THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

24 July 2018

Myths about James Cook

In 1930, Australian politician Sir Joseph Carruthers published Captain James Cook R.N., 150 Years After.  Despite being riddled with inaccuracies and overstatements the book was well received by reviewers and included a foreword by former Australian Prime Minister William ‘Billy’ Hughes.  Amongst other claims, Carruthers posits that: the spread of disease by Europeans had little to do with the devastation wrought on Pacific Islanders; that Cook diligently respected the rights of Indigenous peoples; and that he has a claim to have started building Britain’s Empire in the Pacific.

 CarruthersSir Joseph Carruthers  Photo: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW - Call no PXE 1104 /1/ 7.

Here are some of Carruthers’ claims regarding Cook and Australia, and what’s wrong with them.

1. Australia is the Great Southern Continent Cook was searching for

It is commonly believed that Cook was tasked with ‘discovering’ Australia.  Carruthers had no small part in establishing this myth, using the fact that Cook was issued with secret Admiralty orders to search for the fabled ‘great southern continent’; however, this was not Australia.  The Admiralty’s secret orders instructed Cook to search southward of Tahiti between 40 and 35 degrees latitude ‘until you discover it, or fall in with the Eastern side of the Land discover’d by Tasman and now called New Zeland’ (sic).  The great southern continent was expected to be east of New Zealand.

2. Cook Discovered Australia

Carruthers also bolstered the claim that Cook discovered Australia based on an interesting definition of discovery:

‘Captain Cook is the real discoverer of Australia in the sense that he stands alone as the one man who made good his discovery and founded an indisputable title to possession for the British race.  No new fact was needed to prove that’.

It is a perception that downplays the Dutch, Spanish and other English sailors (to name but a few) who sighted and even landed on Australia’s shores before Cook; and more importantly denies the fact that the continent was already populated by the Indigenous peoples, estimated to have arrived there over 60,000 years ago.

3. Cook was an example to the Union movement

Carruthers was writing in the wake of the Great Depression, when the Union movement was in full swing.  In his book he took the opportunity to advise that:

‘It is just as well in these days, when the Union wage in Australia and America varies from one pound to three pounds per day, to remember that the greatest discoverer and navigator of all time did his job magnificently on ‘five bob’ a day and never made a murmur about his pay’.

4. Cook’s Divine Grace

Cook as a man of destiny is a recurring motif in many books.  For Sir Joseph, Cook was ordained to land in Australia under divine providence. His book contains many biblical allusions and calls to God.  Perhaps most bizarrely though, he recounts that when Cook’s father ‘went to live in Yorkshire, the grandmother said to him: “God send you grace.” At his new home he [Cook’s father] met his future wife and her name was Grace’.  Thus, for Carruthers, Grandma Cook’s prayer was fulfilled.

Peter Hooker
PhD candidate with the University of Newcastle (Australia)

Further reading:
Carruthers, Joseph and Hogan, Michael, 2005 A Lifetime in Conservative Politics: Political Memoirs of Sir Joseph Carruthers 1856-1932. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press
Carruthers, Sir Joseph 1930. Captain James Cook, R.N., One Hundred and Fifty Years After, London: John Murray.
Ward, John M. Carruthers, Sir Joseph Hector (1856–1932) Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979.

 

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