Captain Cook Graffiti Paints a Confused Picture
Ahead of Australia Day, the statue of Captain Cook in St Kilda, Melbourne, has been smeared with pink paint (never mind that the paint job is actually quite striking, and Cook makes a fine, if unexpected, dandy). The graffitiing of Cook memorials is part of a protest that has been going on for years.
Take the Cook statue in Hyde Park, Sydney. Paint bombs were thrown at it on Australia Day morning in 2013. More recently, on 26 August 2017, the same statute was graffitied with the words, “CHANGE THE DATE” and “NO PRIDE IN GENOCIDE”.
There is another well-known monument and memorial to Cook in Melbourne. Though Cook never lived in Australia (British settlement was not for nine years after his death in Hawaii), in 1934 his parents’ cottage was dismantled in North Yorkshire, loaded into barrels and shipped across the seas, where it was reassembled at Fitzroy Gardens.
In 2014, that cottage was vandalised three days before Australia Day. Fluorescent orange, green and yellow paint bombs coloured the brickwork and tiles. Black paint spelled out: “26th Jan Australia’s SHAME!!!” A penis or other human appendage may also have been depicted, though due to poor artistry that remains conjectural.
The year before, two days after Australia Day, the cottage was paint-bombed. Then on 4 February a message was painted on the wall: “Cappy Cook was a crook killer liar theif [and while I was going to put in brackets [sic] to suggest a misspelling, further research suggests the author of the graffiti was really quite clever, using the alternate 18th century spelling of thief from Cook’s time: theif)”.
These actions have proved wildly unpopular in the Australian mainstream, with denunciations across both popular and social media. Yet despite the continuing public interest in Cook, for many years the legend and status of Cook have been on the radar of revisionist cultural-theory academics.
This is part of a backlash against the Great Man History of the 20th century in which predominantly white male figures were credited with almost single-handedly advancing history.
For an unrelenting two hundred years, Cook was the poster boy of explorers. In Australia, his image and legend were used to promote the greatness of the country. “Australia’s history began, when Captain Cook anchored in Botany Bay in 1770,” stated one poster from the 1950s.
A few years later, Australia’s most famous historian, Manning Clark, said something similar in the opening line of his monumental History of Australia: “Civilization did not begin in Australia until the last quarter of the eighteenth century.” He would later regret this.
In the 80s and 90s, the tide began to turn against Great Man History, which meant, given his symbolic value, it also turned against Cook. His name became attached to an altogether different aspect of our history—the dispossession, oppression and slaughter of Indigenous Australians. Australia’s Columbus suddenly became all too Columbus-like.
Cook is now claimed by both camps. By the postmodern theorists who denounce the colonial age of which he was such an integral part, and by popular writers who continue to write laudatory books, articles and television shows announcing his greatness.
Today, the irony of targeting Cook monuments to denounce Australia Day and the colonial history of Australia is that Cook neither discovered nor settled the land. It is a common error.
A survey I conducted at a university among first-year Australian history students found that 43% of those students believed the British were the first Europeans to discover Australia, and 46% thought first discovery occurred in 1770 or later. In fact, it was the Dutch who did the most to discover Australia to Europe, starting in 1606.
The other irony is that Cook truly was a great man, certainly so far as his duties as a naval captain were concerned. He inspired his men, kept them alive in an era where half or more of one’s crew could be expected to perish on long voyages, and he entered and explored Antarctic waters besieged by icebergs in a big wooden ship—arguably the greatest feat of exploration in history.
Cappy Cook was not a crook, nor liar nor thief nor killer. He was an instrument of his time—and now a symbol with little relationship to his uses by patriots and anarchists alike.