Is ‘Discovery’ Really an Evil Word?
It seems like the debate over the word ‘discovery’ has been going on forever now. It looks something like this: when talking about the exploits of European explorers, you should not use the word ‘discovery’ because all the places they ‘discovered’ were already known by the indigenous people who lived there for hundreds or thousands of years.
Well, sure, absolutely! But that’s not the way in which any half-sensible historian or writer uses the word. In fact, I drop the ‘d’ word over 500 times in my book, ANTIPODES: IN SEARCH OF THE SOUTHERN CONTINENT.
Unless they are an eccentric/radical-right-winger/ignoramus, when a writer refers to some historical figure ‘discovering’ some place it does not mean the writer believes or wants you to believe that they were the first person there. It refers to their learning about the existence of something and then sharing that knowledge with others. Good writers make this clear.
But, to be honest, I have never seen a modern historian or writer use ‘discovery’ in the ridiculous sense of being first to encounter something already known to exist by others. There must be a few examples out there, but for the most part the whole debate is a strawman argument—people simply aren’t that misinformed or wilfully wrong.
As for how this all came up, I stumbled upon an article by Paul Daley in The Guardian discussing criticism of changes to a guide on appropriate indigenous terminology at the University of NSW. We’re talking mostly sensible thigs like writing ‘elders’ and not ‘chiefs’, ‘Aboriginal people’ not ‘blacks’. But it also covered the terminology of ‘discovery’.
First, I was struck by Daley’s comment in which he writes in relation to the example of James Cook: ‘Cook mapped the east coast of this continent [Australia]. But he hardly discovered it.’
That’s right in the narrow sense, and wrong in the sense that historians and writers actually use the word. The UNSW guide Daley is referring to inadvertently tells us how Daley has missed the point. Here’s what the guide says:
- Captain Cook was the first Englishman to map the east coast of “New Holland”.
- Captain Cook “discovered” Australia.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were in Australia long before Captain Cook arrived; hence it was impossible for Cook to be the first person to “discover” Australia. Most Aboriginal people find the use of the word “discovery” offensive. However, it can be noted that the word “discovery” can mean finding something that one as an individual did not know was there. This meaning should be stressed if the word is to be used. One reason why so much had to be “discovered” is the fact that Indigenous knowledge was discounted and disregarded for so long.
That is pretty much on the ball. Anyone who suggests Cook was the first person to encounter Australian or even eastern Australian shores is a sure-fire lunatic (or an undergrad student destined to be swiftly disabused of this notion at their respective universities; it’s no coincidence that it is exactly this group at whom the UNSW guide is aimed). I don’t know of any of these people who have been published in the last 30 years making such outrageous claims in print. Do they exist?
To be clear: Europeans did not know land existed where Cook encountered it, and it is in that sense that Cook can be fairly said to have discovered that land (to Europeans). It is not meant to deny indigenous presence or knowledge, and to construe it that way strikes me as miserly and needlessly contrarian. Indeed, why fight that fight when there are more important and worthy fights to be fought?
So, having essentially agreed with the UNSW guide up to this point, I do have to aver on one point. Where it says the following I’d suggest it has gone completely off the rails:
- “… since the beginning of the Dreaming/s”
“Since the beginning of the Dreaming/s” reflects the beliefs of many Indigenous Australians that they have always been in Australia, from the beginning of time, and came from the land.
- “Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for 40,000 years”
Forty thousand years puts a limit on the occupation of Australia and thus tends to lend support to migration theories and anthropological assumptions. Many Indigenous Australians see this sort of measurement and quantifying as inappropriate.
Well, many peoples have many beliefs. But when you are talking about facts you really need to use facts and not feelings or beliefs. Unless the claim is a serious scientific/historical claim that humanity has existed forever(!) and began in Australia (completely rewriting the history of evolution and a million other things), then you have to put a figure on it or at least accept that a correct figure exists (while we continue to work out what that figure is).
For the record, I think that the article by Stan Grant that came out in The Guardian the day after Daley’s was spot on. Read it here.