I Visited Captain Cook’s Cottage and Thought ‘WTF, Just Change the Date’
Everything about Australia's founding mythology has problems, including the fact Captain Cook's cottage is in Melbourne.
Growing up in Melbourne means at some point visiting Captain Cook's cottage, which as I said before is in Melbourne—for no good reason at all. It's not in Yorkshire, where Captain Cook was born, or Botany Bay, where his ship first made Australian landfall. It's in Melbourne, which is a place he never visited and Europeans didn't colonise until 40 years after Cook died.
But it's here all the same. Right now you can pay $6.50 to walk around James Cook's parents' house and get attention on Instagram in sweet BBC costume, as I did yesterday. But it also serves a greater purpose, and one that wasn't deliberate. That is, Cook's cottage illustrates the way white Australia craves an origin story. Or one that's better than our prisons were full.
All photos by Ben Thomson
Captain Cook's cottage is a time capsule of Australia finding itself. It's a 20th century attempt at celebrating our colonial mythology. But as we're finding in the 21st century, that mythology has a lot of problems. And really the story of Captain Cook's cottage relocation says a lot about our desire for a noble history, and how much we fucked that history up.
It all started with a guy named Sir Wilfrid Russell Grimwade, who was born in 1879 to a Melbourne family that had made a fortune selling pharmaceuticals. Grimwade was born long after the last convict ships had departed, and came of age as Australia made its first steps away from Great Britain. It was a time of identity creation. Australia became an independent nation in 1901, officially ending our pioneering adolescence. Frederick McCubbin was painting landscapes that didn't look English; household consumables came with names like Bushells and Rosella. Later the Great War lent us heady notions of sacrifice and suddenly we were a English franchise transformed, with Captain Cook as our Columbus.
Sir Wilfrid Russell Grimwade was very into this kind of thinking. So much so that in 1930, when he heard that the Cook home was for sale in northern Yorkshire, he bought it for twice its going rate. An architectural firm in York was commissioned to number-code and dismantle its bricks, transporting the lot to Australia in 1933. It was then reassembled in Melbourne because Grimwade argued that the first part of Australia seen by Cook was Point Hicks in Victoria, so the house belonged in Melbourne. Also Grimwade lived in Melbourne, so there was that.
The cottage was reassembled in the Fitzroy Gardens in 1934 and builders marvelled at the date inscribed in the lintel above the door: 1755. That date made it the oldest building in all of Australia, but also meant the building had nothing to do with Captain Cook. He'd joined the Royal Navy that year, 10 years after he'd left home. And maybe he visited his parents sometimes after they'd built the place, or maybe he didn't. Nobody knows if Cook ever stepped foot in the cottage at all.
What is known is that Cook wasn't propelled around the world to plant flags by curiosity and fervent egotism (like Columbus), he was simply sent there to beat the French. This was at a time when most non-colonised parts of the world had all been colonised, and France were wondering what New Holland (as Australia was then known) could do for them.
Great Britain sent a few tentative voyages across the Pacific to try and reach Australia's east coast first, but all found themselves blocked by the Great Barrier Reef. James Cook just happened to be the guy who first approached from the south, which means he just happened to be the first guy to plant a flag at Botany Bay. And that was in 1770, a whole 18 years before Great Britain decided to officiate their claim with a prison colony. This by the way, is what we celebrate on Australia Day: a few prison ships rolling into Port Jackson.
Captain James Cook was a highly skilled navigator and oceanographer, but he wasn't driven by any particular idiom (aside from a pay cheque). Subsequently, as historian Jillian Robertson states: "Cook's role as a superhero is a completely false one."
All of this confusion and general irrelevance makes a visit to the cottage a funny one. The place is filled with tourists who, like us, grew up knowing Australia was founded by Cook and romanticised by Paul Hogan. There are also a lot of kind and elderly volunteers who are happy to show you around. And of course, there are costumes.
But like the costumes (and Australia Day), the cottage is noticeably tied to antiquated ideas. The people who brought all those Yorkshire bricks to Australia are gone, but they passed their vision of Australia onto their children. Those children who are now in the 50s and 60s grew up on Captain Cook and Vegemite, and they often seem to be the ones who get upset whenever someone says "maybe we should change the date." But they don't want to change the date because Australia Day was fine when they were kids. Back then when the cottage was Captain Cook's and he lived there, dammit.
That's the problem with the arguments about the date. It's drenched in these sweet and nebulous notions around national identity, which idiots and old people misinterpret as meaning their identities.
So look, this is all going in the direction you think it's going: we should change the date. Because as a morning at Cook's cottage seemed to illustrate, white people have a lame origin story soaked in misery and wishful thinking. We should just accept that.