Recording date:

Professor John Maynard - Echoes of Cook


*Speakers: John Maynard (J), Marie-Louise Ayres (M)

*Audience: (A)

*Location: National Library of Autsralia

*Date: 22 September 2018


J:          Thanks very much, Marie-Louise, for that very kind introduction. I might take my hat off, I’ve had it on all day. As one of my Aboriginal men from the Port Stephens’ region of New South Wales I just want to begin by thanking young brother, Tyrone Bell who’s not here now but he was here this morning, for his kind welcome to country this morning and I too respectfully acknowledge the Ngunnawal people and their ancestral lands within which I am again most honoured to be a visitor. I also pay respects to our elders both past and present. I also want to take the time to recognise our Pacific brothers and sisters who have been here with us today, they’ve been here for the opening of this event over the last few days and have been working with the Library on the exhibition. And I guess all of us as indigenous peoples of the Pacific have a common connection and that common connection is James Cook.

Two days ago I have to say I turned 64 and when you get a little bit further along the track you begin to wonder, I mean and you look back over your life and things like that and I noticed that Maori brother, Mark, stated that he started school in 1959. That was exactly the same year I did. Now I look back on my school years. I was at school from 1959 to 1969 and I left the day I turned 15. I don’t carry any fond memories of my school years, I didn’t receive a lot of encouragement or support thorough those years. There was nothing about Aboriginal history or culture in the school curriculum then. We had been conveniently missed, forgotten, overlooked and dare I say purposefully erased from Australian history. It was all about discoverers, explorers, settlers and centre stage of all of this whitewashing of history was certainly James Cook.

In 2020 the Australian nation will be torn between the Anglo celebrations and the Aboriginal mourning of James Cook’s so-called discovery of Australian. It’s been said here a few times today that we weren’t lost. In raising the British flag on Possession Island in the Torres Strait James Cook unleashed cataclysmic consequences upon Aboriginal people of the Australian continent. As an Aboriginal historian one cannot but recognise in the wake of this single event the horrific impact and cultural destruction that would explode across the continent in the decades ahead. At its height the Aboriginal population would teeter on near complete annihilation through disease, warfare and severe government policies. Now I recognise that it would be completely unrealistic to think that we would have been – remained immune to outside invasion and its impact even if James Cook had not stepped ashore in 1770.

Now in this discussion I’ll concentrate on a combination of my contribution to the beautiful catalogue that’s been produced by the Library, I must say, and an earlier publication, East Coast Encounters, which was with the National Maritime Museum back in 2014, I think that come out so it’s a combination, my discussion will be the paper, the essay I did for the Library here and the East Coast Encounters book. I’ll provide an Aboriginal perspective on Cook that examines the complexities and the contradictions of the man and his interactions with Aboriginal Australia and the impact he has had.

Now the symbolic use of James Cook by Aboriginal people is widely evident. When Ray Arose, an Aboriginal elder originally from Dirranbandi in southwestern Queensland – and I say Uncle Ray’s been a part of the Newcastle community for many years – when he was asked about his health after he’d suffered a stroke – this was several years ago – he responded no, I’m not too good, mate, I’m Captain Cooked. There’s this you know use of Cook in many ways by Aboriginal people, we do have you in Aboriginal Australia.

Now divisions in Australia over differing viewpoints of the navigator, James Cook, have already begun to erupt over historical memory and its accuracy. In a recent article Aboriginal journalist, Stan Grant, noted the divisive fractures within the United States over the commemoration of southern leaders of the civil war period and demands that the memorials be pulled down. Now after a walk through Hyde Park in Sydney Stan Grant drew attention to similar statues in Australia. He noted the monument dedicated to James Cook and its inaccuracy in stating that Cook had in fact discovered Australia. Stan Grant had no idea that his comment would incite such a backlash of heated opposition.

Stan was not calling for the statue to be torn down, nor suggesting that Cook’s memory should be devalued. Grant simply asked for an amendment to be made on the plaque to recognise what is now scientifically recognised as over 65,000 years of Aboriginal connection to this continent. Grant recognised that Cook was not simply – and I quote, a figure cast in bronze, a statue, but the man, James Cook, a man of doubt and fear and perseverance and undoubted courage. I am like Grant, an admirer of James Cook as a skilled navigator and an inspiring leader of his crews. Cook’s working class upbringing instilled in him a capacity to view the world through a different lens. And he was instrumental in fostering loyalty in the crews that sailed under him.

As I said before, in 2014 I went on board The Endeavour replica, the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour as part of the East Coast Encounter exhibition and forum. Now I was struck by what an achievement it was to sail such a tiny craft across such a vast distance and through some terrifying seas. I still look back to go on that ship but it’s – I mean you’d finish up getting – you’d be like this to get down and around, I mean it was - they must have been midgets, I think but it was so small, I mean the size of the ship struck me. So it certainly was an achievement.

But what of his journey to Botany Bay and his orders in relation to Aboriginal people? Cook has received secret instructions from the British Admiralty and as such from the Crown itself which advised that in the event he found the continent he should chart its coast, obtain information about its people, cultivate their friendship and alliance and appropriate any convenient trading posts in the King’s name. But clearly Cook did not open up any meaningful dialogue or discussion, nor did he gain any consent in claiming the entire east coast of the continent. As such he was in direct violation of his orders from the Crown.

In fact the evidence that can be gleaned from his own records clearly implies the opposite. As Cook sets down in his journal, all they seemed to want was us to be gone. There was no welcome mat of consent rolled out. The arrogance of Cook’s actions in claiming possession of the continent without any alliance with or consent from the owners, and the ignorance on his part that this suggests, stands in stark contrast to his glowing written record which speaks of a paradise of equality. And I quote, in reality – this is an often used quote – in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans, they’re highly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe. They are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a tranquillity which is not disturbed by the inequality of condition. The earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life. They live in a warm and fine climate and enjoy a very wholesome air.

Now this would later come – be recognised as well when in 1788 when the first settlement arrived here and a lot of the settlers as they moved across were saying how healthy Aboriginal people were. And up in my area in Newcastle and Port Stephens Lieutenant Coke, a British marine, was saying that Aboriginal women were diving into what is now Newcastle harbour and coming to the surface with lobsters, three or four times in each hand four times the size of anything we’ve ever seen in Europe. And what magnificent specimens Aboriginal people were, healthy, healthy specimens.

Now remember Cook’s comment and the Britain of Cook’s time was one of shocking inequality, raw sewage flowed through the streets of London, filth and disease was rampant. Cook clearly could not but note the stark difference to his homeland of the way Aboriginal people were living here. Cook and his impact upon Aboriginal Australia has been widely incorporated into Aboriginal songs, stories and understandings in the aftermath of 1770. Anthropologist, Deborah Bird Rose, the late Japanese historian, Minoru Hokari, and even more recently the celebrated author, Peter Carey, are just a few who have drawn attention to the residual Aboriginal memory of James Cook. These accounts feature Aboriginal people in northern and remote Australia stating that James Cook had visited their communities and he’d been shooting people, raping their women and taking the land. Cook’s impact was clearly far-reaching and its memory was persistent.

One such story revealed - this is actually from the Kimberley – the old fella says, long way back beginning, right back beginning, I don’t know but this the biggest troubling. Ah when that Captain Cook came from big England and come through down to Sydney harbour and a lot of Aboriginal people were down to Sydney harbour. Well he’s the one that hit the Sydney harbour, he should have asked him one of these bosses of the Sydney Aboriginal people. Captain Cook didn’t give him a fair go to tell him good day or hello, you know? Because Captain Cook came very cheeky, you know. He don’t ask, make sure or <inaudible> 12:03 you know make him right.

What this Aboriginal elder was stating was that clearly James Cook did not adhere to Aboriginal protocol and open discussion and dialogue. These interpretations of this historical moment spread across the continent. Some clearly did not see the original Cook as the one to blame. And another older fellow who was interviewed said, too many Captain Cooks had been stealing all the women and killing people. They had made war, warmakers, these new Captain Cooks. All the Captain Cooks came and called themselves welfare mob, they wanted to take all of Australia.

Of course we know that James Cook did not visit central Australia or the Kimberley but this recognition illustrates how deeply the event has been burned into Aboriginal consciousness. The memory of Cook is simply a way of recording history that is sensible in its own terms and location. Aboriginal people are clearly historically widely aware of the consequences of the British arrival and its impact.

But it is not just central Australia and the Kimberley where Cook’s memory has resonated so powerfully and continues to do so. Communities in south-eastern Australia where Cook most certainly did have a direct impact have maintained and built Cook into their understandings of the past and everyday language. Sandy Cameron here, [Yaga] 13:53 elder on the north coast of New South Wales as interviewed by linguist, Terry Crowley, in 1973 and he recorded a song in language of James Cook’s visit. Cameron explained it was this Captain Cook, he was the king of the tribe and had all this tin stuff and plonk and tobacco. All the dark people had a look, he’s a Woorabin, a Woorabin. That’s a boat, that’s a ship coming in and they say [warai] 14:18, who’s this ship coming in?

And Captain Cook shouldn’t have bowed the boat with the bush just as much to say he’s a friend, friend coming in. He jumped into a little boat and when he paddled in he left the big boat outside, big sail, you know? Walked in waving, the chief of the tribe went to them with boomerangs and spears. No, he says, [wana, wana] 14:40, stop. Chief says I’ll stop all of them with the spear and the boomerang. They made friends, getting tobacco and clay pipe. You don’t buy them anymore. And penny each one time, shilling a dozen. And fed alright, shook hands, made friends and they was there and this is a song I made up myself.

Sandy Cameron then broke into a song in lingo about Cook and his coming ashore. In stating firmly that Captain Cook shouldn’t have bowed the boat with the bush and that the old chief had called out no, [wana, wana], stop. The message conveyed is that Cook and his crew initially should not have come ashore.

The [Yewen] 15:24 people on the south coast of New South Wales retained oral memories that recognised the lack of any formal consent or contact with Cook. Cook’s maps were very good but they did not show us, our names or places. He didn’t ask us. Aboriginal people across New South Wales derisively sung songs lampooning James Cook. In Armidale they converted a young children’s school rhyming song into their own dirty ditty. Captain Cook chased a chook all around Australia, he slipped on a rock and split his cockadoodle dandy. Similar songs were sung at the Karuah Mission near Port Stephens.

And my good friend, Ray Kelly, informed me that as a kid on the mission at Armidale he knew older people who when they spotted a welfare officer or even an unknown [gover] 16:18 - I mean you know what a [gover] is? It’s a white person - or even an unknown [gover] would say lookie, lookie, here comes Cookie. The humour and retained bitter memory of James Cook and what he represents remain etched deeply within the fabric of many Aboriginal communities on the east coast of Australia. Cook is still at the top of the heap of historical bogeymen and as I have stated elsewhere he transcends time and space to wreak havoc across the continent upon the Aboriginal inhabitants over the course of the past 250 years.

Now whether he deserved this monster mantle is open to conjecture and certainly challenge from wider nonindigenous Australia but from an Aboriginal perspective Cook remains the prime scapegoat for white invasion.

Now I’ll finish with a song story poem from the late great David [Mulgarri] 17:16 which captures the severity of the cultural collision but in its closing words reveals despite everything that we are still here, we are still connected to the land and all within it. We are the people of this continent, nothing can change that.

And I state, I am [Worawa, I am Marignon, I am Warrnambool] 17:43. Once I walked my country but lost my place. Then I lost my dignity, spirit. Once when I walked my country I was lizard and kangaroo, I was turkey and emu and the wandjina walked with me. Now I have lost my place, I am grog and despair. I am sickness and early death and the wandjina can’t walk in jails. How did I leave my country? What brought me out of my land? Can I remember? Did I ever know? I must remember, I must know. Might be an illusion that holds me from country for I am [Worawa], I am lizard and kangaroo, I am turkey and emu and I am spirit, rock and I am wandjina.

Thank you.


M:        Thanks very much, John. We’ve got time for a few questions this afternoon, I think so you know the deal, you can wait for a microphone – not only can we record it but if you’re using a hearing loop you’ll be able to hear so any questions for John?

A:        Thanks very much, that was actually really interesting. Do you think that there might be a – maybe a less fractious conversation to be had if it wasn’t also narrowed down just to Captain Cook because as – I mean as you indicated yourself if not Cook then someone else? And Cook could claim this land to his you know to his heart’s content but if they hadn’t had overflowing prison hulks in the Thames the imperial government wouldn't have made certain decisions. But I guess everything comes back to a particular man. So if on the one hand you’ve got people that think he was a man who did his job well is it more divisive to just sort of use that man as the symbol rather than maybe decisions made by the imperial government?

M:        Yeah, that’s a good point you know that’s right but I guess for us you know for Aboriginal people we’ve got to have someone to blame and I said he’s taken on –

A:        He’s got a good name.

M:        Yeah, he’s taken on that mantle. But as those stories from the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s with Aboriginal people in central Australia and Arnhem Land and certainly up in the Kimberley where Cook certainly never went, I mean – and one of those stories said it wasn’t that Cook, it wasn’t that James Cook, it was all them other Captain Cooks so you know it was being deflected onto every other area and that could have been government policy, the people who were coming in into the area so yeah, I – and I think probably in the next few years there’s going to be a lot more discussion on this, certainly a lead-up to 2020 as well. But I think this is a good starting point, I mean it’s important to have these discussions.

I think the country still has a long way to go, I mean you can’t heal unless you actually deal with the past and then we can all move on from that but there’s this great reluctance to look at and deal with – I’m not just talking about Cook but you know the whole gamut of massacres and violence and stolen generations and the policies that impacted onto Aboriginal people. There was that study by Noel Butland and there’s an example which Butland – that was in the ‘80s – said that only four decades after the British arrived on this continent the Aboriginal population had been decimated from somewhere between 60 to 90% and that’s a massive loss of life in only four decades. You know it’s catastrophic, you can’t – I actually pinch myself that I’m still here, that my family actually survived that level of violence and certainly from where I come from in Port Stephens there was the timber-getters and the vigilante groups that went out in massacres and also the disease.

I, like Butland, and I mean Butland’s – that study in the ‘80s especially ‘cause he actually puts the Aboriginal population as much larger than what others have put it at, he was looking at a population of about a million. If you're looking at 60 to 90% of a million that’s a lot of bloody people gone in four decades through disease you know as well, the impact of that so it’s you know we’ve got to look at these things, we’ve got to deal with these things and we’ve got to move on. And I personally think myself, and we’ve had these discussions for some time, a treaty is a great way to go from that and to heal from that process and recognise you know Aboriginal sovereignty to country then we can all deal with that and take great pride.

I think one of the greatest treasures the country’s got is 65,000 years of indigenous cultural connection to this continent. It’s a massive timeframe, wonderful stories and connection and culture, celebrate that, you know? And that’s you know that’s the way to go.

A:        Thanks John. Thanks for your books too. I’m not denying for a moment anything you’ve said, it rings terribly true, all the – my question though is, from an Aboriginal perspective or from your reading of Aboriginal perspectives, is there any upside to Cook and what came after?

J:          Well it’s a hard one to answer, I mean we heard the panel here this morning, they were talking about – there were a lot of benefits, I mean from – and that was you know Tongan you know Maori and certainly Aboriginal from Queensland were saying that the impact of that, Cook’s arrival, there were upsides of that and there were you know things have – that were taken on board from that particular point in time.

I think - and we heard about glass and – as a critical thing. Steel implements were other things that were taken on board as far as trade is concerned and that sort of stuff. It’s hard to go and find a lot of good things when you’ve got the impact of that massive impact of loss of life. And that’s one thing I – again about those population sizes which I spoke about. When Phillip was in Sydney he actually – it’s in his diaries and his records that there was something - 10,000 people, Aboriginal people in that region of Sydney.

I’ve looked at the area of Newcastle and there was one clan – there’s six clans in the region of Newcastle – one clan, the [Pembulan] 25:20 clan – one settler said, their numbers were over 4,000 and again you know in the space of only a few decades there’s 140, you know? It’s incredible loss of life very suddenly you know so looking for the benefits, I mean you know from our perspective it’s not easy, not easy.

A:        Thank you very much, I enjoyed you talk. You mentioned that up in Possession Island that Cook claimed the continent –

J:          The east coast.

A:        Could you explain why Governor Phillip only claimed the eastern half of the continent?

J:          Cook only claimed the east coast, I mean that was – when he put that – he didn’t claim the continent –

A:        Right so I misheard you.

J:          Yeah, no, he didn’t claim the continent, Cook put the flag there and then he claimed the east coast of Australia which was then followed up by Phillip as well in regards to Sydney, yeah.

A:        Thank you.

J:          Clarify that.

A:        John, thanks for your talk, it was terribly moving. I’m wondering if you have a thought or you talk with communities in a way that most of us can’t, unfortunately – I’m not going to the politicians, I’m too despairing about them but do you think there’s a fear on the part of Australians about letting Aboriginal people into our lives, to our constitution. Do you sense that there’s a fear or do you think something else blocks us moving, our politicians to reconciliation and justice?

J:          Yeah, look, it’s a hard one to answer, I mean for me the – how can you say? The sentiments in wider white Australia fluctuates, I mean we’ve certainly come through - had very vibrant period of - the ‘60s was a time of great social and political change, I mean there was enormously divisive war in Vietnam, there was the civil rights movement, United States and suddenly Aboriginal people started to appear. Charlie Perkins and the freedom ride, we had the Gurindji walk off Wave Hill and we had lot of support through the trade union movement to the Gurindji.

The ’67 referendum you know that saw a 10-year campaign of Aboriginal and nonaboriginal people together who fought for that nearly 9 – well 92% or a little bit more of the population supporting us. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972, Gary Foley will tell you there was a lot of students from ANU, nonindigenous students, who were a part of that movement. There was certainly a feeling coming through the ‘70s and into the ‘80s of great excitement, that we were Aboriginal history and people like Henry Reynolds and [Kernoys] 7:10 and Peter Reid and others and Aboriginal people were beginning to move into the Academy. I was 40 when I first walked through the gate at a university.

As I said when I started this I left school when I was 15, I spent the next 25 years in a whole variety of jobs, none even remotely related to academia or education and I was actually – went to university not even to enrol first off, I was writing up family history on my grandfather, a very prominent early Aboriginal activist then I was kidnapped by a Murray Aboriginal woman, Tracey Bundred, into doing a diploma and a degree and a PhD and I’m suddenly - here I am all these years later a professor but the whole point I want to say is through that period of the ‘70s and ‘80s we’ve mobilised – and I think with one middle Australia at that particular point, I mean it was an exciting time. The whole thought of treaty was in the air, that’s happening. The Hawke Government was – all of a sudden they took a complete backflip and the treaty was gone. And of course the sentiment of the country completely changed through the ‘90s and it’s gone back the other way and we’ve certainly lost that middle ground of Australia and that support and it’s a hard-fought area. It’s a political football.

We will always be a heavily marginalised minority unless we mobilise nonindigenous support and as I said earlier with those big moments where we’ve made an impact with Charlie Perkins and the freedom ride and the Gurindji walk-off, the ’67 referendum and the Tent Embassy was when we’ve mobilised nonindigenous Australia. And we have to reach out and get that support again and it’s a battle ground but as far as convincing politicians I don’t hold much faith. You know as I said for us I mean the Liberals will stab you in the stomach and the Labor will stab you in the back and the end result is bleedingly obvious that you’re going to get stabbed. So you know it’s a very hard-fought area for us but as I’ve said we’ve got to mobilise again, we’ve got to march, we’ve got to speak out and we’ve got to get the support from people like yourselves to stand up and speak with us to make change.

I mean you see – when you said go out to communities, I spent a lot of the ‘90s working with Aboriginal and Islander health and going out into the communities and the things you see today with youth suicide, I mean I was seeing that back in the ‘90s, I mean the things that I’ve seen over the last 25, 30 you know 40 years, the reality is it’s not improving. It’s always for us governments, we know what’s best for you. The critical thing is for them to sit down with us, listen to Aboriginal people. We’re on the ground with what’s going on, we’re the ones that give the best guidance and as I said before about my grandfather and the rise of early Aboriginal activism you know 94 years ago and my grandfather’s political platform back in the ‘20s was demanding enough land for each and every Aboriginal family in the country.

It was to stop the process of State Protection Boards removing Aboriginal kids from their families. It was demanding the abolishment of the Aborigines Protection Boards to be replaced by an Aboriginal board to sit under the Commonwealth Government. It was to defend the distinct Aboriginal cultural identity and we’re – here we are 94 years later, we’re still fighting for the same things so these you know it’s an ongoing thing you know but we still got to keep battling.

A:        Hi John. I really enjoyed your presentation, really good. I just want to know what your thoughts are on the way forward, how can we bring everybody together more? I know you’ve said – you’ve mentioned a few things but what can we do as a group of people who support you know what you want to do? And have you got anybody in particular in mind who could sort of represent the Aboriginal people? I mean I know there are some people who say they represent Aboriginal people but they don’t necessarily do that so how could that particular problem be overcome as well?

J:          Well I think it’s a problem we face and I don’t have the answer, I don’t have the answer, I confess and the biggest issue we’ve got today is the divisions and the factions and infighting in our own communities and the frustration and depression that that causes. And for me it all stems from native title in reality, it’s you know I mean I mentioned Gary Foley before, as Foley will say, that’s Mickey Mouse, that’s not land rights. Micky Mouse native title. It’s not and the reality is that we’ve got to go back – and everywhere I go and speak with our mob, I’ve said look, we’ve got to be united.

We can’t make any difference unless we are a united people and as I’ve said we’ve got to heal those divisions and factions, I mean our communities are fighting over crumbs that have been thrown on the ground through native title, that’s one of the big issues that we’ve got to face, we’ve got to get over that and all come back together and actually you know fight to make change for the good for all Aboriginal people, that’s the crucial thing. And I agree, I mean we’ve got people out there now but mostly they’re selected by the media or they’re selected by the government you know you’ve got to have grassroots Aboriginal support to get people in those particular positions but for us it’s not easy to do that, to get that support from those spaces.

A:        It is a big problem and it is going to take a long time.

J:          Yeah, I don’t know if I’ll be here.

A:        I was going to say that too.

J:          I don’t know if I’ll be here.

A:        I know there is a willingness on the part of a lot of people like nonindigenous people as well who want to try and help but how do we do it?

J:          I guess in one side look, in – to give one thought of inspiration, as I said I’d come to university 20 – what is it? Late 1993 so that’s what, 25 years ago now and the change, I mean I mentioned Charlie Perkins and he was with Gary Williams at the University of Sydney in 1964, it was two Aboriginal men. Today, I mean there’s Aboriginal centres right across the country in universities. Aboriginal students at Newcastle, we’ve got a magnificent two-storey all-purpose building shaped like eagle hawk wings which is the totem of the local group. There’s over 40 all indigenous staff in that building, we have over a thousand indigenous students at that university which is the biggest number in the country. And that success is going on all around the country so we are growing these particular place – a few – it must be several years ago when I was actually head of Wollotuka, the Aboriginal education centre at Newcastle.

We held the indigenous engineering summer school and we had 26 or 27 indigenous students from urban, rural and remote communities. These were 15 and 16-year-old kids and what that lifted me was these are articulate, confident kids able to express themselves you know I would have been terrified you know and opened my mouth at that age in a space like that but these were kids – I said for me it’s the next generation where we’re going to see the big change come through and we just got to be content in treading water ‘til we see these young people come into the space. So there is hope for the future, stay strong.


End of recording