Captain Cook statue looms over Australian colonial history furore

For half a century, a giant statue of Captain James Cook has towered over Cairns, an Australian city where one in 10 people is Aboriginal. Now the monument to the British explorer has become the latest flashpoint in a global anti-colonial campaign, stoking debate about Australia’s brutal past.

“It just represents all the bad things that happened to my people pretty much straight after Cook stepped foot on our land — the genocide, the slavery and the stolen generations,” said Emma Hollingsworth, an Aboriginal artist inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement to launch a petition arguing for the statue’s removal.

The petition has attracted 15,000 signatures and many comments noting how the statue’s outflung arm resembles a Nazi salute. It has also prompted a rival campaign calling for the sculpture — of a man who landed on Australian shores 250 years ago, claiming the territory for Britain — to remain.

The debate follows the defacing of statues of colonial-era leaders and conservative politicians in other Australian cities, prompted by BLM protests that were triggered by the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck in Minneapolis last month.

Thousands of Australians have since marched to highlight racial injustice and the deaths of more than 400 Aboriginal people in custody over the past three decades.

Police were deployed this week to protect a statue of Cook in Sydney and the government said it would consider tough new laws to safeguard colonial-era heritage.

“This is very sad. Captain Cook was a remarkable man and navigator. He was also — as we all are — a product of his times. By all means debate his legacy but not in this fashion,” said Dave Sharma, an MP for the governing Liberal party.

Scott Morrison, prime minister, also defended Cook and the legacy of colonialism in Australia, saying the explorer was “no slave trader” and the country was “a pretty brutal place but there was no slavery”.

He later apologised and admitted that all sorts of “hideous practices” had been waged against indigenous peoples when academics pointed out that Aboriginal people and Pacific Islanders were enslaved.

Queensland’s government last year agreed to pay about 10,000 indigenous workers and their descendants A$190m ($130m) for unpaid wages between 1939 and 1972 in a settlement to a class-action lawsuit.

Critics claim white Australia has airbrushed the harsh treatment of indigenous people from the history books. “The whole nation is predicated on dispossession of black people from their land to make way for pastoral industries but we refuse to talk about it,” said Megan Davis, a University of New South Wales law professor.

“Unfortunately, many white Australians do not know their own history or they do not want to recognise it.”

A protester confronts police during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Brisbane on Wednesday © REUTERS

Since the 1980s, when academics began to challenge the official view of a peaceful settlement of Australia, there has been an acrimonious debate about the effect of colonisation and its catastrophic impact on indigenous people.

John Howard, the former prime minister, fuelled the debate by calling revisionist academics “guilt purveyors” who viewed the country’s history as “little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other intellectual forms of discrimination”.

But over recent decades, the publication of vivid accounts of Australia’s frontier wars, charting the resistance of Aboriginal tribes and their massacre by European colonists, as well as evidence of a sophisticated pre-colonial civilisation, led to calls by indigenous leaders for a national truth-telling process to reappraise the nation’s history.

Canberra rejected the 2017 proposal, which was part of a wider call for recognition of Aboriginal people in the constitution, a document that critics say authorises federal and state governments to pass laws that single out groups for adverse treatment on the basis of their race.

“Indigenous people are much more marginalised than black people in America because the conquest of white supremacy in Australia was much more thorough here than it was in the US,” said David Smith, a Sydney University lecturer.

Indigenous people make up just 2 per cent of the Australian population, have limited political power and experience severe social inequality, including incarceration rates higher than black people in the US, according to Mr Smith.

He said this discrimination manifested itself in a lack of official appreciation of indigenous history and culture, with few statues of indigenous leaders in Australian cities. Only last month, Rio Tinto, the mining company, destroyed a 46,000-year-old sacred indigenous site.

For some, the protests over Cook’s statue and the reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement suggest that the pendulum has swung to the point where the legitimacy of the nation is now being questioned.

“The historical orthodoxy nowadays that is taught in high schools is that the British should never have invaded Aboriginal land,” said Keith Windschuttle, a historian and author.

His book, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, argues that fewer indigenous people were killed in the early days of colonial settlement than is currently believed. “We must acknowledge that British settlement brought civilisation to this continent,” he said.