

2000: Corroboree Walk for Reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge

2008: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s National Apology to the ‘Stolen Generations’.

The artworks and images featured below depict different representations and contemporary interpretations of Cook’s legacy, the impact of Europeans, and encounters between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples – predominantly from Indigenous perspectives. Many raise ideas that some might find challenging. These pieces, and the text accompanying them, have been supplied by various Australian National Collecting Institutions.

Nails as gifts

There have been many recent efforts to provide a contemporary Indigenous perspective on Australia’s history. One such work to do this is the mixed media painting seen here by Neil Healey. Healey presents Cook as a mythical figure who casts nails through the native forest. The nails are designed to intrigue, to astonish and to impress the local inhabitants.

Cook and his crew attempted, with ‘gifts’ like these nails, to gain access to the land and its peoples. But the Indigenous people were not interested in such trinkets.

The painting depicts Captain James Cook walking through trees in a native forest as he scatters nails over the ground. In the background, a hooded human figure is looking at the viewer and holding a candle.
Neil Healey, Sower and Reaper II, 2014. From the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Protesting the ‘Bicentennial’

In January 1788, just 18 years after Cook journeyed up the east coast of Australia, the First Fleet arrived to set up a British penal colony.

The Bicentennial Celebrations of 26 January 1988 were a strong focus for an alternative but often ignored view of history. Indigenous Australians rallied to promote their view of 26 January 1788 as ‘Invasion Day’.

‘A year of incredible protest action commenced at 12.01 am on 1 January 1988. Radio Redfern (Aboriginal Radio), where Michael Watson and I worked, began broadcasting 24 hours a day, instead of a few hours each week. This community action was taken in support of Aboriginal history, rights and recognition against the onslaught of ‘celebration of a nation’ that was purportedly ‘only 200 years young’—that is 200 years of European settlement. Slogans such as ‘White Australia has a Black history’, ‘Treaty ’88’, ‘Cook Who, Cuck-oo’ were supported by huge protest marches in cities and towns around the country.

Radio Redfern became the hub and heart of protest action in Sydney during the lead-up to Australia Day—better known to Indigenous people and their supporters as Invasion Day—26 January. The day dawned with great anticipation with tens of thousands of people having come to Sydney for the march. In between recording interviews with protest marchers for Radio Redfern, I took photographs with my trusty old Nikon SLR camera. I ran into Michael on the march to the city. The image was not staged, I just asked Michael if I could take his photograph, as a friend and as a proud Aboriginal man solidly standing his ground. It was very quick, he turned to face me, raised his arms with no direction from me and I pressed the shutter. That was it, and I was off up the road taking more pictures and interviewing people. I love the image for Michael’s stance and his slight smile, his thonged feet against the backdrop of truncated torsos of white residents on their verandahs watching the passing parade of thousands chanting ‘What do we want?’ ‘Land rights!’ ‘When do we want them?’ ‘Now!’ ’

Brenda L Croft 2010. Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010. From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010.


A black and white photograph with Michael Watson raising his arms in a pose of strength wearing a t-shirt that read 'Cook - Who, Cook - Oo'.
Brenda L Croft, Cook-oo? Michael Watson at Invasion Day rally, 1988. From the National Maritime Museum of Australia.

'The Other'

In this work, Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens explores similarities between refugees and Indigenous Australians in the way they live today.

A photo of an upturned dinghy of four metres in length with eight oars inscribed with text, constructed as crosses that are installed in holes on the upturned hull. The text consists of slogans about identity, invasion, welcoming and unwelcoming.
Karla Dickens, Unwelcome, 2017. From the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Raising the flag

‘The image, of course, was a ‘steal’ of the famous image of [US] marines landing at Iwo Jima, but with blackfellas planting a somewhat different flag. It wasn't the first, but among the first uses of the flag's image as part of a popular propaganda campaign.

The image was used by the NSW Land Council for their 25th anniversary … But it was also used by the NLC/CLC as a T-shirt for the 1988 Bicentenary march in Sydney and as a design for a front cover of Land Rights News at the same time with the slogan ‘White Australia has a Black History’, which in turn was a slogan coined by the late Rob Riley (then working at the NLC).’

Chips Mackinolty

Poster of a group of Indigenous Australians holding the Australian Aboriginal flag, with the words underneath "land rights be informed be involved be inspired"
Chips Mackinolty, Land Rights: Be informed, Be Involved, Be Inspired, 2009. From the Australian National Maritime Museum.

First encounter

This image is based on Endeavour artist Sydney Parkinson’s drawing of two warriors who met Cook and his crew as they attempted to land at Kamay – Botany Bay. On the 29th of April 1770, Cook and his party saw two Gweagal men standing on a rocky outcrop brandishing spears. Cook recorded in his journal:

‘…I thout that they beckon’d to us to come a shore; but in this we were mistaken, for as soon as we put the boat in they again came to oppose us upon which I fired a musket between the two… they throw’d two darts at us, this obliged me to fire a third shott soon after which they both made off…’

Cook and the Endeavour crew had no concept of Aboriginal protocols for strangers entering other peoples’ country and any negotiated entry to Gweagal land became impossible once firearms were used.

A page out of a journal with a drawing of two Indigenous men in attacking stances, one holding a spear and the other holding a shield. The predominant colours are the creme-paper and the grey drawing.
A Journal of a Voyage to the SouthSeas, in His Majesty's Ship the Endeavour, 1773. From the Australian National Maritime Museum.