What should we do with Captain Cook?
The pitfalls of memorialising historical figures
By Don Watson
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Amid America’s great clamour about monuments to the heroes of the Confederacy, this much can be said for them – unlike virtually all other monuments, these honour history’s losers. There’s something haunting about them: perhaps not the towering equestrian Robert E Lee, but his ragtag rebel soldiers frozen in stone are often poignant figures and can inflame the same kind of sentiment as Henry Lawson’s statue in the Sydney Domain – because you know his gaunt figure also housed a loser.
Of themselves, neither the statues nor the men they represent should be contentious. This was a war between compatriots, between brothers and sisters, and it was a close-run thing: the Union has had no choice but to live with the rupture ever since. History’s tendency to award all the spoils and all the glory to the victor and none to the vanquished is rarely just, and, because it was potentially damaging to the Union that had just been saved, in this case it was also impractical.
Had it been only the fallen soldiers of the South remembered, no one could reasonably complain. What are they but marble clichés stuffing up history with dead convictions? To be sure, there will be a few unstable citizens who live in hope that one day, Disney-like, in a shower of stardust, they will all spring to life and with them the whole antebellum world. But the general view has been a sort of multicultural tolerance; if sentimentalising the lost cause helps establish peace and reconciliation, let these losers – “dead-enders”, Donald Rumsfeld might have called them – have their statues.
The trouble with the Southern statues is that they are monuments less to the rebels’ sacrifice than to their cause. And their cause is obnoxious, both to African Americans and to the Union from which they broke away. The words inscribed upon them make this clear. They were erected – most of them by the “United Daughters of the Confederacy” between 1900 and 1920 – in memory of the soldiers and the “sacred cause for which they contended”. The cause was “holy”, “sublime”, “glorious” and “patriotic”. The rebels were “animated by the spirit of 1776”; they died not for the cotton interest and slavery but for “state rights guaranteed under the Constitution”. It was to the state rights gambit that Martin Luther King’s “words of interposition and nullification” referred in his famous speech. If the words on the Confederate memorials are not quite treasonous, they are at least the equal of flag-burning, which, though protected by the First Amendment, is widely regarded as heinous. These monuments burn the flag in perpetuity. They read as praise to an insurgency, which would be strange enough in any country but is stranger still in a country gripped in roughly equal degrees by patriotism and fear. But better to speak of state rights than civil rights, the supremacy of the Constitution rather than the supremacy of white people.
The folk who want to preserve the memorials in their present public places have taken to saying “Heritage not hate”, a slogan that might be more credible if there were any other signs in their hollowed-out towns and ruined landscapes that heritage concerned them more than, say, classical ballet or ferreting. In fact, the cause the monuments honour is the reign of terror and exclusion known as Jim Crow. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation put it, “Decades after the war, advocates of the Lost Cause erected these monuments all over the country to vindicate the Confederacy at the bar of history, excise the central issues of slavery and emancipation from our understanding of the war, and reaffirm a system of state-sanctioned white supremacy.” In other words, the monuments rewrite history, airbrush inconvenient facts, and satisfy the (politically correct) requirements of supremacist ideology.
So what should we do with Captain Cook? There he stands in Sydney’s Hyde Park, the Enlightenment’s phenomenal mariner and the man who “discovered this territory 1770”. If ever history had a winner it was James Cook – well, at least up until the Hawaiians got him. And he was the discoverer, if discoverer means the first bloke from Yorkshire to see the east coast of the continent. But “discoverer” is not half of it. He sailed up the east coast, mapping as he went and giving European names to everything he saw, including the name New South Wales. He encountered Aboriginal people, shot one, expressed the view that these savages were far happier than Europeans, and declared the continent terra nullius. And he “hoisted English Coulers” and took possession of the whole of the east coast. It was Cook’s doings in 1770 that opened the way for colonisation in 1788.
So even before we come to the dispossession of the Aboriginal people and the brutal crimes involved, it can’t be too difficult for us to see that, majestic human being though he was, the words at the base of Cook’s monument do not begin to describe the effect of his discovery. And if we were to forget the dispossession and the crimes, Aboriginal Australians might still say their lack of respect for Cook’s likeness in Hyde Park is proxy for an invoice for services rendered – as unpaid labour in the pastoral industry, for example; as domestic labour, agricultural labour, police, all kinds of essential labour for which they were paid precisely nothing and though not quite slaves had much in common with them. Leave out two thirds of the catastrophe that followed his discovery, and it’s still a wonder that Cook’s statue has been defaced just once.
And yet the greater wonder is that our prime minister declared the defacement a “cowardly criminal”, “Stalinist” act. What? Maybe we shouldn’t expect Peter Dutton to know Stalin from a dead kangaroo, but the prime minister comes from the very apex of Sydney civilisation. Does he mean to imply that the defacement or destruction of statues is necessarily Stalinist? Even statues of Stalin? On the face of it, the PM’s remark was as asinine as anything said by an Australian prime minister since Federation. It just goes to show that a career in venture capital is no guarantee of knowing anything much; or that it’s difficult to sell your soul to Peter Dutton without handing over at least part of your brain as well.
But Malcolm Turnbull does have a bit of nasty tabloid form. In 2015, when in a series of tweets Scott McIntyre questioned the virtue of the Anzacs and Australia’s military history, the PM declared the sports reporter’s remarks “despicable” and said he found it “difficult to think of more offensive or inappropriate comments”, which suggests he wasn’t thinking very deeply. Despite efforts to turn its myths into the canons of a religion, Australia’s military history remains contestable, as all history tends to in non-Stalinist countries. The fact that this country is not Stalinist did not help Scott McIntyre, who was sacked by his employer, SBS.
The prime minister was just as savage about the decision of inner Melbourne local councils to give up celebrating Australia Day on 26 January. At the behest of the Great Leader the central government at once issued a directive to the effect that all councils would participate in government-mandated patriotic celebrations, or face very serious penalties!
Again, can it be so very hard to understand why 26 January is not only less than ideal, but for many people a positively offensive reading of Australian history? In which case, rather than heaping mad contumelies on all who question it, why not put your prime ministerial mind to coming up with an alternative? (The US has a national holiday in honour of Martin Luther King. Could not Australia have a Mabo Day – whatever the name, a day given over to Indigenous history?) It might be 20 years or 50, but sooner or later it will change.
Whether they are in Alabama, Australia or Trafalgar Square, the problem with memorials is that they freeze history – and knowledge – in its tracks. They perpetuate the myths that at once sustain us and, with the connivance of our leaders, keep us stupid and obedient. One solution might be to have many more. Wherever Cook stands, erect one to Bennelong or Truganini adjacent, or to an Aboriginal group. Where it is inscribed that Cook “discovered” this territory, add the rider that he discovered it for Britain. And not too far away let it be known that ancestors of Australia’s Indigenous people discovered this territory at least 60,000 years earlier.
Memorials to our more recent past might also help dilute the matter. Why not have Keating, mounted, looking out towards the heads? And Hawke and Kelty too, on ponies. Each one in a third of a tricorn hat. Of course, the Tories will want their own triumvirate. Howard would have to be one of them, but who else? Tim Fischer? Not Malcolm, not the way he’s going – not even if he offers to pay for it himself. And not Tony Abbott, surely. Unless, of course, like the Confederates, you reckon we should honour lost causes.
Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, American Journeys, The Bush and, most recently, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’.