Maynard, John; Helman, Susannah; and Woods, Martin P.
Cook and the Pacific.
This catalogue was produced to accompany the exhibition of the same name held at the National Library of Australia (NLA) from 22 September 2018 to 10 February 2018. Most of the 175 exhibits are illustrated within its pages, which offers the advantage of being able to examine the details of their features more closely than is possible when the actual objects are enclosed within vitrines. The captions for the illustrations are scholarly and informative: for example, that for the portrait of Poedua by John Webber contains a commentary provided by the Cultural Office of French Polynesia explaining that “the refinement and white colour of the tapa cloth of the pāreu she is shown wearing, her tāhiri (fan), the nape (string of coconut husk fibres) and frizzy hair, as well as her posture show us that she belongs to the chiefly family”.
In the foreword, NLA Director-General Marie-Louise Ayres notes that in developing the exhibition the NLA “reached out” to First Nations communities on the east coast of Australia and across the Pacific.
The book also has two essays, taking up 7% of the pages. The first one is by Professor John Maynard, Director, Purai Global Indigenous and Diaspora Research Studies Centre, University of Newcastle, New South Wales. He is a descendant of the Worimi people, traditional owners of the Port Stephens area in what is now New South Wales, and as such well qualified to write on “Aboriginal perspectives on James Cook, 1770-2020”. He notes that in 2020, the Australian nation “will be torn between Anglo celebrations and Aboriginal mourning of James Cook’s so-called discovery of Australia”, and concludes that, from an Aboriginal perspective, Cook remains “the scapegoat for white invasion”.
The second essay, “Cook and the Pacific”, is by the exhibition curators Susannah Helman and Martin Woods. They note that Cook’s navigational and scientific achievements over the course of his life were “extraordinary”. But they also concede that “today, Cook remains a complex, almost mythic figure who for many First Nations peoples across the Pacific symbolises centuries of dispossession”.
Cook was not sent out in 1768 to survey the east coast of New Holland; he was sent to make contact with the estimated 50 million inhabitants of the Southern Continent with whom, in the words of Alexander Dalrymple, there was “at present no trade from Europe thither, though the scraps from this table would be sufficient to maintain the power, dominion, and sovereignty of Britain, by employing all its manufacturers and ships”. For Cook’s Third Voyage he was sent to find the fabled Northwest Passage between the Pacific and Atlantic. In neither of these objectives was he successful except to prove that they were illusory. But the serendipitous findings made during his voyages proved to be of enormous consequence.
The exhibition, Cook and the Pacific, presents comprehensive information on many aspects of all three of Cook’s expeditions for exhibit visitors to ponder. The accompanying book will be an invaluable companion for those visitors. And for readers of it who cannot make the journey to Canberra it will be a reminder that there is always something new to say about Captain Cook.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 60, volume 41, number 4 (2018).