Maria Nugent, Research Fellow, Australian National University
There is a corner (literally) in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation that features the famous British navigator Captain James Cook. It occurs at a pivotal point, where the exhibition’s narrative moves from the hard-to-fathom timescales of the Dreaming (the complex system of beliefs and stories that explain the meaningful creation of the world, and how humans reproduce that system through ceremony, art, storytelling and other meaningful action, which one anthropologist described as an ‘everywhen’) and the 40,000 plus years of human occupation of the continent, to the much shorter and more immediate timespan of the last 245 years since British encounters with Indigenous people there began. While Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese voyagers had visited since the early 1600s, Cook was the first British navigator to explore the region. And whereas other European expeditions were mainly on the western and northern coasts, Cook and his expedition charted the east coast. Although Cook is often credited with claiming the entire continent for King George III, he was careful to only take possession of its eastern side, acknowledging as he did that the Dutch had already claimed the west.
This corner of the exhibition draws together a fascinating assemblage of objects that work together to present diverse representations of Captain Cook and his place within Indigenous Australia’s deep history. There’s a larrakitj, or memorial pole, that was made in 2002 by Gawirrin 1 Gumana. At the top on one side he has painted the ancestor figure Barama and on the other Captain Cook, but he hasn’t specified which is which. The rest of the pole is covered with the artist’s ancestral designs, and so it acknowledges Cook’s historical presence, but shows that it did not displace Barama’s law in Yolngu country (northeastern Arnhem Land).
Next to it, in a large case and lit up against a striking green background, is the shield that is believed to have been used by a Gweagal man in self-defence against the violent incursion of Cook’s landing party into his country in late April 1770. (Although it is tempting to believe otherwise, we know for sure that the hole in the centre of the shield was not made by a bullet.) This is an especially powerful object, because it symbolises that first fateful meeting.
There is though, I think, a risk that by concentrating only on the first landing that other equally significant and revealing interactions that took place over the week that Cook’s ship the Endeavour remained at Botany Bay are overshadowed. Other objects in this corner of the exhibition provide intriguing perspectives on that historical encounter.
The drawing made by the Ra’iatean man Tupaia (who had joined the voyage in Tahiti) is especially important here. It shows three Gweagal people fishing with hand lines and spears from two canoes. This was a drawing made from life and is a beautifully detailed and sympathetic scene, which not only shows details of their canoes and fishing spears, but also reveals how the local people continued to go about their business despite the unwelcome presence of the British sailors. Tupaia was an important intermediary in interactions between the British and Indigenous people in Australia (and New Zealand as well). But his role has not been given much attention in histories of Cook in Australia. Later, when the Endeavour was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, he warmed relations there with the local people, so much so that some men went on board the ship and some vocabulary was collected. Below Tupaia’s drawing is a copy of Cook’s original chart of Botany Bay, which indicates water sources and other environmental features. Augmented by James Cook’s and Joseph Banks’s descriptions, the chart reveals evidence of Indigenous people’s management of the landscape.
These two drawings, produced as a result of interactions with Indigenous people and their country in 1770, are flanked by two contemporary artworks. One is Michael Cook’s photograph, Undiscovered #4, which shows an Aboriginal man dressed as Captain Cook (or some other British naval officer) standing on the beach with his ship behind him. The other is Vincent Namatjira’s vibrant painting, James Cook – With Declaration (British Museum, 2014,2007.1), in which the ‘proclamation’ Cook writes to take possession of the territory appears as an extension of his naval uniform. These contemporary pieces belong to a much larger corpus of visual representations by Indigenous artists that provide alternative images and interpretations of Captain Cook and his history. Michael Cook’s photograph, for instance, raises questions about who ‘discovered’ who. Vincent Namatjira’s painting suggests the ways in which Captain Cook wrote the country into British possession and how he is literally the embodiment of Britain’s territorial claims.
This is my favourite part of the exhibition, but I might not be completely impartial in my choice, because I have been interested in the historical relationship between Captain Cook and Indigenous Australians for some time. A few years ago, I published a book called Captain Cook Was Here, which provides a close analysis of the encounters between Indigenous people and Cook’s crew in 1770 and also discusses the ways in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have told stories about Captain Cook over the last two centuries, turning him into a founding figure within their respective interpretations of history. As the historian Chris Healy has written: ‘Captain Cook is a name common to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal histories. … His name can be considered as a term which creates a possibility of dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ways of making histories’.
Later this week, I will be giving a lecture on Indigenous Australian visual and oral storytelling about Captain Cook from the early 1800s to the present. I hope to see you there.
The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo
The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online
Events relating to the exhibition can be found here