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Who Writes History?

How did our national story take shape? This theme explores how and why Captain James Cook has been portrayed so prominently in Australian history. 

In 2018, the National Library of Australia hosted the exhibition Cook and the Pacific, which was co-curated by Dr Martin Woods. In the following video, Woods explains some commonly held perceptions about Cook. 

 

In February 1779, after attempting to take the Hawaiian king captive, Cook was killed. Already a man of prominence in Europe, Cook's voyages soon became legend and a lasting legacy was established.

Cook ascends to heaven from Kealakekua Bay while his companions fire at the people on the shore.

 

Credited with the 'discovery' of Australia, Cook has held a central role in the national narrative for almost 250 years.

This poster was used to promote tourism in the 1950's. The words on the scroll note that 'Australia's history began when Captain Cook anchored in Botany Bay in 1770'.

 

For a number of decades, many Australians have challenged ideas about the way that Australia's history has been told, particularly notions about Cook's 'discovery' and the absence of Indigenous perspectives and experiences. Listen to Worimi man and historian Professor John Maynard speaking at the Library. 

 

Bruce Pascoe, a Bunurong/Tasmanian Yuin man and author of Dark Emu, added to this debate during an address, also at the Library.

Activities

  • How is the story of Captain Cook taught in Australian schools today? How does this compare with the way in which Martin Woods learnt about Cook and Australian history in 1968? Investigate the history content covered in the Australian Curriculum and decide if it provides students with an appropriate understanding of Australian history.
  • Why is Cook such a significant part of Australia’s national narrative? As a class, brainstorm other ‘heroes’ of Australian history? Analyse the features, characteristics and contribution of each of these. What role do legendary figures have in shaping the way Australians see themselves?
  • Maynard mentions that the history he learnt at school was all about ‘discoverers, explorers, settlers’. Why does he have issue with each of these terms? How important is language in shaping our beliefs about the past?
  • Bruce Pascoe says he was ashamed that he did not believe his elders regarding his people’s history until he found evidence in an explorer’s journal. What does this tell us about oral and written traditions? What are the main differences between the two? Do these differences have implications for the reliability and usefulness of oral and written historical sources? How might this shape the way history is told?
  • It is often claimed that ‘history is written by the victor’. What does this mean in relation to Australian history? Does this idea still have relevance today? Consider these issues in a class debate around the topic that history is written by the victor