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Cook’s tour drenched in blood

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British explorer James Cook arrived on the east coast of Australia 250 years ago. His incursion was part of a horrific imperialist expansion, writes Charlie Kimber
Issue 2699
The Death of Captain Cook painting
The Death of Captain Cook

The British invasion started with musket shots that wounded indigenous people. Next came massacres, and then the genocide of an indigenous population.

The crew of the British ship Endeavour, under the command of Lieutenant James Cook, reached the east coast of New Holland—now called Australia—in April 1770.

As they advanced ashore they met members of the local Gweagal people who, unsurprisingly, resented this arrogant incursion. One Gweagal man threw a rock, and Cook responded with musket fire, hitting him in the leg.

The British crew fired further shots to drive off those who were defending their land with spears. 

Cook recorded the resistance to the British landing party, writing in his journal that “all they seem’d to want was for us to be gone”.

But instead the Union Jack was raised and the harbour where the British had landed was named Botany Bay. Cook stole the Gweagals’ shield and spears that they had left behind. They are still in the British Museum.

After a few days Cook set off. As the Endeavour sailed, the crew noted from the sea what they called Port Jackson—another day the site of Sydney—and then they went past the site of Brisbane.

On 22 August the Endeavour reached Possession Island off the north coast of what is now Queensland.

Cook was confident that no other Europeans had been there before.

So having already “in the Name of His Majesty, taken Possession of several places upon this Coast” he “now once more hoisted English Colours in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third”.

He “took Possession of the whole Eastern Coast from the 38 degrees Latitude down to this place, by the Name of New South Wales together with all the Bays, Harbours, River& Islands situated upon the said Coast”.

It generally took eight months to sail from England to Australia and there was almost no attempt to colonise it for many years. But with the loss of their American colonies in 1783, British attention turned again to the Pacific.

In 1788 British settlement really began with the arrival of the “First Fleet”. Eleven ships carried between 1,000 and 1,500 convicts, marines, seafarers, civil officers and workers. 

They set up a penal colony and began a brutal land seizure. British settlers carried out dozens of massacres against Aboriginal communities that resisted invasion.

One massacre in April 1816 saw the savaging of the Gundangara and Dharawal people.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie wrote later that he had “Military Detachments to march into the Interior and remote parts of the Colony, for the purpose of Punishing the Hostile Natives, by clearing the Country of them entirely”.

He went on that he had commanded that any resisters were to be killed and their bodies hung from trees “in order to strike the greatest terror in the survivors”.

Aboriginal prisoners were transported to Tasmania. They arrived just as settlers and convicts started stepping up their ferocious attacks on the island’s local population.

Within a few decades almost the entire Aboriginal population of Tasmania—around 6,000 people—was wiped out and the remaining few were exiled. 

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At around the same time the whole of Australia, as well as New Zealand, were claimed by the British based on Cook’s “discoveries”. In fact Indigenous Australians were at least 60,000 years ahead of him.

Racist and imperial onslaughts have continued since Cook’s time. As the journalist and film maker John Pilger wrote in 2015, “Influenced by the same eugenics movement that inspired the Nazis, Queensland’s ‘protection acts’ were a model for South African apartheid.

“We are civilised, they are not,’ wrote the acclaimed Australian historian Russel Ward two generations ago. The spirit is unchanged.”

Such appalling results are not divorced from the context of Cook’s voyage. Usually described as a voyage of scientific exploration, it was enmeshed in the growth of the British state and empire.

It’s not necessary to ascribe imperialist motives to every act by Cook and his party. But it is certainly true that they and their mission served such a process. 

In the later part of the 18th century there was a sharp battle for control among the European powers.

Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands had at various periods been leaders in exploration that led to conquest. 

But the British ruling class pulled ahead as the industrial revolution began.

They had the advantage of plentiful raw materials, a geographical position that partially shielded them from European wars—and a successful revolution that had put the capitalist class in control. 

During the 18th century the British state massively increased military spending to build up a powerful war machine, centred on the Royal Navy. 


The state’s dockyards were at the time the largest industrial organisation in Britain, linked to a network of privately owned capitalist suppliers and repairers.

Sea power was crucial in allowing Britain to dominate trade routes and set up colonies that could help pay for the development of industry and deliver raw materials.

In particular the blood and filth of the slave trade channelled funds to the growth of industrial capitalism.

As historian Robin Blackburn says, “By the 1770s the British colonies had the largest number of slaves, followed by Portugal (in Brazil), then the French and Spanish colonies.”

Cook’s journeys took place at a critical time of capitalist industrial expansion. He arrived in Australia five years after James Hargreaves had invented the Spinning Jenny, automating cloth weaving. 

As he reached Tahiti in a later voyage, James Watt was building the first efficient steam engine. The voyage of the Endeavour was therefore part of a competition to search for and seize territory that until then had been largely unknown to Europeans—especially the South Pacific. 

It was hoped that like South America and Africa there could be plunder and slaves.

As early as 1745 parliament offered any British subject £20,000 if they found the Northwest passage from Hudson Bay in North America to the Pacific. 

That’s a reward that is the equivalent of about £5 million today.

But nothing had resulted, and instead the Spanish military had built forts on the Juan Fernandez Islands in the South Pacific off the west coast of Chile.

The British were determined to stake their own claim.

Cook’s journey was supposed to be about transporting scientists to the Pacific to observe the moment when Venus crossed the sun.

His crew, swelled by astronomers and botanists, was one of 76 European expeditions involved in this project. 

But he also carried a packet of secret orders that he was commanded to open only when he had completed his observations of the heavenly bodies.

When the orders were revealed, they told Cook “to observe the genius, temper, disposition and number of the natives, if there be any, and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a friendship and alliance with them. 

“You are also with the consent of the natives to take possession of convenient situations in the country, in the name of the King of Great Britain.”

They told Cook “to observe the genius, temper, disposition and number of the natives, if there be any, and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a friendship and alliance with them.  You are also with the consent of the natives to take possession of convenient situations in the country, in the name of the King of Great Britain.”

The consent of the natives turned out to be an optional extra. Vast territories were seized for the empire and their owners annihilated.

A full copy of the Admiralty’s “Secret Instructions” wasn’t made public until 1928.

The history of imperialism is full of brutality. But it is also one of brave resistance—as Cook discovered.

In 1799, on another voyage, he was in Hawaii. He clashed with some of the local inhabitants, although others offered him assistance.

A group of Hawaiians took one of Cook’s small boats, who responded by shooting at one man who had been “insolent” according to the British. 

Cook then tried to kidnap the King of Hawaii so that he could be held for ransom.

As the king realised Cook was not the benevolent figure he had pretended to be, a struggle began and a large crowd gathered around Cook and his men.

The captain who had been the instrument of such suffering for Aboriginal people was clubbed on the head and then stabbed to death.

Today, 250 years after James Cook arrived at the east coast of Australia, imperialism and racism continue to blight the lives of Aboriginal people and indigenous people around the world. 

Aboriginal people in Australia are more likely to be poor. And despite making up only 3 percent of the population 28 percent of Australia’s prison population are Aboriginal.

The battle to destroy imperialism and racism continues.

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