This essay is part of a new Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to nature writing titled the New Nature. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists and scholars to reflect on nature in the twenty-first century and to grapple with the literary conventions of writing nature. Read the other essays in the New Nature series here.
Has history another places, we’ll see OK.
— Lionel Fogarty, ‘1788 to the Gates of 2028s’
The story of a nation often reads like a natural history. A settler colony, especially so: invasion becomes settlement, an evolutionary progression. The figure of nature, or, ‘the natural’ as a trope, serves multiple contradictory purposes in histories of the colony. Nature somehow both legitimises colonisation (figuring it an inevitable process immanent to modernity) and de-legitimises the colonised (constructing the native/settler binary to mirror a perceived nature/culture split). In other words, for the settler colony and its self-styled origin myth, nature is at once that which must be conquered and the moral justification for conquest. This essay thinks through the concept of the nature that sits at the heart of the complex denials that constitute colonial occupation, considering how the ‘law of nature’ – in particular, the influence of John Locke on settler-colonial practices – becomes the naturalisation of law in the long process of settlement. In order to do such thinking, I engage with a painting of James Cook by Vincent Namatjira. I focus on the painting’s curious central detail: a ‘Declaration’ that Cook is in the act of signing. This ‘Declaration’, I argue, highlights the forgery of colonial law by forging a document in the painting itself: there is no ‘Declaration’ that is here represented; instead of representing a received history of Cook, the painting points to the ad hoc, doctored, faked and mythical documents that constitute the colonial archive.
The full title of Namatjira’s painting is James Cook – with the Declaration. It shows Cook in full naval regalia, squatting as though on a chair but seemingly floating in space. He wears a crooked half-smile that makes a flat slab across his face. He is holding a long, flowing scroll. The document flows continuously up the front of his body to become his shirt – the lines of text and a little sprig of a signature abstracting into buttons. He is a body without a chair, holding a document that is part of his body. He is also holding a pencil that points back to his signature. The body which is a document, has just signed the document, which is a body: a complex event embedded in a single image.
The name, too, is complex. The dash is disarming. It reads as a drama: a play in two acts. This is no mere portrait but a picture with two subjects: James Cook – with the Declaration. The capital D codes the document as singular, official: it is the Declaration, not a declaration. But what is the Declaration? What we know about Cook and his journey up the east coast of what was then called New Holland by the Europeans and what was already many diverse nations, we know from his diaries, and from the diaries of his shipmates. If we take such diaries as historical records – which, despite their heavy editing, self-reporting, and so on – is often the case, then we know that the claiming of the coast for the King of England, performed by Cook on Bedanug (what he named ‘Possession Island’), happened on 22 August 1770, and involved the planting of the British flag on the soil of the island and the firing of three shots that were repeated by the ship’s cannon. As the diaries record, the actual naming of the coast on behalf of the King – New South Wales – came later. On the day of the performance of possession, there was simply a flag and some shots, a man and his ship calling out to each other. By the time a colony in New South Wales was planned, Cook was long dead. It was the ship’s botanist, Joseph Banks, who testified in support of the plan; he did so by either misremembering or misrepresenting his own diaries, which give a different account of Botany Bay than what he recalled in his later testimony.
Namatjira’s painting was made especially for the British Museum, and was acquired ahead of the Museum’s Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation exhibition, curated by Gaye Sculthorpe in 2015. The painting is listed on the Museum’s website with the following description: ‘Painting, acrylic on canvas. Blue background with depiction of a seated Captain James Cook in formal naval regalia. He is holding a legal document in his right hand and his left hand grasps a pencil. The legal document, the ‘declaration’, is painted as an extension of his naval uniform’. Here, the Declaration is at once generic (a legal document), specific (the ‘declaration’), and mythic (the ‘declaration’). The scare quotes reveal an interpretive ambivalence on behalf of the Museum: it is the declaration because the painting names it so.
In an essay written for the exhibition, historian Maria Nugent describes ‘Vincent Namatjira’s painting, James Cook – With Declaration, in which the “proclamation” Cook writes to take possession of the territory appears as an extension of his naval uniform.’ With Nugent, the scare-quoted ‘declaration’ becomes the square-quoted ‘proclamation’, here defined as a written confirmation of the act of claiming possession. Continuing her description, Nugent writes: ‘Vincent Namatjira’s painting draws attention to the historical myth-making that Cook, as settler foundational figure, has come to represent.’ For Nugent, national foundations and myths are intimately connected: Cook’s account of himself becomes the nation’s account of itself, or rather, Cook’s claiming of the coast for the King in 1770 becomes the distorted birth story of a nation that would eventually come to be called Australia and would belatedly name Cook as the father.
Elsewhere, Nugent tracks how the ‘possession ceremony’ has been represented variously and erroneously in popular historical accounts. A typical misrepresentation, according to Nugent, is a greeting card issued by Australia Post with the title Captain Cook Taking Possession at Botany Bay, 1770. There is a tendency to conflate the landing of Cook with the arrival of the First Fleet eighteen years later. ‘Yet,’ as Nugent writes, ‘the close association between Cook landing for the first time and the continent becoming a British acquisition did not necessarily depend upon the character playing Cook making any solemn declaration.’ The conflation between the two events (which, she stresses, are by no means unassociated) is symptomatic of the anxious ways that sovereignty is asserted and justified by the settler state – a ‘neat fiction’ that asserts ‘a single act of possession by declaration to justify or to explain how they got the land.’ This fiction has been vividly rendered in paintings that make the ‘discovery’ event, the possession event, and the act of settlement synonymous – represented, as Nugent says, as a single foundational moment: the landing. That word, landing, refers not just the act of coming to shore but to all that such an act entails, that is, the process through which the land becomes property.
John Locke’s concepts of natural law and property are ubiquitous to modern liberal thought, if wildly variable in interpretation. Simply put, for Locke, natural law is akin to morality: there are moral truths that apply to all people and that are knowable through reason alone. These moral truths are akin to a natural law that precedes and is in excess of other kinds of law. To understand and abide by natural law, one must reason; other kinds of law inscribe context-specific codes and rules by which to live in addition to this fundamental morality. But Locke’s conception of nature is more complicated than his idea of the law of nature as a way of describing universal moral truth and its access via reason. He also posited property as a natural right of ‘man’, and therefore, the transformation of nature into property (in his famous equation, property is land transformed by labour) as an expression of man’s natural right. In other words: the law of nature impels man to a moral truth accessible via reason. A key tenet of this moral truth is property, which includes the man himself (the man’s body and labour is his) and that which is taken by his body and labour in use. It is natural to take property; property is nature taken. Locke’s notion of possession (of both the self and of property) became an important reference in the justification of colonisation. This logic was used to make the distinction between land that was inhabited but not possessed, and land that was possessed according to recognisable metrics: agriculture, architecture, farming, and so on. In Locke’s formulation, the universally equal ‘man’ who is both subject to natural law and who exploits nature as his lawful right is unambiguously and inflexibly white: Locke’s man, equal to others, does not include the colonised, the enslaved, or the woman.
As Andrew Fitzmaurice has written, terra nullius as a phrase to describe a Lockean perspective on land ownership and the right to possess, doesn’t come into usage until the twentieth century, at which point it comes to describe, retrospectively, the various legal fabrications that were deployed to justify occupation both at the time of settlement and subsequently in the establishment of colonial law and the assertion of sovereignty. Of course, this doesn’t mean that terra nullius did not already exist as a set of assumptions about the right to occupy uncultivated land – as Stewart Motha writes, in Vattel’s The Law of Nations (1785), it was asserted that ‘international law recognized an obligation to cultivate the lands they occupied. If nomadic peoples failed to cultivate the lands they occupied, such lands could be subject to European settlement by ‘occupancy’ and not by conquest’ – but that the term itself has come belatedly to describe in legal terms what was in effect a constellation of different practices that together produced white sovereignty as its own ‘natural fact’. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, citing Cheryl Harris, writes:
‘Only white possession and occupation of land was validated and therefore privileged as a basis for property rights’ and national identity. The white nation cannot exist as such without land and clearly defined borders; it is the legally defined and asserted territorial sovereignty that provides the context for national identifications. In this way terra nullius indelibly marks configurations of national identity’.
Reading history in this way is a reminder that, far from the after-the-fact fatalist narratives of discovery, ambition, industry and providential will that accompany origin myths of settler colonies, the very concept and enforcement of settler sovereignty has always been shored up, regulated and routinised by way of improvised, incoherent, and self-mythologised assertions of white supremacy. These assertions – turned into the rule of law – founded and continue to constitute the cultural logic of ‘Australianness’ and its perverse natural history of fated becoming.
Moreton-Robinson argues that ‘possessiveness functions socio-discursively to inform and shape white subjectivity and the law’. ‘White possession,’ she continues, ‘operates discursively within knowledge production through universals, dominant norms, values, and beliefs’. Cook, she points out, is inextricable from these discourses, acting variously as an agent of white possession. When Cook set off for the Pacific, he was under a number of instructions, some official and some less so. As Moreton-Robinson recalls, he was commissioned to take two astronomers to the south in order to ‘observe the transit of Venus’. It was decided that, while in the area, he should have a go at finding the fabled southern continent. Moreton-Robinson writes:
The Admiralty’s secret instructions were, if Cook ever found the great southern continent and encountered ‘natives,’ to ‘endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a friendship and alliance with them….You are also with the consent of the natives to take possession of convenient situations in the country in the name of the King of Great Britain, or, if you find the country uninhabited take possession for his Majesty’.
Of course, we know that Cook found the land inhabited and took possession regardless. Cook’s descriptions of his encounters with the ‘natives’ show the logic to his decision:
As Cook made his way up the east coast of Australia, he wrote that the Indigenous people were small in number and were less technologically advanced than other Indigenous groups he had encountered elsewhere. They did not cultivate the land, were unwarlike, and were not interested in trade. He believed they existed in a state of nature.
As a result, she continues, ‘taking possession did not require their consent.’
To be able to assert ‘this is mine’ requires a subject to internalize the idea that one has proprietary rights that are part of normative behavior, rules of interaction, and social engagement. This possession, which constitutes part of the ontological structure of white subjectivity, is also constituted socio-discursively. For Cook to be able to take possession of the east coast of Australia without consent of the ‘natives’ means that he had to position Aboriginal people as will-less things in order to take their land in the name of the king. Thus Cook’s white possessiveness operated ontologically and epistemologically by willing away Indigenous people’s sovereignty in order to make them appear will-less.
Cook’s possessiveness relies on his own account of his interactions with the people he encountered on his long journey – an account, which, it is clear, betrays his own ignorance, ego, and frustration above anything else.
In Namatjira’s painting, the ‘Declaration’, signed by Cook, is literally a part of his body. Cook claims possession by citing his own records and then forging the documents – his diary entries – to make it appear that he was both following instructions and acting on behalf of what was naturally, legally just: that the land would be claimed for a future colony, that possession was his right as an agent of the King. The painting’s ‘Declaration’, therefore, is not merely a symbol of the act of possession. It is a twice-forged document: a diary entry that fakes its findings; and, a representation of this fakery in painted form that stands in for Cook’s possessive performance and its naturalisation as law, narrative, history, and mythology. Namatjira exposes the perversity of ‘Cook’s choice’, as Moreton-Robinson describes it: his choice to claim the coast based on his own rotten evidence, and his choice to use himself as the key witness for a future colony.
‘Cook is an archetype’, Chris Healy writes, an ‘embodiment of structural principles’ that for more than two hundred years has informed both the narrative of discovery and settlement that make up Australia’s self-styled history and the narratives of invasion and survival that form the counter-history of Indigenous sovereignty and resistance. Healy again:
The white invasion of this continent can be written as the story of Aboriginal people being made subjects by twin forces of domination and documentation. Domination is primarily driven by the imposition of the apparatus of a European state and acted out in the physical control of bodies and life. The other force, documentation, possessing indigenous people by ‘knowing’ them, has been the means by which European knowledge was reproduced, depositing its residue in museums, archives, libraries and the mentality of racism.
Cook’s diaries play a vital role in this history of invasion by documentation: in them, we can read his frustration and angst at not engaging with the Indigenous people he comes across; we can read his uninformed, throwaway comments about cockles and mussels, fires and dwellings, clothes and weapons; we can read his ego, his rage, his entitlement, his determination. We can read the passage of Cook from diary-writer to key witness and, at the same time, the passage of a diary to historical document.
Healy’s essay, ‘ “We know your mob now”: Histories and their cultures’ considers Indigenous stories of Cook as counter-historical claims that expose the fragility and erroneousness of the settler colonial archive. If the settler historical account both oversignifies Cook as a figure of nation-making and fails to remember or acknowledge the actual process of such making, then Indigenous stories of Cook – which variously locate Cook in Victoria, on the south coast of New South Wales, or the Northern Territory – are an ‘antidote to white amnesia’, re-staging Cook’s landing and legacy and reorienting settler history in order that it is continually confronted with its own wobbly mythos.
We can read James Cook – with the Declaration in this long history of storytelling, too: it is one of many by Namatjira that feature Cook: there’s a self-portrait with Cook in which the Captain and the young artist are embracing in front of an opulent, still-life-esque feast; there’s one portrait of Cook and the Queen, arms around each other and grinning as if at a camera, and another of the two looking nervous and with an awkward gap between them; there’s a painting with all three – Cook, Namatjira, and the Queen – in which Namatjira stands in the middle, arms extended and smiling widely, flanked by the other two who are panicked-looking and grimacing; there’s Cook on his own, propped up by a cane and on an unnerving angle, leaning into the ocean; there are two paintings of Cook looking through a small telescope; there’s Cook doing a naval salute, and so on.
The curator’s comments that accompany James Cook – with the Declaration in the British Museum’s online archive, read, in full:
When Namatjira was 14, he visited a replica of Cook’s ship, Endeavour, at Fremantle, Western Australia on a school excursion which ‘got me thinking about him’. Namatjira has noted that Aboriginal people would have interpreted seeing Cook as an ‘ocean mamu’ or ghost. Namatjira stated: ‘This painting is important for me, because it was the beginning of our shared history, everything after Cook was between all of us’.
Everything after Cook was between all of us. Cook appears, in Namatjira’s paintings, a reminder, remainder, corpse, trace, or ghost: a symbol of the repeated and the repeatable, the rule of law, and the law of the father. He signifies the continuity of settler sovereignty in the body of the current Queen, and the continuity of invasion in the form of a constant companion.
Maddee Clark opens a recent essay titled ‘Coded Devices’ with the following:
One of the central fantasies of colonisation in Australia has been that Aboriginal people have no future. Much of telling Indigenous history to non-Indigenous people is unseating the idea that we are dead or that we belong only to the past. It’s always much more digestible to non-Indigenous minds that Aboriginal people are dead, tragically / no longer have culture / are dying out / don’t really live in the south eastern states; than it is to accept images of resistance, life, and adaptation.
Clark’s notion of fantasy is potent: this is not an error or misunderstanding, but a willful narrative underwritten by desire, fear and denial. Such a fantasy figures history as an otherworldly realm, one in which the very acts of living and dying bear no relationship to the present. In the archive of forged notes, it is easier, following Clark, to dream up the end of a history than it is to imagine the continuation of history and its potential to be realised otherwise.
Clark writes about Indigenous artists and authors who take a speculative approach in articulating possible presents and futures for Indigenous knowledge and practice – including Hannah Brontë, Paul and Nayuka Gorrie, and Ellen van Neerven. We might read Namatjira’s painting as a kind of historical science fiction, a critique of the way the that history is narrativised and naturalised, the way it repeats as a continuous present. We can read the flatness of the painting, the way it brings the overloaded symbol of Cook into a frank, slab-like present-tense, the way it makes a slick plane from document, regalia, body, and gesture, the way it suspends Cook in the deep royal blue of a seaman’s portrait, and the way it shows a criminal act of narrative forgery – we can read all of these images at once as we perceive, in the shock of surface, the fullness and embeddedness of history.
Finally, we can read the painting as a kind of critical guide to the naturalised and romantic images of settler-colonialism. If the history of white supremacy is in part a history of forged documents and ballads of courage, divine right and reason, then what is needed is a counter-history in which the archive is shown as corrupt and corruptible, and the subjects of critique not as the long-dead spirits of the legend, the sea, the ship, or the postage stamp, but actual people with names and bodies and legacies.
Maddee Clark, ‘Coded Devices’ 2016.
Aileen Moreton-Robinson, ‘Virtuous Racial States’, Griffith Law Review, 20(3), 2011.
Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty, University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Chris Healy, ‘We Know Your Mob Now: Histories and their cultures’, Meanjin, 3, 1990.
Stewart Motha, ‘The Sovereign Event in a Nation’s Law’, Law and Critique, 13, 2002.
Andrew Fitzmaurice, ‘The genealogy of Terra Nullius’, Australian Historical Studies, 38(129), 2007.
Maria Nugent, Captain Cook was here, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Gayle Sculthorpe et al, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, National Museum of Australia Press, 2015.