Captain Cook’s Endeavours Revisited: ONE

Trent Dalton,  from The Weekend Australian, 2 September 2017, where the main title is “The Story of Us”

The story was always too big, too complex to fit neatly inside the plaques of big city statues. The story of Captain Cook’s first epic voyage of discovery is too grand, too long to fit neatly inside a tweet or a T-shirt quip or a few cheap words spray-painted in a hurry.

The first man to tell the story was James Cook himself. He told it as it unfolded, the spellbinding tale of his three years aboard a frumpy-bottomed coal boat called Endeavour; three years of wonder, adventure, miraculous survival, navigational genius and breathtaking courage that he detailed in short, sharp sentences scribbled on to a series of cabin papers that would form a doorstopper of a journal that would come to be called “Manuscript One”, the founding document of the National Library of Australia.

  Captain James Cook in a 1775 portrait by Nathaniel Dance-Holland, and HMS Endeavour in a painting by naval historian Gregory Robinson; next year marks the 250th anniversary of Endeavour’s sailing from Plymouth in England on a three-year journey that took it across the world and included the British discovery of Australia

Today, we tell that story again. We mark its impact respectfully. We celebrate its world-changing wonder wholeheartedly.

As our nation and the world prepares for next year’s 250th anniversary of Endeavour’s departure in 1768, we tell the five-part story of a voyage that transformed our knowledge of mathematics, navigation, geology, geography, botany, psychology, nutrition, astronomy, medicine, cartography and languages; the story of a man who found and charted half a world that half the world once did not know.

We don’t heroise the man, though he was most certainly heroic. We don’t mythologise his men, though their actions were mythic. We tell the story. And that story cannot be told without the oral histories of indigenous Australians told alongside it; the views from the elders whose ancestors occupied the east coast of this glorious land long before Endeavour bobbed into their horizon. A complex dual narrative — what modern Cook scholars now refer to as “the view from the ship, the view from the shore” — told from two perspectives that meet on the neutral beach of our present to form the single story of us.

This is a story that weaves today through our cities and our towns, from Red Point to Botany Bay, from Port Jackson to Cape Byron, from Mount Warning to Point Danger, from the Glass House Mountains to Double Island Point, to the town of 1770, to Magnetic Island, to Cape Tribulation, all the way to Cook crater on the moon and the space shuttle Endeavour that once flew past it, honouring that frumpy-bottomed coal ship that searched so determinedly for knowledge two centuries before it.

This epic yarn is picked to pieces in our institutions and spun wildly in our pubs, from James Cook University to Captain Cook Hotel, in Sydney’s Paddington, all the way to Cooktown, far north Queensland, where, but for the intervention of divine sailor’s providence, the whole rich and complex story might have sunk to the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef. Thousands of stories connected to that single voyage — some tragic, some triumphant, all forming into one great story of us, a story always waiting to be recalled. Reassessed. Retold. Rediscovered.

Trent Dalton

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