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Cooking the Books: a new British Discovery of Australia?

Louis XVI giving his instructions to Admiral Lapérouse, 29 June 1785, by Nicolas André Monsiau (1817). Chateau de Versailles.

Two books published in recent years by Margaret Cameron-Ash have presented revisionist histories of the discovery and first settlement of Australia. Here, historian Carl Bridge and diplomat, Sir Roger Carrick, put the new claims to the test.

Louis XVI giving his instructions to Admiral Lapérouse, 29 June 1785, by Nicolas André Monsiau (1817). Chateau de Versailles.

Louis XVI giving his instructions to Admiral Lapérouse, 29 June 1785, by Nicolas-André Monsiau (1817). Chateau de Versailles.

The 250th anniversary of James Cook’s epic first voyage to the Pacific in 1769-70, mapping all of New Zealand’s coastline and the east coast of Australia and claiming both places for George III, was marked in Australia by the publication of a much-publicised revisionist history.  Lying for the Admiralty: Captain Cook’s Endeavour Voyage (Rosenberg, 2018) was written by a retired Sydney lawyer and amateur historian, Margaret Cameron-Ash.

It makes some remarkable claims, among them that Cook discovered Bass Strait (between Tasmania and the Australian continent), that he saw Sydney Harbour (Port Jackson) from the landward side, and that he concocted an ex post facto claiming ceremony in present-day Jakarta en route home having neglected to do so when in Australia.  All of this, the author asserts knowingly, was kept hidden from the public record so as not to draw the attention of Britain’s French rivals who might try to steal a march on the British given Australia’s great potential as a base for Asia-Pacific operations.  Cook, she claimed, lied for the Admiralty.

Captain James Cook by John Webber (c. 1780)

Captain James Cook by John Webber (c. 1780)

This book was followed by a second, Beating France to Botany Bay: the race to found Australia (Quadrant, 2021), this time examining Arthur Phillip’s establishment of the colony in Sydney in 1788 that became the basis for the European settlement of Australia.  Here Cameron-Ash’s speculative range is broadened even further.  Phillip is sent to head off a French bid under the Comte de Lapérouse in a ‘race’ to settle Australia.  The two rivals meet over dinner at Sydney Cove and the French, realising that they are outnumbered and outgunned, sail off into the Pacific and shipwreck, never to return to France.  In Cameron-Ash’s fervid imagination this face-off ‘Battle for Port Jackson’ was more significant than the Battle of Trafalgar which she adjudges ‘settled little’.

Anyone with a skerrick of geopolitical sense will see through this last piece of imaginative persiflage.  If the British government were so vitally interested in securing a foothold in Australia why was there an eighteen-year gap before Phillip’s expedition was sent?  And after Phillip had seen off Lapérouse why was he left without reinforcement for well over two years?  Trafalgar scotched any chance of Napoleon invading Britain or his fleet dominating the Atlantic and Mediterranean.  The mythical ‘Battle of Port Jackson’ had little bearing on Britain’s penetration of the Pacific as thepassage to the north through the Moluccas remained the preferred route to China.

But let us look more carefully at Cameron-Ash’s revisionist foray.  The author herself admits her arguments are speculative.  In an astute, and diplomatic, foreword to the first book, John Howard, the former prime minister of Australia, describes her conclusions as ‘controversial, contentious, and compelling’  based on ‘circumstantial evidence’.  He is too kind.  The case is certainly contentious and hard evidence is non-existent.

Cook did not sail through Bass Strait (Bass and Flinders did that in 1798), though as he sailed past and saw the land falling away to the west, he wondered what was there.  Similarly, having found fresh water and a relatively sheltered anchorage at Botany Bay, from well off-shore Cook noted but did not enter the harbour, masked as it is by Middle Head (as the 1789 painting by George Raper illustrates).  If he did secretly see Port Jackson from a high point while scouting out the land, as Cameron-Ash asserts, it is most extraordinary that there is no trace of evidence of it in his papers, Phillip’s, or those of the Admiralty.  Speculation indeed!  Further, the evidence of a claiming ceremony having taken place at Possession Island is plentiful in Cook’s journal and in those of his officers; that he gathered up and kept confidential these journals while victualling at Jakarta was normal naval practice.  Cook had no need to lie.

Entrance of Port Jackson when close under the South Head', George Raper (1789), National Library of Australia.

Entrance of Port Jackson when close under the South Head’, George Raper (1789), National Library of Australia.

The Phillip fabrication is even more tendentious.  Phillip’s expedition was sizeable (eleven ships, some 1400 people) and suitable for founding a colony and its gestation stretched back years earlier than Lapérouse’s voyage.  The French were sent as explorers not colonisers (two ships, no convicts).  There was no ‘race’ and no ‘battle’.  The dinner did not happen.  It’s not recorded in any journal or correspondence, though some of Phillip’s junior officers visited the French.  It seems Phillip, who had, in an earlier life, spied on the French fleet at Toulon, did not want to be recognised and evidence suggests Lapérouse did not initiate a meeting as he thought himself too bald and toothless to be presentable.

Why invent such a fanciful, yah-boo concoction of what can only be labelled ‘what if’-ery?  Is it merely naïve history or, willy nilly, a playing up to post-colonial and neo-nationalist shibboleths? Perhaps the first, though the second book was released to catch the annual Australia Day breast beating. And, given the way the Australian media lapped up this conspiratorial flim-flam – Cameron-Ash made fêted appearances on Sky TV, in the Sydney Morning Herald, and in noted public fora like the Sydney Institute and the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne – one might conclude that the current cult of victimhood is baying for more and more sacrificial blood, and that that hoary old (originally French)bogey, Perfidious Albion, is being resurrected for the umpteenth time, now by woke warriors.  There has ever been an antipodean appetite for twisting the lion’s tail.  Slaying founding fathers is all the rage.  National comforting myth for some this tale may be; but evidence-based history it is not.

 

Carl Bridge is Professor Emeritus of Australian History, King’s College London, and Sir Roger Carrick was British High Commissioner to Australia, 1993-7.

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Carl Bridge

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Roger Carrick

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