News broke last week of the potential discovery of the HMB Endeavour at the bottom of Newport Harbour in Rhode Island, US.
The timing of this discovery comes not long after the Australian Government’s announcement of funding to mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s trespass on First Nations’ country and his violent interactions with the Gweagal and Guugu Yimithirr people in 1770.
Highlighting the importance of the Endeavour to Australian national history and identity, the Australian National Maritime Museum is a key partner in locating the wreckage. I wonder, however, what significance does a sunken ship on the other side of the world have for us, even if it is the famed HMB Endeavour?
Artefacts of history are imbued with meaning beyond their material existence. This symbolic nature, especially by the retelling of history from which national identities are formed, has become more apparent following continued controversy over the celebration of Australia Day and the subsequent expression of Indigenous dissatisfaction.
Cook, the Endeavour, and everything they signify are woven symbolically into Australian history as shifting signs of Australian colonialism. Their symbolism continues to represent the refusal of non-Indigenous Australia to legitimately attempt substantive reform of their relationship with First Nations. Each denial, such as the blunt refusal to engage with the Uluru Statement from the Heart, continues a generational failure to legitimately address the legacy of Australian colonialism of which Cook stands at the beginning of.
I do not begrudge others their history, but there is no justification when its celebration continues to perform the erasure of First Nations.
I do not begrudge others their history, but there is no justification when its celebration continues to perform the erasure of First Nations. Unfortunately, the continued celebration of Australian history bound with Cook, despite moments of First Nations incorporation, is one symbolically remade as an odyssey of discovery and genius that preforms the denial and erasure of First Nations.
The reality of Cook’s voyage and its lasting influence is dispossession, violence and oppression. First Nations were not alone in experiencing this reality, as it was also experienced by the disposable non-Indigenous bodies that were forced, often by accident of birth and social circumstance, to follow Cook’s voyage as convicts and indentured slaves, bearing too the scars of the realisation of Cook’s ‘discovery’.
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull appeared aware of this complicated history, demonstrating an understanding of the nuances of our national story when making his funding announcement to help mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyage, funding that importantly included partnerships with First Nations.
However, Australian Governments are adept at offering incorporation and conciliatory participation with one hand, while with the other, keeping their grip firmly on the secured national narrative of genius and discovery inherited from Cook’s Endeavour.
The problem remains that despite ‘progress’ and small concessions, First Nations continue to be denied rights that all Australians are entitled to— such as the right to life —and our sovereign right to celebrate and mark appropriately our history and presence as First Nations. We continue to be excluded by the celebration of a history built on our denial and the refusal to renegotiate the terms of our relations.
Australians already dwell in an open-air museum that celebrates Cook’s influence. The memorialisation of Cook’s voyage extends beyond bronzed statues and engraved plaques. This is no more evident than in Gungardie (Cooktown) where the country bears Cook’s name and the Waalumbaal Birri (the Endeavour River) bears that of his sunken ship.
250 years of contested relations should be occasion for reflection, but we do not need to bury ourselves in the ocean floor on the other side of the world to find a symbol for our nation.
250 years of contested relations should be occasion for reflection, but we do not need to bury ourselves in the ocean floor on the other side of the world to find a symbol for our nation. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is available now.
We should let sunken endeavours rest. By doing so, we should commit ourselves to something truly reflective and inspirational to mark the occasion of our peoples meeting. Australia should commit itself to realising the promise of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a commitment to Voice, Treaty and Truth. That would be a legitimate beginning toward addressing the legacy of Australian colonialism and the failings, whether his personally or those attributed to him by successive generations, of Cook’s Endeavour.
Eddie Synot is a Wamba Wamba academic lawyer and researcher. Follow Eddie at @darth_synot