Inside Story

1770 and all that

The anniversary festival has been abandoned, but the communities at Cook’s landing point continue to promote a more complex story

Hamish McDonald 28 April 2020 2058 words

Theresa Ardler (left) and Julie Squires with their sculpture, Wi-Yanga and Gurung the Whales, at Kurnell. Rhett Wyman/Sydney Morning Herald

It’s April and schools of mullet have been making their annual dash for the sea through the entrance of Kamay Botany Bay, so the men of La Perouse have been out in their dinghies with nets, new implements for an ancestral harvest.

“It’s always a huge time of the year that everyone in the community looks forward to,” says Noeleen Timbery, who chairs the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council. “That’s one of the practices we’ve kept up. There’s no trade that happens from that. It’s the guys in the community, they pass it to their children, that they go out with the nets and whatever fish they bring in, it’s just there for the community to go and get.”

Many of the families at La Perouse have ancestral, cultural and traditional historical links to the area, Timbery adds. “Many of them can trace back their heritage to traditional people who were on the shore during the time Cook and the Endeavour were in the bay.”

At Kurnell on the opposite headland, however, another regular autumn event has been cancelled. Covid-19 has put a stop to the marking of James Cook’s landing there on 29 April 1770, and his expedition’s confrontation with the local Gweagal village.

Given it’s the 250th anniversary this year, the plan was for a bigger celebration than usual. Two years ago, when he was treasurer, Scott Morrison allocated $25 million, matched by the NSW government, for a comprehensive revamp of the historic site. The Australian Maritime Museum’s replica of Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, was sent on a voyage around Australia, calling at thirty-eight ports, with the plan to drop anchor off Kurnell on the day of a “Meeting of Two Cultures” festival organised by the Sutherland Shire Council and the state government.

It would have been a big moment for Morrison especially. His electorate encompasses Kurnell and is named after Cook. In video interviews at his office in Parliament House, a model of the Endeavour is often visible on the shelf behind him.

He now has much bigger issues than anniversaries on his mind. While the 1770 festival and the Endeavour voyage were abandoned a month back, in recent days workers have continued installing two new artworks in front of the old stone plinth at Cook’s landing spot. One, by Newcastle sculptor Julie Squires and Gweagal artist Theresa Ardler, represents the bark canoes seen by the Europeans and the whales, revered by the Gweagal, that passed the cliffs on the seaward side of Kurnell during their annual migration; the other, by Alison Page and Nik Lachacjzak, is an array of big wishbone shapes that could be either the ribs of a ship like the Endeavour or those of a whale.

The foreshore was already dotted with monuments erected at previous fifty-year intervals, along with some pictorial displays of their dedications. From ranks of troops in pipe-clayed helmets solemnly raising flags, they progress to contemporary civilian monuments that are more ambivalent about the impact of Cook’s “discovery,” a word now put in inverted commas.

We will never know whether this anniversary was going to be as happy as Morrison and the leaders of New South Wales and Sutherland no doubt expected. Last October, when the Endeavour replica called at New Zealand’s Gisborne, a previous stop on Cook’s voyage, Māori protesters burned Union Jacks in memory of the nine warriors shot dead by Cook’s marines. “I acknowledge the pain of those first encounters,” British high commissioner Laura Clarke told Māori leaders. “I acknowledge the deaths of nine of your ancestors… who were killed by the crew.”

One could imagine similar protests at Kurnell, perhaps with some contemporary touches added, such as a boat trying to land “refugees” on Australia’s “boundless plains to share” or a “Chinese expedition” declaring the place terra nullius.

As a “meeting of two cultures,” the events here in April 1770, best explored in scholar Nick Brodie’s book 1787, were essentially a stand-off. The Gweagal wanted nothing to do with the Europeans. Spears and rocks were thrown, buckshot fired the other way. After one local man was wounded in the leg, Cook’s men grabbed his abandoned shield and spears. The Gweagal ignored the trinkets left in payment. The shield and spears remain in the British Museum.

The ship’s crew filled water casks and cut firewood, and its scientists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander shot bird specimens and collected strange new plants. After eight days Cook sailed off, having noted the area as suitable for settlement and agriculture.

London eventually took his advice, dispatching the first convict fleet, which landed not quite eighteen years later. It was a catastrophic moment for the Indigenous Australians: violence and imported disease and diet reduced their numbers from possibly a million or more to the low of 74,000 recorded in 1933 before the rebound to the present 800,000.

“It was a clash of cultures,” says Tim Ella, another member of the La Perouse community. Along with his old whitefella football mate Grant Hyde, Ella runs Kadoo Tours, showcasing the area’s cultural heritage to school excursions and other parties.

“I can’t see any of my Koori friends being upset that the Cook celebrations are called off,” adds Hyde, who also writes historical novels set in the Pacific. “When La Perouse play against other teams in the Koori Rugby League Knockout, the other teams cry out, ‘Give it to this mob, they’re the ones that let Cook in.’”

Nonetheless, La Perouse and its Gweagal relatives have joined in anniversary events for many years now. The “meeting of two cultures” theme is “a shift from how they used to celebrate it,” says Noeleen Timbery. “It used to be commemorated as a very one-sided story. The meeting of two cultures brings it as a more holistic viewpoint, but there’s still a need to go a little bit further than that.”

Storytelling is a big part. “This year we were planning on doing something probably bigger, and much more focused on truth in storytelling: let’s talk about what really happened,” she says. “It was actually gearing up to being a much more culturally sound event.”

The Endeavour replica’s ahistorical circumnavigation of Australia didn’t help, Timbery says. (It was actually Matthew Flinders who circled the continent and charted the entire coast three decades after Cook’s voyage.) “There’s still a lot of Australians out there that confuse the storylines between 1770 and 1788.”

I ask Tom Calma, chancellor of the University of Canberra, whether the Cook anniversary means anything to him. He also co-chairs, with Melbourne University’s Marcia Langton, a study of models for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, which arose from the Uluru Statement from the Heart

“To be quite frank, no,” he says. “But it will happen. It’s one of the bits of our history, but what I would like to see it really celebrate is the prehistory. It’s an opportunity, in raising awareness with the community, that when Cook did land there were people who’d been here tens of thousands of years before. So Australia wasn’t ‘discovered’ as such.”

“Australians are ready for it,” Calma adds. This year he’d been looking forward to marking the twentieth anniversary of the walk by some 250,000 Australians across Sydney Harbour Bridge to promote historical truth-telling and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The walk was held close to the 27 May anniversary of the 1967 constitutional amendment that counted Aboriginal people for the first time in the national census and gave the federal government powers to improve their welfare. That demonstration of support led to Kevin Rudd’s poignant apology for the Stolen Generations, on which Calma advised, and renewed efforts to “close the gap” in life expectancy and other welfare indicators.

Consultations on the Indigenous Voice have been slowed by the pandemic lockdowns, and federal Indigenous affairs minister Ken Wyatt is yet to work out with Morrison the parallel issue of acknowledging prior occupation in the Australian Constitution’s preamble. Soon after his appointment last May, Wyatt expressed hope that a constitutional amendment would be put to Australians by referendum in the current term of parliament.

If embraced by Morrison, who is at the conservative end of the Liberal Party, the idea might have its best chance of approval under the Constitution’s near-impossible amendment process.

Despite the wrangles at federal level, Timbery says that progress is being made at La Perouse and elsewhere, and Calma notes that state governments are advancing their own reconciliation steps. “My community, like many others, are progressing our own local arrangements and relationships to forge ahead with some of the elements within the Uluru Statement,” says Timbery.

If you face away from the giant tankers feeding the oil refinery along the shore, and the container terminal and airport on the north side of Botany Bay, it’s still possible to imagine what it was like at Kurnell and La Perouse when Cook burst in. La Perouse people are hoping a proposed cruise ship wharf, even closer to them, will be another casualty of Covid-19, as sad the reason may be.

Rachel Neeson, whose architectural practice Neeson Murcutt + Neille produced the masterplan for the revamp of Kurnell, is acutely aware of the historical burdens around this place. As she describes it, the plan has far less of the European propensity for physical monuments and much more of the Aboriginal notion of commemoration by storytelling.

“This is an Aboriginal place as well as part of the Cook story,” she told me in a recent interview for Architecture and Design magazine. “When Cook landed there was a village here. So this is all about equity, a balanced representation. The rupture of people from land and language happened so early in Australia’s colonial history in this place — this makes reconciliation and healing very challenging. It can’t be without tension and without truth-telling.”

So the revamped Kamay Botany Bay National Park will have walking paths through the bush: away from the old monuments, they will showcase the middens left by millennia of eating the bay’s fish, and Aboriginal lore attached to the garden of the 132 plants collected by Joseph Banks (such as a note that when the acacia flowers, the whales are migrating by). And a new visitor centre will tell the pre-1770 stories as well as the story of the Cook landing.

The state government has agreed to reinstate the ferry link with La Perouse, halted decades back, so that visitors experience arrival by water rather than by the current rather tedious drive around Botany Bay past lines of building material wholesalers, apartment blocks, mangroves and the home ground of Morrison’s local rugby league team.

With all this still to be completed, and the legalities of constitutional inclusion and the Indigenous Voice still up in the air, maybe it’s fitting that this week’s rendezvous with history has been called off — ironically by a virus from overseas. Few thinking people are yet sure we’ve got the history right, but Kurnell is a good place to start. As Neeson told me, “This place really needs to lay a table-cloth for discussion, and that discussion might not be easy.”

And that discussion is being watched. Some weeks back in Port Vila, I asked Vanuatu’s then foreign minister (now opposition leader) Ralph Regenvanu if members of what Morrison calls our Pacific vuvale (family, in Fijian) would judge us on how we responded to the Uluru Statement. To my surprise, he jumped in to this domestic political issue, showing it’s wider than a local issue and crucial to Australia’s international standing.

“We very much support the recognition of the Aboriginal people of Australia,” he said. “We are the original people of the region, they are the original people of the region. This is a black region, it’s not a white region… It’s important to recognise that originality, and especially the fact that they were the first, and they were improperly displaced, and there needs to be a recognition of that.” Their voice needs to be given to them, he added. “We were heartened at the Uluru Statement and we were hoping that this would be a way forward that everyone could agree on.” •