Mon­u­ment pol­i­tics.

The de­face­ment of a statue of Cap­tain Cook has sparked a fresh de­bate about the value and mean­ing of colo­nial mon­u­ments. By Martin McKen­zie-Mur­ray.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents The Week - Martin McKen­zie-Mur­ray

Be­fore his statue’s de­face­ment last week, worse things had hap­pened to Cap­tain James Cook. On his third cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the globe, voy­ages that had se­cured his fame a world away, Cook lay bleed­ing in the shal­low Hawai­ian surf. Propped on one el­bow, he vainly fended against the blades. He bled out in the sea and was then baked over fire to bet­ter peel his flesh. His bones were re­moved, pol­ished, and stored in sacra­men­tal wicker bas­kets.

His ship­mates were no less rev­er­en­tial. In the pos­ses­sion of the

New South Wales State Li­brary is an ex­tra­or­di­nary arte­fact – a tiny, hand­carved cof­fin, wrought from parts of HMS Res­o­lu­tion. It con­tains a fig­ure-eight lock of Cook’s hair and an in­tri­cate paint­ing of his death. On it reads the in­scrip­tion “Lono and the Sea­man’s Idol”.

But the cir­cum­stances of Cook’s death – like the legacy of his life – are con­tested. Lit­tle is set­tled. There is dis­agree­ment between lo­cal lore, of­fi­cial ac­counts, his­to­ri­ans, an­thro­pol­o­gists and cul­tural the­o­rists. Turn the look­ing glass slightly and it be­comes a kalei­do­scope – shapes and colours shift. One story as­serts that a weird mix of su­per­sti­tion and co­in­ci­dence killed him: that, as HMS Res­o­lu­tion dis­em­barked in Kealakekua Bay, its cap­tain was be­nignly ven­er­ated as the de­ity Lono. Hav­ing de­parted, the ship’s mast was found to be badly com­pro­mised, and Cook or­dered the ship’s re­turn. This was a grim por­tent for the lo­cals, who had cel­e­brated the ship’s ini­tial berth as prov­i­dence but saw its re­turn as herald­ing dis­as­ter. Revered as a God, Cook would now be killed as one – his mur­der nec­es­sary to stave off the pro­found changes his re­turn sug­gested.

Now turn the kalei­do­scope a lit­tle to the left. This Euro­pean the­ory of de­ifi­ca­tion – that the Hawai­ians were beguiled by the ex­plor­ers’ tech­nol­ogy, and so con­ferred upon them su­per­nat­u­ral sta­tus – is de­rided as eth­no­cen­tric, as too smugly con­firm­ing the Euro­pean sense of su­pe­ri­or­ity. In his 1995 book, The Apoth­e­o­sis of Cap­tain Cook, an­thro­pol­o­gist Gananath Obeye­sekere wrote: “I doubt that the na­tives cre­ated their Euro­pean god; the Euro­peans cre­ated him for them. This ‘Euro­pean god’ is a myth of con­quest, im­pe­ri­al­ism, and civ­i­liza­tion – a triad that can­not be eas­ily sep­a­rated.”

There’s an­other story. A story of cas­cad­ing mis­un­der­stand­ings between the vis­i­tors and the vis­ited. Ac­cel­er­at­ing en­mi­ties is Cook him­self, once ad­mired for his equa­nim­ity but now, af­ter too long at sea, made ir­ra­tionally vi­o­lent. Like Mis­tah Kurtz, Cook was mal­func­tion­ing. For years he served his am­bi­tion and his majesty by sail­ing with gales and moun­tain­ous waves while watch­ing his men suc­cumb to ac­ci­dent, sui­cide and mur­der. He cap­tained ships en­snared by reefs, and, hav­ing es­caped them, or­dered their re­turn so that the reefs might be prop­erly mapped. Death and dis­cov­ery were in­sep­a­ra­ble, and now Cook was crack­ing up. Hospi­tal­ity was ig­nored, a lo­cal priest shot. The first domino was pushed. In this story, his grue­somely slashed body is the last.

In the his­tory wars, there are many Cooks. Which one you see de­pends on how you hold the kalei­do­scope. There is an un­com­pli­cated hero, a sac­ri­ficed de­ity, a cor­rupted ad­ven­turer, a cruel im­pe­ri­al­ist. But the his­tory wars rarely per­mit nu­ance, or for two com­pet­ing el­e­ments to co-ex­ist.

Eigh­teen years af­ter Cook’s “dis­cov­ery” of the fa­bled south­ern con­ti­nent, and nine years af­ter his death, the First Fleet en­tered Botany Bay. Cook had orig­i­nally called it St­ingray Har­bour, but changed his mind af­ter his botanist, Joseph Banks, en­thused about the bay’s strange flora. The En­deav­our re­turned tri­umphantly to Bri­tain hold­ing a new world found in maps, jour­nals and Bank’s vast botan­i­cal col­lec­tion. Cook didn’t re­alise, and would never see, that he had helped found the bizarrely dis­tant point for Bri­tain’s pe­nal colony – and set the course for the mur­der­ous Euro­pean set­tle­ment of Aus­tralia.

All of which asks the ques­tions: Which Cook was a van­dal de­fac­ing last week? Which Cook do some want to re­move?

The de­face­ment of Syd­ney’s Cap­tain Cook statue – spray-painted with the words

“No Pride in Geno­cide” and “Change the Date” – en­cour­aged a long, im­pas­sioned re­sponse from the prime min­is­ter.

“To­day’s van­dal­ism of stat­ues of James Cook and Lach­lan Mac­quarie is a cow­ardly crim­i­nal act and I hope the po­lice swiftly find those re­spon­si­ble and bring them to jus­tice,” Mal­colm Turn­bull wrote on his Face­book page.

“But it is also part of a deeply dis­turb­ing and to­tal­i­tar­ian cam­paign to not just chal­lenge our his­tory but to deny it and oblit­er­ate it. This is what Stalin did. When he fell out with his hench­men he didn’t just ex­e­cute them, they were re­moved from all of­fi­cial pho­to­graphs – they be­came non-per­sons, ban­ished not just from life’s mor­tal coil but from mem­ory and his­tory it­self. Tear­ing down or de­fac­ing stat­ues of our colo­nial era ex­plor­ers and gov­er­nors is not much bet­ter than that.”

In the week be­fore the van­dal­ism, In­dige­nous jour­nal­ist Stan Grant wrote a long es­say for the ABC in which he con­tem­plated Aus­tralia’s dif­fi­cult his­tory. “A statue of Cook in Syd­ney’s Hyde

Park main­tains that he ‘dis­cov­ered this ter­ri­tory 1770’,” Grant wrote.

“I have ques­tioned that, prompted to look at how we grap­ple with our his­tory by Amer­ica’s vi­o­lent strug­gle with its own. Stat­ues there – re­minders of a racist past – are be­ing pulled down.

“I have never ad­vo­cated the same here, but should we look upon his statue in si­lence, should our his­tory be met with the shrug of in­dif­fer­ence? For me that is im­pos­si­ble.”

Fol­low­ing the de­face­ments, Grant quickly – and un­equiv­o­cally – de­nounced the van­dal. “It is dis­grace­ful crim­i­nal be­hav­iour,” he told The Aus­tralian. “They don’t sup­port In­dige­nous peo­ple, they dis­hon­our us.”

As gen­tle and med­i­ta­tive as Grant’s es­say was – and as clear and stri­dent as his con­dem­na­tion of the van­dal­ism – he was var­i­ously de­nounced as ego­tis­ti­cally di­vi­sive and Stal­in­ist in the tabloids and on talk­back ra­dio.

In­dige­nous lead­ers with whom I spoke this week – who did not want to com­ment on the record, mind­ful of “in­evitable” vil­i­fi­ca­tion – de­scribed frus­tra­tion with the su­per­fi­cial­ity of the ar­gu­ments and its aloof­ness from in­ter­na­tional con­ver­sa­tions about the sta­tus of colo­nial – or Con­fed­er­ate in the United States – mon­u­ments and place names.

Turn­bull is right to be alarmed by the prospect of the statue’s re­moval – but there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence that this is what more than a hand­ful want. It cer­tainly isn’t what Grant ar­gued. The re­cur­ring sug­ges­tion is for the mon­u­ment’s re­vi­sion, not ban­ish­ment. The Cook statue’s in­scrip­tion reads: “Dis­cov­ered this ter­ri­tory 1770”. La­bor MP Linda Bur­ney, the first In­dige­nous woman elected to the fed­eral lower house, said: “My view is that the statue should re­main. We re­ject ab­so­lutely the graf­fiti and the dam­age to both Mac­quarie and the Cook stat­ues. But the plaques are in­ac­cu­rate. They are his­tor­i­cally in­ac­cu­rate and I would ar­gue strongly that the plaques need up­dat­ing to tell the truth. And that’s all we are talk­ing about here.”

Re­vi­sion, not era­sure. Bill Shorten ini­tially agreed. “This coun­try works best when we work to­gether, so an ad­di­tional plaque on Cap­tain Cook’s statue is fine by me,” he said. In sub­se­quent days he would qual­ify his re­marks – seem­ingly dis­tanc­ing him­self from them – stress­ing that sym­bol­ism was less im­por­tant than prac­ti­cal steps to close the gap. While a dispir­it­ing dis­trac­tion for some, the “statue wars” were hot. Shorten didn’t want to get burnt. For­mer prime min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott told Syd­ney’s Ra­dio 2GB that a Shorten govern­ment would of­fer “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness on steroids” and that one “can just imag­ine all the stat­ues of Cap­tain Cook be­ing taken down, all the stat­ues of Gov­er­nor Phillip be­ing taken down”.

In a sub­se­quent piece, seem­ingly stung by the re­sponse to the first, Stan Grant wrote:

“It seems to have taken some peo­ple by sur­prise, the idea that peo­ple were here for more than 60,000 years be­fore the En­deav­our dropped an­chor. What were we do­ing all that time, just wait­ing for white peo­ple to find us? And to dare chal­lenge this ‘dis­cov­ery’; how im­per­ti­nent. I can hear some­one say­ing ‘know your place’.

“It has cer­tainly ig­nited a de­bate and that is a good thing. His­tory is not dead, it is not past or re­dun­dant, it is alive in all of us: we are his­tory. Re­spond­ing to the tear­ing down of racist mon­u­ments in the United States prompted me to ask ques­tions about our his­tory; the story we choose to tell our­selves … The in­scrip­tion that Cook ‘Dis­cov­ered this ter­ri­tory 1770’ main­tains a dam­ag­ing myth, a be­lief in the su­pe­ri­or­ity of white Chris­ten­dom that dev­as­tated In­dige­nous peo­ples ev­ery­where.”

The sym­bolic era­sure of his­tory is dis­turb­ing – as is the moral van­ity that com­pelled the van­dal – but so too are the hys­ter­i­cal ex­ag­ger­a­tions that have filled col­umns and ra­dio waves in the past week. The his­tory wars rage on. •

The statue of Cap­tain James Cook in Syd­ney’s Hyde Park that was van­dalised last week.

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