A revolution of removing statues and colonial names is sweeping across the globe – and now attention has turned to the men of our own terrible history.
A revolution of removing statues and colonial names is sweeping across the globe – and now attention has turned to the men of our own terrible history.

Problematic reality of Captain Cook and Governor Macquarie

The global statue revolution continues with bronze and marble men of history - often with colonial and racist pasts - getting torn down across the world.

And now attention has turned to Australia and our own colonial past, with calls for a similar revolution growing.

NSW Police were photographed last night standing guard around a Captain Cook statue in Sydney's Hyde Park as Black Lives Matter protesters spread across the city.

 

And it isn't just Captain Cook in the firing line.

The West Australian government announced yesterday it would be renaming the King Leopold Ranges.

The mountain range, in the north of the state, was named after the former Belgian King Leopold II, who violently ruled over the Congo in Africa, a reign that left more than 10 million dead.

"He was a nasty piece of work and we have this odd historical artefact still with us about why it is named after him," WA's Lands Minister Ben Wyatt told the ABC.

There's also growing calls for the statue of former Tasmanian premier William Crowther, that sits in the centre of Hobart to go.

"Crowther was a surgeon who worked at the Royal Hobart Hospital and his infamy is when an Aboriginal man died, he was in a rush to cut the head off and he fought with another surgeon to cut the hands and feet off," Tasmanian Indigenous activist Michael Mansell said.

"And even though the medical staff tried to protect the body of the Aboriginal man, Crowther managed to sneak in in the middle of the night and take away portions of the body and sent the skull overseas to the British museums, all so that he could carry some favour with the scientists in the United Kingdom.

"So this is the man that has a statue in the middle of Hobart honouring the work of this racist interferer of the dead."

The statue of William Lodewyk Crowther sits in Hobart’s Franklin Square.
The statue of William Lodewyk Crowther sits in Hobart’s Franklin Square.

On the other side of the debate, University of Sydney History Professor Mark McKenna said history, no matter how you look at it, was always going to be "problematic".

And added, statues will always be important in sparking debate and bringing Australia's bloody and colonial past into conversation.

"There are so many statues deemed to be problematic," Professor McKenna said.

"Statues are the surface of a deeper question - they're a soft target in a way. By taking down the statue do you then change the mentality? I don't know."

A Captain Cook statue in Melbourne was vandalised in 2018.
A Captain Cook statue in Melbourne was vandalised in 2018.

 

Professor McKenna, who specialises in Aboriginal history, said Australia had to look at the "pros and cons" of taking statues down, a move that could potentially erase history.

"In my view it's better to have an opportunity to start a discussion, what they represented at the time and why our views changed and to think about what statues would we want to put up so to use it as an opportunity to get people to reflect on history," he said.

Captain Cook and the countless statues of the British explorer that are scattered around Australia are often up for debate - especially the prominent one in the north Queensland town of Cairns.

Another statue that's sure to cause debate is the massive one of Queen Victoria sitting outside the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney's CBD.

"It came from Dublin when it was taken down because no one wanted it there and ended up in Australia, you could take the view that was Queen Victoria was the crowning leader of imperialism and the theft of indigenous land," Professor McKenna said.

"But that leads into my point that no statue is uncomplicated, no statue is clean, no statue is free of controversy and in a way, we can't see it at the moment, but heroes we have today will one day be seen differently.

The statue of Captain Cook in Cairns.
The statue of Captain Cook in Cairns.

Professor McKenna said history - and its past icons and figures - was always going to be complicated and up for debate.

"A big point here is there's no history that's not problematic, no history that's not uncomplicated, you can't tidy up the past," he said.

"You can remove if you want certain things that remind you of things you'd rather not be reminded of but the deeper and bigger question is to get people to think about truth-telling as a whole."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison found himself in hot water this week after he said there was "no slavery" in Australia's history when our own history was linked to US protests.

"If you look at the historical record you'll find there was slavery - one example is the pearling industry in north Western Australia," Professor McKenna said.

"Was there a war? Yes - and you can find people referring to it as warfare at the time, in every colony.

"These are big questions about truth telling that the statues open up but it's the bigger questions that are more important and obviously the big truth is that the land of Aboriginal people was taken without treaty, without compensation and without consent."

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton also lashed out at "cancel culture" in response to movies and shows featuring black face being wiped from streaming platforms.

"I don't think ripping pages out of history books and brushing over parts of history you don't agree with or you don't like is really something the Australian public is going to embrace," Mr Dutton told Today this morning.

"There are good and bad parts of our history. You learn from that."

Former deputy PM Wayne Swan took a more balanced approach.

"When I was at school, we used to sing Cap a Captain Cook ditty. I don't think there's anything wrong with having a debate about whether Captain Cook belongs in a museum where we can get the correct history because we know he didn't discover Australia," Mr Swan said.

"I don't think all of (the statues) will necessarily stay where they are in light of where things are in Australia. I don't think every statue that went up, stays up. I don't agree with the fact that we should be going around knocking them over and throwing them in the water. We need an informed debate about our history."

Despite calls for statues to stay, Tasmania's Michael Mansell said his state's former premier should be the first to go.

"There's no place in modern world, in 2020, for the statues of racist people who have done so much damage to Aboriginal people, who today, if they did it, would be given five years in jail for a criminal offence," he said.

"Just because the people of that era in the 1800s honoured this man's memory, doesn't mean the rest of us have to be stuck with it more than 150 years later."

Originally published as Police guard 'problematic' Aussie statues


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