The Lieutenant’s Ghost

250 years ago, British naval vessel HMB Endeavor sailed up the eastern coast of the continent now known as Australia. Lieutenant James Cook and crew were certainly not the first voyagers to sight the southern continent, but this particular event still wormed it’s way into white Australia’s psyche. Hoping this 1770 event is never forgotten, the federal government allocated almost $50 million dollars to events and exhibitions to honour Lt. Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific region. Which was to include the now-cancelled circumnavigation of Australia by a replica Endeavor – a feat Lieutenant Cook never achieved.  

Late 2019, expecting an incoming flood of books about Cook, I searched for new books to review. Surprisingly, this resulted in only two, and one of those was a reprint. I opened these books with the following thoughts:

  1. Is white Australia’s adoration of Cook finally on the decline?
  2. Can a book convince me to lessen my dislike for the spectre of Cook?

The first book I came across was Geoffrey Blainey’s Captain Cook’s Epic Voyage (Viking, March 2020), which is a revised Sea of Dangers: Captain Cook and his rivals (2009). Blainey, one of Australia’s most notable historian, has been awarded a UN Britannica Prize, a Companion in the Order of Australia, and is listed by the National Trust as a National Living Treasure. In a readable style,Blainey presents a factual account of an era in European maritime history. Although finding the book an interesting read, I was mostly looking forward to Blainey’s promised reflections:

In the dozen years since the first edition of this book appeared, Cook’s voyage has become controversial, especially in Australia where his discovery and its consequences are now questioned by Aboriginal leaders and by many historians. In Sydney his stature was recently vandalised. The great navigator is branded as an invader and destroyer. This revised edition of the book concludes with an attempt to re-assess Cook in the light of this controversy.

Blainey, p. x-xi

The second book was James Cook: The story behind the man who mapped the world by Peter FitzSimons (Hachette Australia, October 2019). FitzSimons is an Australian journalist, columnist and writer of non-fiction books. His stated intent behind writing this book was to reveal the man (i.e. Cook) behind the myth. Not familiar with FitzSimons’ work, the bizarre narrative style took me by surprise. I was ready to give up before page 30 but, with resolve, I finally got through by skim-reading the rest of the book.

Blainey’s book starts in in the South Pacific in June 1767, with the Dolphin under the charge of Captain Sam Wallis. Blainey outlines some of the hopes of that era – Europeans will finally encounter the mysterious great southern lands, leading to unprecedented resources and/or new places for trade. In the first sentence, the tired trope of Europeans “discovering” First Peoples’ homelands appears. In the epilogue, Blainey acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first “discovers” of territories later “discovered” by the British. Another term I found unsettling was ‘Aborigine’. The choice to use this term, including in the new epilogue, is puzzling. Surely a revision of an older book is the perfect time to update antiquated Indigeneity terminology.

 Young Cook, who had a flair for mathematics and strong ambition, left commerce for a maritime career. His success in the navy, considering his socio-economic background, frosty personality and late start, was somewhat remarkable. He captained his first ship at the age of 39, and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. Just before his third Pacific voyage, three years before his death, Cook was promoted to the rank of post-captain. Cook was never a Captain by rank.

The first Pacific voyage, which is a focus in both these books, was for the purpose of charting the Transit of Venus. Ships were sent throughout the globe to simultaneously observe this transit, as another would not occur for a century. Cook was to make observations from Tahiti. There were a number of scientists and other experts on board, including prominent astronomer Charles Green, naturalists Joseph Banks and Dr Daniel Solander, and draughtsman, cartologists and artists. Similar to Cook, Banks later had a role in the events that lead to this continent now known as Australia being invaded and colonised by the British. In Blainey’s book, and other historians’ accounts, Banks is pictured as a likeable young man who is already making his mark as an intellect. Whilst FitzSimons maintains a strong tension between Cooks and Banks throughout his book, Blainey notes this quickly dissipated and a mutual respect was formed.

Once Cook’s task of observing Venus was done, he commenced the next part of his orders: sail south and look for the ‘Continent or Land of great extent’. During that period, there were other European vessels, both foes and friends, in the same region as Cook. Blainey’s book includes other explorers that contributed to the collective world map, including previous partial-mapping of New Zealand and Australia. French ship St Jean-Baptiste, captained by Jean-Francois-Marie de Surville, was unknowingly close to the east coast of Australia in December 1769. As the St Jean-Baptiste moved towards New Zealand, where the Endeavor was at that time, they were at one point less than fifty sea miles apart.

After travelling along the coast of New Zealand, a journey aided by Dutchman Abel Tasman’s charting, Cook decided to have a look at another region Tasman had partially mapped; to determine if there was a large continent in that vicinity. On 19 April 1770, Lieutenant Zachary Hicks was the first to see land. Blainey gives a fair account of the Europeans’ initial sightings of First Peoples, and later brief encounters. The crew of the Endeavor spent four months travelling up the east coast of what is now known as Australia, including an extended stay at Cook Town for urgent repairs. A moonstruck Cook had ordered his crew to sail at night, resulting in the ship getting stuck on the Great Barrier Reef. After an ill-fated stop-over in a place then known as Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia), they made their way back to England, being cautious due to possible outbreaks of war in the nearly three years they’d been at sea.

As mentioned, I was looking forward to Blainey’s revised epilogue. I realise I was being foolishly hopeful but, even so, it was disappointing:

Captain James Cook himself remains a hero. One of the most remarkable voyagers in the long history of the seas, he deserves far, far more praise than blame. Contrary to the common belief, he admired the Aborigines [sic] and facets of their traditional way of life. He glimpsed the potential of Australia. Above all he grasped this continent and began unknowingly the work of knitting it again to the outside world. On the whole the outside world has gained because of Cook’s epic voyage.

Blainey, p.294

FitzSimons starts his book at a much earlier time than Blainey and, at nearly 500 pages, he is able to provide more details. Sometimes too much. This book could have benefited from a tighter edit. In my opinion, FitzSimons applies a jarring narrative style. Mostly told in present-tense omnipotent, as if the author is privy to how people felt, what they thought and believed. Occasionally this voice drifts towards pantomime-like narration, breaking the fourth-wall with a nudge-nudge wink-wink.

At a time when white novelists are, thankfully, moving away from comparisons of people to wood, coffee and confectionary, FitzSimons’ frequent use of such adjectives to depict brown and black bodies is conspicuously outdated. That said, FitzSimons use of Indigeneity terminology is current and somewhat respectful, especially during the New Zealand and Australian legs of the voyage.

Using a narrative non-fiction style, this book is not like history books I’m familiar with. The language is flowery and the narrative is unnecessarily long-winded in parts. Rather than present an objective account, there are many occasions where FitzSimons shows bias. Elizabeth Cook’s name is always proceeded with adjectives such as fair, dear and cherished. Mr Banks, in his mid-20s during that voyage, did not suffer the indignation of such sickly sweetness. Instead, most references to Banks are overly judgemental and unusually obsessed with his sexual behaviour. In contrast to the romanticized “manly” descriptions of Cook, the bias is glaring.

 James Cook includes an account of the fatal third return voyage to Tahiti, aboard HMS Resolution. Although providing more details than some other books, FitzSimons does not outright point to Cook’s characteristic ego and impulsive anger as being behind his demise. His arrogance getting the better of him, Cook took a hostage in an attempt to manipulate a group of Hawai`ians. A fight broke out during this attempted kidnap of a high ranking Hawai`ian, with Cook ordering his men to fire on the defenders. So on 14 February 1779, after a short skirmish, Cook was killed while trying to run away from the fight he’d started.

The turning of a man into a legend occurred many generations after his death.

Both Captain Cook’s Epic Voyage and James Cook describe numerous times when the quick thinking and expertise of others had previously mitigated risks or resolved problems for Cook. Tupaia, who joined the voyage at Tahiti, contributed invaluable navigation, geography, cooking and diplomacy skills. He had such a presence that Maori and other Islanders thought he was the crew’s leader. Banks and Solander’s knowledge of botany and zoology were a great asset during times of sickness or food scarcity. On returning to England, it was Banks and Solander that were lauded by society, other scientists and the public – men of science that had returned with wonderous specimens and tales from faraway places. Solander died not long after their return, while Banks went on more scientific explorations, including a trip to the South Pole. Whilst Cook himself did not rate much interest on his return to England, his geographical contributions were later noted. The turning of a man into a legend occurred many generations after his death.

Blainey and FitzSimons refer to Aboriginal peoples’ agricultural and environmental practices on the eastern coast of the continent, using first-person accounts from ship journals and members of the crew’s later written reflections. More in-depth, evidence-based accounts of lifeways and food production can be read in other books that highlight that era, such as Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Black Seeds: agricultural or accident (Magabala Books, 2014).

Few lives were lost on Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific and Australia. This changed dramatically when they reached Jakarta. Journals record evident signs of illness amongst locals and other ships’ crews, and, despite being warned, Lt. Cook chose not to isolate his crew. While the Endeavor was being repaired, Cook and many of the crew became ill; some fatally. Fearing greater loss of life would mean not enough manpower to reach England, Cook finally set off. More men became infected as they sailed homeward bound. Between Batavia (Jakarta) and the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town, South Africa), a third of the crew died.  Even before this segment of the journey was discussed in these books, there were indications that Lt. Cook was not the caring and innovative leader he is often depicted as.

Cook is often credited with being the prominent expert in the management of scurvy in that era. Blainey mentions that Captain de Surville, more experienced than Cook and leading a more ethnically diverse crew, also knew that adding fresh greens and citrus to diets whilst at sea was beneficial to health. However, during de Surville’s navigation of New Zealand, scurvy heavily impaired the crew of St Jean-Baptiste. Cook’s crew experienced a lesser degree of this often-fatal disease, as the ship carried sauerkraut and preserved citrus juice as a source of vitamin C. Also, Banks and Solander had a big role in reducing scurvy, as they applied their scientific knowledge to collect and test new sources of nutrition whenever the ship was close to shore.

Blainey makes some references that confirm for me that Cook was aloof and prone to outbursts of anger, but FitzSimons gives more detailed descriptions of his terrible behaviour. From impulsive kidnappings (there was more than one) and callous shootings of Islanders and Aboriginal people, to inexcusable brutality towards his crew, Cook was not a benevolent leader. He would not tolerate any perceived disobedience and oversaw plenty of lashings for petty reasons. The incident where he ordered two men to be lashed for refusing to eat meat stands out. Then, he demanded a lashing for the man that had wielded the whip, as Cook thought he’d not hit the two hard enough.

Captain Cook’s Epic Journey has examples of how a rising interest in science, commerce, slave trade, and desire to find unprecedented resources is connected to European exploration, colonisation and dispossession. Cook himself was not unaware of the harm they were causing:

…Australia soon belonged to the British, something that would never have happened if James Cook had not landed in New South Wales. Yet here are some ironic words from Cooks’ Second Voyage, concerning fierce opposition of the Natives [sic] of New Hebrides, but a parallel will occur to many of the Indigenous peoples of Australia: “…one cannot blame them for when one considers the light in which they must look upon us in, its impossible for them to know our real design, we enter their Ports without their daring to make opposition, we attempt to land in a peaceable manner, if this succeeds its well, if not we land nevertheless and maintain the footing we thus got by the Superiority of our fire arms, in what other light can they then look upon us but as invaders of their Country…”

FitzSimons, p.452

While reading Captain Cook’s Epic Journey and James Cook, I reflected on Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). In the chapter ‘The Legacy of Cook’s Choice’, Moreton-Robinson provides a critique of Cook’s conscious choice to make claim on First Peoples’ lands. She states that “For Cook to be able to take possession of the east coast of Australia without the consent of the ‘natives’ means that he had to position Aboriginal people as will-less things in order to take their land in the name of the king” (p.114). Moreton-Robinson describes how Cook saw himself as more superior than the sovereign peoples of the lands he was an uninvited guest of: “When Cook deployed racialized discourse to mark the Indigenous ‘other’ as will-less and black, he is producing through knowledge a subject of his own making, one that he interprets for himself” (p.114).

To better understand the colonial undercurrents behind FitzSimons’ narrative of hyper-sexualised Tahitian women, in contrast to depictions of Maori men as “mighty warriors” and Aboriginal men as “noble savages”, I suggest Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling by Larissa Behrendt (University of Queensland Press, 2016). FitzSimons’ accounts of the British crew’s interaction with women lacks a much-needed critique. I suspect some of his retelling of the Endeavor crew’s actions and depictions of non-white women is unfiltered racial fetishism. If FitzSimon’s had a better understanding of the complex issues behind racialised, gender-biased versions of written history, then he could have avoided this type of antiquated depiction.

Behrendt’s reflections on settler-colonisers’ treatment of Aboriginal women can be used to question Cook’s stop-over in Tahiti:

Colonial stereotypes implied that Aboriginal women were ‘available’ as sexual partners or for prostitution, thereby negating accusations of rape and freeing white men from taking responsibility for their half-caste children. Rather than condemning the predatory sexual violence of white men, any so-called immorality on the frontier was blamed on the behaviour of Aboriginal women. They were portrayed as promiscuous and accustomed to being treated with contempt in their own society, and to being brought and sold as commodities by their husbands.

Behrendt, p.67

Using Finding Eliza as a companion book to reading James Cook could also help readers critique FitzSimons’ portrayal of Elizabeth Cook as the pious, fair Madonna; forever pining and pregnant back on home soil. During their seventeen years of marriage, Elizabeth and James spent a total of four years living together. Raising six children on her own, and mourning the untimely death of all six, Elizabeth outlived her husband by six decades. Even as a young bride, I seriously doubt she was ever this delicate, needy woman FitzSimons depicts.

It’s time to collectively let go of the mythicised version of the man and his deeds.

Looking back on both authors’ stated goals, I’m not so sure these were met. With the exception of a few sections, FitzSimons’ James Cook is an overblown adoration of Cook through an uncritical white-lens. Rather than show us ‘the man behind the myth’, as intended, FitzSimons further mythologises Cook in this M-rated Boy’s Own Adventure. Blainey’s account is also told through a white-lens but less emotive and more legible. Like the original version, Captain Cook’s Epic Voyage will find a long-held place on Australia’s bookshelf. That said, the 2020 revision was a lost opportunity to remove archaic identity terminology, and the promised reflective epilogue is overly cautious and traditionalist.

Works of non-fiction by historians, such as Blainey, still have a place in disseminating historical facts and ensuring learning about history is accessible. However, these types of books should not be the sole source of learning. Readers need, and are increasingly asking for, access to books written by the descendants of the First Peoples in the many nations that Cook and other European explorers encountered. Narratives of those times have been passed down through the generations orally, and now written and through multimedia. The push for own-voice is not just relevant to fiction.

Undeniably, many European maritime explorations, such as Cook’s voyages, led to brutal invasions and dispossession; with the ripple-effect of social-economic disadvantage still being felt by sovereign peoples. There are many First Peoples scholars and writers that can provide balance to accounts of shared histories. Now, more than ever, First Peoples are studying or working across disciplines such as history, anthropology, archaeology, geo-politics and critical race discourse. We can all benefit from having more alternatives to the white-lens accounts.

After reading both of these books earlier this year, I reflected on my original questions: Is white Australia’s adoration of Cook finally on the decline? Can a book convince me to lessen my dislike for the spectre of Cook? The short reply is: hopefully to the first question, and definitely not to the second.

A few months later, with the expected fanfare of Cook 2020 turning into a fizzer (partially due to social distancing during a pandemic), and recent flare up of the ongoing conversations about antiquated statues (during yet another wave of rightful reaction to blak/black deaths in custody), the tide appears to be changing. There are more and more global discussions on the connections between how nations memorialise and narrate shared histories and ongoing systemic injustices and inequities. More people are becoming aware of the ongoing trauma and inequality that colonisation (which includes land theft, massacres, genocide, slavery, and diaspora) has caused. This conversation can no longer be swept under the rug. Here in Australia, books like Captain Cook’s Epic Voyage and James Cook do not assist us to move forward, to create a nation of fairness. A nation that can look unflinchingly at the past and vow to right the wrongs.

I am somewhat satisfied that my sweep of books about James Cook had such a low result. I expected many more in the lead up to the 250th anniversary of the Endeavour’s landing. I choose to believe that authors and academics were not inclined to write yet another predicable homage to the ghost of Lieutenant Cook. It’s time to collectively let go of the mythicised version of the man and his deeds.