HENRY REYNOLDS. James Cook and the Contested ‘Discovery’ of Eastern Australia

A problem with the way Cook’s voyage has been taught to generations of Australians is that it has been so relentlessly Anglo-Centric. The much earlier and more significant exploration of Dutch navigators has often been overlooked particularly in the eastern mainland states.

With the widespread reporting of this year’s diminished Anzac Day, it seems we have forgotten the cancellation of the planned commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyage along the east coast of Australia between April and August 1770.

It was to be a well- funded affair concentrating on the landing in Botany Bay in early May and the forced seven weeks sojourn in July and August in the Endeavour River. There was to be a voyage by the New Endeavour which would circumnavigate the continent.

The whole venture would have been controversial but may have resulted in a worthwhile and quite necessary debate. Numerous issues stand out. The whole question of ‘discovery’ needs to be reassessed. The idea is offensive to the First Nation’s community for obvious reasons. But that’s only the start of it. It did not stand up in European international law. Hugo Grotius the founding father of the discipline declared that it was shameless ‘to claim for oneself by right of discovery what is held by another, even though the occupant may be wicked, may hold wrong views about God or maybe dull of wit. For discovery applies to those things which belong to no-one.’

Another problem with the way Cook’s voyage has been taught to generations of Australians is that it has been so relentlessly Anglo-Centric. The much earlier and more significant exploration of Dutch navigators has often been overlooked particularly in the eastern mainland states. The first Dutch party landed on Cape York in 1606 a century and a half before Cook came ashore there to make his claim of British sovereignty. Twenty-nine further expeditions mapped the coastline from the tip of Cape York to the south coast of Tasmania. It was for this reason that the projected circumnavigation seemed like an example of ad-man’s overreach. Cook’s voyage meant nothing to Western Australians and not much more to Tasmanians. Cook visited the Island in 1786 but he had been preceded by the Dutch in 1642 and the French ln 1772.

But the insistence that Cook had ‘discovered’ New South Wales allowed generations of Australians to believe that in some way his intrepid seamanship had earned for Britain the right to the eastern half of the continent. It is unsurprising that Cook’s ceremony on Possession Island just off the coast of Cape York in the third week of August during which he ‘took possession’ of Eastern Australia would be the most contested aspect of the epic voyage.

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Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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