The Silliest History Wars of All Time

by 973 words •

“INVASION OF THE HISTORY REWRITERS” shouts some faceless TV voiceover person, as what sounds awfully like the A Current Affair theme starts playing, followed by “WHITEWASHED”.

Captain Cook takes formal possession of New South Wales 1770

“Yes, hello and welcome to the 30th of March two-thousand and sixteen, where we (Australia) are still asking the question: ‘what actually really happened between the 26th of January 1778 and last night, was it good or bad, and, will we ever find out?’. Tonight we have three sides debating this question…” announces a surprisingly enthusiastic news presenter, “On the side of ‘the British discovered a really nice continent and were really nice to the people who lived there’, we have an anonymous history professor and author from the University of Woolloomooloo.”

A quick smile escapes from Mr or Mrs Professorandauthor’s mouth as they realise that they’ve actually managed to get on national television for a second time this decade.

“…and on the side of ‘Everything was horrible and we have committed the worst crimes in history and we should just shut this whole thing down’, we have another anonymous history professor and author from the University of Western Woolloomooloo.”

A slightly less quick smile escapes from Mr or Mrs Activistandauthor’s mouth, before disappearing and they realise they are on TV with that other person.

“…and finally on the side of ‘How about we look at the facts and use words to put them into context in an unbiased and non-political way’, it’s, um, I’m sorry but we’re having some, er, microphone troubles, yes, well, ah, we’ll get back to them later in the piece. But first let’s start with you..”

…and so begins some pointless partisan arguing which is so lacking in factual detail that I won’t bother coming up with some ‘sick intellectual burns’ for the opposing people (can I call them people?) to inflict upon each other.

No need to thank me for saving five minutes of your time. You otherwise might have had to voluntarily watch Sunrise or Today to witness the great discussion outlined above - and nobody really wants to do that before nine in the morning.

The gist of the story is that the Daily Telegraph has rather shockingly found out that the University of Sydney has gasp decided to let people know that it’s probably more appropriate to say that Captain Cook invaded Australia rather than discover the country.

Cue the obvious backlash. You know, the good old “I was taught that he discovered Australia at school back in 1976 and obviously everything taught at schools is 100% correct and no new changes in thought or new discoveries will be made” and “Obviously when we say he discovered Australia we mean to say he was the first non-Aboriginal/European/British/English/person-called-James to discover it”.

Those arguments sound pretty convincing. Obviously Captain Cook was the first something to discover Australia and that means that we should celebrate his achievement with great fanfare and copious amounts of attention in school history textbooks and the like.

I agree - discovering a continent that already has several hundred thousand, if not a million, people living on it is a huge achievement. It fundamentally changes the very meaning of the word ‘discover’ and manages to defy basic mathematics (100,000 = 0, right?). In fact, it’s such an amazing achievement that we should probably have a public holiday to celebrate it - oh wait, we already do.

Clearly Cook discovered Australia - but if he discovered it, obvously he didn’t invade it. How could he invade something he discovered?

Afterall, we all know that it’s not really war or invasion until somebody says it is. I doesn’t matter how many people get shot or how many die or how much land changes hands - it’s not war or invasion until both sides agree that it’s war or invasion. This obviously means that Captain Cook never invaded Australia - if he invaded Australia, he would have put that on the record and told everybody, including the local Eora people, or he would have agreed with all the people calling it an invasion.

In case you haven’t figured it out, the numerous paragraphs above are all sarcastic. The ‘history wars’ have become so silly that it’s hard to actually write about them seriously - I needed to get the sarcasm and irreverence out of my system.

The ‘discovery’ versus ‘invasion’ debate should have ended decades ago. Everybody who knows what those two words means should have figured out by now that ‘invasion’ is what happened in Australia back in the laste 18th/early 19th century. You can’t ‘discover’ a continent with people already living there - but settling on that land and violently extending your control over that land is, in fact, ‘invasion’. Captain Cook and the British Empire pretty clearly did the latter - so please stop trying to argue that the former occured.

Pretty much all the things the Daily Telegraph finds ‘controversial’ aren’t really so. Of course Indigenous Australians get offended or insulted when people claim the Captain Cook discovered Australia - it implies that there wasn’t any one living in Australia at the time. There’s nothing controversial about saying ‘Indigenous Australians’ - the term is used to include both Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, as has been so for as long as I can remember. The UNSW reccomending students follow these conventions isn’t really going to constrain ideas - hopefully, ideas about Australia’s history are constrained by reality.


By Thomas Foster


Thomas writes about politics, tech and other things at . You can follow him on Quora, Twitter and Facebook.