‘We call them pirates out here’, and in Mt Druitt

Tony Smith

Gillian Cowlishaw The City’s Outback, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2009 (264 pp). ISBN 9-78192141-087-1 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

Maria Nugent Captain Cook Was Here, Port Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2009 (164 pp). ISBN 9-78052176-240-3 (hard cover) RRP $39.95.

It has always been risky for academics to study Indigenous issues. These risks increased when the so-called culture and history wars intensified during the late 1990s and early 2000s. There are encouraging signs, however, that scholars are approaching the field with renewed confidence that their work can make important contributions to historical knowledge and cross-cultural understanding. Maria Nugent’s Captain Cook Was Here and Gillian Cowlishaw’s The City’s Outback are significant works for several reasons. Historian Nugent and anthropologist Cowlishaw demonstrate clearly that a form of colonialism continues in Australia, that the meaning of history is still being debated, and that interactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are central to Australian identity.

Myths and story-telling around Botany Bay

Maria Nugent’s penetrating analysis of the histories arising from the eight days the Endeavour spent in Botany Bay in April–May 1770 makes numerous important contributions to the development of a humane history of Australia. It reveals details that will surprise most Australians, it dispels many myths about these events, and it demonstrates a way of understanding Cook’s position in different histories. The book is clearly organised and well-documented with extracts from journals and 29 very illuminating colour ‘Plates’. Nugent supplies a jargon-free methodological introduction beginning with a statement of intention. While many historians accentuate the feats of exploration accomplished by James Cook’s party, including botanist Joseph Banks, Nugent concentrates on the relatively neglected area of Cook’s attempts to interact with the local people (p. viii).

One explanation for inattention to contacts is that ‘mythologising’ around the first landing has ‘blocked from view’, interactions occurring over the next several days (p. viii). Nugent points out that Cook was in a place belonging to Indigenous people, but his presence has been used ‘to tie this antipodean place to the imperial centre’ (p. x). While histories have been constructed for settler purposes, Aboriginal people have told their own stories trying to understand the meaning of Cook’s visit. Nugent warns that there is no last word, because the story is still being told and the history is ‘constantly in the making’. She aims to show ‘something of that open-ended quality, to reflect upon the lively and constant interplay between past and present, and to propose yet more possibilities for interpreting this particular past and its many and changing meanings’ (p. xi). Nugent accomplishes this aim in ways that are scholarly and humane and which make engrossing reading. Perhaps the only readers likely to be made uneasy are those who claim that ‘past’ injustices and errors should be forgotten and that we should ‘move on’.

On arrival Cook sent Master Molyneux and a crew in the pinnace to take ‘soundings’. He tested the depth of the water and ‘incidentally the feelings of the local people’. According to Banks, the mariners were invited to land, but paradoxically with signs ‘they could not understand’ (p. 6). In cross-cultural encounters, there is always a struggle to make sense of the other and guessing is common. Here, and throughout her book, Nugent draws on the work of many scholars who have written about such contacts elsewhere, including the experiences of the Endeavour’s personnel in New Zealand and northern Australia. Banks described the reaction of two men on a nearby headland as making a ‘token of defiance’ but later ‘settler Australian storytellers’ interpreted this behaviour as outright aggression (p. 8). When the main party landed, Banks describes behaviour that Nugent calls ‘a study in nonchalance’ but she notes that giving the appearance of being unconcerned is not the same as being unconcerned. When Cook threw beads and nails ashore, two local men picked them up but again showed defiance when Cook tried to land. At this point, Cook fired a musket between them (p. 19).

Many historians accentuate the feats of exploration accomplished by James Cook’s party.

Noting the privileged place Cook’s landing has in Australian settler mythology, Nugent analyses the moment carefully. Especially interesting is her handling of the painting ‘The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770’ by E. Phillips Fox, commissioned to celebrate Federation in 1901. By contrasting the painting with earlier representations of the scene, Nugent exposes the symbolism that Fox chose to emphasise:

The painting is a good illustration of the ways in which the confusing, clumsy and violent incident of Cook’s first landing on the east coast of the continent could be cleaned up and smoothed out to become a symbolic story of national genesis (p. 24).

Fox brought into one frame ‘diverse ideas about Cook and his place in Australia’s history, about relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, about histories of British possession and Aboriginal dispossession, and about the nation’s past, present and future’ (p. 27).

Other Federation events expressed similar values and presented Cook as conciliatory, humane and as a founding father. Nugent notes that Fox’s prominent depiction of an English ensign is an artistic flourish that gave credence to the notion that Cook formally claimed possession at Botany Bay. Cook’s journal suggests that the only possession ceremony he conducted was months later on an island off the far north coast (p. 35). The purpose of the landing at Botany Bay was pragmatic. Over the following days, the mariners were occupied with ‘watering and wooding’ (p. 51) and the main reason for their delayed departure was the need for a favourable breeze.

Other key events Nugent discusses include the death (of consumption) and burial of Seaman Sutherland which subsequently gained great significance in settler stories (pp. 68–70). (Sutherland was buried on the beach at Kurnell, and the northwest point named after him.) Nugent also describes how the foraging parties engaged the locals in forward and back movements she likens to a ‘tango’ (p. 77 ff.). Banks reports that when Surgeon Monkhouse mischievously mimicked this interaction by confronting the locals and immediately running away, spears were thrown near him. By the fifth day, however, the locals avoided contact altogether. Cook was disappointed and the next day made his first, but not final, journal record of his aim to ‘form some connection with the natives’ (p. 85). On day seven, Cook refers to despatching more than one party unsuccessfully. Canoes hovered in greater numbers (p. 93). Nugent notes that on the eighth day:

No words or things, no glances or lances were exchanged that day. The local people did not appear at all. Perhaps they too had finished their business in this place. There was nothing left for them to do. They had tried variously to encourage the strangers to meet with them on proper (or at least tolerable) terms, or to leave post haste. Neither result had eventuated, and so perhaps they thought it best simply to stay away (p. 99).

Cook later lamented the failure to communicate with the locals. As Nugent says he ‘candidly admits to the hole at the heart of this landfall’. The nature of local society remained ‘opaque to the outsiders’. The visit that began with a bang ended with a whimper (pp. 102–103).

In cross-cultural encounters, there is always a struggle to make sense of the other.

Perhaps because settler histories have drawn so heavily on Cook rather than for example, Arthur Phillip, Aboriginal people have also been preoccupied with him. Nugent notes that two Catholic priests, McEnroe and Ullathorne, interviewed local men in the early 19th century and found that Cook stories were both clear and popular (pp. 108 ff.). Even in the 1950s poet Roland Robinson found people on the South Coast with their own Cook stories (pp. 118ff.). The storytellers used Cook to make sense of the conditions of their own lives, which had been so severely damaged as a result of the material objects and changed power relationships brought to their land as a result of Cook’s visit.

Nugent provides an interesting analysis of the responses of recent Aboriginal artists to the visit. Gordon Bennett’s ‘Possession Island’ of 1991 and Daniel Boyd’s ‘We Call Them Pirates Out Here’ of 2006 have both parodied E. Phillips Fox’s painting of the landing. Under the auspices of the prime minister of the day, John Howard, the National Portrait Gallery in 2000 acquired John Webber’s 1782 portrait of Cook. Dianne Jones, with ‘LHOOQ ‘ERE’ in 2001, and Daniel Boyd, with ‘Captain No Beard’ in 2006, mocked Webber’s portrait, which performed a similar foundation function in the 21st century as Fox’s painting had in the 20th. Nugent observes that the imagery of these artists’ approaches ensures that ‘a suite of other histories emerges from the ruins of the old painting’ (p. 134).

Invisible in the suburbs: ‘too busy being blackfellas’

Aboriginal man Frank Doolan suggested that Gillian Cowlishaw undertake a research project near his home in Mt Druitt in Sydney’s west. The area is home to the largest concentration of Aboriginal people in Australia and he hoped that people’s stories could be recorded before they were lost. Cowlishaw invites the reader into unfamiliar territory: ‘We will now go with Frank to Mt Druitt, to follow the story and to test the radical potential of anthropology against the conventional fear of getting close, getting intimate, getting real’ (Cowlishaw p. 37).

Cowlishaw’s research process was unstructured, allowing the people to tell their stories how they wished, and the book documents many first person accounts just as they were offered by their tellers, whose first names are recorded. Cowlishaw set out to ‘undo generalisations that are already in place about Aborigines, western suburbs, poverty and suburban life, and at the same time to examine a specific kind of research’ (p. 13). The researcher must meet these people where she can and notes ‘the familiar frustration of working in others’ worlds to other rhythms’ (p. 47).

Cowlishaw acknowledges the difficulties of doing ethnographic work in a cross-cultural context and particularly in Australia. She argues that her project is as much about testing the tools of her academic discipline as it is about studying suburban Aboriginal people: ‘can I, with my whiteness, gain any knowledge of the “experienced realities” of Indigenous people? Or is Australian ethnography another example of white claims to ownership of Indigenous people …?’ (pp. 32–33).

There is a temptation for the dominant society to sanction only some ways of being Indigenous, and those are ways acceptable to the powerful. While Cowlishaw resists the temptation to speak for Aboriginal people, she acknowledges that her interest is in those whose voices are generally ignored and that she aims to ‘illuminate the cultural politics that enables some people to be heard and condemns others to “talking under water”’ (p. 34).

Mt Druitt in Sydney’s west is home to the largest concentration of Aboriginal people in Australia.

When Cowlishaw suggested that she might get some Aboriginal people to record stories, Frank dismissed the idea saying, ‘They won’t do it. They’re too busy being blackfellas’ (p. 21). Frank does not want to become a ‘government black’ and sees subversion of the oppressive order as important. His ‘way of being Aboriginal defies conventional understandings’ (p. 29). When young women such as Norrie relate their experiences, Cowlishaw realises that they are stuck in a loop where their protests attract more severe punishment from authorities (p. 41).

Norrie is proudly Aboriginal but does not cite the usual political rhetoric about dispossession, dislocation and disadvantage. However, the ‘healthy assertiveness and determination to stand up for herself slides into an implacable anger and threats of violent retaliation towards the various people she believes have disrespected her’ (p. 57). Norrie resents some Darug people who claim superiority because of local origins. She refers to them as ‘up town’, while she calls herself and others relocated from country towns such as Bourke ‘around here’ (p. 59). While she claims no authority within Aboriginal culture, Norrie ‘evinces strong loyalty to the Koori world’ and resists its ‘typification as disorderly and destructive’ (p. 63). The temptation to be over-analytical has disadvantages. Cowlishaw notes that when commentators attribute all wrongs to the colonial past, specific harms are ignored. Too much emphasis is placed on ‘remediation of the past, rather than saying anything applicable to the present as it is lived outside the universities’ (p. 65).

While the stories of these urban Aboriginal people are fascinating, so too is Cowlishaw’s diarising as she continually reflects on the impact of her own presence:

Because the ethnographic intention is to recognise something new, to participate in and understand others’ worlds, it is necessary to let go of one’s own, to allow people take one where they want to go. This is risky work, uncontrolled and unpredictable (p. 60).

Wondering about her concentration on Aboriginal stories and ignoring the ‘other others’, the marginalised non-Aboriginal people, Cowlishaw asks herself whether ‘it is the suffering and drama of Aboriginal lives that attracts attention and I am playing out the nation’s guilt’. Her interviewees’ stories contrast with the public discourse of ‘mea culpas that promise redemption and reconciliation’. She hears cases of ‘specific historical damage’ and argues that ‘Annette is not an exhibit in the nation’s history museum: she has a history of her own’. Indeed, because of family disintegration, Annette has been deprived of her own history. Her lack of hope is perhaps a sign of ‘internalisation of a distaste for one’s own and one’s relatives’ skin’ (pp. 91–100).

Even in the process of reconciliation, a few Aborigines are selected as representatives and made the ‘recipients of our repentance, and are thus made victims of the victimology discourse’ (p. 105). Cowlishaw argues that a ‘mythic history of pain can wreak more havoc by encasing Aboriginal people within a single stylised narrative’ (p. 109) that overrides the ‘complexity of personal and community meaning’ (p. 110). Cowlishaw recognises the paradox for the ethnographer seeking to generalise and analyse experience:

I do not think about the purpose of recording Tina’s life other than to give her a written version of her own story in her own words, a service I can provide, and which seems unlikely to do any further harm (p. 110).

When commentators attribute all wrongs to the colonial past, specific harms are ignored.

As well as scattered references to interviews, Cowlishaw presents some lengthy raw transcripts, particularly the stories of Norrie (pp. 52–59), Annette (pp. 78–91), Tina (pp. 110–120) and Merv (pp. 170–174) and Frank has a chapter that is mainly his own words (pp. 191–218). Cowlishaw ‘left exposed the loose ends and dead ends that are usually snipped off before the finished product, the book, appears’ (p. 221).

The people Cowlishaw encounters do not possess ‘an assertive victimhood’ gained by having the knowledge, courage and audacity to ‘appear as the national audience wants them to be, representing Aboriginality with confidence in public’ (p. 123). Cowlishaw is open about the frustrations of the exercise. She admits to a kind of shame when she is tempted to be judgmental and to retreat mentally and physically to middle class comfort. She admits, too, the complexity, the slowness and the ambiguity of the process and finds Frank has moments of disillusionment (p. 131).

Cowlishaw encounters a young couple caught in welfare dependency: ‘The self-perception and social relations of these two has been shaped by their engagement with the welfare and correctional services … Delinquency and Aboriginality give them entitlements, not autonomy’ (pp. 144–145). Paradoxically, traditional culture has been officially sanctioned as a means of advancement, but some aspects of culture such as ‘demand sharing’ are regarded as handicaps (p. 158). People expressed

private discomfort with flamboyant cultural claims and suspicion of those who want to perform Aboriginality in public at the behest of powerful authorities. Yet there is also a desire for some authoritative representation of ‘ordinary Koori people’, and the public recognition and respect that elders attract is difficult to resist (p. 178).

Cowlishaw finds that

The identity of the Mt Druitt Aboriginal people I have met this year is secure, not so much because of their knowledge of Indigenous traditions, but because every family’s trajectory has been afflicted and inflected by the nation’s laws, practice and ideology in relation to Aboriginality (p. 181).

Norrine believes that ‘to be black you’ve gotta live black’. Some people were suspicious about ‘coconuts’, which Cowlishaw interprets as a ‘clear and present sign and consequence of a disturbed history’. The argumentative Frank argues that the ‘only way to get out of the struggle is to renounce your Aboriginality, go underground’. Cowlishaw finds that what is needed is ‘more, not less complexity than is available in the usual depictions’ and says that ‘rather than having found the Aboriginal community, I have met an Aboriginal community, and not one that can enfold all its members’ (pp. 182–193).

Frank says:

I think that Aboriginality is a personal thing. It’s up to the individual and you walk down a long road to find your Aboriginality. It’s not something you put on and wear easily. It’s something that you gotta grow into and there are stages (p. 198).

Even in the process of reconciliation, a few Aborigines are selected as representatives.

Frank admits to being somewhere between Uncle Tom and Malcolm X (p. 209). When he organises a funeral march and rally for a young boy who died a violent death, he got close to his aim:

When we walked down the street that day we made a statement, not just to the broader community but also to ourselves about who we were and where we fitted in. Just for a brief moment there we walked the city streets together; we were the Mt Druitt mob (pp. 211–212).

Cowlishaw knows that these are people ‘whose fate it is to be written about rather than to write. It is not enough to record, and perhaps publish, the stories told to me by Mt Druitt residents; they need a context to make sense’. Cowlishaw provides the context by reflecting on the ways that the state treats these largely dependent people and provides the critical observation that ‘what counts as governmental knowledge is information rather than understanding’ (pp. 213–214).


If history is ‘constantly in the making’ as Maria Nugent says, then its themes will emerge in modern research projects. Clearly, Cowlishaw’s work experiences the very difficulties of cross cultural contact which Nugent reveals about those initial encounters in Botany Bay. The influence of settler mythologies about Cook has not assisted governments to construct policies with understanding of Indigenous people. Unlike the broader society, however, Cowlishaw finds the people she seeks by actively listening to them and refusing to translate their stories into versions that sit comfortably with non-Indigenous ideals.

Cowlishaw’s collaborator Frank Doolan has a specific attitude to history: ‘like all true storytellers, Frank will also readily retell the tale; these are not material artefacts to be fashioned once and then fixed in time, like written words’ (p. 16). Referring to the tensions between the local Aboriginal people and police, Frank says that ‘it’s a communication thing and there is a great need for, not so much an organisation but an organisation of the mind’ (p. 23). In one incident, Frank confronts housing officials as they try to evict a family. After consulting their manager by telephone the officials try something different: ‘“So”, Frank told me, “they said, as if they were inventing the wheel, ‘I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We will sit down and work something out’”’ (p. 25).

For agents of the state dealing with Aboriginal people, the failure to communicate and confer respectfully at Botany Bay in 1770 has become a tradition. If Maria Nugent’s Captain Cook Was Here and Gillian Cowlishaw’s The City’s Outback receive the attention they deserve, then a new and more optimistic beginning is possible.

Dr Tony Smith is a Bathurst writer and frequent contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

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