Inside Story

On Possession Island

Myth, history and Captain Cook

Bain Attwood 4 August 2020 2466 words

What was he doing? Samuel Calvert’s engraving of Captain Cook taking possession of the Australian continent on behalf of the British Crown, after the painting by Gilfillan, published in the Illustrated Sydney News in December 1865. National Library of Australia

Two hundred and fifty years ago this month, Captain James Cook famously staked a claim to much of this country. In an entry in his journal on 22 August 1770 he described how he and a party of men had landed on the island at the northern tip of the continent that he would shortly call Possession Island, the name being a way of marking what he reckoned he had done there:

Having satisfied myself of the great probability of a passage, thro’ which I intend going with the ship, and therefore may land no more upon this eastern coast of New Holland, and on the western side I can make no new discovery the honour of which belongs to Dutch navigators; but the eastern coast from the latitude of 38 [degrees] South down to this place I am confident was never seen or visited by an European before us and notwithstand[ing] I had in the name of His Majesty taken possession of several places upon the coast, I now once more hoisted English colours and in the name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole eastern coast from the above latitude down to this place by the name of New South Wales.

But what exactly had Cook done in claiming possession?

In April this year the historical significance of Cook’s first landfall at Botany Bay was hotly debated, and something similar may well occur this month over his claim of possession. Yet if the controversy that swirled around the anniversary of Cook’s landfall is any guide, we will probably be none the wiser about the historical significance of this moment. History and myth have become too closely intertwined in academic and public discourse about what Cook did in 1770.

But what might happen if we disentangled these two ways of remembering Cook — if we distinguished between the myths that are told about his famous deeds, on the one hand, and the stories that academic history might tell about them, on the other? It seems to me that this task is especially important if we want to understand why the British government never negotiated with the Aboriginal people for the cession of sovereignty.

Basically, two kinds of myths are told about Cook. The first — the one that has most often been told by settler Australians — figures Cook in heroic terms. He is the man who discovered, claimed and founded Australia. This story only began to be articulated several decades after Cook was believed to have performed these historic feats. Nonetheless, by the end of the nineteenth century, this myth was being told in an increasing number of forms — in school primers, scholarly books, pictorial images, place names, commemorations, porcelain, statuary and stamps, poetry, drama and novels.

That story’s fortunes have no doubt fluctuated in recent decades but it has remained influential. Of late, it has been given a considerable boost by the federal government’s decision to grant an enormous sum of money — $48.7 million — to commemorate in several ways the 250th anniversary of “Cook’s first voyage to Australia [sic] and the Pacific,” though the more grandiose of those plans have been scuttled by the pandemic.

The second myth — the one told largely by Aboriginal people and those sympathetic to their cause — portrays Cook in anti-heroic terms. At the very least, he is held responsible for the fact that the sovereignty and rights of property in land of this country’s Indigenous peoples were denied by the British government on the grounds that this land was terra nullius. At most, he is blamed for the later dispossession, displacement and destruction of this country’s first peoples.

This myth probably began to be told some time after the settler myth started to circulate widely. But it got an enormous boost fifty years ago in reaction to the white celebration of the Cook bicentenary in 1970, and has become increasingly influential in the decades since. More recently, after campaigns for the removal of statues in the United States, Britain and elsewhere, calls have been made for statues of Cook to be removed from Sydney’s Hyde Park and other places.

Many myths have genuine connections to a genuine past and hence are in some sense true. This is certainly the case with the Cook myths. In the case of the settler myth, it could be said that Cook did claim possession of a good part of this continent for the British Crown on the grounds of discovery; in the case of the Aboriginal myth, it can be said that in claiming possession Cook failed to follow his instructions to gain the consent of the native peoples.

Yet both these myths barely represent who Cook really was and what he actually did. This is hardly surprising. Mythic stories work in highly symbolic or abstract terms. They are designed not so much to elucidate the past as to meet particular needs in the present, not the least of which are political ones. National myths that assume the form of foundational stories do their work by deeming specific historical acts or events — in this case Cook’s claiming of possession — to have created the foundations of a nation.

This is true for both the settler and the Aboriginal myths of Cook, though obviously the former claims that this was for the better whereas the latter takes the opposite view. Thus, prime minister Scott Morrison claims that Cook’s 1768–70 voyage (which he reckons saw Australia’s founding father circumnavigate the continent) “is the reason Australia is what it is today” and Labor’s Linda Burney claims that Cook’s landfall signifies “the beginning… of a very difficult period” for Indigenous people.

These mythic stories are terribly important because they help us to apprehend a good deal of the historical significance attributed to Cook’s famous acts. But they are insufficient if we are to truly understand them. While the settler and Aboriginal myths of Cook tell true stories respectively about his claim of possession and the dispossession, displacement and devastation of Aboriginal people caused by British colonisation, they don’t provide a true account of Cook’s acts or the historical significance they can be said to have. Many academic historians seem to have lost sight of, or are ignorant of, this fact. And because they don’t distinguish between the different ways that myth and academic history represent Cook, museum curators, journalists and political figures have tended to follow suit.

To begin to grasp how the Captain Cook myths misrepresent what happened in 1770, we must note that foundational stories of this kind are highly teleological in nature. In other words, particular acts or events are endowed with a purpose, cause or outcome that they only acquired later, even much later. In this case, both the Australian nation (of the settler myth) and the settler colonisation (of the Aboriginal myth) are said to have begun by dint of — or even with — Cook’s acts, especially his act of claiming possession.

And so it is that we find the National Museum of Australia asserting that “Cook’s claim [of possession] would lead to the establishment of a British penal colony in New South Wales eighteen years later.” And a Guardian Australian journalist declaring that “Indigenous people and the[ir] supporters… rightly view [Cook] as the doorman for so many ills that followed.” And a state medical officer likening Cook’s landfall to Covid-19 as a “sudden arrival of an invader from another land, decimating populations.”

Cook’s acts on this continent, which were actually few and far between, were of much less significance to the course of this country’s history than both the settler and Aboriginal myths would have us believe. This becomes apparent if we examine Cook’s act of claiming possession in some detail.

In the first instance, it is a mistake to regard Cook’s claim of possession in 1770 as a precursor to British colonisation of this continent. Imperial powers often instructed agents like Cook to make claims of possession even though they had no plans to plant a colony in those places. This was certainly true in this case.

Furthermore, imperial powers instructed their agents to make claims to very particular places — places that, in Cook’s case, the British Admiralty called “convenient situations.” Usually what they had in mind was the staking of a claim to small amounts of land that might prove useful to empires often conceived primarily in terms of influence over the seas rather than land. Even when agents like Cook made claims to large territories, they were inchoate in nature.

What is more, claims of possession like Cook’s were only preliminary: unless they were confirmed by later acts of possession of the kind associated with settlement, they were regarded as meaningless by imperial powers. In other words, if the British government had not planted a colony in New South Wales relatively soon after Cook’s claiming of possession, its claim could have been overridden by another imperial power, just as the British government later discounted the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman’s claim on the other side of this continent and was careful to plant settlements elsewhere on the coast so that the French could not claim possession.

Just as importantly, the claims of possession made by the agents of a European power were often aimed at their imperial rivals as well as their own people, rather than at local or Indigenous peoples. This is evidently so in the case of Cook, who was acutely aware of other European claims. How could he not be, given this land mass was widely known in European circles by its Dutch name, Nieuw Holland, or New Holland. It is hardly surprising, then, that in the entry in his journal for 22 August 1770 Cook referred to the Dutch claim of possession on the grounds of “discovery” to the west of Possession Island and the absence of any such European claim to the east coast of the continent.

This practice of claiming possession of foreign lands on the basis of being the first European discoverer was all the more common because European imperial agents often found it difficult to make the kind of contact with local peoples necessary to win their consent. Cook evidently felt a sense of relief when a small group of Aboriginal people didn’t oppose the landing of his party at “Possession Island” but made off instead, leaving his party, to his mind, “in peaceable possession of as much of the island as served our purpose.”

Most importantly, it is a mistake to assume that the claims of possession made by an imperial agent like Cook dictated the terms on which an imperial power would treat the sovereignty, let alone rights in land, of Indigenous people. This starts to become clear if we loosen the grip of national foundational stories and compare the case of New South Wales with that of New Zealand — or Nieuw Zeeland, as Aotearoa was named by the Dutch.

Cook claimed possession of small parts of Aotearoa on the very same terms that he claimed parts of this continent, without acquiring the consent of its sovereign peoples. Yet in 1839, when the British government decided it should annex the islands of New Zealand, it opted to negotiate the cession of sovereignty with the local chiefs. In other words, the terms on which Cook claimed possession in New Zealand in 1769 did not bind the British government in 1839. Given this, why do we assume that it did so in regard to New South Wales in 1788? The answer is surely found in the kind of teleology that characterises national foundational stories.

A comparison between these two cases reveals another important point. There is little reliable evidence to suggest that the terms on which Cook claimed possession in New South Wales were determined by his perception that the Indigenous people were either small in numbers or lacking sovereignty and rights of property in land. Cook perceived Māori very differently but still claimed possession of parts of New Zealand on the same basis as he claimed parts of New Holland.

And so we come to the famous story of terra nullius. It, too, can be regarded as a myth in the sense that I have been using this word.

Terra nullius has been used to refer to any legal claim that lands newly discovered by European powers belonged to no one. This is so irrespective of the precise grounds on which such a claim was made. In other words, claims of possession that were often based on a series of different legal rationales ― such as those of discovery, improvement, and settlement ― have been treated by historians as though they were all made on the basis of a single legal doctrine known as terra nullius.

More problematic still, the contention that the British government claimed possession of much of this continent in 1770 or 1788 on the basis of the doctrine of terra nullius is anachronistic. Quite simply, there was neither a doctrine bearing this name nor any historical record of it being used by imperial powers in any systematic fashion until the mid to late nineteenth century.

To be sure, some historians have argued that the doctrine of terra nullius derived by analogy from a similar doctrine know as res nullius and that the latter had firm foundations in a body of law that predated 1770 or 1788, while other historians have contended that terra nullius was connected to another legal doctrine known as occupation.

But the fact of the matter is that the British government invoked neither the doctrine of res nullius nor the doctrine of occupation as it began to colonise New Holland. Instead, it appears to have claimed possession of much of this continent in 1788 on the basis of an amalgam of three other legal doctrines: discovery, which was a claim to be a territory’s first European discoverer; possessio, which was a claim that a person or state who had something and intended to possess it should be regarded as its possessor; and usucapio, which was a claim on the basis of having possessed something for a certain period without interruption.

As this discussion suggests, and as I argue in my book Empire and the Making of Native Title, if we want to understand why the British government never sought to negotiate a treaty with the Indigenous people in order to acquire sovereignty and purchase land, we need to look elsewhere than Cook and his doings in 1770. Indeed, it is only by shifting our gaze away from 1770 — and by grasping the distinctive nature of the historical truths that mythic stories tell about moments that actually occurred much later — that we are able to explain the plight of so many Aboriginal Australians today. •