Cook, imperialism and Brexit

Australian readers will probably have come across the controversy that erupted last week on the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay, when Victoria’s deputy public health officer for communicable disease, Annaliese van Diemen, tweeted a comparison between Cook and Covid-19:

Sudden arrival of an invader from another land, decimating populations, creating terror. Forces the population to make enormous sacrifices & completely change how they live in order to survive. COVID19 or Cook 1770?

Not an obviously silly comparison, it seems to me. Food for thought, at least. But cue real or feigned outrage from the usual suspects, including especially News Corp but also the Institute of Public Affairs and leaders of the Victorian Liberal Party.

Guy Rundle took on some of the politics of the affair in Crikey on Friday. Some of it is a bit over the top, but I think he’s pretty much right – here’s a sample:

There’s zero support out there for this pathetic culture squirmish; the pandemic has reminded us of what matters and doesn’t, and ensuring key medical staff have right-wing politically correct views about James Cook absolutely doesn’t.

But the thing that struck me was the way that the controversy has highlighted the right’s attitude to colonial imperialism. Although the IPA, for example, links its demand for van Diemen’s removal to its dislike of her views on public health, the starting point – not argued for but simply assumed – is that what she says about Cook is “bizarre”, “mean-spirited” and “irredeemably tone-deaf”.

What’s so interesting about this is that over the last few years the same people have been trying to tell us that their politics is all about nationalism, or, as they prefer to put it, sovereignty. Britain’s exit from the European Union, which they strongly promoted, was an expression of “Little England” patriotism, which was content to trade peacefully with the rest of the world but otherwise only asked to be left alone.

This innocent live-and-let-live attitude was contrasted with the overreaching ambitions of international organisations like the EU, which were portrayed as a reincarnation of the bad old days of imperialism, trying to force unwanted immigrants and regulations on the British.

Any suggestion to the contrary – any attempt to point out, for example, that liberal internationalists had historically been in the forefront of opposition to imperialism – was met with apparently quite genuine outrage, if not incomprehension.

So where, now, is the concern for the “sovereignty” of Australia’s inhabitants in the eighteenth century? If imperialism deserves condemnation, how can we exempt the colonial enterprise for which Cook paved the way? How can it be “bizarre”, or even controversial, to question its consequences for the indigenous people?

The truth is that provided you belong to the right nation, nationalism segues readily into imperialism and always has. A belief that one’s own national group is special leads almost seamlessly to the belief that there are other people who are not similarly blessed, and whose land and resources are available for exploitation by the favored nation.

And this is no mere piece of theory; it is amply confirmed by the practice of right-wing nationalist politicians across the world. Those who bleat most loudly about their own nation’s sovereignty also turn out to be defenders of its colonial and imperial past – in France, in Russia, in Japan, and of course in Britain. Self-determination is for the few, not the many.

As I said to a Brexit supporter when that issue was at its height, if you could magically put them back in the late nineteenth century, do you really believe that Boris Johnson would be less of an imperialist than, say, Nick Clegg?

For the right in Australia, the situation is made more complicated by the fact that we have never been a “nation” in the traditional sense. The nationalist project here is constantly plagued by equivocation between an independent Australian nationalism and a sort of emanation of British nationalism. The British empire is gone and there is no Australian empire to replace it.

So News Corp’s hired guns are necessarily vague about what they support. But that doesn’t really matter, because their mission is basically negative and they’re clear about what they are against: reconciliation, internationalism and sympathy for the oppressed.

The final irony is that Cook himself might well have agreed with van Diemen; he certainly understood the devastating consequences that the European presence had for indigenous people in the south Pacific. And he seems to have had rather more respect for them and their plight than his modern-day admirers are able to muster.


2 thoughts on “Cook, imperialism and Brexit

  1. It’s not central to your argument, but it is possible to be pro-Brexit and pro-liberal internationalism. Some classical liberals I know both voted Leave in the EU referendum and supported NATO intervention in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The underlying point here is that the European Union is not internationalist but supranationalist — it is on the way to creating a European state in which the existing nation states are relegated to administrative units, with less autonomy than the states of a genuine federation. It may never achieve that goal but it has never stopped trying.


    1. Thanks Michael – Yes, that’s certainly a possible argument. Being an internationalist doesn’t commit one to supporting just anything that claims to be an international institution. But in practice most of the Brexiters weren’t making that argument. As I’ve said before, the EU has many flaws but it’s mostly hated for its virtues.


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