2020 marks the 250th anniversary of then Lieutenant James Cook’s arrival on the eastern shores of the continent we now know as Australia.
Cook is a controversial figure. Australians of British background were long taught that he was the hero of humble birth whose talent and enlightened views propelled him to become a giant of navigation. Those whose lands he ‘discovered’ aren’t so sure. Cook’s charting and claiming of the Great South Land for the British Crown led directly to colonization, and with it, the dispossession, disease, cultural disruption and death that it brought to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.1
(Apparently I do footnotes now!)
Cook’s legacy inflames passionate debates around race and sovereignty. The legal and social consequences of his actions provoke a resistance that has much in common with the global Black Lives Matter moment, while sputtering reactionary voices treat even the mildest questioning of the man (or daubing of paint over a statue) as a grievous personal attack.
So for Australia Post, the prospect of marking the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing must have held all the appeal of a rigorous keel-hauling. The organization would pretty much have had no choice. The issue is so politically divisive that ignoring it would itself have provoked outrage. This is a nation whose Prime Minister last year promised a reported 60 million AUD worth of anniversary commemorations. In a somewhat appropriate twist, most of those events have since been suspended due to an introduced disease.
Despite the odds, I thought that Australia Post did a fantastic job, and I look forward to telling you why. But to fully appreciate it, we must first travel back in time. All the way back to 1970.
That was then
When I was at school, we were taught that Cook “discovered Australia”. Nonsense. Cook added the east coast to European maps that already bore outlines sketched by other European navigators. Australia was discovered at least 50,000 years beforehand by the ancestors of those who stood on the shore watching HMS Endeavour sail into Kamay, or as he called it, Botany Bay.
In 1970, this strip of stamps marked the bicentenary of Cook’s arrival. It was a huge occasion for Australians, and these stamps and their related products were a big deal among collectors. In this clever design, not only does every stamp share elements with its neighbours, but when you see two strips next to each other in a sheet, the two half-ships on each end form a full Endeavour.
Here he is: Cook, depicted as a giant of the seas. The subsequent stamps represent Cook’s first sighting of the continent, the first landing party, four members of the expedition team, and finally, ‘possession’ being taken as the British flag is planted in southern soil.
Lucky that there was nobody already there, huh. Hang on – what’s that? Up there in the sand dunes? You can just make something out. It’s… people! Wow, they look angry.
You could not find a more apt metaphor for how the Cook narrative has historically been told here in Australia. The First Nations side of the story was literally minimized and relegated to the background.
Was it a conscious decision taken by the specially-convened design panel? I’d say 100% not. This is simply the Australia in which I grew up. The cult of Cook dominated; ‘history’ starts when he shows up. Protests were held by First Nations peoples, but little public thought was given to any other side of the story.2
The two small figures in the background have quite a history of their own. Accounts of the landing record an encounter with two Gweagal men. And sure enough, there they are, in the background of this old painting.
Look again! The Landing stamp is actually a miniaturization of the painting. But the stamp has substituted Aboriginal figures from other historic drawings of the encounter. These drawings were based on sketches by expedition artist Sydney Parkinson, and were fleshed out by other artists (who weren’t there) using classical themes, guesswork, and racism.
Thanks to the painting, the stamp is infected with a historical error. (Well, several, actually, but let’s pick one.) It’s the bit where the noble Cook is seen stretching out his hand, imploring his men not to fire at the defensive locals.3
Here to tell us what really happened, please welcome… Lieutenant James Cook!
“… as soon as we put the boat in they again came to oppose us upon which I fir’d a musquet between the 2. which had no other effect than to make them retire back where bundles of their darts lay & one of them took up a stone & threw at us which caused my firing a Second Musquet load with small Shott & altho’ some of the shott struck the Man yet it had no other effect than to make him lay hold on a Target [ie shield], immediately after this we landed which we had no sooner done than they throw’d 2 darts at us this obliged me to fire a third shott soon after which they both made off…” 4Lieutenant James Cook
Far from calling off the troops, the great Cook came ashore with musket in hand, and had personally shot a Gweagal man before he even set foot on shore. What is it with this persistent authoritarian belief that the way to calm angry people down is by shooting them?
I don’t think I’ve seen a depiction of Cook’s landing where he was firing a musket. It was only in the last year or so that I even learned about it. I am completely confident in telling you that most white Australians don’t know it happened, and many wouldn’t believe it. A good number of them would immediately declare it to be Historical Revisionism or Political Correctness Gone Mad, instead of what it is: the truth.
Entering Gweagal (or any other First Nations) land was a big deal. Protocols had to be observed beforehand. Cook was hoping to make peaceful contact, but he couldn’t know that just by rocking up unannounced, he was committing an act of aggression. Strange how much more you understand when you hear the other side of the story.5
I will at least say this for the 1970 Cook stamps: by my reckoning, the Landing stamp is the only one ever to depict First Nations people resisting invasion. In fact, given the regular depiction of brave white explorers “opening up” and “discovering” the country, it’s amazing that they’re even there.
This is now
The historical context serves to illustrate why I was so impressed by Australia Post’s issue for the 250th Anniversary. The issue is called ‘Navigating History’ – working on multiple levels there, I like it. Here’s the centerpiece miniature sheet:
It’s a little hard to work out what’s going on at first, but a closer look rewards. This is not a celebration of “Cook’s discovery”. It’s a commemoration of early contact between two cultures. Each long-format stamp in the set represents a common theme seen from two perspectives. In brief, from left to right, we have Navigation, Voyages, Land, Science and Botany, and ‘The Journey Continues’. The Australia Post Collectables website contains detailed descriptions of each stamp.
The design is loaded with symbolism. The line running through the centre of the sheet signifies a continuing culture. One of my favourite touches appears on the ‘Voyages’ stamp. Early British visitors generally agreed among themselves that the interior of the land was almost certainly uninhabited. What we have here, sitting beneath the Endeavour, is a map of the continent showing established First Nations trading routes. For good measure, we also see the seafaring routes travelled by regular Macassar, Chinese and Indonesian visitors from the northwest, and if you look closely, the tracked arrival of the Dutchman Dirk Hartog in the west. Several myths busted with one little drawing.
I also particularly like the theme of the final stamp, ‘The Journey Continues’, which depicts Cook’s path through the Torres Strait alongside a culture-infused compass. The Collectables description adds a hopeful note: “This represents our search for new ways to navigate our complex history. Only by reflecting on the last 250 years can we navigate our way into the future.”
The symbolism is personified in the designers, from Indigenous creative agency Gilimbaa. Jenna Lee is a descendant of the Larrakia people of the Darwin region, with ties to the Karajarri of Western Australia and the Wardaman of the Northern Territory. Niqui Branchu is a first-generation Australian whose mum is a Kiwi and whose dad was a refugee from East Germany. You can watch an interview with them here.
I loved this release as soon as I saw it. It contains an urgent message for our times. The concept is perfect. The artwork, representative of two traditions, is superb. I love the limited colour palette, especially the denim-blue ocean, darker than one might expect on a celebratory stamp. It’s an eye-catching shade that helps to mark this issue as like nothing we’ve seen before.
Interesting that expedition botanist Sir Joseph Banks landed a spot (seen investigating the Banksia which now bears his name, while naturalist Daniel Solander looks yearningly away into the distance). Banks is celebrated for describing local flora and fauna. But there is a dark side to his legacy. Back in London, it was Banks – not Cook – who chiefly assured authorities that the land was practically uninhabited.
“We saw indeed only the sea coast: what the immense tract of inland countrey may produce is to us totaly unknown; we may have liberty to conjecture however that they are totaly uninhabited.” 6Joseph Banks
Only an Englishman standing on a boat off the coast of a continent bigger than Europe could have that much confidence in his own completely erroneous judgement.
Banks’s assurance of terra nullius – a land belonging to no one – was the legal fiction upon which Britain claimed and occupied the continent. Australia’s subsequent laws and attitudes towards its indigenous peoples were built on terra nullius; it was only in 1992(!) that the High Court of Australia effectively recognized it as having been a lie all along.
But the spirit of terra nullius can still be found, like when a mining company like Rio Tinto chooses to blow up sacred sites containing 46,000-year-old evidence of human occupation despite there being three other options that don’t involve blowing up sacred sites containing 46,000-year-old evidence of human occupation. That happened just this year, a month after these stamps came out.
But I can’t, and I won’t, blame the designers for Evil Banksy’s appearance here. I learned of his terra nullius leading role just a few months ago. If I’d been sitting in this planning meeting, then I, too, would totally 100% have said sure, why don’t we chuck in the guy who drew the flowers.
On a brighter note, the Daniel Solander depicted here went on to be the hot cartoon guy in the video clip for A-Ha’s Take On Me.
Navigating ‘Navigating History’
I have one other reservation about this issue, and it has given me some frustration. It’s the split-value denomination, with the semi-perforations in the middle. Base postage in Australia costs $1.10. Without reading the supporting PR, would you think these are ten 55-cent stamps, or five $1.10 stamps? Can we tear a stamp along the middle – you know, where the perforations have been supplied like how stamps work – and used it to make up 55c worth of postage? Even Australia Post’s official sources were confused. Some called them ’10 x 55c’ stamps and some called them ‘5 x $1.10’ stamps.
I wondered if it was the politics. Could it be that somebody at Aussie Post feared that by placing a $1.10 value on one end of the stamp or another, they might be seen to be valuing one side of the story over another? If you think that’s ridiculous, you haven’t seen the depths to which the Murdoch media will plunge in order to offer their regular supply of alarmist clickbait to racists.
So I asked. And I was close! According to the very helpful people at Australia Post, each stamp was given an equal value of 55c to communicate that all of the stories are of equal value. And no, you can’t tear them in half and use them as 55c stamps. (Though if you did, I’m pretty sure no one would question it, as long as there was still enough total postage on your mail.)
For good intentions, I can absolutely nod this decision through. But at what cost? We must now file this issue under the collectible novelty category, alongside the “semi-perforate miniature sheets” that Australia Post was keen to force on us about fifteen years ago as long as we didn’t actually dare to cut out the stamps and use them on the mail. The official Stamp Bulletin admitted as much, noting that “it is anticipated that this should be of interest to collectors.”
I don’t want these stamps to be “of interest to collectors”. They contribute so generously to a national conversation we need to be having right now. I want average, unsuspecting shoppers who ask for a stamp at the post office to be gobsmacked when they are handed one of these subversive giants to put on their letter to grandma. Food for thought for both sender and recipient. Sure beats another bloody koala.
But I couldn’t even buy them at local post offices. I asked at three. At two of them, staff stared at me like I was a crazy person. At one, the postmaster knew what issue I was asking about, but only because she remembered deciding not to order them in.
What’s “of interest to collectors” is issuing stamps that are attractively designed and engaging in theme. I even personally love stupidly oversized stamps. More of them, I say! What’s not of interest to collectors is adding so many bells and whistles (and holes) to a stamp that it becomes nothing but collector-bait. I LOVE these designs. I want them out there!
It turned out that if I wanted to get my hands on these stamps, I had to order them online. Maybe it was some kind of weird 2020 COVID-lockdown-induced Stockholm Syndrome reverse-psychology, but that’s exactly what I did. I was so enraged by the absence of these stamps from shelves that I ordered a few to use on my mail in SPITE of them being impractical and difficult to buy. Suck on that, Aussie Post! Seeing my money will surely make them think twice next time.
Sadly, this issue will disappear without a trace, and that’s why I’m frustrated. We can’t even bring ourselves to show Captain Cook firing his musket, so we can safely assume that the massacres, maltreatment and child-stealing that stain Australia’s relationship with its First Nations peoples are not going to appear on future stamp issues. Navigating History will, therefore, forever stand as the most honest philatelic conversation that modern Australia will ever have with itself about the myths that surround its origins.
It’s a shame that only a couple of stamp collectors will see it.
The Navigating History stamps are still available at time of publication. While you’re at it, check out the beautiful issue Art of the Desert, featuring works by people who Joseph Banks would tell you don’t exist.
The Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation are the traditional custodians of the land on which this work was written.
I pay respect to the Elders past, present and emerging.
1 Torres Strait Islanders are the people of the islands between Papua New Guinea and Australia. Primarily Melanesian, they are culturally distinct from the Aboriginal peoples of mainland Australia. That’s why you see the phrase “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander,” sometimes abbreviated to ATSI. Both groups have awesome flags.
2 Fun fact! Alongside designer Robert Ingpen on the design committee for the 1970 stamps was Tom Kenneally, who later wrote Schindler’s Ark, the Booker-Prize winning novel adapted for the screen as Schindler’s List.
3 The image of James “stop, don’t shoot!” Cook inspired a roadside tourist attraction in Cairns, Queensland, now known as the Big Captain Cook. The results were, uh, shall we say, problematic.
4 A Journal of the proceedings of His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour on a voyage round the world, by Lieutenant James Cook, Commander, commencing the 25th of May 1768 – 23 Oct. 1770, State Library of New South Wales.
5 Eight Days in Kamay is an excellent online exhibition by the State Library of NSW that covers this encounter from both perspectives. Highly recommended.
6 The Endeavor Journal of Sir Joseph Banks
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