Every few hundred years, the planet Venus passes directly between the Earth and the Sun. And if you watch it really carefully, and measure the time it takes its silhouette to cross the Sun’s face from one side to the other, from a few different points on Earth, you can use those measurements to figure out all sorts of sizes and distances within the solar system.
Johannes Kepler was the first person to predict it, in 1627, saying that it would happen 2 years later. Humans were on their way to figuring out the cosmos and their place within it. Edmund Halley then picked up the torch, and predicted another transit 1768. The Royal Society — an English group dedicated to learning about the world through science — wanted to send a team of astronomers, biologists, geologists, artists, anthropologists and assorted scientists, all the way to Tahiti, to take unprecedentedly precise measurements of it all. So they asked the Navy for a ship.
Sailing across the world at all is extraordinary. Doing it at that time, with no GPS, no engine, no satellite phones for emergency rescue, in a wooden boat barely bigger than a bathtub? That takes serious talent. So who would the Navy select?
A young man called James Cook had come to their attention, due to his commendable cartography while on duty in Canada. He had shown himself to be an an excellent sailor, and a natural navigator. Above all, he loved being at sea. He wasn’t born into a naval family, he was a farm boy, but was drawn to the tales of travellers who came through the harbour, on the coal ships down in the docks. He knew he wanted to make a life on the water. So he signed up to the navy.
While many are content just to punch the clock, Cook was passionately curious, and actively threw himself into learning as much as he could. A man called Captain Palliser taught him the ways of the sailor, and the science of navigation. And decency. After they sunk a French ship in a battle, for example, they sent lifeboats to rescue the ‘enemy’.
On shore leave one day, Cook noticed a man on a hill with a strange looking instrument, taking measurements and making notes. Again, while many might shrug it off and go to the pub, Cook was curious enough to go and investigate. The man was making maps.
Surprisingly, good maps weren’t really a thing. Because it was hard. How do you do it accurately? Well, there’s a thing called a Plane Table you can use, which is what Captain Lieutenant Samuel Holland, the guy on the hill, was doing. They’d actually been around for about 200 years, but people hadn’t cottoned on to their potential yet. Turns out that’s something you have to actually notice. Cook was interested enough to ask more, and try to understand how it all worked. He applied himself. He studied. He practised. He produced some of the finest maps the world had ever seen.
So when it came time to choose a captain to take the team to Tahiti, they sent Cook. Naval hierarchy was usually hereditary, so this promotion was unusual. But his merit and talent were enough to take him through. He stepped up and got the job done. Sailed 30,000 km over 9 months, and safely delivered all of the scientists snd their equipment to Tahiti in time for the transit.
He specifically told his men that they were not to chop down so much as a single tree without the permission of the locals. His first rule, nailed to the mast, was:
“To endeavour by every fair means to cultivate a friendship with the natives, and to treat them with all imaginable humanity”.
After the transit was completed, he opened a sealed envelope containing his next instructions: Explore the Pacific. So he turned the ship towards the South and went as far as he could, farther than anyone had gone, until he turned back up and hit Nova Zelandia, the west coast of which was just a few squiggles on a map. He completed a full circumnavigation.
To the west of NZ, was a blank spot on the map. Dutch boats on their way to Indonesia had been hitting the west coast of the land they had called ‘New Holland’ for nearly 200 years, and they’d poked around the north a few times. An Englishman, William Dampier, had been up that way too. Dampier even went back a second time, in 1699, and was supposed to sail down the east coast, but his boat started sinking at the top of Cape York and he turned back. Abel Tasman had sailed around the bottom of the place, from Perth to below Tasmania, but the wind blew them east until they hit what they called New Zealand. So to the Europeans, what lay between remained a mystery.
We have to honour the impulse to explore. Without it, we’re done. It is only by investigating the unknown that we will survive. We need that curiosity, to wonder what’s over the horizon, the bravery to go and find out, the skills to sail, and the endurance to return.
So again, Cook sailed into uncharted waters. And a few weeks later, arrived at the formidable coast of the land we now know as Australia.
Since then, he seems to have become a symbol for everything that has followed, and people project their feelings about that on to him. If you think colonisation is good, you like him, if you think invasion is bad, you hate him.
In order to think it’s good, we have to sell ourselves on a belief that European culture is inherently superior to Aboriginal culture. And that’s what that those who hate him appear to accuse him of.
The irony is, Cook explicitly recognised the superiority of the natives and their way of life. He saw that they had it made.
“They are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquility which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff, they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air. . . . In short they seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities.” [Journals, p. 174]
These are not the words of a hateful white supremacist who is eager to invade. These are the words of an explorer admiring the people he encountered and recognising something profound.
The instructions he was operating under said to “Make discovery of the unknown continent […] and with the consent of the natives, take possession […] in the name of the King”. So after charting the whole east coast, he stuck a flag on the ground of a small island off the tip of the very north coast, called it “New South Wales” and claimed it for the crown.
That is what many people see as either his great accomplishment, or his cardinal sin. The truth is, it’s what humans had always done, that’s how the world worked. Still does really. It was a fucked up formality.
He could not have foreseen what was to come. Why would England go back to the coast he’d just seen? There were no spices, no fertile fields, no trading opportunities, it wasn’t on the way to anywhere. The Dutch had known about it for hundreds of years, at the peak of their imperialist fervour, without caring to colonise it. 1770 was a world before electricity, or the steam engine, or the cotton gin. We can’t hold him responsible for ~all this.~
It wasn’t until a few years later that America would declare their Independence, and decide not to accept English convicts anymore. So prisoners started literally piling up in overflowing boats on the River Thames. It was this really advanced civilisation, see. They needed somewhere to send the human off-cuts of their broken system under lock and key. And we can’t blame Cook for that either, he was out on the water the whole time.
The chain of colonisation is long, and he is a piece in it. To expect it to stop on his shoulders, or credit him for facilitating it, feels unreasonable. Colonialism comes from the crown, and the gilded halls of parliament, not the salty deck of a ship at sea. Perhaps people are confusing him with Columbus, who actively went and petitioned multiple monarchs to to give him as ship to sail to find new lands to exploit, and then did a lot of the exploiting himself. Or the murderous conquistadors. Or Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who actively agitated for and then personally executed the brutal subjugation of the East Indies for the Netherlands.
None of this is to say that we can’t touch statues. Taking a statue down doesn’t erase history — we have books, and we remember plenty of people without statues. It’s a question of what we choose to celebrate, and leaving them up is as much of an active choice as taking them down. The horrors of colonisation and the racist legacy of imperialism must be addressed, and the wave of action we are seeing now is long overdue. Slavers absolutely can and should be thrown into the river.
The point here is how we think about him, the way we say his name. People have begun to spit it. It’s become fashionable to hate on him. He’s been called a murderer, a rapist, a psychopath, and a genocidal maniac. It’s lazy and it’s bullshit. Pile ons are dangerous, and they are a blind spot for the progressive movement we desperately need. Leaving critical thinking behind to jump on a bandwagon is concerning.
Cook was not a slaver. He was a sailor, a cartographer, and a navigator. He was an explorer who conducted himself and his ships with as much kindness and diplomacy as possible. He was not a coloniser, his skills were used as a tool by the colonialist powers.
Ultimately, it’s not my call anyway. That’s not how pain works. I don’t get to decide what hurts someone. And if the community decide that he IS the symbol for the invasion, and really don’t want a statue of him, then I understand and respect that. What I’m asking is that we consider seeing him as the human he was. An adventurer who admired the traditional custodians. A meticulous, curious, extraordinary man, who failed to stop the inevitable colonisation of the continent.
Our culture is the sum of our stories, and its characters are the heroes of history. So who do we want to put on that pedestal? What qualities do we want to look up to? Being brave, thorough, tough, smart, polite, dedicated, skilled. Sadly, our view of explorers often appears to have become entwined with imperialists. While that’s understandable, we have to untangle it. Because we need explorers, badly. And Cook was one of the best.
We should be building statues of people like Tupaia, the Tahitian prince who came aboard the Endeavour to explore the world as well.
Or Bungaree, a Gu-Ring-Gai man who made friends with Matthew Flinders. Together they sailed up and down the coast, then became the first men to make it all the way around the coast. Most know Flinders, few know that it was Bungaree who made the circumnavigation (and their other trips) possible.
Watkin Tench and William Dawes, on the first fleet, who respected the local customs, formed friendships with men like Colbee and Boladeeree, and went exploring this incredible country together. That’s worth remembering.
We should learn the story of men like Hamilton Hume, who were only able to survive on this land by listening to and learning from the people who lived here. He was one of the first few white folk born in the colony, and he spent his childhood exploring Country with the indigenous kids. That’s how he made it to Melbourne. Burke and Wills, on the other hand, are arrogant and end up dead. We need to recognise the difference in these approaches, and that Cook was very much the former. He and Hume weren’t imperialists, they were explorers born into a world in motion and did the best they could. I hope we can find a way to admire that.