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Capitalist values: two Eighteenth-century sceptics

In 2020, eight more precarious years into the future, Australians will mark the 250th anniversary of what many, though not all, regard as their nation’s ‘foundational moment’. This was when, on Sunday, 29 April 1770, a small party of Englishmen first set foot on the shore of what is now Botany Bay. Leading the group was professional navigator James Cook, who captained the Endeavour on commission from the Admiralty. Among those accompanying him was expedition botanist and ‘society man’ Joseph Banks, who paid his own way.

Both men kept journals. From then till they left the eastern seaboard of Australia in late August, they discussed and recorded their observations and experiences ashore. Eventually, once clear of the coast, each man set down his reflections and interpretations of what he and his colleagues had witnessed of Aboriginal ways of life - as any explorer or inquisitive visitor might be expected to. They chose not only to represent the Aborigines as living in a ‘state of nature’ but also suggested that such a life was in some ways superior to what English society offered back home. 

What makes this comparison so arresting is, first, that the Endeavour’s earlier stopover in Tahiti had already given its officers, crew and scientists a taste of ‘exotic Paradise’ which certainly put Europe in the shade; yet Tahiti, like most of Europe at the time, was a stratified monarchy. From the Australian Aboriginals the Endeavour got neither the satisfaction of a recognisable class system nor the flattering attention and comforts that had made many on board reluctant to leave their Tahitian ‘Paradise’.  Second, and perhaps more shockingly, these subversive doubts about ‘civilisation’ were expressed by its own representatives among those assumed to lack it.   This article explores these explorers’ comments and the reasonable and unreasonable interpretations they have received. 

Savaged by historians

Historians of European exploration have taken issue with what Cook [note 1] and Banks [note 2] wrote, stressing their deficient knowledge of Aboriginal culture. Later studies, including insights from Aboriginal Australians themselves, have established beyond doubt that those who encountered  the Endeavour would have had a profound and intricate knowledge of the natural world, extensive networks of communication and trade across considerable distances, and sets of practices and beliefs that generations of specialists have struggled to understand. If there ever were genuinely ‘primitive savages’ from whom we are all descended [note 3], the Aborigines whom Cook and Banks met in 1770 led lives at least as complicated and ‘evolved’ as those of the visitors themselves. And that, according to the prevailing consensus, is all there is to be said of the matter: Cook and Banks ‘got it wrong’, having been misled by romantic fancy into believing that Aboriginal life in a ‘state of nature’ (Europeans were suspiciously fond of ‘nakedness’ as a supposed index of ‘primitiveness’) avoided the worry and competitiveness that increasingly plagued the ‘civilised’ Europeans of their day.

James Cook, 1728-1779. Portrait by Nathaniel Dance-Holland

Though part of that consensus that the two Europeans had a grossly oversimplified understanding of Aboriginal ways of life,  Prof. J C Beaglehole, the primary authority on Cook and editor of his logs, journals and correspondence, distrusted the apparent agreement between Cook and Banks - that (to paraphrase) Aborigines in their ‘natural state’ had in some ways a better life than Europeans - on the grounds that the older, practical and self-disciplined sailor must have been distracted by the ‘romantic’ intellectual fantasies of his younger, university-educated colleague, since for Cook to entertain such ideas was ‘out of character’.

Here is how Beaglehole himself puts it: 

[…] Cook bursts into a panegyric that almost persuades one that he had spent the voyage reading Rousseau […] He repeats this nonsense in a letter to John Walker after he gets home […] so one must presume he was rather taken with it. […]  There are simplicities still in this sailor, one perceives. Has he been listening to some oration of Banks, while the ship lay at anchor in the night; or read through some piece of paper adorned with the Banks version of the fashionable intellectual indiscretions?  We return to the clear head, the hydrographer, with ‘a few observations on the Currents and the Tides upon the Coast’ - five hundred words of reality and close argument, which tell us again that it is James Cook we are dealing with. [note 4] 

Of this, there are only three things that can be usefully said. First, it is a bit rich to construct Cook’s ‘character’ from his known career, his various writings and from the views of others - an inevitably partial exercise - and then use that incomplete construction to dismiss something with which you happen to disagree, but which he actually wrote, as incompatible with it (that is the meaning of Beaglehole’s claim that these words of Cook’s are ‘out of character’).  Second, when otherwise very different persons take a similar view of something, instead of one of them succumbing to the unreasonable influence of the other, it may be that the idea they share is unusually persuasive [note 5].  

Third, and most importantly, the emphasis on the obvious misinterpretation of Aborigines completely ignores the other side of the comparison - which is not what Cook and Banks ‘got wrong’ about Aborigines, but what they got right about later 18th century English or European society.

Who was then the Gentleman?

We can now turn to what the explorers actually wrote (savage spelling and primitive punctuation are retained in the passages reproduced below). Banks’s observations of the material dimension of Aboriginal life - based on only intermittent first-hand contact and without the benefit of a shared language - prompted reflections on Europe which seem strikingly to anticipate current concerns about catering to wants rather than needs, about environmental responsibility and about the negative social and psychological effects of possessive individualism:

Thus live these I had almost said happy people, content with little nay almost nothing, Far enough removd from the anxieties attending upon riches, or even the possession of what we Europeans call common necessaries: anxieties intended maybe by Providence to counterbalance the pleasure arising from the Posession of wishd for attainments, consequently increasing with increasing wealth, and in some measure keeping up the balance of hapiness between the rich and the poor. From them appear how small are the real wants of human nature, which we Europeans have increasd to an excess which would certainly appear incredible to these people could they be told it. Nor shall we cease to increase them as long as Luxuries can be invented and riches found for the purchase of them; and how soon these Luxuries degenerate into necessaries may be sufficiently evincd by the universal use of strong liquors, Tobacco, spices, Tea &c. &c. In this instance again providence seems to act the part of a leveler, doing much towards putting all ranks into an equal state of wants and consequently of real poverty: the Great and Magnificent want as much and may be more than the midling: they again in proportion more than the inferior: each rank still looking higher than his station but confining itself to a certain point above which it knows not how to wish, not knowing at least perfectly what is there enjoyd. [note 6]

There are two remarkable features in this passage. First, and understandably, the independently-wealthy Banks discusses what is most familiar to him: the consumption of luxuries rather than the production of necessities; and in doing so he underscores the salience of class and status in the Europe he knew. Second, and more importantly, he identifies one of the key characteristics of capitalist economics: that although everyone has essentially the same needs (‘the real wants [= needs] of human nature’), the production of ever more that is inessential (‘so long as Luxuries can be invented‘) is determined by inequality of wealth (‘riches found for the purchase of them’). Such an analysis seems to derive from a conjunction of novelties: that of (for Banks) Australian Aborigines and other non-Europeans encountered in the course of the voyage, and  the novelty of this earlier phase of English capitalism itself, at least on the scale with which it was now coming to dominate economic life at home.

Joseph Banks, 1743-1820. Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds

And here is what Cook himself had to say, first in his Journal during the voyage (for his sponsor, the Admiralty) and second in a later private letter to his old Whitby master:

From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland [then the current term for Australia] they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff &c., they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air. . . . In short they seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities. [note 7]

In a later letter, perhaps after further reflection, the account is slightly but interestingly different:

The natives of this country are not numerous They are of a very dark brown or Chocolate Colour with lank black hair, they are under the common size and seem to be a timerous inoffensive race of Men, they spoke a very different language to any we had met with. Men women and children go wholy naked, it is said of our first Parents that after they had eat of the forbidden fruit they saw themselves naked and were ashamed; these people are Naked and are not ashame’d; they live chiefly on Fish and wild Fowl and such other articles as the land naturally produceth, for they do not cultivate one foot of it. These people may truly be said to be in the pure state of Nature, and may appear to be the most wretched upon Earth: but in reality they are far more happier than that [sic] we Europeans, being wholy unacquainted not only with the superfluous but [?also] of the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe that are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live [?in a Tranquillity] which is not disturbe’d by the inequality of condition, the Earth and Sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life; they Covet not Magnificent Houses Houshold-stuff &c they sleep as sound in a small hovel or even in the open as the King in His Pallace on a Bed of down. [note 8]

Here again, against Beaglehole’s objections to such views, it would be one thing if Cook, on reflection, or in a private letter rather than in a document he knew to be destined for the public domain, had distanced himself from the views of the supposedly more ‘romantically’--inclined Banks; but - to the contrary - the later, private, letter shows him not only still ‘rather taken’ with his earlier comparison but now making it even more forcefully. To this, Beaglehole has no answer because, unlike Cook or Banks, he is looking only towards the Pacific and not towards Europe itself.   

It remains to try, if only briefly, to put these ideas into a wider historical context. One of Banks’s biographers, John Gascoigne, notes that people of Cook’s and Banks’s generation spent their formative years in the earlier part of the 18th century before the accelerating changes later linked to the French, American and Industrial Revolutions. At this earlier period, the ‘primitive other’ was an ambiguous category, connected with debates about ‘luxury, novelty and commercial society’ and with ‘questions of acquisition, taste, property and corruption’ [note 9] - matters as central to the developing capitalism of the time as they are to it now but also of great practical interest to the fashioning of upwardly mobile lives. Towards the end of the 18th century such subjects shifted from debate to convention, but for at least the Endeavour’s scientific passengers, including Banks, they retained a compelling moral urgency. 

Cook scholar Nicholas Thomas relates this closing down of social criticism in (and of) Europe to a hardening of ‘the primitive other’ from its former use connoting a person or persons ‘comparable with ourselves’ into a fixed abstract (that is, depersonalised) category or stage of social development [note 10].  It seems likely that the shift from seeing Aborigines as individuals (albeit in a ‘state of nature’) to seeing them merely as representatives of an inevitably doomed culture was already underway during the voyage of The Endeavour, and Cook’s unease about the impact that Europeans were having on the peoples of the Pacific was therefore quite appropriately expressed in contradictory ways.  Here was a man who clearly harboured reservations about his own society despite dedicating himself to an establishment project, yet since at this time such matters could be openly discussed, the contradictions were exposed yet obviously not resolved. At one moment he shot at native people and at another tried to engage them in trade, and in between anguished about the morality and future of Europe’s impact on the peoples of the Pacific. Such are the knots capitalism ties you into, even in its earlier phases, if like Cook or Banks you’re sensitive to at least some of its contradictions. For Aboriginal Australians themselves, even if not at Cook’s own hand, the eventual outcome of this encounter was catastrophic.   



[1] The best available account of Cook is Nicholas Thomas, Discoveries: the voyages of Captain Cook. (London, Penguin, 2004).

[2] On Banks, see Richard Holmes, chapter 1, ‘Joseph Banks in Paradise’, in his book The Age of Wonder: how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror or science. (London, Harper, 2008).

[3] There are two distinctions to make in passing: first, between actual people and labels for the categories which they may be held to ‘represent’; in the late 18th century, some people (not only distant exotics) were beginning to be assigned to different steps on an assumed evolutionary ladder, with those doing the classifying unsurprisingly perched at the top. These differences were assumed to be biologically inherent and were used to justify colonial plunder and exploitation. (It should be noted that later Marxist ‘stages’ were of a quite different kind, generalising about the chronological succession of certain kinds of means and relations of production and their consequences for other phases of social life, which had nothing to do with labelling persons themselves as ‘primitive’.)  The second distinction is between some ancestral individual, usually imagined to be ‘brutish’ or ‘animal-like’ (whatever that might be), and groups of co-operating individuals that were almost certainly the effective units of evolution. Human society thus did not arise from isolated beings that had somehow evolved to look a bit like you or me in the shower deciding that co-operating would be a good idea; instead, human societies evolved from pre-human  ones.

[4] J C Beaglehole, ed., The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery, Vol. IV, The Life of Captain James Cook (London, Hakluyt Society) 1974, pp. 251-252 and fn.1. By referring to Rousseau, Beaglehole tries to suggest is that Cook was a victim of the apparent myth of the Noble Savage, which Rousseau is supposed to have popularised. The reality, however, was already established in 1928 that Rousseau was not responsible for this myth and in fact argued against it (Ter Ellingson, The Myth of the Nobel Savage [Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001]).  Beaglehole’s reference to Rousseau thus signifies an ‘out of character’ lapse in scholarship. Just as Cook’s reflections here strike him as unreasonable, might not the intemperate manner in which Beaglehole tries to dismiss them (no matter how unconvincingly) suggest Cook’s sceptical glance to Europe touched a raw nerve, as if his ‘hero’ had let him down? If so, part of the excuse could be a desire to play down his earlier reputation for radicalism (whether or not deserved). In the strongly conservative climate of New Zealand in the early 1930s, this may initially have retarded his academic career (Tim Beaglehole, ‘Beaglehole,, John Cawte - Biography’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1 September 2010 [http://www/], retrieved 20 September 2012). From a wider perspective, however, the culprit is probably the more familiar domination by capitalist values of most people’s mind-sets and world-views, against which it is difficult, and for many impossible, to keep alive a sense that things might be (or have once been) otherwise. The very values of which Cook was suspicious thus returned like an Aboriginal boomerang to make his otherwise faithful biographer cast doubt on his own scepticism.

[5] Thomas [2004, cited in note 1] meets Beaglehole half way by dismissing Banks’ view of Aboriginal life as expressing ‘the anxieties of an aristocrat’ yet arguing that Cook’s view, rather than showing some ‘out of character’ influence of the younger Banks, was the more thoughtful of the two and attempted to explain, in terms of needs limited by local climate, why his efforts to engage Aborigines in trade were unsuccessful. Although Thomas doesn’t mention it in this context, the issue of trade and how its difficulty is explained highlights an ambiguity around this time between thinking of persons and thinking of categories. Categorical thinking grew later to dominate (and excuse) colonialism, but here is Cook at the threshold of the colonial era finding logical reasons why Aborigines were (as he thought) uninterested in trading; he doesn’t slot them automatically into a ‘non-trading’ pigeonhole which he must have known was a manoeuvre favoured by others who were keen to use an apparent absence of trade along with (negative) evidence for a lack of agriculture, as a pretext for stealing their land.  Moreover - and here Thomas’ perspective is very relevant to the one advanced in this article - Cook’s own background was among Whitby traders who ‘would have disapproved of the opulence of London’s dissipated aristocracy’ (Thomas, 2004, p. 129); although Thomas is unnecessarily grudging towards Banks’s negative views of his own class’s opulence, for, however ‘philosophical’ their expression, such views are surely even more significant for coming from someone of Banks’s social pedigree.   

[6] Joseph Banks, The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768-1771, Vol. 2, ‘Some account of that part of New Holland now called New South Wales’, p130 [original spelling, punctuation etc. retained].

[7] James Cook, entry for 23 August 1770, in J C Beaglehole, ed., The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery. Vol. I, The Voyage of The Endeavour 1768-1771 (Cambridge, Hakluyt Society), 1955, p. 399.

[8] James Cook, letter to John Walker (of Whitby, but addressed to him in London), 13 September 1771, in J C Beaglehole, op cit., pp. 508-509. This was the master to whom Cook had been apprenticed (Thomas 2004, p.129)

[9] John Gascoigne, Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment: useful knowledge and polite culture. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[10] Nicholas Thomas, ‘Licensed curiosity: Cook’s Pacific voyages’, in John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, eds., The Cultures of Collecting. (London, Reaktion Books, 1994), p. 122.


This article is also published in The Socialist Correspondent