Our monuments need to reflect the unvarnished truth of our history
During the last couple of weeks or so I’ve followed the stories of the progressively minded in the United States calling for the removal of the statues of Confederate Civil War generals such as Robert E Lee, silently cheering on those cities that quite rightly tore down these monuments to racism.
I wondered how long it would take for a similar movement to take hold here? After a great deal of Twitter sphere squawking the first flesh and blood instance I came across was an ABC news story in The World Today (24 August) headlined ‘South Sea Islanders say statue of Townsville founder ‘whitewashes’ slave history’.
The statue in the northern Queensland city has appropriately raised the ire of Australian South Sea Islanders, who say it should be changed to better reflect the region’s slave history, for the monument to Robert Towns, who made his name by ‘blackbirding’ (aka people trafficking or the slave trade) South Sea Islanders in 19th century Queensland, stands in Townsville’s main street.
Like many in Australia the descendants of those who were black birded aren’t necessarily calling for the statue to be pulled down, but instead asking for the site to include a plaque and statue to pay tribute to those who were kidnapped, brought to Queensland and forced into labour on the cane fields.
This story and the US statue removing events provoked the ABC’s Indigenous Affairs reporter, Wiradjuri elder and Riverina boy Stan Grant to note that ‘America tears down its racist history, we ignore ours’.
Like Stan, I and many others have often noticed the statue of Captain James Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park. On the base of the statue is an inscription in bold letters reading: DISCOVERED THIS TERRITORY 1770
Think of those words for a minute: “Discovered this territory.” They are nonsense, of course, for Stan’s ancestors were here when Cook dropped anchor. They, and the rest of us who have been paying attention, know now that the first peoples of this continent had been here for at least 65,000 years.
Yet this statue indicates white fellas thought of this as an empty continent, of an entire civilisation’s invisibility. It says that nothing truly mattered, nothing truly counted until a white English sailor first set foot on these shores.
The statue continues to imply ‘terra nullius’ and the violent rupture of over 500 Aboriginal nations, as well as referring to a legacy of pain and suffering that still endures today.
And as a quick side-note, if we are wanting to commemorate the finding of an Australia that had been known to its Indigenous inhabitants for over 60 thousand years, let’s not forget that the Dutch beat James Cook by over 100 years!
This whole business has led many of us to ponder the questions of heritage and hate. Hopefully we can avoid the excesses of the American alt-right (Neo-Nazis etc.) here, though given the likes of Pauline Hanson and the slightly more urbane though equally appalling Cory Bernardi I have some serious doubts.
Given their ‘white’ Australia first attitude we need to quickly, squarely and fairly address the role of those who knowingly contributed to a white invasion, settlement and almost total obliteration of our indigenous people.
All of which reminds me that our own local university is very inappropriately named after an English explorer who ‘opened up’ Wiradjuri Country to white settlement, not that it was ever ‘closed’ of course.
There are many fictions in what passed for our history, which is not surprising, as history is usually written by the victors, but if we are honest we should no longer maintain them.