Australia marks Cook anniversary under lockdown

On 29 April 1770, explorer James Cook arrived in Australia. He would later claim the region for the British crown.

But celebrations in Australia for the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s voyage have been a muted affair.

This is mainly down to the coronavirus lockdown but there is also significant unease over marking the «discovery» of a land already inhabited for millennia.

Captain Cook is acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest explorers but his legacy has been questioned by many.

The date is still seen by many as the «founding» of modern Australia – but this is a highly controversial claim given the lack of reconciliation with indigenous people, and the inequality that has arisen from two centuries of discrimination.

Prominent Aboriginal Australians described the colonial anniversary as a «difficult day» marking the start of their dispossession, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the date represented a «merging» of histories.

What happened at Botany Bay?

Captain Cook arrived on the shores of Botany Bay in modern day Sydney 250 years ago. He and his crew stayed on land for eight days.

The official histories have long been accused of glossing over the realities of his first encounters with local people.

The National Museum of Australia says «the perspectives of First Australians, and the Gamayngal people of this area, have been largely missing».

According to the museum, which has researched stories handed down by First Australians, Captain Cook’s arrival was not peaceful. He and his men, upon approaching the shore in their boat, were challenged by two men on the shore from the Gweagal clan of the Dharawal nation.

Historians say Captain Cook then fired shots at the men, wounding one of them before they left and he was able to land. The local people ignored and avoided the crew until they left.

Seventeen years later the First Fleet arrived and began colonising Australia.

What events have been cancelled?

The government has been forced to shelve its A$48.7m (£25.5m; $31.7m) commemorations due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

These included a replica of the HMS Endeavour, Captain Cook’s Royal Navy vessel circumnavigating Australia – despite Cook only actually charting the continent’s east coast.

A replica of the HMS EndeavourImage copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionA replica of the HMS Endeavour

«As the 250th anniversary nears we want to help Australians better understand Captain Cook’s historic voyage and its legacy for exploration, science and reconciliation,» Mr Morrison said last year.

The vessel is still due to sail down West Australia’s coast to Perth later in the year. Meanwhile long-planned ceremonies have been cancelled and museum exhibitions moved online.

Last October, New Zealand marked their Captain Cook anniversary with several public events that also sparked debate.

How has the government marked the anniversary?

The government has sought to balance Cook’s navigation achievements with the sensitivities of what his landing meant for indigenous Australians.

Mr Morrison released a statement on Wednesday saying it represented a «merging of histories».

«The day Cook and the local Indigenous community at Kamay [Botany Bay] first made contact 250 years ago changed the course of our land forever,» he said.

Media captionWhy Australia Day is controversial as a colonial anniversary

The Minister for Indigenous Affairs Ken Wyatt, who is Aboriginal, said the day was a chance «to reflect upon the impact and changes felt by Indigenous Australians, and also to gain a better understanding of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders lived prior to European settlement».

Opposition Labor MP Linda Burney, who is Aboriginal, said on Wednesday: «I’m not saying that Cook’s contribution to the world is not significant. But what today means for First Nations people was the beginning of… a very difficult period in our history».

Why is the day controversial?

Critics say Australia has still not been able to adequately confront the violence in its colonialist past or offer reparations. It remains the only Commonwealth country never to make a treaty with its indigenous peoples, although work has begun on one in recent times.

Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, who make up 3% of Australia’s population, have significantly lower life expectation than the rest of the population and experience high levels of disadvantage.

Critics have voiced concerns that celebrations of Cook’s landing might overlook the experiences of indigenous Australians, however most official events have sought to include the perspectives of those who were on the shore.

Others have also defended the commemorations as necessary for marking a foundational, although difficult, part of the country’s history.

The 200th anniversary had been a very different affair, where the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had travelled to Australia to join celebrations.

Queen in Tasmania to mark the 200th anniversary of Captain Cook's expeditionImage copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionThe Queen was in Australia to mark the expedition’s 200th anniversary


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