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First Encounter

MS1, the Endeavour Journal of James Cook, is regarded as the foundation document of the National Library of Australia.1 It also became one of the two foundation documents of the UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register, along with the Mabo Case Manuscripts, once they had been inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2001.

Distinguished Australian historian, the late Professor Greg Dening, was guest speaker at an event at the National Library of Australia on 13 December 2001 to celebrate these two inscriptions and the inauguration of the Australian Register. The event was also attended by members of the Mabo family. His speech was not only significant in the history of the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Program; it was also a powerful evocation of the significance of the inscribed documents and of documentary heritage in general. We reproduce Professor Dening’s speech on that occasion as the most appropriate introduction to the Endeavour Journal inscription, and as a scholarly and impassioned reflection on it and the Mabo Case Manuscripts described in the previous section.

I give honour to the First People of this place – Ngunnawal.

I give honour to the First Peoples of distant places – Meriam Mir, Muralag, Kalaw Kawaw, Kala Lagaw. They are now of this place in the Library. They honour us with their presence on this occasion. They now have a place in the Memory of the World.

I have always counted it a great privilege in my life that being an historian has meant that I must make pilgrimages to the past that I want to write about. The past doesn’t come to me. I must go to it where it is kept and treasured in the great libraries and archives of the world – London, Paris, Rome, New York, Boston, Washington, Honolulu, Wellington, Sydney, Canberra. The past I visit is on paper – millions of pieces of paper. The past I visit is in pencil and ink, blotted, stained with tears and sometimes blood, curled at its edges, fragile, marked by the transience of the moment in which it was made. Touched always by memory, by an experience that has just happened.

Let me take you to a moment of such memory. It is Wednesday 22 August 1770. James Cook is inscribing his memory of what happened that day in the Journal which today we proclaim as World Memory. Cook is in his cramped quarters just off the Great Cabin of the Endeavour. That Great Cabin is a clutter of artefacts and specimens, of paintings and maps. They will grace dozens of world libraries and museums in the years to come.

August 22nd had been a remarkable day. It marked the end point of Cook’s voyage of discovery. He had done all that he had set out to do, and much more. Cook in his cabin was just back from climbing the hill – thrice the height of the ship’s mast, he writes – of Possession Island. He spells ‘Posession’ with one ‘s’. ‘I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took posession of the whole of the Eastern Coast from the above Latitude [38 South] down to this place by the name of New Whales (he crosses that out: he has spelled Wales, Whales) New Wales (he writes correctly but crosses it out again) New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast.’

High on the hill of Possession Island he could see no land in the azure sea before him to the west. He had found his passage home. His men on the hill fire three volleys and give three cheers. The Endeavour below them replies in the same manner.

There is no sense of dispossession in his act of possession. He does not think he is taking land from anybody. Forestalling the Dutch perhaps. It is more like a miner’s claim. In fact he is standing on a gold seam on the hill of Possession Island. It would be mined out before the centenary of his act of possession would be celebrated.

He has no sense of dispossession. But there is something. From Point Hicks to Possession Island, Cook knows that the native peoples who had been there before him – he does not know how long – opposed or powerlessly tolerated their landings.

It was the same here on this very Possession Island. After we anchored, he writes, ‘we saw a number of People arm’d in the same manner as all the others we have seen, except one man who had a bow and a bundle of arrows, the first we have seen on this coast.’ Yes, these are a different people. These are Torres Strait Islanders. These are Muralag, Kalaw Kawaw, Kala Lagaw, Meriam Mir. These are a sea-people. For forty thousand, maybe sixty, maybe a hundred thousand years these people and their forebears have been in this voyaging corridor that leads from New Guinea to the Solomons, to New Caledonia into the Near and Remote Oceania, into the open Pacific. These are an independent people – in-between the islands to the north and the continent to the south, trading with both, fighting off both.

Here on Possession Island they show with their gestures that the land is already possessed. They are past and future spirits in those gestures, aren’t they? Eddie Mabo is the future spirit in the Endeavour Journal. It is right that the Endeavour Journal and the Mabo Personal and Litigation Papers come together in this House of Memory, the National Library of Australia and in this register of World Memory.

In the deep time of the millennia past and of the millennia future, the 222 years that separate August 22, 1770 and June 3, 1992 are just a few seconds, but the issues they confront and the ideals they proclaim are forever.

Memory. It is a much more engaging word than History, isn’t it? Memory joins us to the past. History sometimes keeps us distant from the past. There are tears in memory, laughter, love, pride, anger. There are paradoxes and contradictions in memory, like life itself. There is certainty and uncertainty in memory, like life itself. There is respect in memory. We all know its tricks. Memory is something we can share. It reaches deep into our persons.

The World through this Register of the World Memory asks us to make our Australian Memory part of the World’s Memory. Our memories of pride as we identify with the achievements of James Cook and celebrate the altruism of his science and the humanitarian ideals that led to his voyages of discovery. The best of him is the best of us. But the World asks for our living 230 years’ memories too, as we confront the paradoxical and contradictory consequences of those achievements and ideals of Cook. Do we identify ourselves with an act of possession that was an act of dispossession? Do we identify with naked violence? Which is us? The blindness that cannot see an island continent invested with the human spirit for forty thousand years? Which is us? The justice that infuses every living moment of our lives and has come to us from a thousand years of social and political struggle and step by step resolution of human conflict in a common law?

The World Register tells us that there are two special things in the Australian memory that belong to the World’s Memory, too. The one is the triumph of the human spirit in any gift of knowledge to the world. The other is the triumph of the human spirit not just in the struggle for justice, but the resolution of intransigent human problems by justice.

It is one of the graces of the human spirit that the most universal of human truths are symbolised in the most particular of artefacts. It should not surprise us that so much should be celebrated in one small explorer’s journal, or in the boxes of papers of ordinary citizens, lawyers and judges. A library is precisely the place where generations will come and see themselves in the mirror of these papers.

It was an honour to me to have been invited to speak on the occasion of the inscription of the Endeavour Journal and the Mabo Papers in the Register of World Memory. It was an even greater honour to have been able to do so in the presence of members of the Mabo family and members of the legal team who took the Mabo case through the High Court. It enables me to register not only my admiration for their courage and generosity but my thanks for what they have done on behalf of all of us.

1Greg Dening, ‘MS1 Cook, J. Holograph Journal’, in Peter Cochrane (ed.), Remarkable Occurrences: The National Library of Australia’s first 100 years 1901-2001, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2001, p. 1.

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