Cooktown’s contested history still simmers online


‘Bama Ancestral Elder’ is a portrait representing the Ancestral Elder who initiated the reconciliation with Captain Cook in Cooktown. Photo by Robyn Holmes

When Captain Cook landed in Cooktown 252 years ago, he didn’t know he had arrived in Waymburr, a neutral meeting place for Indigenous people. Cook was later responsible for the shooting of an Indigenous man and has since become part of a contested history that some Cooktown residents would like to move on from.

A heated Facebook discussion among more than 100 Cooktown locals revealed the town is still battling with parts of its history. The emotion of the arguments goes against the town’s public spirit of reconciliation.

Some there argue he is a national hero who opened Australia up to more opportunities, while others believe he paved the way towards the country’s darkest times. Today, the town is named after Cook and has statues commemorating him, towering over Indigenous artwork and acting as a constant reminder of their pain.

A question posted by the author about Captain Cook on the Cooktown community Facebook page quickly turned into a passionate debate. In more than 100 comments the general attitude was “history is history” and people were ready to turn a new chapter. “It is the first site of conflict and also the site of the first reconciliation…and Cook was the main reason for all of this and therefore deserves his place in that part of history whether it be good or bad,” Warren Weller said.

Captain Cook’s journey off the shore of Queensland in 1770. Click on the image to view the interactive map

People commented on how proud they were to live in Cooktown. Many believe that Captain Cook’s contributions to the world deserve recognition. “What Captain James Cook and his crew at that time in history achieved is nothing less than brilliant,” Courtney Byrne posted. “Proud to live in Cooktown!”

Some users talked about the reconciliation focus of the town. “The story of Australia’s first act of reconciliation is important in terms of us moving forward,” Kaz Price said. “The shared story of Cook’s time here is a wonderful insight into how the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians should be,” David Klye said.

There were commenters upset by the post, asking people to stop trying to alter history and leave things as they are. “So much history is being lost due to appeasing so many people,” Michael Johnson said. “Leave these names of these places as they are.”

In the two days that the post was up, David Morgan was the only person to share the opposite opinion. “This man was white, and was the forerunner to the horrible invasion and genocide carried out by the whites when they arrived … I think the name should be changed immediately,” Mr Morgan said.

Mr Morgan’s comment sparked a fiery debate. “The garbage that you spewed in your comment,” Al Rogers replied. Lyn Eglinton said “woke nonsense from you”. “History cannot be changed,” she said. Ultimately, the post was removed by the page admins.

Three traditional owners were contacted to share their opinions on Cooktown’s name but none replied by deadline. The town has been through some changes in the hope of becoming more inclusive. The James Cook Museum is now The Cooktown Museum. A Museum spokesman said: “We’ve become more inclusive, we’re focusing not just on Cook.”

In 1988, Cooktown was gifted a statue of Captain Cook, but the community felt the Indigenous people were under-represented. Rather than wanting to erase history and remove the Cook statue, people were advocating to expand the display to create a more inclusive and balanced narrative.

Cooktown Deputy Mayor Robyn Holmes said the Cook statue in town received mixed opinions. “There are for and against opinions about Captain Cook Monuments,” Cr Holmes said. “Some don’t like it being displayed so prominently and associate it with invasion. Others feel it symbolises Australian history and has been placed in the area where Captain Cook came ashore.”

In a media release, Cooktown Mayor Peter Scott said the new monuments were an opportunity to embrace history and show it can be celebrated inclusively by all Australians. “Reconciliation is not about tearing down statues, but ensuring the Indigenous side of the story is accurately and meaningfully told, shared and commemorated,” Cr Scott said.

A statue of a plant
The Black and White Cockatoo feathers in this Cooktown statue symbolise the Indigenous clans and country. Photo by Robyn Holmes

The two new artworks represent the first act of reconciliation ever recorded in Australia, the moment when an Indigenous Elder met with Cook to discuss their cultural differences. The Indigenous Elder, referred to as the “little old man” in Sir Joseph Bank’s journal, is the focus of the artworks. The sculptures are featured beside the Reconciliation Rocks, the site that marks the place of the reconciliation.

“They came to us in a very friendly manner we now return’d the darts we had taken from them which reconciled everything,” Cook wrote in his journal. The reconciliation is a significant part of Cooktown’s history and is celebrated as two cultures becoming one.

The sculptures were built with help from the then Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In a media release in 2019, Mr Morrison announced he would be donating $5.7 million towards the new monuments in Cooktown.

At a press conference in Cooktown, Mr Morrison said it was important to “not walk away from our history, but to understand it, to embrace it, to recognise things that have happened, both positively and otherwise”. “It’s so great here in Cooktown to see that spirit of reconciliation,” he said.

Instead of the Captain Cook statue standing alone, the Reconciliation statues now stand with him. A story of betrayal that hangs over the heads of Indigenous communities across Australia is slowly being re-written into a tale of reconciliation.


This article is part of a larger project called Where What Why. You can find the whole collection of stories about places and their names here.