If arriving by boat makes one a boat person, Captain Cook was a boat person too. Why do we uncritically celebrate some historical boat arrivals whilst criminalising others?

Next year, the Australian government will spend $48.7 million commemorating the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landing at Australia aboard the Endeavour. This will include $6.7 million to reenact the voyage up the east coast in a replica ship.

The Sail 4 Justice journey retraces some of the same journey, as evidenced by our landing near this monument to Cook at Emu Park. But our aquatic journey represents a very different way of seeing this country than that voyage nearly two and a half centuries ago.

For one, Cook’s raising of the Union Jack in the Torres Strait represents the origin of that myth “Terra Nullius” upon which this colony and then nation was founded. A myth is what it is – the land was occupied by over 500 nations of people, a fact well known by Cook given the initial landing of his ship at Botany Bay was greeted with spears by the local inhabitants.

We recognise that Aboriginal people are the rightful owners of this land, that their sovereignty has never been ceded in the centuries since. For a just future on this continent, we need to acknowledge that fact and make right the wrongs that have come from the colonisation and ongoing genocide.

The name James Cook gave to that patch of land where he planted the flag says something about his journey too – “Possession Island”. The notion of the country as something to be owned, exploited and protected from others has informed governments since, in their policy here as well as ” abroad”, in the Pacific region and beyond. Ironically given Cook’s arrival in a boat all those years ago, in recent years this ideology has been especially visible in the way we have dealt with asylum seekers who arrive on our shore asking for help. “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances by which they arrive” said John Howard in 2001. These days our maritime border is a militarised zone, with Australian Border Force patrolling it at all times ready to turn back boats of desperate people seeking safety. “Our utopia, our country is under constant threat” said Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg when sworn in for the job in 2015. Among the victims of this “protection” are the more than 500 men still stranded on Manus Island six years after Kevin Rudd tried to salvage an election by promising boat arrivals would never settle in this country.

This is why we are setting out to Manus to show solidarity with those there and to bring Australia’s attention back to the cruelty perpetrated in our name. Now that more than 70 people attempted suicide on Manus since the election, Australia literally has blood on its hands. We believe that we have to speak up against this cruelty!

The other idea evident in the government’s $50 million commemorations is the belief that history is made by the acts of “great men”. Thus the $3 million to be spent on a statue of Cook at Botany Bay despite the fact there were almost 100 people in his crew, never mind those who had built the boat or paid for the voyage with their taxes. Or the hundreds of Europeans who had arrived on the shore before, or the countless numbers who already lived and thrived on this continent for tens of thousands of years.

Those who think of themselves as great men want us all to believe that this is how change is made. But at Sail 4 Justice we have another vision of progress – if anything has made Australia great it has been done by everyday people working together for the good of all, and if we are to make it better it will be done the same way. Those on our flotilla don’t see ourselves as particularly great – we are just ordinary people using what we have to stand up for what we believe is right. We hope that by making this voyage we can invite others to do the same. Together we are strong! When there is no justice, there is just us!