ActivePaper Archive For the sake of truth, and the nation, the statues must fall - The Age, 6/14/2020

For the sake of truth, and the nation, the statues must fall

Statues act as a foil for the violence of colonial times, writes Sarah Maddison.

The statues must fall. As Australia publicly struggles once again with the contemporary legacy of our brutal colonial history, we need to ask ourselves, are the white men we choose to commemorate the people we truly want to celebrate?

Debates about historical monuments are part of a decadesold movement, led by black and Indigenous people, to force a reckoning with violent and racist histories. In recent weeks, amid the global Black Lives Matter campaign, statues have been pulled down in several cities. A statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston was beheaded. In Britain, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was thrown into Bristol Harbour.

These scenes have revived calls for the statue of Captain Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park to be taken down. Cook’s statue, erected in 1879, still bears an inscription that reads ‘‘Discovered this territory 1770.’’ This is a patent falsehood discredited by evidence of Indigenous occupation of this continent going back about 65,000 years.

And there are other egregious figures we commemorate without concern. Consider Lachlan Macquarie, whose role in advancing the invasion of Dharawal and Gundungurra territories to the west of what is now Sydney led to the Appin Massacre, in which Indigenous people were either shot or driven over the edge of a gorge to their deaths.

By any measure, such conduct is monstrous, and yet the Hyde Park statue memorialising Macquarie gives no clue to this violence. Politicians defend these monuments for their educational value. Claiming they are ‘‘part of our history’’, there is ‘‘much to be proud of’’, and the view, espoused by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017, that ‘‘trying to edit our history is wrong’’. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told people calling for the removal of Captain James Cook statues to ‘‘get a grip’’, arguing that, in his time, Cook was ‘‘one of the most enlightened people’’.

None of these arguments holds weight. History is edited all the time. What some may have considered enlightened more than 200 years ago can be reckoned with as atrocity today.

It is certainly not the case that, as a nation, we hold all history in the same high regard. In contrast to the reverence shown towards statues of white colonists, the few public memorials to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history have been repeatedly vandalised.

More galling is the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves in the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara by mining corporation Rio Tinto. There, 40,000-year-old artefacts and objects sacred to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People were destroyed in pursuit of resources and profit. While Reconciliation Australia felt moved to ‘‘suspend’’ Rio Tinto from its Reconciliation Action Plan program, Morrison had remarkably little to say. Asked for his views after the caves had been destroyed, he replied, ‘‘I haven’t got a brief on that particular project, or the circumstances surrounding it.’’ Venturing an opinion without such a briefing, he claimed, ‘‘Wouldn’t be wise.’’

Without political leadership, it is up to the rest of non-Indigenous Australia to do the work of reckoning with our history. All of it. Despite standing for well over 100 years, statues to colonists do not educate, they do not inform, they do not move us closer to justice. They are a foil used to help erase colonial violence and replace it with tales of virtue and heroism. They must fall.

Professor Sarah Maddison is codirector of the Indigenous-Settler Relations Collaboration at the University of Melbourne.