What are silences?: The Australian example

Michael Piggott

It is said that ‘silences haunt every archives’; even the word ‘spectral’ has been used. And in Refiguring the archive the editors declared ‘The archive - all archive -every archive - is figured’. So one would need to be omniscient and conceited to argue that archival silences associated with an individual society are exceptional. Nevertheless, some societies do share common influences such as culture and colonialism. Australia, like Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, has historical connections with Great Britain. Separate from this shared distinction is the reality of indigenous Australia, which flourished ‘53,000 years before one of the most ancient cities of the so-called civilised world, Jericho in Palestine, was founded’ - and around the time when, apparently, the beginning of genuine recordkeeping replaced the silent world of‘prehistory’.1

What follows is intended to illustrate archival silences using historical themes from the Australian context - despite the challenges of the concept itself and the daunting timespan of humans’ presence here. My themes arise primarily from our indigenous, colonial (particularly convict) and recent history and from the exploration that preceded it. Some silences are benign (archival arrangements) and some deliberate (Patrick White’s letters). One theme links directly to a core theoretical issue about what constitutes a record. Another arises from Australia’s contemporary policy towards asylum seekers arriving by sea. All, however, are anchored to distinctive features of Australia and its history and people.

Cook and indigenous Australians

European inkling of the existence of a large southern continent entered the exploration records of the Dutch East Indies in 1606 with confirmed sightings and landfall by Willem Janszoon in the Duyjken, while primacy has also been argued in favour of the Portuguese, Spanish, French and Chinese. However, what matters for present purposes is the ‘discovery’ in 1770 of the east coast of what was then known as ‘New Holland’ by English navigator Janies Cook (1728-1779), his claiming possession on behalf of the British Crown and the repercussions.

After his first voyage of exploration (1768-1771), Cook sailed twice more into the Pacific, the last resulting in his death in Hawaii in 1779. All three voyages had scientific and mapping agendas. The first, co-sponsored with the Admiralty by the Royal Society, aimed (aside from the ‘secret instructions’ to confirm there was indeed a continent in the southern hemisphere) to observe the transit ofVenus from Tahiti and assist a team of botanists and artists led by Joseph (later Sir Joseph) Banks to collect and document flora and fauna and study Pacific islander cultures. On that first voyage, Cook surveyed and named numerous features of the east coast of‘ Australia’, including Botany Bay and Port Jackson (later, Sydney).

In 1788, Britain established a penal colony at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson. During the nineteenth century other colonies were established, and later still granted self-government. On seeking to federate in the late 1890s, these colonies were granted independence to form modern-day Australia in 1901 while remaining within the (then) British Empire. As a result, and despite the fact that William Dampier was the first Englishman to set foot on the continent, it was Cook who has been revered as an antipodean Columbus. Here, anniversaries of his birth and exploits in 1770 were pretexts for commemoration, and he was also eulogised in school texts, statues, plaques, place names, re-enactments and Endeavour replicas. Indeed, his name and that of his ships have been commemorated around the world and, thinking of space shuttles, beyond.

Ostensibly, the archival silences in the Cook 1770 Endeavour story are more understandable than historians’ past selective treatment of Australian history.2 This holds even when, from among the extensive officially warranted documentation the voyage generated, we focus just on the commander’s holograph journal. In the journal Cook was at times circumspect, at times silent, at times deliberately misleading? And indigenous Australians were accorded minimal agency in official records despite instructions to Cook to ‘cultivate a Friendship and Alliance’ with them and to only take possession of land ‘with the Consent of the Natives’?

What then of public access to the journal, even with these gaps? From Batavia, and at the end of the voyage, edited copies of the journal made by Cook’s clerk were forwarded to the Admiralty and a version, without Cook’s input, was quickly published, while a century-long inaccessibility of the actual journal ensured even Cook’s authentic contemporary voice was silent. The journal was kept aside from his wife’s destruction of their personal papers and, after passing through several descendants, was purchased in 1865 by the industrialist and politician Henry Bolckow. Apart from an occasional display (for instance, at the Sixth International Geographical Congress, London, 1895), it lay undisturbed in his, and later, his descendants’ library at Marton Hall, Middlesbrough. Eventually, it was purchased by the Australian government at a Sotheby’s auction in 1923, beginning its slow crescendo towards accessibility.

The journal was then transferred to the nascent National Library of Australia, initially part of the new Parliament’s Library, inevitable improving avenues to its contents. It was lent for display at the Mitchell Library, Sydney, between 1923 and 1927, featured during the first Moomba Festival in Melbourne in 1954, and shown to Queen Elizabeth II during a Cook bicentennial visit to Australia in 1970. In the 1950s scholarly transcript editions began to appear (1955), then there was microfilm (1970s), a CD-ROM (1999), an online transcript (2004) and finally a digitized facsimile (2005).’As for the journal’s standing, the unrestrained marketing superlatives have included: ‘the nation’s most significant historical document’, ‘one of the nation’s most potent historical documents’, and ‘of extraordinary importance in the history of the British colonisation of Australia’. Further confirmation came with its inclusion in 2001 in both the Australian and International registers of UNESCO’s Memory of the World programs.6

What did indigenous communities think of the Endeavour and its crew as they sailed up the east coast?There were numerous sightings throughout, and two intense interactions when the ship spent eight days in April-May 1770 exploring Botany Bay south of present-day Sydney and six weeks in June-July 1770 being repaired at present-day Cooktown in Cape York Peninsula, north Queensland. These encounters included ritualized indifference, trade, attempts at communication, demonstration of weaponry and inevitable misunderstandings.

Generalising about how such events are remembered or recorded, curator and historian Philip Jones wrote: ‘Europeans kept a range of written records, either official or private, documenting these events. Aboriginal people have preserved oral accounts of first contacts with Europeans.’7 The Endeavour also had on board talented artists, while both sides left physical evidence, some (e.g. jettisoned cannons, spears) more tied to the year 1770 than others (middens), yet, nevertheless, illustrating detail in the written records.

To adapt Alan Atkinson, words about Cook passed from the warm breath of eyewitnesses to the cold storage of indigenous communities’ memories - the Gweagal and Kameygal people at Botany Bay and the GuuguYimithirr people at Cooktown. Their understandings of Cook also remained inaccessible and thus silent to others (some argue, irrevocably)8 until used in speeches and newspapers intermittently in the nineteenth century and more frequently from the mid-twentieth century by writers such as Roland Robinson and scholars such as Deborah Rose Bird, Maria Nugent and Mark McKenna.9

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