Cook's heirs cash in on the white man's heritage

COOKTOWN DAYS

Captain Cook has just stepped ashore from a long-boat attended by his crew. A group of Aborigines appears suddenly from the bushes and threatens the white men with spears. On the slope above, a young woman downs her umpteenth whisky cocktail. When Cook's men fire muskets into the air to warn off the blacks, the woman shouts: "Yeah - shoot 'em!"

I am in Cooktown, the furthest it is possible to reach before the roads drift off into the Never Never of far north Queensland, or FNQ as the locals call it. Here, in June 1770, Captain James Cook beached his barque, the Endeavour, after it struck coral on the Great Barrier Reef. And here on the same spot, every year since 1960, the locals re-enact Cook's landing in meticulous detail.

There is something quintessentially Australian about Cooktown and the Endeavour Festival, as it is known. It is not the Australia of the big cities to the south, labouring under the late 20th century blights of pollution, crime, unemployment and breakneck change. It is an Australia of the not-so-distant past, a place where time had largely stood still but which is now being encroached upon by, and coming to grips with, the outside world.

When Cook and his party landed on the Endeavour River, where Cooktown now stands, they had spent six weeks discovering and charting the east coast of Australia. They spent another six weeks on the river's shores, from June to August 1770, repairing the Endeavour, making contact with the Aborigines and venturing inland to take plant samples. Theirs was the first known white settlement in Australia, pre-dating the arrival of British convicts at Botany Bay by eight years.

"Whatever Australians do about getting rid of the monarchy, they must not get rid of the Union Jack in the corner of their flag," a visiting British woman told me in Cooktown. "Because all those pioneers who forged through the rainforests, built the railways and explored the Outback did it under the British flag." I did not want to disillusion her, but I suspect that they did it from two basic motives: survival and greed.

It was greed that built Cooktown in the first place. The town was established in 1873 as a base for the rush that erupted after gold was found on the nearby Palmer River. The gold rush was the beginning of the end for the local Aborigines, who unsuccessfully tried to fight what they saw as an invasion of their traditional lands. In its gold rush heyday, Cooktown had 63 pubs, 40 brothels and 30,000 people.

Today the population has dwindled to 1,450. Greed of a different kind made the Queensland state government bulldoze a coastal road through the World Heritage-listed Cape Tribulation rainforest during the 1980s to make Cooktown more accessible to tourists. The road is an environmental disaster. But, in the interests of seeing what made the little town the flashpoint for Australia's green protest movement, I set out for the four-hour trip.

I paused on the way at the Lions Den Hotel, whose timber beams, corrugated iron walls and its clientele appeared unchanged since it was built in 1878. "There'll be a lot of drinking in Cooktown this weekend," an old-timer told me. "Look out for the drunks on the road."

Cooktown is a place where the Wild West meets the tropics. The town's charming old buildings nestle under rainforest which falls down to a shore undisturbed since Cook landed 226 years ago. Revellers packed the pub and streets well into Saturday night.

By Sunday morning, there was not a drunk or a XXXX can in sight. Visitors gathered soberly on the foreshore for the Cook re-enactment, culminating in the unfurling of the Union Jack. The 18th century costumes, lovingly researched, looked very other-worldly in this setting. The local Aborigines stayed away.

"Can you blame them?" asked Vince O'Flaherty, the festival's organiser. "I've tried to get them more involved. Until two years ago, it was called the Discovery Festival. They weren't happy about that. They were here for 40,000 years." What would Cook have thought of it all? Cooktown honoured him with an elegant stone column in 1887, a Captain Cook Museum opened in 1970 and a bronze statue erected in 1988. So why, when Australia is seriously debating republicanism and trying to right past wrongs to Aborigines, does this pocket of Cook "overkill" flourish?

In Australia's endless search for that elusive concept, national identity, I suspect it is because something about Cook has become rooted in the national psyche: his courage, individualism, resilience and humanitarianism. And that is why we shall probably go on seeing the Union Jack raised once a year at Cooktown, long after Australia becomes a republic.

Robert Milliken

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

Recruitment Genius: Fundraising Manager / Income Generation Coach

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A smart software company locate...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Account Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Busy, friendly and creative marketing ag...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - London - £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Wes...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project