Captain Cook Was Here. Nugent, Maria. 2009

Captain Cook Was Here. Nugent, Maria. 2009

Nugent, Maria. 
Captain Cook Was Here.
Cambridge University Press, Australia. 
ISBN 978-0-521-76240-3.

At first glance this book appears to be about the eight days that Cook and Endeavour were at Botany Bay in 1770. There are descriptions of what happened from the journals of Cook, Banks, Clerke, Forwood, Hicks and others, that is from the viewpoint of the visitors. An unbalanced view as we have no written words from the locals. So Nugent uses descriptions of later recorded accounts to explain the actions of the locals and shows their appearance or non-appearance each day was a tactical reaction to the arrival of the strangers. She then goes on to take a "challenging new look at the impact of Cook's arrival on the land and its people" up to the present day.

Nugent points out that most people's knowledge of the events at Botany Bay is of the encounter with the locals when the sailors landed, whereas there were several encounters that together are more meaningful that the just the well-known one. "As they wrote down what they saw and what happened the mariners guessed at the meanings of things with varying degrees of certainty", writes Nugent.

Nugent's critical analysis of what was written and what the locals might have been doing is an excellent read. On the first day Banks wrote "as soon as we approached the rocks, two of the men came down upon them". Nugent considers why two men. She shows from later encounters recorded by Captain Phillip and Matthew Flinders that this number was probably deliberate.

For example, on the second day a group of local men appeared and made a stand. Nugent quotes from the journals and adds, "I suspect that as they advanced as a group they held their spears and throwing sticks aloft. This is a posture commonly described in accounts written in the early years of the British settlement around Sydney".

The third day began, according to Banks with the locals shouting and lighting fires in the woods". Nugent explains how "these early-morning actions in all probability were directed at dealing with the problem of the ship and its company of unfamiliar men still lying in the bay". She quotes Paul Carter asking "Has anyone paid attention to the sounds of exploration?", and investigates the reasons for lighting fires, including what happened to Cook later that year at Endeavour River.

Throughout the book Nugent quotes from several experts, usually naming them, but maddeningly not always, occasionally writing "experts believe..." Most of her comments are given with reasoned justification, but there are occasional slips. I doubt that Cook and Banks "sat down separately" when they wrote their observations of Australia's east coast and the people they had seen. They probably sat together in the Great Cabin.

There is an excellent chapter describing how E Phillips Fox's painting of the first landing [see Cook's Log, page 594, vol. 11, no. 2 (1988)] came to be painted in 1902 and how, despite being historically researched it gives an "Australian" version of events. Nugent compares it to 19th century pictures of the same event and reproduces critical comments on the painting published in a newspaper in 1902. She then moves on to John Alexander Gilfillan's painting of the 1850s showing Cook performing a possession ceremony [see Cook's Log, page 17, vol. 26, no. 1 (2003)]. She explains it has been given different titles at different times, including "Captain Cook Taking Possession of New South Wales..." and "Captain Cook Taking Possession of the Australian Continent..." and "Captain Cook Taking Possession at Botany Bay..." However, Nugent points out "Cook did not perform a formal possession ceremony like this while at Botany Bay, despite the general impression to the contrary."

At the end of the book Nugent explores how the Aboriginal people in Australia "have sought in their storytelling to make sense of that strange meeting". It is a process that continues to this day, as this encounter "represents the beginning of their complex and fraught history of relations with the British colonists who came after" Cook. In doing so she draws on altered versions of Phillips Fox's painting and that of Gilfillan, and altered versions of John Webber's portrait of Cook.

The lack of a useful chart of the areas is a big failure of this book. Cook's unfinished "sketch of Botany Bay in NS Wales" is reproduced, and it is nice to see it in colour. At the top of every chapter is the engraved "Botany Bay in New South Wales". However, only part is printed, and it fades to the bottom so you can read the words "fresh water" clearly only once, whereas they appear six times on the full version (and are an indication they landed at these points).

Nugent's investigation into what happened during these eight days is excellent. Effectively she explains how the locals' tactics developed from "visible presence" to "obvious absence" with the result that the strangers left.

Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 46, volume 32, number 3 (2009).

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