Tearing down statues reveals problem but no solution

There is nothing glorious about the monument to Angus McMillan on the road out of Bairnsdale. It is just a stack of rocks, in the tradition of a Scottish cairn, next to the highway that Lidia Thorpe drives whenever she returns to her country, Gunai Kurnai country, in Victoria’s Gippsland region. She passed it a few days ago when, across Britain, Europe and America, angry protesters were yanking statues from plinths, bronzed heads from shoulders and rolling symbols of a racist past into the harbour.

No one would begrudge her wanting to add McMillan’s cairn to the wreckage of history. It was McMillan, in 1841, who led a shooting party that massacred about 30 of her mob, the Brabralung clan of the Gunaikurnai, near Metung. It is one of five documented massacres in which the celebrated explorer is implicated in the mass murder of Aboriginal people. As local settler Henry Meyrick wrote home to England at the time: “No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are.”

Instead, Thorpe kept on driving. As she sees it, the tearing down of statues is what happens when we refuse to acknowledge the worst of our past and address the real and present damage caused by it. It is evidence of a problem, not the solution. “I am worried about more statues coming down because people are angry, people are hurt, people don’t feel like they are being heard,” the former Greens MP says. “I don’t want to see that. I want our leaders to come out strong on this and say, ‘we have got a problem here, we are going to own this problem and we want to unite this country like it has never been united before’.”

Two of Australia’s most eminent historians, Geoffrey Blainey and Stuart Macintyre, were stunned by the events of this week. Blainey says the speed with which protests against the death of George Floyd morphed into a broader, global movement was astonishing. Macintyre likens it to a tsunami. “There is certainly a cathartic violence to it,” he says.

Beyond images of protesters wrangling statues of Christopher Columbus and defacing Winston Churchill, beyond the fallen, faintly ludicrous figure of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston and Belgium’s King Leopold II, a cultural reckoning is being felt in other ways. Gone with the Wind, an 80-year-old American cinematic classic, was removed from the HBO Max streaming service. A company spokesman, in language reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution, said the Civil War-period film could no longer be shown without “an explanation and a denouncement” of its racist depictions.

Streaming giant Netflix announced it had pulled its back catalogue of Chris Lilley comedies which include a contentious repertoire of racially diverse characters. Rival streaming service Stan, owned by Nine (the owner of this masthead), washed its hands of Little Britain, a comedy series which contains blackface skits. The ABC announced a “harm and offence” purge of its programming and the BBC pulled from its streaming platform “The Germans,” an episode of Fawlty Towers in which a goose-stepping John Cleese gave us the unforgettable line, “don’t mention the war”.

Macintyre says while the disappearance of blackface skits is “no great loss to anyone,” the growing constraints on creative arts carry a cost. “Humanities and the creative arts are ways of taking us out of ourselves and exploring the circumstances of others,” he says. “The idea that you can be educated in literature or drama but be unable to speak for, or make use of, any culture that is not your own seems to me to be absurd. “Otherwise we have just got a case of solipsism, where the only thing you can speak for is the thing which is your own.

Mcintyre, a protagonist in the history wars sparked by fellow historian Keith Windschuttle’s denial of the stolen generations in his 2002 book, says the instinct to pull down statues is based on valid grievances but confuses symbolism with substance.”I recognise that a number of these monuments are extremely offensive to people for whom they have a meaning of repression and even extermination,” he says. “The problem is that, if you remove them, you are removing the capacity for people to have an informed awareness of what has happened in the past and things that have changed since. “We should discourage virtue signalling, where one person has to go further than the others. It would be far more profitable to stop thinking about where I can find a rope and to try to think about ways in which we might make a properly critical response to these monuments that would satisfy the feelings of Indigenous people.”

Blainey likens mutilating a statue in a public place to destroying a work of art in a gallery. He is particularly troubled that the mob would turn on Churchill. “There must be millions of young people who know nothing about the Second World War,” he says. “It may be that in 100 years time, the world is so different that people may say that Churchill should have given into the Germans and we would have been better to have a humiliating peace than the continuation of a disastrous war. You can’t be sure which way history will spin.”

The treatment of Churchill by the Black Lives Matter movement goes to a conundrum faced by all historians. Churchill was unquestionably racist. As Macintyre says, he waged wars of colonial conquest in Africa and his views about India were abhorrent. Like many men of his time, he adhered to a variant of 19th century social Darwinism which held that the mission of higher races was to replace lower ones. Churchill would have had no sympathy for the grievances of today’s protesters. This is what he said in 1937, to the Palestine Royal Commission, about the dispossession of Aboriginal Australia: “I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” Yet, for all his faults, he stood against Hitler at a time when no other European leader would and the United States had not joined the war.

Macintyre says it is fitting for statues of Churchill and Oliver Cromwell to stand outside the House of Commons but such figures should be understood, not blindly revered. “They do terrible things and they are products of their time,” he says. “They have assumptions and values which are no longer ours, which we find deeply troubling. The idea that they be held up as heroes to emulate is simply unsustainable now but I think we lose something if we attempt to remove their presence altogether. We lose that understanding. “There will be historical research done by scholars but there will be almost no public awareness of it; the crucial battles that had to be fought, the changes that occurred, the way in which we now find these things abhorrent.”

What then, about Australia’s first prime minister?

Nearly 20 years ago, when Australia was celebrating the centenary of federation, a statue of Edmund Barton was unveiled in Port Macquarie’s Town Green park. The park is in the heart of the NSW mid-north coast town. It is also the site of a traditional Aboriginal burial ground. Local Birpai woman Arlene Mehan is demanding the statue be put somewhere else. She says no one consulted the Aboriginal community before the statue was installed and its presence has rankled ever since.

Barton’s views on race differed little from Churchill’s. During parliamentary debate on the 1901 Immigration Bill, the legislation which underpinned the White Australia policy, Barton said of the prospect of Asian immigration: “I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is that basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races … unequal and inferior.”

Mehan says that in Port Macquarie, the Black Lives Matter movement has given voice to an important local issue. She is not gathering an angry mob but rather, signatures to take to council. “I don’t think anyone has had the courage to stand up and have a say until now,” she says. “People are asking what can we do that is better? We can see how we put racism on a pedestal and dismantle that statue.”

A lesson of this week is that, when concerns like Mehan’s aren’t listened to, historic, racial grievances can unleash an unstoppable, destructive force. Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, who was first elected to the seat of McMillan in 1996 and now serves as the member for the renamed electorate of Monash, says he understands this from the way his constituents were able to reconcile with their history. “This was a very good way of saying to the Indigenous community that what you say and what you think really counts in Gippsland,” says Broadbent, who petitioned the Australian Electoral Commission to make the change. “The community collectively made a decision about the name McMillan over the electorate.” He says the part Angus McMillan played in frontier massacres is well documented and “very clear to those who are interested”. “Indigenous people were clearly on board for years and it took all that time for us to have the workings of government to enable the change without tearing down a statue,” he says. “But if the community said we don’t want that monument to McMillan on the highway, I am not going to stop them.”

It was a very different story this week in the British city of Bristol, which for many years has struggled to come to grips with its most prominent historical figure, Edward Colston, and his involvement in the transport of an estimated 80,000 slaves from Africa to the Americas. In recent years, some concessions had been made. A popular pub, the Colston Yard, had been renamed the Bristol Yard and the Colston Primary School had been renamed Cotham Gardens. There was a growing acceptance, even among some of Colston’s supporters, that he could not stand forever. Yet still he did, in the centre of town, until a group of protesters looped a rope around his statue’s neck and pulled it down.

How long will it take for the mob to come for Captain Cook? For Lachlan Macquarie? For John Batman, the “founder” of Melbourne who, before arriving at the mouth of the Yarra, led roving parties in Tasmania which hunted Aboriginal people?

A monument to Batman at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market serves as a marker to the bad and good of Australian history. The original inscription on the Victorian-era monument, commemorating Batman’s founding of a settlement on “the site of Melbourne, then unoccupied”, perpetuates the myth of terra nullius. It has since been twice amended, in 1992 and most recently 2004, to make clear that the land was inhabited by Aboriginal people, that the original inscription was inaccurate and that Melbourne’s traditional owners are owed an apology for the offence this caused. The monument, which stands on the edge of a parking lot, remains offensive to some Aboriginal people. It also opens a window into the slow process of reconciliation. It will come down soon enough. Earlier this month, the Melbourne City Council approved a plan to tear up the car park and make it an open public space. It is a site of enormous sensitivity, not just to Aboriginal people. The asphalt covers Melbourne’s original cemetery and the remains of an estimated 6000 people, including Batman.

Whether his statue is restored to the new park will be subject to consultation between the City of Melbourne, the Wurundjeri and Woi-Wurrung traditional owners and Batman’s surviving descendants. Lidia Thorpe says that, although it is not her country or decision to make, she would be happy to see Batman commemorated in the new park as one layer within a complex history. “There is a big story to be told,” she says. “Let’s tell the whole story and we will all learn something from it.”

By Chip Le Grand

Chip Le Grand is The Age’s chief reporter. He writes about crime, sport and national affairs, with a particular focus on Melbourne.


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