History revisited

Should Australia be spending money to commemorate Captain Cook, a divisive national symbol?

The federal government will spend nearly $50 million over four years to mark James Cook's first landing. But some have questioned the spend.

Captain Cook has loomed large in the federal government’s 2018 budget. The government allocated $48.7 million over four years to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyages to the South Pacific and Australia in 1770. The funding has been widely debated on social media as another fray in Australia’s culture wars, particularly in the context of $84 million in cuts to the ABC.

Closer scrutiny suggests that this latest celebration of Cook may serve as a headline for financial resources already committed to a range of cultural programs, at least some of which could be seen as business as usual. These include the development of digital heritage resources and exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum, National Library, AIATSIS and the National Museum of Australia, as well as support for training “Indigenous cultural heritage professionals in regional areas”.

However, the budget package also includes unspecified support for the “voyaging of the replica HMB Endeavour” and a $25 million contribution towards redevelopment of Kamay Botany Bay National Park, including a proposed new monument to the great man.

So while the entire $48.7 million won’t simply go towards a monument, it’s clear that celebrating the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing at Botany Bay is a high priority for this federal government.

In 1770 Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook, on a scientific mission for the British Navy, anchored in a harbour he first called Stingray Bay. He later changed it to Botany Bay, commemorating the trove of specimens collected by the ship’s botanists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.

Cook made contact with Aboriginal people, mapped the eastern coast of the continent, claimed it for the British Crown and named it New South Wales, allowing for the future dispossession of Australia’s First Nations. He would later return to the Pacific on two more voyages before his death in Hawaii in 1779.

Scholars agree that Cook had a major influence on the world during his lifetime. His actions, writings and voyages continue to resonate through modern colonial and postcolonial history.

Cook continues to be a potent national symbol. Partly this is due to the rich historical written and physical records we have of Cook’s journeys, which continue to reward further study and analysis.

But the other side to the hero story is the dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous peoples from their land. As a symbol of the nation, Cook is, and has always been, contested, political and emotional.

Too many Cooks

There are other European contenders for the title of “discoverer of the continent”, such as Dirk Hartog in 1616 and William Dampier in 1699. However, both inconveniently landed on the west coast. Although Englishman Dampier wrote a book about his discoveries, he never became a major figure like Cook.

Cook’s legend began immediately after his death, when he became one of the great humble heroes of the European Enlightenment. Historian Chris Healy has suggested that Cook was suited to the title of founder of Australia because his journey along the entire east coast made him more acceptable in other Australian states. Importantly, unlike that other great contender for founding father, the First Fleet’s Governor Arthur Phillip, Cook was not associated with the “stain of convictism”.

Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, by Emanuel Phillips Fox, 1902. Credit: Wikimedia [Licensed under PD Australia]
Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, by Emanuel Phillips Fox, 1902. Credit: Wikimedia [Licensed under PD Australia]

Australians celebrated the bicentenary of Cook’s arrival in 1970, and the bicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1988. Throughout this period it was widely accepted that Cook was the single most important actor in the British possession of Australia, despite the fact that many other political figures played significant roles.

This perhaps partly explains why Cook has featured so prominently in Aboriginal narratives of dispossession, and why the celebrations in 1970 and 1988 triggered debate around Aboriginal land rights.

Other scholars have examined the Aboriginal perspective on Cook’s landing. In the 1970s archaeologist Vincent Megaw found British artefacts in a midden at Botany Bay. He cautiously suggested that these items might have been part of the gifts given by Cook to the Aboriginal people he encountered.

Historian Maria Nugent has assessed the narratives recounted by Percy Mumbulla and Hobbles Danaiyarri. Both were senior Aboriginal lawmen and knowledge holders who, in the 1970s and ’80s, shared their sagas of the coming of Cook to their lands with anthropologists.

Too pale, stale and male?

Controversy over the celebration of Cook as founding father is not a new thing. It dates back to the 19th century when his first statues were raised.

This latest Captain Cook fanfare comes hot on the heels of broader global debates about the contemporary values and meaning of civic statues of (“pale, stale, male”) heroes associated with colonialism and slavery.

In Australia, there has also been debate about how the events of the first world war have been commemorated so expansively by Australia. A further $500 million was recently allocated for the extension of the Australian War Memorial, at a time when other cultural institutions in Canberra are being forced to shed jobs and tighten their belts.

The view from Captain Cook’s landing in Botany Bay, Kamay National Park. Credit: Wikimedia/Maksym Kozlenko, CC BY-SA
The view from Captain Cook’s landing in Botany Bay, Kamay National Park. Credit: Wikimedia/Maksym Kozlenko, CC BY-SA

The funding cycle for our contemporary cultural institutions and activities in Australia has been closely linked to anniversaries and their commemoration since at least the 1970 bicentenary. The 2018 budget lists support for programs at a number of cultural institutions and for training Indigenous cultural heritage professionals. It would be interesting to know whether these funds have been diverted away from existing operational budgets and core activities in these institutions to support the Cook celebrations.

The master plan for Kamay Botany Bay National Park has also been in development for some time. While centred on the historical event of Cook’s landing, the plan itself is more about the rehabilitation and activation of this somewhat neglected landscape. Plans have been drawn up in consultation with the La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council.

Should we be devoting scarce financial resources to yet another celebration of Cook? Focal events such as these can divert funds into cultural activities and may allow researchers and creative practitioners to unearth new evidence and develop fresh interpretations. Some of these funds may also go to support initiatives driven by First Nations communities.

There is no escaping the fact that Captain Cook is a polarising national symbol, representing possession and dispossession. Another anniversary of Cook’s landing may give us much to reflect upon, but it also the highlights the need for investment in new symbols that grapple with colonial legacies and shared futures.

Tracy Ireland, Associate Professor Cultural Heritage, University of Canberra.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.