Coates, Ian (ed).
Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians.
National Museum of Australia Press.
This book accompanied the exhibition of the same name at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, from 2 June, 2020, until 26 April, 2021.1
As world views shift, and we become more open to taking a broader view of history through the lens of multiple actors, our understanding of the Endeavour voyage and those in the ship is enriched. This book is another example of the emphasis on the view from the shore, which has characterised commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Cook’s epic first Pacific voyage. One third of the book is taken up by a detailed overview of the major emphasis of the exhibition—fresh new accounts by Aboriginal people of their interpretations of the voyage along Australia’s eastern shores, and of its impacts. This section is perhaps the most useful one for those who have not visited the exhibition, as it provides new perspectives on the Australian leg of the voyage.
This theme is explored through a series of 16 essays from Aboriginal, curatorial and academic perspectives. They largely explore the wider context of the exhibition, including “The Story behind the exhibition”, “Telling our story our way”, and “Cook in Canberra: Exhibition endeavours in the 21st century”. They also examine how earlier Cook exhibitions in Australia largely ignored the view from the shore, and how this stance has slowly changed over the past 20 years, so that it is only now that we hear Aboriginal voices. From these essays it is clear that the process of collecting these views from the shore was an educative one for all involved in that process. Those viewing the voyage from the ship began to see the voyage from a different perspective, while those on the shore began to see Cook differently. However this context is not likely to be of particular interest to readers primarily interested in James Cook and his exploits.
Whilst the book and exhibition’s title might suggest otherwise, it is important to recognise that those aboard Endeavour during their four-month charting of the eastern Australian coast had only brief contact with the First Australians, and in only two locations. In his haste to reach Batavia (today’s Jakarta) to make urgently needed repairs to the ship, Cook made only a running survey and few landings. There was a short altercation and shouted words at Botany Bay, and fewer than seven days of interactions during the 48 days at Cooktown, where the ship was repaired after running on to a reef. Australia, a vast continent with an estimated population of 300 000 people at that time, had a far sparser, and more reticent, population than those Cook met at Tahiti and New Zealand. The encounters there were vastly different from those on Australian shores.
The curators of the exhibition “Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians” sought “to explore the stories about what happened in 1770 – and the stories of what came before and after Cook – as they related to eight places along Endeavour’s route”. This material was collected specifically for the exhibition. Given that there were only two sites where communication occurred, three quarters of this part of the exhibition is based on Aboriginal oral history of the reactions to, and interpretations of, their forebears to the sighting of the ship as she passed, rather than through their ancestors’ direct contact with those in Endeavour. Although there are limitations in this approach after 250 years, we should also be cautious about the accounts presented in the journals of those in the ship, whose primary audience was the Admiralty. Today, the recorded views from the ship and from the shore are shaped and interpreted by many forces.
Despite these limitations, the book and the exhibition represent an important leap forward in our broader understanding of the Endeavour voyage, as seen through the lens of those on the shore. Both provide insight into the misunderstandings on both sides that resulted from widely differing cultural perspectives and interpretations of events. The immensity of Cook’s and Banks’s task in navigating on the shore becomes more apparent.
The book and exhibition must also be viewed in the broader context of Australia’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with its past. Until relatively recently, many Australian schools presented Cook as a god-like figure who “discovered” Australia, and was the beginning of its history, completely ignoring the fact that the Aboriginal people had occupied the continent for more than 60 000 years. There was, and still is, in the wider community, little general awareness of the Aboriginal worldview, laws and customs, and their history. Dispossession and displacement through colonisation by the British, the consequences of the killings and massacres, the impact of introduced diseases, and the destruction of cultures, have been little acknowledged. Today Aboriginal people are still seeking acknowledgement and reconciliation.
There are useful essays on these issues by Aboriginal writers in the book. Megan Davis, an Aboriginal lawyer, academic, and expert member of The United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in “Makarrata: Coming together after a struggle” leads us through the reconciliation processes in a measured way. Shona Coyne, who shares Aboriginal and Scottish heritage, and is Head of the Shared Histories Curatorial Centre at the National Museum of Australia, in “Unfinished Business” reflects on her own experience of learning more about Cook, and about the Aboriginal experience of the voyage. She had a central role in curating the exhibition and concludes “For myself, the opportunity to explore and reflect on this story, to walk a small way in the shoes of Cook, Banks and others, and spend time alongside communities of the descendants of those who lived along the shore in 1770, has changed me. I now feel quite differently about Cook and the Endeavour story and appreciate it more in all its complexity. More importantly it has reminded me of the extraordinary resilience of the First Nation’s people and our continuation of culture despite all that followed with the invasion of Aboriginal lands”.
The book and exhibition make a useful contribution to a better understanding of Cook and his indirect part in the colonisation process. For those interested in Cook and the Endeavour voyage there are new perspectives to be examined which provide a better understanding of the challenges that Cook and Banks faced in communicating with, and understanding, the new cultures that they met. These challenges form a poignant part of the Cook story. The resulting misunderstandings inherent in first or early contacts of this kind, despite goodwill on both sides, can lead to conflict, and ultimately, they led to Cook’s own death in 1779.
- Cook’s Log. 2020. Vol. 43, no. 4. Page 37.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 42, volume 44, number 2 (2021).