Rewriting our history is not the way to go

Let's start with a history lesson. Lieutenant James Cook did not "discover" what became known as Australia, or as it then was in the logbooks of early Dutch mariners – Terra Australis Incognita (the unknown southern land).

Nor, it must be said, did he "invade" Australia. He came ashore for repairs at what is now Cooktown in far north Queensland after his ship was holed and in danger of sinking on the Barrier Reef.

In Cooktown he had various interactions with Indigenous people who were for the most part – not in all cases – peaceable.

According to the official Australian government version: "In 1770 Englishman Lieutenant James Cook charted the Australian east coast in his ship HM Barque Endeavour."

  Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Those are the facts.

How we have moved from details surrounding the exploits of, arguably, Britain's greatest mariner to a rerun of the history wars that sullied the country in the 1990s is both revealing and depressing.

This is more so because debate about our history has become enmeshed yet again in the culture wars that have bedevilled Australia since politicians discovered that resort to such warfare served a political purpose.

Neither side – left or right – is blameless in this regard, but the fair judgment is the right has been more effective in exploiting cultural divisions for political purposes.

  James Cook is a most unlikely candidate to be dragged back and forth like a rag doll by today's cultural warriors. Photo: Cole Bennetts

James Cook is a most unlikely candidate to be dragged back and forth like a rag doll by today's cultural warriors. Photo: Cole Bennetts

Cook is a most unlikely candidate to be dragged back and forth like a rag doll by today's cultural warriors. He might have charted terrain that enabled Britain's colonial ambitions, but he could hardly be accused of being responsible for subjecting a native people to "genocide".

Of important figures of Australia's colonial past Cook might be regarded as the least tainted beyond his service to his imperial masters, notably George III, who dispatched him on his voyages of discovery.

Unfortunately, and whether we like it or not, he has been ensnared in a grievance debate that has ebbed and flowed since the Bicentenary in 1988, and with greater intensity since the Mabo and Wik land rights cases before the High Court.

In a useful paper written in 1997 – Different Perspectives on Black Armband History – historian Mark McKenna made a point that is as relevant today as it was then.

Reviewing arguments between two strands of Australian historiography – those promoted by the Manning Clark school in its spirited acknowledgement of "violence" against Australia's original inhabitants and those associated with Geoffrey Blainey's excoriation of a "black armband view", McKenna wrote:

"The argument is not about content – it is about emphasis. It is not so much concerned with the nature of history as it is with the use of history."

Thus, today's argument about Cook, prompted by an article on the ABC's website by journalist Stan Grant, is less about the facts than it is about the use to which a version of history can be deployed to serve a particular purpose, namely how to address lingering grievances.

Grant has every right to object to the wording on the Cook statue in Sydney's Hyde Park that tells us Cook "discovered this territory in 1770". Clearly, he did not "discover" Australia. He charted its east coast, and, it might be said, picked the eyes out of the country for his colonial masters.

Legitimately, Grant can claim that his Aboriginal ancestors "discovered" Australia 65,000 years ago when a land bridge was still in place with what is now Indonesia.

Where he is on shaky ground is in his assertion that Aboriginal history is being met with a "shrug of indifference". I don't think that's true.

Since the Bicentenary, the complexities of Australian history have been exposed in statements by High Court justices in the Wik and Mabo cases, in prime ministerial statements such as Paul Keating's Redfern speech in 1992, and in countless other ways.

Debates around the stolen generations, and the Apology have served as teaching moments for a country that might have preferred to shield its eyes.

Australia has been obliged to live with its past, and a good thing too.

What is striking about this most recent chapter of the history wars is they coincide with a moment in the country's history when ugly cross-currents are undermining a national consensus on all manner of issues at a time when political leadership has scarcely been more barren.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does the political process resist vacuousness.

A leadership deficit enables the culture warriors of either side to reinterpret history for their own self-serving purposes.

Thus, we have agitation for the renaming of Australia Day on January 26 as "invasion day". We're hearing demands that we follow the American example and tear down statues of those associated with early settlement.

In all of this, might it not be a better idea to use history as a platform to reach for a more perfect union, to acknowledge real grievances in ways that are tangible, and not surrender to those grievances.

History is not bunk. History is the nation's foundation stone, irrespective of its complexities.