LAST week I telephoned my secondary school history teacher with a question: ‘Did you teach me that Captain Cook discovered Australia?’ Without a moment of hesitation she replied: ’Yes, of course I did. He didn’t, as it happens, but to pass your exam that was the information you needed to answer any relevant question. I knew it wasn’t true, but the department said it was, so that’s what we taught.’ I did not bother to mention 1606 Willem Janszoon and Luís Vaz de Torres; 1616 Dirk Hartog; 1619 Frederick de Houtman; 1642 Abel Tasman; 1696 Willem de Vlamingh; 1699 William Dampier. I presume, so far as the British is con-cerned, it is Captain James Cook who matters. It was he who claimed the island in the name of King George 111.
There was a volunteer woman in Perth who assisted newly arrived migrants. In the 20-years after the Second World War they arrived in droves; ten-pounds Poms and displaced persons. The flotsam and jetsam of Europe, struggling to pick-up the shat-tered pieces of their lives.
The woman in question was addressing a group of new arrivals and detailing the many facilities available to new Western Australians. With no malice aforethought, she told the assembled group, in answer to a serious question: ‘There was nothing here until the humans arrived.’ Her prejudice was so ingrained, so subliminal, she did not realise she was a rampant racist, kind-hearted woman that she was.
Curiously, Stan Grant, whom I have known for many years, has been accused of stirring racial discontent by contradicting the erroneous claim that Captain Cook discovered Australia. Since when has it been acceptable to avoid the truth, however disagreeable some might find it, because it does not suit the invented narrative? Tony Abbott’s spurious argument it was not an invasion but a settlement when the white arrivals landed at Sydney Cove is equally disquieting.
Stan Grant wrote on the ABC website: Who would have thought the mere suggestion that Captain Cook did not in fact discover Australia would be so controversial? It seems to have taken some people by surprise, the idea that people were here for more than 60,000 years before the Endeavour dropped anchor. What were we doing all that time, just waiting for white people to find us? And to dare challenge this “dis-covery”; how impertinent. I can hear someone saying “know your place”. It has certainly ignited a debate and that is a good thing. History is not dead, it is not past or redundant, it is alive in all of us: we are history.
Responding to the tearing down of racist monuments in the United States prompted me to ask questions about our history; the story we choose to tell ourselves. And it is a choice. Where the Americans appear consumed by race, we prefer silence. There is a history in Australia of not wanting to talk about the darker parts of our shared past.
When a nation is founded on a doctrine of terra nullius — literally, empty land — then it becomes too easy to ignore the people of that emptiness. We don’t have to reckon with the treatment of Aboriginal people because they are invisible. Indigenous people become a postscript to Australian history. This is what Captain Cook’s statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park tells us. The inscription that Cook “Discovered this territory 1770” maintains a damaging myth, a belief in the superiority of white Christendom that devastated Indigenous peoples everywhere. Where does it come from? In 1452, Pope Nicholas V sanctioned the conquest, colonisation and exploitation of all non-Christian peoples. In 1493, after Christopher Columbus returned from his so-called discovery of America, Pope Alexander VI decreed that land not ruled by Chris-tian kings was free to be claimed. The idea of terra nullius was the law of whiteness; that anyone who did not worship Jesus Christ was less than human. The doctrines of discovery and terra nullius have been demolished by the church, by our courts, by the United Nations. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues says the Discovery doctrine is the “foundation of the violation of their (Indigenous people) human rights”.
How in Australia do we maintain the ceremonial fig leaf of welcomes to country while a statue stands in the centre of our largest city proclaiming to the world that no one here mattered until a white person “discovered” the land? My father has dedicated his life to saving and reviving our language — Wiradjuri — a language his grandfather was jailed for speaking. Language, he says, does not tell you who you are, but where you are. This is our heritage, all of us: Australians.
I want to believe in us as Australians. This is in so many ways an extraordinary country. I want to believe in “we” not “us and them”. But we means all of us. Captain Cook is part of my story; an extraordinary seaman and navigator.
The song lines, dreaming and language of the first peoples should be cherished by all of us. To non-Indigenous people I say that tradition is part of your heritage. That’s what Galarrwuy Yunupingu means; that’s my father’s dream.
Australia is founded on three grand stories: the First Nations, the British tradition, and the richness of our migration story. But it starts with us. We are not invisible.
Our frontier resistance warriors deserve a place on the war memorial wall of remembrance. I should not have to cross a river named in honour of a man who wanted us exterminated. This is not 1770 or 1901. This is not the first fleet or federation. This is 2018.
We have a voice, our lives matter. After all, we discovered this country.” Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning on 3BA at 10.30.