Stan Grant: It is a ‘damaging myth’ that Captain Cook discovered Australia

Stan Grant quit the ABC after being subjected to escalating racial abuse.

Stan Grant quit the ABC after being subjected to escalating racial abuse.

Who would have thought the mere suggestion that Captain Cook did not in fact discover Australia would be so controversial?

It seems to have taken some people by surprise, the idea that people were here for more than 60,000 years before the Endeavour dropped anchor.

What were we doing all that time, just waiting for white people to find us?

And to dare challenge this “discovery”; how impertinent. I can hear someone saying “know your place”.

It has certainly ignited a debate and that is a good thing. History is not dead, it is not past or redundant, it is alive in all of us: we are history.

Responding to the tearing down of racist monuments in the United States prompted me to ask questions about our history; the story we choose to tell ourselves.

And it is a choice. The French historian Michel De Certeau wrote of history as the writing of absence — a therapeutic exercise that fills in the gaps, that allows us to construct a story that suits our ends like artefacts arranged in a shopfront window.

An empty land with an empty past

Where the Americans appear consumed by race, we prefer silence.

There is a history in Australia of not wanting to talk about the darker parts of our shared past.

It is written in our DNA, it is buried in the soil.

When a nation is founded on a doctrine of terra nullius — literally empty land — then it becomes too easy to ignore the people of that emptiness.

We don’t have to reckon with the treatment of Aboriginal people because they are invisible. Indigenous people become a postscript to Australian history.

History itself becomes a hymn to whiteness

This is what Captain Cook’s statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park tells us.

The inscription that Cook “Discovered this territory 1770” maintains a damaging myth, a belief in the superiority of white Christendom that devastated Indigenous peoples everywhere.

Where does it come from? In 1452 Pope Nicholas V sanctioned the conquest, colonisation and exploitation of all non-Christian peoples.

In 1493 after Christopher Columbus returned from his so-called discovery of America, Pope Alexander VI decreed that land not ruled by Christian kings was free to be claimed.

Map of the Endeavour voyage as taken by Sir Joseph Banks, Captain James Cook and crew

Map of the Endeavour voyage as taken by Sir Joseph Banks, Captain James Cook and crew. Photo: Courtesy of State Library of New South Wales

No-one mattered until a white man arrived

The idea of terra nullius was the law of whiteness, that anyone who did not worship Jesus Christ was less than human.

The doctrines of discovery and terra nullius have been demolished by the church, by our courts, by the United Nations.

The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues says the Discovery doctrine is the “foundation of the violation of their (Indigenous people) human rights”.

How in Australia do we maintain the ceremonial fig leaf of welcomes to country while a statue stands in the centre of our largest city proclaiming to the world that no one here mattered until a white person “discovered” the land?

That is the problem with Australia, a land of gestures and tokens with no substantial recognition of Indigenous peoples and our history, no treaties (the only Commonwealth country without one) and now a go-slow on constitutional reform that would give Indigenous peoples a voice in our founding document that was originally written to exclude us.

Earlier this month I attended the Garma festival and Indigenous forum for political, business, industry and cultural leaders on Yolngu country in northeast Arnhem Land.

Gumatj leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu opened the event in his language. These are, he said, Australian words.

They are the words of this land, connecting us to a deep past.

These are words for all of us.

My father has dedicated his life to saving and reviving our language — Wiradjuri — a language his grandfather was jailed for speaking.

Language, he says, does not tell you who you are, but where you are.

This is our heritage, all of us: Australians.

We cheat ourselves when we deny or diminish this rich history.

I want to believe in us as Australians. This is in so many ways an extraordinary country.

Cook is part of my story

I want to believe in “we” not “us and them”. But we means all of us.

Captain Cook is part of my story; an extraordinary seaman and navigator.

The songlines, dreaming and language of the first peoples should be cherished by all of us.

To non-Indigenous people I say that tradition is part of your heritage. That’s what Galarrwuy Yunupingu means; that’s my father’s dream.

Australia is founded on three grand stories: the First Nations, the British tradition and the richness of our migration story.

But it starts with us. We are not invisible.

Our frontier resistance warriors deserve a place on the war memorial wall of remembrance.

I should not have to cross a river named in honour of a man who wanted us exterminated.

This is not the first fleet or federation. This is 2017.

We have a voice, our lives matter.

After all, we discovered this country.

The Australian-built replica of Captain Cook's Endeavour arrives on the Brisbane River.

The Australian-built replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour arrives on the Brisbane River. Photo: AAP


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