In the lead-up to Australia Day, my Chronicle column this month focused on the quirkier side of Australian history.
High Time We Embraced Our Indigenous Heritage, The Chronicle, 13 January 2015
Did you know that much of Star Trek is named in homage to Captain Cook, the first Englishman to reach Eastern Australia? For example, Star Trek’s Captain James Kirk was named after Captain James Cook, the USS Enterprise was named after the HMS Endeavour, and the phrase ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’ was inspired by Cook’s ambition to go ‘farther than any other man has been before me’.
This is just one of the many quirky facts to emerge from David Hunt’s new book Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia, undoubtedly the funniest book about Australian history I’ve ever read.
Hunt sets the context for the English voyages to Australia. During the 1700s, British law became steadily harsher, until capital crimes included removing a rabbit from its warren, interfering with a fishpond, or having a blackened face. There were plenty of anomalies, too: pickpocketing was a capital crime, but child stealing was not.
Because many capital crimes were commuted to life imprisonment or transportation, Britain’s demand for places to send convicts was nearly insatiable. And so Cook was sent south, with the secret mission of finding another convict colony.
You might have learned that at school. But I’m guessing your teacher didn’t tell you that Cook’s Endeavour sailed on a steady diet of rum, with each of the men on board being assigned a pint of rum each day. Hunt also points out that after checking out the skin of locals in Tahiti, botanist Joseph Banks introduced the word ‘tattoo’ into the English language.
I finished the book feeling that Australia’s English settlers were braver, crazier and more interesting than I’d known before. In a passage of his book headed ‘Bass Strait?’, Hunt explores whether the relationship between Matthew Flinders and George Bass went beyond the platonic. In one letter, Flinders writes: ‘I was so completely wrapped up in you, that no conversation but yours could give me any degree of pleasure’, qualified only with the aside ‘yet it is not clear that I love you entirely’.
As we now know, Cook did not ‘discover’ Australia – he was at least 40,000 years late for that. But the tale of Australia’s English settlement is one strand of our national story. On this 227th Australia Day, it’s vital that we broaden out our notion of national identity to include a proud Indigenous heritage, a strong egalitarian tradition, and one of most successful migration programs in the world.
Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fraser, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.