A road trip of Australia’s fiberglass monuments
The Big Captain Cook
This week we’re in Cairns, paying homage to a 14m concrete statue of the man credited with “discovering” Australia in 1770.
This tropical tourist city boasts more Cook-themed businesses than any other part of Australia, from Captain Cook Cruises right down to the Captain Cook Laundromat. However, the famous British explorer never actually set foot here. His first landing on Queensland soil was 300kms further north, at the site of the present-day Cooktown. After that, as we all know, he hurried back to England where he declared the newly discovered continent “terra nullius” without first checking with the local indigenous population to gauge their views on the matter.
Possibly to compensate for this almost-brush-with-fame, Cairns has been playing catch up ever since. And the Big Captain Cook is the city’s proudest testament to this.
The gigantic concrete and wire structure was first unveiled in 1972 as a promotion for the adjacent Endeavour Inn. Its design is based on a famous 1902 painting of Cook stepping ashore on Botany Bay and motioning to his sailors not to shoot at the locals. At 14m high however, Cook’s outstretched hand seems to be making quite a different gesture. It looks more like he’s trying to hold something back – perhaps the advancement of noisy, overweight tourists, especially ones wearing long white socks with sandals.
As the Endeavour Inn became a popular haunt for backpackers, it was later transformed into the Captain Cook Backpacker Hostel. Its high-spirited patrons were probably the ones responsible for the many practical jokes played on the Big Captain Cook over the years, like the dangling of a yoyo from his outstretched hand, and the stealing of his sextant. The hostel was closed down and demolished in the mid-1990s but the Big Captain Cook remained defiantly standing, looking more and more conspicuous as the site was gradually cleared around him.
Then in March 2010, owner Graham Johnson announced his plans to repaint the Big Captain Cook to resemble America’s first President, George Washington, complete with striped socks and a star-spangled banner waistcoat. The controversy this unleashed amongst locals was almost as furious as the destructive winds of Cyclone Yasi, that were to follow 11 months later. Almost immediately a Facebook page appeared, dedicated to keeping the statue as Captain Cook. Mayor, Val Shier, stated publicly that the Americanizing of the statue “would be un-Cairns like”. Mr Johnson responded by telling his critics to “get a sense of humour” and “just chill out”, adding that his middle name was “no surrender”.
The controversy dragged on for months, and then in December 2010 came another threat to the Big Captain Cook. The road he towered over was earmarked for widening, which meant he’d have to be removed, running the risk of crumbling due to “concrete cancer”. Ironically this was just after The Australian newspaper had officially ranked the Big Captain Cook as the country’s No. 1 Big Thing in an online poll.
By November 2011, the future of this stoic Big Thing was still in doubt. While his flesh and blood counterpart was finished off by annoyed Hawaiian natives with sharp spears, it remains unclear exactly what Fate has in store for the Big Captain Cook. In the mean time, he remains standing, stately and alone, in what has now become a fenced-off vacant lot – finally his own personal “terra nullius”.