Don’t Turn Your Back

3 June 2024
Don’t Turn Your Back - Featured image

An impressive new study of Captain Cook helps counter the revisionists who are cooking our history books, writes IPA Office Administrator Claire Peter-Budge.

The Compassion of Captain Cook Christopher Heathcote Connor Court Publishing, 2023, 120pp

Back in June last year I was invited to host the launch of Christopher Heathcote’s book The Compassion of Captain Cook. In opening the event, I decided to reflect on my own education, which while not that long ago (!), now seems like another era. When I was at school, I was taught Captain Cook was an important and admirable historical figure—naval officer, navigator, cartographer—who ventured into the unknown for the purpose of widening man’s scientific and sociological knowledge. Now the narrative has shifted, with Cook depicted as a figure of historical shame. Our children are taught that Cook was a coloniser, a bigot, and a murderer. I do not recall such lessons, perhaps I was absent that day.

Launching Heathcote’s book was this country’s greatest historian, and one of the History Wars’ first targets, Geoffrey Blainey. Much like A.P. Elkin, who elevated anthropology’s relevance among the country’s intellectual disciplines, Geoffrey Blainey was at the forefront of a movement bringing the study of Australia’s indigenous heritage into school curricula and, more broadly, into the popular consciousness. His landmark book, Triumph of the Nomads, published in 1975, depicted a people resilient and knowledgeable, at one with one of the world’s most ancient lands and its climate and landscapes. Positively progressive of him, one would think. Indeed, Blainey was criticised in the Sydney Morning Herald for being “too sympathetic” to Australia’s indigenous population. It seems ironic, therefore, that Blainey should now be such a bête noire of the left, given he championed the study of Australia and its people prior to European settlement in the era of Whitlam, and his Government’s push to promote aboriginal self-determination.

As an art historian, Heathcote draws on two works, Portrait of a New Zealander and The Death of Captain Cook, as starting points for his book. These paintings were done by John Webber, an artist who travelled with Cook on his last voyage, and are included in Heathcote’s book for reference. Heathcote writes, “Writers of history can devote scant attention to pictures; treating them as ornaments to adorn a book”. This recalls painter Francis Bacon saying, “Art matters a great deal because all the greatest aspirations of the human race have been left to us in art”. History and art are dedicated to the recording and understanding of human nature, and similarly characterised by interpretation and, inevitably, considerable debate.

Any balanced assessment of James Cook would have to cast him as hero rather than villain.

Given the interpretive nature of these subjects and the way we engage with events and people, whether in the form of factual records or artistic depictions, the impression they make is often influenced more by our own attitudes to society and politics than by empirical data. While history certainly demonstrates the crucial role of particular incidents and people—not only in the unfolding of events, but in shifts in popular behaviour and discourse—any understanding of change must also take into account the setting of events, the all-important ‘context’.

I recall a lecturer at university characterising history as stories of triumph and trauma. Yet, contemporary teaching and discussion appears to treat history as the study of chosen triumphs and traumas. No society’s history is devoid of horrendous acts or unscrupulous characters, and with the benefit of hindsight we can presume to pass judgement on the past. But casting people as heroes or villains ignores the intricacy of their predicament and the attendant uncertainty of their motivations. Having said that, any balanced assessment of James Cook, formed after dispassionate study of the evidence, would have to cast him as hero rather than villain. Heathcote notes, with admirable common sense, that the current generation prides itself on being highly sophisticated and this tends to colour its take on previous eras. He challenges this perception, providing an insightful summary of Cook and inviting the reader to reconsider notions of privilege. He writes: “Perceptions of James Cook are impeded by two competing cliches: the British worthy and the evil white man”, and contends that such tropes render the individual a cultural abstraction.

Death of Cook, ca. 1781-83, by John Webber.
Collection: State Library of NSW

Cook was a Yorkshire boy, the son of a farmer and the only one of his mother’s eight children to survive into adulthood. He was self-taught, a literate man but not versed in the classics. His lineage indicates descent from those who escaped the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion, and his family may have been subject to ethnic tensions between Brits and displaced Scots. The simple notion of his ‘whiteness’ completely devalues the complexity of Cook’s ethnic background, while his socio-economic origins in ‘the North’ and the impressions these would have made on people of rank and the polite society of the time, further complicate his backstory and, perhaps, his world view.

Unfortunately, given ideological fashion and the elevation of trigger-warning enthusiasts in our universities and cultural institutions, Cook’s life—much like Blainey’s work—risks being at best misunderstood, and at worst misrepresented. In his own time, Cook only had to worry about the sensationalist writings of John Hawkesworth, who made a good living turning the logs of other people’s voyages into superficial travelogues that subordinated the scientific—the botanical, meteorological, and ethnographic—to the more ‘reader friendly’. Cook, though long gone, is today once again at the mercy of revisionists, perhaps this time more self-righteous than self-interested, and his legacy is being twisted to suit virtue-signalling analysis. To question this process, let alone to reject its inevitable judgement, is of course to invite the wrath of the moral grandstanding elite.

There are facts the elite would have us ignore. Cook’s contribution to Western Civilisation was immense. He was one of history’s great navigators, and a fine ship’s captain; his concern for the welfare of his crew was such that he completed long voyages without losing a man to scurvy. He was also an extraordinary cartographer; some of his maps were still being used by seafarers in the 20th century.

Cook displayed a genuine concern for the indigenous peoples he encountered. At the launch of his book, Heathcote referred to primary sources (remember those?) to detail the harsh punishment meted out to crew members who had taken advantage of the locals. Cook was never a coloniser. He was not even an advocate of colonisation, expressing concern for the people of the lands he had discovered and which he sensed must one day become the object of European ambitions.

Every year, in late January, our national history is put under the microscope and subjected to superficial ‘understandings’ that, as they always do, remove all context. Rather than being viewed as a scholarly pursuit, history has become a monopoly of narratives; the triumph of concepts over context. With regard to Cook, this has made it easy for a new and profoundly unfortunate tradition to become part of our national identity. It is perhaps best summed up by the rallying cry of the staggeringly misinformed, who believe Cook ‘invaded’ Botany Bay on 26 January 1788. This statement may resonate in activist circles, but Captain Cook had in fact met his demise nine years earlier, in 1779, in Hawaii.

I am proud to work at the IPA which, through its Class Action Program, has published curriculum material for Australian schools which enables students to investigate and make their own judgement about Cook. It is fine to ask our children if he was ‘coloniser, hero, or man of his times’, but they must then be encouraged to reach their own informed conclusions. History is not an ideology, it is the study of past events and a groping attempt to understand the evolution of human affairs. It requires an appreciation of context. In fact, one can argue it is as much the study of context as of events. Above all, the study of history requires a certain humility in the face of the overwhelming and unknowable sweep of past events. Sadly, the current generation of historians is not notable for its humility, which is why Christopher Heathcote’s contribution to the study of Captain James Cook is such a breath of fresh air.

Find this IPA curriculum guide to Captain Cook at class-action.org.au

This article from the Autumn 2024 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Office Administrator Claire Peter-Budge.

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