The real richness of this history has often been obscured behind the myth of Cook.
Evening View Across Kealakekua Bay Hawaii, Mark Adams, 8 April 2002, C type prints from 10 x 8 inch C41 negatives
Captain James Cook is widely regarded as the greatest maritime explorer of all time. He is a hero, and in Australia is often thought of as one of the nation’s founding figures, even though Dutch and other seamen visited various parts of the continent’s coast before him. He is also, of course, an anti-hero. Reviled by many Indigenous people, his adventures and so-called ‘discoveries’ are identified with the beginnings of colonisation and the subsequent destruction and misery brought by traders and settlers to this country and across the Pacific.
Understandable as the reaction against the heroic myth may be, Cook’s voyages were genuinely extraordinary. Over the course of a decade, in ships of only 100 feet in length, Cook and his fellow voyagers learned more than their predecessors had over centuries. The coasts of eastern Australia, New Zealand and north-west America were charted for the first time, as were islands throughout the tropical Pacific. The existence of a southern continent and the idea that there might be a navigable north-west passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, were rigorously investigated and rejected, putting an end to centuries of geographic speculation. To establish these findings Cook and his men had to survive scurvy, near shipwreck on coral reefs, and the hazards of frigid Antarctic and Arctic seas. Along the way, they encountered an astonishing range of Indigenous peoples and thought about exotic customs in more sophisticated ways than European travellers had ever done before. Over the course of his voyages Cook also, to his credit, became increasingly disturbed by incidents of violence and the disruption to local life caused by commerce, sexual traffic, and introduced disease. He became more and more aware that he was voyaging into deep and unknown water, morally as well as literally.
The real richness of this history has often been obscured behind the myth of Cook. In Australia and New Zealand especially, Cook is an icon. His presence overshadows many historic sites and is reproduced in a bewildering variety of souvenirs. None of this helps us come to terms with the ambiguities in his character and his acts. A close reader of his journals, of other sources, and of Indigenous histories, has to conclude that the story is profoundly complex and contradictory. Cook genuinely attempted to be, and was seen to be, humane and benevolent at times, but he was also sometimes arrogant and violent.
Cook’s sites addresses this fascinating but disturbing history in an unexpected way. The exhibition uses a magnificent series of photographs by Mark Adams to present the past and ask questions of it. One of New Zealand’s most distinguished photographers, Adams has worked since the 1970s on the cross-cultural conjunctures and encounters that have shaped his country’s past and present – ranging from century-old Maori tourist sites around Rotorua to the contemporary Polynesian tattoo scene. He is a purist and a craftsman: he uses a large format view camera, which holds a single sheet of eight-by-ten inch film. Each shot is painstakingly set up, and the resulting images are almost a hundred times sharper than those made from standard 35mm film. The grasp of detail is extraordinary, but Adams is trying to do much more than make pictures that are technically impressive.
Cook’s sites documents the places Cook came from that shaped his own life and that of the British 18th century maritime world. It also takes us on a tour of Cook’s ‘discoveries’, from the landing site at Kurnell on the south shore of Botany Bay to the sites of Cook’s encounters with Polynesian peoples in Tahiti, Hawaii, and New Zealand. Some places have been transformed by tourism and development, others have scarcely changed since Cook’s visits, and in the remote and magnificently beautiful Dusky Sound, in the far south of New Zealand, we even encounter the vestiges of a clearing and camp made in 1773.
Adams’s images and the texts, documents, and original ethnographic and scientific specimens that accompany them in this exhibition bring momentous voyages to life. But they are also thought provoking. Cook’s ‘sites’ are all multi-layered places, with many associations that have accumulated over the last 230 or so years. Often Cook’s visits have been commemorated, sometimes with massive and grotesque concrete edifices. Often too the monuments’ messages have been challenged. In Hawaii some graffiti reads ‘Captain Crook’ and ‘whitey go home’. Other monuments, such as the Milbi Wall that presents the Guugu Yimidhirr perspective on Cook’s time in far north Queensland, recognise Cook’s own respect for the Indigenous people he met. Adams takes up this sort of ambivalence. The detail of his photographs takes us back to encounters and exchanges that do not quite fit, either with the traditional imperialistic celebration of Cook or the negative reactions against that myth. They suggest that if we are to move beyond the historical myths that we grew up with we need to know history better and recognise its curiosity, its strangeness and its surprises.
Visiting Curator and Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Author of Discoveries: voyages of Captain Cook, Penguin Books, 2003
First published in Insites, Winter 2005
Cook's Sites was on at Musuem of Sydney 20 August – 4 December 2005