It is 250 years ago, today, since British sailor James Cook “took possession” of the continent we know as Australia—a land that he named New South Wales—on behalf of the reigning monarch of one of the dominant world powers of the day, the British Empire.
We know Cook as “Captain Cook”. Technically, at that time, he was still Lieutenant Cook, although he was indeed captain of the ship HMS Endeavour, in the middle of a government-sponsored expedition in which he circumnavigated the globe.
During this journey, Cook and his crew observed the transit of Venus across the sun in 1769, circumnavigated both islands of New Zealand, and then mapped the eastern coastline of Australia, laying claim to the whole continent at the place he named Possession Island, before heading home via Batavia (now Jakarta) and the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa).
After he had travelled the length of the eastern coastline of Australia, Cook landed on Possession Island, in the area we now call the Torres Strait. It is known as Bedanug or Bedhan Lag by one of the indigenous peoples of the islands, the Kaurareg, whose country includes the lower western Torres Strait islands grouped around Muralag.
(The Ankamuti also lay claim to being indigenous to the island. They were based on the western side of Cape York, but frequented Bedanug, Muralag, and other islands off the coast.)
Today, Possession Island is located at the centre of the Possession Island National Park, an area of 5.10 km2 established as a protected area in 1977 and currently managed by the Queensland Parks and a wildlife Service.
There, on Possession Island, just before sunset on Wednesday 22 August 1770, Cook declared the land to be a British possession:
Notwithstand[ing] I had in the Name of His Majesty taken possession of several places upon this coast, I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast . . . by the name New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast, after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were Answerd by the like number from the Ship.
A monument in recognition of this event has been erected on the headland above the beach where Cook raised the flag in 1770. It states:
LIEUTENANT JAMES COOK R.N.
ON THE “ENDEAVOUR”
LANDED ON THIS ISLAND
WHICH HE NAMED
AND IN THE NAME OF HIS MAJESTY
KING GEORGE III
TOOK POSSESSION OF THE WHOLE EASTERN
COAST OF AUSTRALIA
FROM THE LATITUDE 38° SOUTH TO THIS PLACE
AUGUST 22nd 1770
Cook and the HMS Endeavour play a dominant role in our Australian historical awareness. The (misleading and inaccurate) claim that Cook “discovered Australia” is made even in our own times—when we should know better. Western scientific and historical knowledge now correlates strongly with Indigenous narratives that indicate that the land had long been inhabited and cared for, by the peoples we know call Aboriginal.
Our history did not start with Cook, however. Indeed, if we read the observations made by Cook in his journal as he sailed his ship alongside the eastern coast of New South Wales, we find that he was observing, not only the unfamiliar flora and fauna of the continent—but also the indigenous people of the land.
See my blogs on the time that Cook sailed along the eastern seaboard of Australia, at
So all along his journey beside the eastern coastline, Cook had recorded signs that the land was inhabited, and he even reported that he had met a number of the Aboriginal inhabitants. In his journal, on Saturday 21st April (at the southernmost point of this leg of his journey), Cook wrote:
Winds Southerly a gentle breeze and clear weather with which we coasted along shore to the northward. In the PM we saw the smook of fire in several places a certain sign that the Country is inhabited.
But he still pressed ahead with his report that he had claimed all the lands for the British Crown. This, despite the fact that he knew there were inhabitants in the land.
Cook, of course, was acting in accord with his royal orders. And those orders had been promulgated under the Doctrine of Discovery, a long-standing understanding amongst European trading nations, that they had every right—indeed, a divine right—to explore, invade, colonise, and convert the “natives” of distant lands.
On the Doctrine of Discovery, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/how-was-aboriginal-land-ownership-lost-to-invaders and my reflections at https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/
So Cook planted the British flag on the continent of Australia. This action demonstrated how the imperial colonising power operated: the land, and the people, were to be subsumed under imperial rule, simply because the imperial power wished that to be so. The people already living in those places were simply to bend in obedience to this greater power. And, as we know, if they resisted, although there might be some initial attempts to live together peaceably, ultimately they would be met with force, violence, and murder.
What became a cause of enduring conflict over many decades was the subsequent activity of settling on the land, erecting fences, planting crops, farming animals, protecting the property and claiming exclusive rights to the crops and animals now installed on the land.
To those who had formerly lived on this land, this was theft from their land. To those who had established a “civilised” lifestyle on the land, the former inhabitants were irritants to be kept at bay, and eventually enemies to be removed.
Thus murder was normalised in the years of settlement. And the original inhabitants experienced this as aggressive invasion and enforced colonisation.
On this day, as we remember the actions and words of Cook, on behalf of the British monarch, we need to make a commitment to tell the truth, on behalf of the indigenous peoples, whose land was invaded, whose lifestyle was disrupted, whose peoples were massacred, whose families were torn apart, over the decades and indeed centuries that followed.
We need to tell the truth on behalf of these First Peoples, who have cared for this land for millennia, who have nurtured community, strengthened family, traded and visited amongst the 270 language and culture groups which existed prior to Cook and the subsequent British invasion.
The church in which I serve, the Uniting Church, is committed to telling truth. This truth is confronting and challenging. In the revised Preamble which was adopted a decade ago by the Uniting Church, we sought to tell the truth.
Drawing on the voices of Indigenous Peoples, we have named the settlement of this continent as a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. We must continue to prioritise this commitment to tell the truth.
Likewise, at the 14th Assembly, meeting in Perth in 2015, we decided to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, that medieval theological foundation upon which the worldwide invasion and colonisation of lands was based—including the invasion and colonisation of Terra Australis. This has been part of our commitment to tell the truth.
As a result of this, the Uniting Church is committed to talking treaty. We are supportive of the formalisation of treaties with the various nations of Peoples who have inhabited, nurtured and cared for this land since time immemorial. This commitment is based on a recognition of the Sovereignty of each of those nations, sovereignty over the land that the people have inhabited, nurtured, and cared for over those many millennia.
Sovereignty, as articulated in the Statement from the Heart of 2017, is understood by the First Peoples as a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples
And we need to listen to the voice of the indigenous peoples, in this a statement, and in other ways.
For an indigenous perspective on Cook, see https://www.nla.gov.au/digital-classroom/senior/Cook/Indigenous-Response/Maynard
There are fine resources on the website of the National Museum of a Australia relating to Bedanug (Possession Island) at https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/endeavour-voyage/bedanug-thunadha-bedhan-lag-tuidin-possession-island
As we remember Possession Island, 1770, may this be the legacy of Cook, 250 years on: that we remember his observation that the Country is inhabited, that we value those people who had long inhabited this land and held sovereignty of the land, who continue to live in our midst today, and that we tell the full history of this country.