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Scott Morrison’s Endeavour voyage politicises Australian history

Scott Morrison’s $6.7 million Endeavour tour is not only guilty of historical inaccuracy, it erases the role of Aboriginal individuals in early colonial Australia.

Bungaree, dressed in colonial clothes, stands in front of the Endeavour ship. Portrait of Bungaree (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

As part of a $48.7 million package celebrating the anniversary of Captain Cook’s first voyage to Australia, the Federal Government will give the Australian National Maritime Museum $6.7 million towards the circumnavigation of Australia by a replica of Captain Cook’s ship, Endeavour. The government will also contribute $5.45 million to the Cooktown 2020 Festival. This announcement exposes the dangers of politicising history and forcing the past to fit into a pre-determined nationalistic metanarrative. The past is full of precipices, jagged rocks and churning seas. When politicians interfere with the representation of history, their rose-coloured visions of empty, sweeping plains jar with reality.

Scott Morrison’s gaffe on radio – that the journey of the Endeavour replica will be a “re-enactment” – speaks to a pervasive naivety about our country’s history and an inability to come to terms with the violence, dispossession and ongoing trauma of white invasion. It illuminates the prioritisation of patriotic chest-beating over fact.

Cook did not circumnavigate Australia. Matthew Flinders and his crew were the first people to circumnavigate Australia. They began their journey on 22 July 1802 and finished it on 9 June 1803. Bungaree, a Kuringgai man, was part of that expedition, making him the first ‘Australian-born’ man to circumnavigate Australia. A Cadigal man, Nanberry, went as far as the Great Barrier Reef with Flinders and Bungaree. In his journal, A Voyage to Terra Australis, Flinders praised both Aboriginal men: “I had before experienced much advantage from the presence of a native of Port Jackson, in bringing about a friendly intercourse with the inhabitants of other parts of the coast; and on representing this to the governor, he authorised me to receive two on board. Bongaree, the worthy and brave fellow who had sailed with me in the Norfolk, now volunteered again; the other was Nanbaree, a good-natured lad…” These men were always close at hand, mediating between cultures, fishing and boldly striding out to initiate contact between suspicious parties. Flinders wrote that Bungaree was “a constant attendant” in his boat when he ferried between ship and shore during the expedition.

Australia has a black history. But we seem reluctant to celebrate these alternative stories. There is no public commemoration for Bungaree. Matthew Flinders’ cat, Trim, also sailed around Australia. Multiple statues of Trim, exist; two outside Australia. There is even a novel written in which Flinders and Trim, but not Bungaree, feature as central characters.    

While there has been increasing acknowledgement of the contribution of Aboriginal guides to land-based expeditions, historians, such as Keith Vincent Smith and Lynette Russell, have only very recently unearthed stories of the employment of Aboriginal sailors, pilots, guides, sealers and whalers. Bungaree was just one in a long line of black, maritime pioneers. Similarly, Cook was one in a long line of European explorers to chart Australia, and he was by no means the first, as Nick Brodie masterfully illustrates in 1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia’s Beginnings.

A Spanish expedition passed through the Torres Strait in 1606, possibly sighting the Australian mainland, the Dutch travelled down Australia’s western and southern coastlines, reaching Tasmania, in the seventeenth century and Macassan traders from Indonesia were trading with groups in the Kimberleys and Arnhem Land from at least the seventeenth century. All of these nautical and economic feats are arguably more impressive than what Cook achieved. But many Australians would be hard-pressed to recollect names such as Willem Janszoon, Dirk Hartog, William Dampier and Nicolas Baudin.

As the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the wave of vandalism on Captain Cook statues across Australia suggest, Australians are clamouring for public acknowledgement of this nation’s diverse, multi-racial and often dark colonial past. Perhaps telling stories like Bungaree’s are a better starting point than promoting a repetitive “three cheers” version of history that, in the case of the Endeavour funding, is not even historically accurate. Furthermore, Bungaree’s story is uniquely Australian.

While Morrison promotes his latest attempt at fostering nationalist pride, divers and researchers off the east coast of the United States are salvaging and examining the Endeavour wreckage. The Endeavour was renamed Lord Sandwich II and functioned as a troop carrier for the British in the mid-1770s. In 1778 the Lord Sandwich II, by now an unkempt prison ship, was scuttled in Newport Harbour during the American War of Independence. The legal ownership of the vessel falls to the State of Rhode Island. Holding the Endeavour close as an Australian icon prevents us from seeing the wider picture. When viewed through a less magnified lens, the Endeavour, caught between warring factions on the other side of the world, symbolises the provinciality of Australia in global history. Thus, Australia is left with the invention of historical fact in the name of “re-enactment” and probable future difficulty obtaining the rights to show any part of the real Endeavour on local soil.

The government has pledged that some of the allocated $48.7 million will go towards Indigenous history projects, but it remains to be seen exactly what these are. So far the government has only announced funding for the Endeavour replica, the Cooktown Festival and a $3 million upgrade to the Botany Bay region, which includes building yet another Captain Cook monument. It is also unclear whether these projects will acknowledge the dynamism of Indigenous history across deep time, focus on post-1788 history, promote a tokenistic story of unchanging Aboriginal cultures prior to the arrival of European settlers, or a combination of these.

If we want a story to celebrate as a nation, why focus on a ship that heralded white invasion? There are plenty of explorers with less antagonistic legacies. Why not Bungaree?

Monuments, commemorations, public performance and re-enactments in Cook’s honour solidify a particular version of events that are appetising to our current Federal Government. This official collective memory has the capacity to overshadow private grievances. Graffiti is a sign that our governments must not take ownership over public spaces for granted. Not all of us want to continue to kneel at the altar of figures like Captain Cook.