Captain of the Enlightenment

15 May 2020
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This article from the Autumn 2020 edition of the IPA Review is written by the IPA’s Director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program, Bella d’Abrera. 

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook’s landing at Botany Bay on 29 April 1770. Fifty years ago, the 200th anniversary was celebrated across Australia with an array of festivities and celebrations which gripped the collective imagination of the Australian public. Up and down the country, re-enactments were staged, pageants performed, art exhibitions hung, medals cast, souvenirs sold, and songs sung. In the months leading to 29 April, newspapers even printed excerpts from the journals of Cook and Banks which were read daily by the Australian public. The day was marked by a spectacular televised re-enactment of the landing at Kurnell, attended by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. All in all, the nation celebrated Cook and his voyage with enthusiasm, energy and a heightened sense of history and occasion.  

In 2020, things are very different. Not only is there a markedly dimmed sense of occasion, but hostility is growing towards the personage of Cook himself, as well as the purpose of the voyage, much of which is based on historical ignorance and misinformation. To its credit, the Morrison Government is attempting to heighten interest in the anniversary by injecting millions of dollars into a series of events and activities across the country, including the circumnavigation of Australia by the replica of the HMS Endeavour. In a 2019 media release, Prime Minister Scott Morison commented that “as the 250th anniversary nears we want to help Australians better understand Captain Cook’s historic voyage for exploration, science and reconciliation”.  

And as recent comments and events have shown, there is clearly more than ample room for Australians to better understand Cook’s historic voyage. A poll conducted in 2019 by the Department of Communications and the Arts found 47 per cent of Australians think the HMS Endeavour arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788, while 31 per cent of Australians think James Cook was the first European to find Australia. This embarrassing dearth of knowledge about this country’s history has also been revealed by politicians paid by the Australian public to represent them. When, for example, Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie made the case for celebrating Australia Day on 26 January to Sky news, she too seemed under the impression James Cook sailed to Australia with the First Fleet, saying “that is when the course of our nation changed forever. When Captain Cook stepped ashore.” 

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young also managed to make an embarrassing blunder in a press release by conflating the events of 1770 and 1788. “Despite an important national debate about changing the date of Australia Day away from Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay,” she said, “the Government has decided to spend taxpayer money it is stripping from the ABC on yet another monument to Captain Cook on the land of the Dharawal people.” How can the Australian public be expected to take politician’s decisions about the direction in which this country should go seriously if they are ignorant about its past?  

In a discussion about Australia Day between British commentator Douglas Murray and an indigenous activist, the latter was heard to clearly state that “we are having our national celebrations on a day, January 26th, which represents the day Captain Cook put that Union Jack in the ground, in Australia, and declared it sovereign, which begun colonisation which resulted in genocides.” In February, Adam Bandt, the leader of the Greens, declared commemorative events should be cancelled altogether, reasoning they were not “an appropriate way to mark history because it’s not being honest about the dark sides of Australia’s history”. Three years ago, the statue of Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park was graffitied with the slogans ‘Change the date’ and ‘No pride in genocide’. This act of vandalism contrasts starkly with the reaction to the statue’s arrival from Britain in 1879, when crowds jostled with each other at Circular Quay, “anxious to get the first glimpses of the statue in its crate … clambering up the framework … but only able to catch a sight of the legs or arms”.  

It is one thing to conflate history out of ignorance, but another to retrospectively attribute the unspeakable crime of mass murder to the son of a Scottish farmer who died a year after the First Fleet arrived on the shores of Botany Bay. James Cook was not the architect of genocide. Captain James Cook was a product of the Enlightenment, with its commitment to rational enquiry and progress. Even Peter FitzSimons, author of James Cook: The Story Behind the Man who Mapped the World (Hachette Australia, October 2019), believed Cook had to be seen in the context of his times. “I said and I believe it and I don’t back off from it: Cook was not an imperialist but he was an instrument of empire,” he said. “Cook was not a vicious bastard. Cook was a genuinely, basically humane person but that therefore is a commentary on the times.” Those times produced a generation of men and women who believed the world was to be understood by observation and by reason, and that the world was to be understood through empiricism, or ‘scientifically’.  

This belief was one of the reasons why the British Admiralty commissioned three voyages to the Pacific. The official purpose of the voyage was to observe the 1769 transit of Venus, which would help work out the Earth’s distance from the Sun. On 25 May 1768, he departed Plymouth on the HMS Endeavour. Joining him on board was 25-year-old botanist Joseph Banks, who lobbied the Royal Society to be included in the expedition, and later supported Botany Bay as a site for British settlement. Accompanying Banks was the Swedish naturalist and pupil of Carl Linnaeus, Daniel Solander, as well as natural history and landscape artists Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan, the artist Herman Sporing, plus four servants and field assistants. In the incredibly cramped conditions of the HMS Endeavour, this pioneering group collected and documented more than 1,000 species, along with 30,000 plant specimens, 1,400 of which were new to science. Parkinson’s sketches made up 21 large bound volumes, many of which remain an area of active research today.  

On 29 April, Cook and his crew made their first landfall at what is now known as the Kurnell Peninsula. Cook originally named the area Stingray Bay, but later he crossed this out and named it Botany Bay after the unique specimens retrieved by Banks and Solander. It is here that Cook made first contact with an aboriginal tribe known as the Gweagal, which resulted in Cook firing his musket when confronted by two Aborigines, hitting one in the leg. On 22 August 1770, Cook claimed the whole of the territory at Possession Island. This land is now known as New South Wales. 

The unofficial purpose of the voyage, however, was altogether different. Before his departure, Cook was handed a set of topsecret instructions by the Admiralty which he opened upon reaching Tahiti. Cook was ordered to look for evidence of the mythical continent, Terra Australis Incognita, or ‘unknown southern land’, which was supposed to have great wealth, and was the prize in a great race taking place between Britain and France at the end of the 18th century. France was especially bitter after the double humiliation of having lost the Seven Years’ War and North America, and so was determined to win this particular competition. While Cook had progressed his way through merchant navy ranks, he showed exceptional surveying and cartographic skills in the Seven Years’ War. His maps of Newfoundland were so accurate they were still being used into the 20th century. Cook was noticed by the Admiralty on account of his brilliance and commissioned to undertake three Pacific voyages; the first, of course, led to the existence of modern Australia. Cook was to beat the French in finding new territory for Britain and charting it correctly.  

In Lying for the Admiralty (Rosenberg Publishing, 2018), Margaret Cameron-Ash, a lawyer with a prodigious knowledge of and interest in Cook, revealed he was not only a “superb navigator and chart maker, but a man alive to the political dimension of his task and the need to protect what was basically Britain’s intellectual property”. His charts are full of errors and omissions, which “were in fact subterfuges, part of Cook’s strategy (and the Admiralty’s) to prevent others, and particularly the French, learning of discoveries which they could turn to their advantage”.  

Perhaps the 250th anniversary should be an opportunity to re-examine the facts and put the voyage into political and historical context. James Cook was a remarkable individual who added a third to the map of the known world and went further than any man had gone in a flat-bottomed boat from Whitby. He taught himself algebra, geometry, trigonometry, navigation and astronomy, and used this knowledge to sail thousands of miles across largely uncharted areas of the globe, accurately mapping lands from New Zealand to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean in greater detail and on a scale which no previous Western explorers had managed to do. He pushed the borders of the British empire to the ends of the earth. He surveyed and named features and recorded islands and coastlines on European maps for the first time. It is no exaggeration to say his voyages of exploration from East to West transformed our knowledge of mathematics, navigation, geology, geography, botany, psychology, nutrition, astronomy, medicine, cartography and languages.  

We cannot understand Cook’s voyage or the man himself if we do not understand the political, cultural and philosophical milieu into which he was born. He was a remarkable, talented and highly gifted individual whose name, memory and achievements must be defended against the modern-day accusations of imperialism and genocide which are based on a combination of historical ignorance and malice. And without Cook, the wonderfully vibrant modern Australia we all love simply would not exist. 

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