Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this was first posted on 27 January 2014.
Captain Cook’s contested reputation casts him as imperialist villain or man of science. Whatever we think of him, the two roles are not mutually exclusive
Yesterday [26 January] was Australia Day and, thanks in part to social media, it seems to have been more overtly contested than ever before. As a much-shared piece on this website stated, for many Australia Day is a time for mourning, not celebration. Marking the anniversary of the arrival of the 11 British ships known as the First Fleet in 1788, its choice as a national holiday has long been contested. In my Twitter feed, #invasionday was more prevalent than the trending Happy Australia Day.
As a historian of science working on the history of 18th-century navigation, I’ve noticed how often Captain Cook appears as the symbol of the British invasion. Yesterday, for example, Australian comedian Aamer Rahman joked on Twitter that he had a Cook-shaped piñata to celebrate the holiday (that wept white tears when hit) and, earlier in the week, Cook’s family cottage was graffitied with slogans, including “26th Jan Australia’s shame”.
This is odd, in some ways, as Cook died nearly a decade before the Fleet sailed. He did not invade or settle, nor, even, was his ship the first European contact with Australia. However, the fact that his cottage was vandalised in Melbourne, having been moved from Yorkshire in 1934, perhaps tells us almost everything we need to know about how Cook’s reputation has been welded to his brief visit to Australia and has been both near-deified and villainised ever since.
In illustration of the complexity of Cook’s legacy, ex-pat New ZealanderVicky Teinaki alerted me to a film on display at the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Yorkshire. The museum’s website describes it as “recording the reaction of contemporary communities to Cook’s legacy” and these, Vicky said, could be generalised into three groups: “acknowledging he was a great & brave explorer, anger at the white man diseases he brought, or ‘better English than French’”.
The reaction from this side of the world depends, I think, on whether Cook is viewed as the military man – a blue-coated, gun-toting officer of the Royal Navy – or the explorer and man of science. He was, of course, both, for the categories are not mutually exclusive. On the Endeavourvoyage he was paid by and carried out the instructions of the Navy andthe Royal Society of London. He was both a vessel commander and one of two astronomers charged with carrying out a range of observations, including the 1769 transit of Venus and longitude determinations.
Those who cast Cook as a man of science note not only his ability in astronomical observation and mathematical calculation, but also his careful observation of the new lands, flora, fauna and peoples he encountered. Regarding Cook’s journal descriptions of the latter, theNational Library of Australia is careful to note that “Lord Morton, President of the Royal Society, had advised Cook by letter to treat with respect the Indigenous people he encountered and to communicate peacefully with them.”
Yet it is obvious that all the science undertaken on his and similar voyages was part and parcel of the process of exploration and colonisation. The transit of Venus observations were bound up with attempts to improve navigation and cartography, which, along with botany, geography and ethnography, provided information about how best to exploit new territories.
Cook is, perhaps, less directly worthy of vilification than those who developed policies for colonisation and who governed societies that forgot the caution and respect that Morton had urged. Equally, however, he is among those to whom we might attach collective guilt for their role in making empire and exploitation possible.
If Cook is guilty in this way, were not also many of those who stayed at home? Morton and the Royal Society, who linked their enterprise firmly to Britain’s imperial interests? John Harrison and the Commissioners of Longitude, who looked for ways to make long-distance sea voyages and the data they brought home more reliable?
This train of thought led me to recall an interview I recently heard on Radio 4, with a scientist brought in to discuss the Moon’s potentially exploitable natural resources. How might we manage the claims of different nations (limited, in theory, by international agreement) and private companies (currently unlimited in law) to these minerals? Might this lead to conflict, injustice and over-exploitation?
The planetary scientist pushed the questions away. We do not yet know if anything useful is there, he said, and no one yet has the resources to make lunar mining profitable. His aim is simply to find out what is there, not to worry about the consequences. Given what history tells us, it might seem better to resist looking. At the very least, it seemed shockingly blasé to say that any future conflicts, rivalries and ruination would have nothing at all to do with the curiosity-driven likes of him.
Cook could not foresee the results of his actions. Understanding of the transmission of disease or the consequences of introducing alien species was limited; rivalry for worldwide empire was, as yet, in its infancy, and belief in the virtue of spreading European knowledge and values was firm. Cook is blamed because of hindsight, a little of which should always prompt a greater sense of responsibility today.