Friday, March 20, 2015

Captain Cook and false beginnings

The very name ‘Captain Cook’ conjures up a whole host of competing narratives about the history of Australia – from narratives of ‘discovery’ and ‘foundation’ to narratives of injustice and dispossession. These narratives highlight, in turn, some of the very serious difficulties associated with beginnings and the ways they are given meaning.

My story doesn’t begin with the ‘first fleet’ - and it doesn’t begin with Cook, either. But Cook nevertheless features in the opening chapter (at least as I’m drafting it at the moment!) - in part because his voyage up the east coast of the continent, during the middle months of 1770, highlights some of the near-misses in the history of the bible’s relationship to Australia.

Specifically, Cook’s first Endeavour voyage shows how close the bible had come to Australia from Asia: when he got to the island of Savu, near Timor, he found a community of local Christians with copies of the Bible in their local language. The translation had been arranged by the Dutch traders then entrenched at Batavia – modern day Jakarta - and spread among the inhabitants along with the use of 'letters and writing.' (You can read Cook's comments on it here).

By 1770, then, the bible had spread from its place of writing in the middle east and Asia minor, to within a few days sail of Australia. If history had been different, perhaps it would have been eventually introduced to this continent from our near northern neighbours?

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