James Cook: The Voyages Back

An exhibition on Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery from 1768 to 1779 is unavoidably political at a time when debates rage on Twitter and in the news media about the legacies of empire, with some, such as the ‘Ethics and Empire’ group at Oxford University, seeking to reclaim a positive nostalgic narrative and invest it with scholarly legitimacy. While the context is disturbing, this politicisation is a good thing; Indigenous people and their allies in settler nations have long emphasised the destructive legacies of Cook while Blue Plaque Britain has too readily and simplistically represented James Cook (1728-1779) as the hero explorer of the Enlightenment. James Cook: The Voyages at the British Library suggests that the British narrative of Cook has moved on, has become more complicated. In this case, however, it has resulted in an uncomfortable neutrality. The exhibition presents a story, a nice detailed narrative. It does not support the Brexit-infused nostalgic view of Empire but nor does it fully interrogate European myths of Cook or sufficiently foreground the long-term negative legacies of his voyages in the Pacific where, for instance, they eventually led to the occupation of Australia from 1788 and over one hundred years of frontier warfare. Entering the exhibition we are told that “Cook’s voyages have been celebrated, but also sometimes condemned, ever since.” This reviewer thinks it would have been braver and more interesting to focus on why he is a controversial figure, rather than trying to achieve a balanced account. By aiming for balance, the exhibition ends up saying very little.

As a White Australian, I grew up with myths of Cook. I lived walking distance from Captain Cook’s cottage, built in Whitby in 1755, North Yorkshire and moved brick by brick in 1934 to Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne. As a child I enjoyed visiting this eighteenth-century cottage, unaware that its presence was incongruous, that it served to reinforce myths of White sovereignty in Wurundjeri country and deny the violent invasion and occupation (from 1835, over fifty years after Cook’s death) of the city of my birth. Cook was killed in 1779 but he lives on, and European myths of Captain Cook act to validate the continued European occupation of Australia, as current federal government plans to build a new Cook memorial at Botany Bay in New South Wales attest.

Although invasion followed by settlement did not occur until 1788, nine years after Cook’s death, he is mythologised as the father of Australia. All nations need a foundation myth and he embodies ours. He also exists as an important myth in Australian Indigenous histories, embodying both the first and subsequent invasions by Whites across the continent. Captain Cook is not a person, he is an idea. This exhibition does not adequately address this. All history is subjective, and I, as a historian of the British colonial world, am a product of my own time; a time when events in Australia, including the massive Invasion/Australia day protests on January 26th 2018 and the Uluru statement of May 2017, seek to dismantle the myths and materialities of the ongoing British occupation. The Australia day protests are recognised in the introduction to the ‘Australia’ section, but the reasons why “Statues of Cook have been defaced in recent years” is never fully explained. This is why I found the British Library exhibition both interesting and frustrating.

James Cook the man was also a product of his time. This and forthcoming exhibitions such as Oceania at the Royal Academy (29 September – 10 December, 2018), are being held to mark the 250th anniversary of the voyage of Cook’s Endeavour to the Pacific which left Plymouth, England on the 26th of August 1768. Departing during the height of the European Enlightenment, Cook and his companions, especially the botanist Joseph Banks (who in 1778 became President of the Royal Society), took these ideas with them to the Pacific. It was firstly a scientific mission to contribute to charting the transit of Venus, a project that symbolised the pan-European cooperation of the Republic of Letters. As the philosophical tomes presented near the beginning of the exhibition reveal, Enlightenment did not mean a dedication to equality (except in its most radical manifestations). In this context, to be an enlightened explorer did not mean renouncing violence, and we get glimpses, but only glimpses, of this complexity in Voyages. Too often the language used in the descriptive blurbs emphasises the violence of Indigenous people. A gun greets visitors in the second room, and an opportunity is lost, as many were on the voyages themselves. The description for the gun states that “Violence is part of the story of James Cook’s voyages” but then goes on to state that Cook was instructed “to establish good relations with the inhabitants of the places he visited but was also warned to be on his guard against attack.” Without an additional discussion here of the violence enacted by Cook and his men during the voyages, this seems to repeat the delusion held by many late eighteenth-century ‘enlightened’ colonisers that they were friendly and places, as they did, the blame for violence on Indigenous peoples.

The exhibition objects will please historians and the interested public alike. We see original drawings and paintings from Cook’s three voyages including Sydney Parkinson’s 1769 portrait of Te Kuukuu/Otegoowgoow, William Hodges’ drawings from the second voyage, and John Webber’s images of Nootka Sound and Hawai’i created during the third voyage. Significantly, many drawings and charts by Tupaia, a Polynesian navigator who accompanied Cook on part of the first voyage, are also included, and this Indigenous perspective helps to complicate the story. The manuscripts of Cook and Banks’ journals, as well as those by lower ranking officers, objects ‘collected’ during the voyages, and numerous charts and maps are also included. With this material, the British Library succeeds in placing these voyages in the historical context of the late eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and while historians of this era might find the description of this “intellectual awakening”, this era of “rational explanations”, a little simplistic, it does provide a sound ideological context for this era of British imperialism. However, without a courageous interrogation of the myths of Cook, the broader contextualisation, the explanation of how the guns existed alongside the botanical drawings, does not go far enough.

Voyages does not entirely recreate a traditional, colonial narrative. Indigenous perspectives from the era of exploration and colonisation are included, as are contemporary Indigenous voices from the places invaded during, or as a result of, the voyages, from Aotearoa/New Zealand to Canada. I am not going to praise the British Library for this inclusion, as it should be standard whenever we represent the colonial past, but these contemporary voices, speaking from television screens as the visitor makes their way through the exhibition, are significant and help to complicate the narrative presented in the glass cabinets.

The exhibition is organised chronologically, taking visitors from the Pacific to North America and from the first voyage to Cook’s death at the hands of Hawai’ians in 1779. This is a good way to make the story understandable, but it also draws us into a narrative that becomes a descriptive story when right now, with the Pacific facing destruction by climate change and with Indigenous peoples in Australia, Aotearoa and Canada facing continued systemic racial inequality, we really need to address the myths and confront the legacies. These myths and legacies are briefly addressed in two short videos at the end of exhibition, but this late addition is not enough. It should inform the representation of documents and objects throughout.

Perhaps I am asking for the impossible. The British Library has a wealth of resources on Cook’s voyages and they use them to good informative effect along with material borrowed from the National Portrait Gallery, Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and other institutions. With these documents, paintings and objects, the British Library have not recreated a wholly White narrative, as some conservative historians seek to do. However, one could leave this exhibition without a proper understanding of why some Pacific Islanders annually celebrate Cook’s death or why his cottage in Melbourne was graffitied in 2014 in a protest against Australia Day (which celebrates the landing of the First Fleet in 1788, and is offensive to many Indigenous Australians and allies). Until the 15th of July, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne held the Colony: Australia 1770-1861 exhibition, which also sought, somewhat successfully, to combine White and Indigenous experiences of colonisation, and where upstairs the visitor could view Indigenous artists’ contemporary responses to these legacies in the accompanying Frontier Wars exhibition. Frontier Wars provided access to a deeper understanding of the meanings and legacies of this history. Perhaps because it is a library and not an art gallery, perhaps because it is in the metropole and not colonised, settler space, the British Library’s exhibition of James Cook: The Voyages provides an informative story of Cook but shies away from fully confronting what Cook meant and means.

James Cook: The Voyages is at the British Library until 28th August 2018.