What’s the story with Cook?

Photo: Cook's Cottage, Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne

Memorials and monuments in public parks hold meaning – while they are didactic to some degree, they equally tell us about contemporary society and its relationship with its pasts. The recent defacing of statues that memorialize colonisation in Australia reminds us that public memory changes as contemporary political and social conditions change – that we as a society are in a constant state of flux.

GML’s Dr Madeline Shanahan and Brian Shanahan co-authored a 2017 paper where they explore this concept further through a selection of Melbourne’s parkland memorials and monuments:  

 “Contemporary Melbourne’s fabric, identity, culture, and communities are based upon, but are also in constant tension and negotiation with, their past. Through an engagement with that past (by memorializing, curating, visiting, vandalizing, and repairing its remains, relics, and ruins), its meanings and the identities of the city’s communities are in a constant state of formation, revaluation and reconstruction.” 

The paper looks at examples of places in parklands that commemorate people and events, and to communicate colonial, national, and state narratives, which continue to evolve, be disrupted, and contested.  

The Symbolism of Cook 

Built in 1755, Cooks Cottage in Fitzroy Gardens was originally located in Yorkshire, EnglandThen in 1934,  it was dismantled and rebuilt in Fitzroy Gardens to mark the centenary celebrations of British colonisation in Melbourne 

The most obvious motivation for the reconstruction of the cottage in the gardens was its connection to Cook himself – always tenuous though as it was his parents’ house and he never actually lived there. The perceived ‘Britishness’ of the building was another factor, which has been explored by historians previously. However, a new and deeper perspective about the place is the idea that time is also central to the meaning of Cooks’ Cottage. In marketing itself as the ‘oldest building in Australia, the elite classes were not simply content with the colonization of space, but felt compelled to colonize time as well. They attempted to create a rootedness for British occupation that is a fiction; colonizing the pre-colonial Australian past, reaching deeper and deeper into time.  

Just as he became a symbol of Empire for British-Australians, Cook has also become the personification of dispossession for many Aboriginal people.  Cooks Cottage represents that injustice, and plays an active role in the performance of contemporary debates relating to Melbournes past.

Counter Narratives 

The paper also explores Aboriginal memorials in parklands, and the counter narrative they offer to colonialist memorials.  

Close to Cooks Cottage sits the Fitzroy Gardens Scarred Tree.   Scarred trees had bark removed by Aboriginal people to make canoes, shelters, shields, containers, baby carriers, and other items. However, the meaning of scarred trees is wider and deeper for Aboriginal people than their just their practical uses, and only Aboriginal people are entitled to fully share in the multifaceted, culturally and spiritually rooted, and intangible meanings of the tree.  

The conversion of this dead tree into a memorial through preservation and the addition of a plaque in the early years of the twenty-first century is also complex though, and is reflective of contemporary post-colonial practice. While its re-erection may be an attempt to have Melbournes Aboriginal past recognized, its location in the Fitzroy Gardens, just near Cooks’ Cottage also makes for a strikingly disjointed scene.  

The landscape around the tree itself has been colonized; European plants, green lawn and pathways form the shape of the Union Flag, and the dominant feature is the idyllic English cottage. By contrast the tree is stark in its truncation. Its memorialization reminds us of the continual presence of the Aboriginal people in this Country, but as a leafless stump set in a planned parkscapethe truth of Melbourne’s colonial history cannot be ignored.   

The dead trees presence within the colonized urbanized landscape is poignant, and to European eyes, one cannot help but be struck by the sense of loss and displacement. However, despite the loss inherent in the scene, the Scarred Tree is a powerful contrast to the fabricated historical mirage of Cooks’ CottageThe authenticity of that problematic monument to an Imperial martyr, which reaches further and further back in time is challenged by this tree with is undeniable connection to its place and its past’.  

The paper appears in Contemporary Archaeology and the City: creativity, ruination and political actionedited by Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski, Oxford University Press.