What does it say about a modern liberal democracy when its memorials don’t accurately portray its past and its national day ignores the plight of its oppressed citizens?
Can you ‘discover’ something that other people already own and love?
I mean, if you claim to have discovered something – like a cure for cancer or a new species of frog – it usually means no one else knows or has seen that thing before you. Right?
Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.
Albert Einstein discovered the theory of relativity.
The moons of Jupiter were discovered by Galileo.
So, if you saw a statue of a very jaunty looking naval captain atop a huge plinth with the inscription, “DISCOVERED THIS TERRITORY 1770” you’d think that he, well, discovered the land you were standing on. Yeah?
I’m referring to the rather dramatic depiction of Captain James Cook, telescope in one hand, the other held aloft, his palm facing the heavens. He seems pretty pleased with himself in his plus-fours and formal coat, the master of all he surveys, which in this case is Hyde Park in downtown Sydney. It looks like he’s announcing, “Ta-da, here I am!”
So he discovered Australia in 1770, did he? Well, only if you don’t count the 60,000 years Aboriginal peoples inhabited this continent.
Inspired by America’s current renegotiation of the place of Civil War monuments, a Wiradjuri man, Stan Grant, decided to examine some of Sydney’s monuments and noticed the offensive reference on Cook’s plinth.
Acknowledging that the good captain was an extraordinary seaman and navigator, Grant nonetheless explains, “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.”
When you think about it, that monument simply reinforces the assumption made by the colonists that followed Cook to Australia that the land was empty, and theirs for the taking.
Aboriginal peoples were (and remain) invisible.
But at the very least, the inscription on the Captain Cook memorial in Hyde Park is historically wrong. Simple as that.
But it’s not just our monuments that offend. It’s our national day too. Celebrating our national day on the date another captain, Arthur Phillip arrived in Sydney to begin colonising the east coast of Australia, is insensitive to Aboriginal peoples who see it as the day the invasion began.
Most white and immigrant Australians wouldn’t know the date of any annual Aboriginal days of recognition, but we all stop to celebrate Invasion/Survival/Australia Day on January 26.
This week I heard another indigenous leader, a Waka Waka woman named Brooke Prentis, list those dates annually recognised and commemorated by our First Nations people:
- Anniversary of the National Apology on February 13.
- National Close the Gap Day on the third Thursday in March.
- National Sorry Day on May 26.
- Mabo Day on June 3.
- National NAIDOC Week in July
I suspect very few of you could name those dates, let alone celebrate them.
But back to Australian Day, amidst renewed calls to change the date of the national holiday out of respect for Aboriginal peoples, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have both said no such change will even be considered, the latter in frustrated and condescending tones.
Some politicians get it. Former conservative cabinet minister Ian Macfarlane has called on his colleagues to change the date of Australia Day. By his own admission he once thought those calling for such a change were only “bloody latte-drinking trendies” until he looked into it.
He reflected on how his Scottish cousins would feel if they had to celebrate United Kingdom day on the anniversary of the Vikings launching an amphibious attack on Arrochar.
“It was the moment I decided that as a conservative, Anglo-Celtic Australian, I want to play a part in the push to changing the date of Australia Day. It’s about healing a wound, drawing a line, getting on with the really important issues facing our indigenous communities.”
If our monuments aren’t telling the truth about the history of this land, and if our national day only rubs salt into the wounds of indigenous Australians, how serious are we about genuine reconciliation?
Stan Grant refers to Australian society’s willingness to offer small gestures and tokens of support like performing welcome to country ceremonies, which he calls a “ceremonial fig leaf,” while “a statue stands in the centre of our largest city proclaiming to the world that no one here mattered until a white person ‘discovered’ the land.”
I can’t help but agree with him. Let’s change the inscription on that statue and move the date of Australia Day. And then let’s get cracking on some meaningful recognition of indigenous peoples in our constitution.