Some twenty years ago the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan, on the ground that these statues, carved in the rock in the early 6thcentury, were idols. The Taliban weren’t the first, let alone the only, destroyers of culture. In 338 BC Alexander the Great sent his army to Persepolis (‘the city of the Persians’), formerly the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. For those who only dimly remember their ancient history, it was the city of Cyrus the Great and Darius I, and was close to a thousand years old when Alexander decided to knock its central elements down.
Wikipedia has a giant list of ‘destroyed heritage’. Nature and fire have done a lot of it, but it certainly seems that the urge to ‘knock it down’ is widespread and human, and highly political. Aboriginal cave paintings have been destroyed in our own country, most recently in Tasmania in 2016. What was the notion in the vandals’ minds (assuming they had them)? Now we are seeing the destruction and defacement of statues, in Europe, the USA and here. The technical word for it is ‘iconoclasm’, from the Ancient Greek, meaning ‘image breaking’. What is all it about?
I argued in my last essay that the COVID-19 restrictions have produced a kind of tension within the body politic that has led to these BLM protests, to further gatherings of the same kind about refugees, in my view to much more aggressive driving, and to bad temper generally. Yes, there have been notable acts of kindness and toleration as well, but the recent defacement of statues seems to me examples of angry political acts, carried out when there are other angry acts going on. Imitation is the name of the game.
Two hundred and fifty years have passed since Captain Cook saw for himself the eastern coast of Australia, and sailed up its length, having crossed the Tasman Sea from New Zealand. There are no ecstatic celebrations of an official kind, but there is a certain amount of politically correct revisionism going on in which Cook is the harbinger of dreadful deeds to come. I have argued against this sort of stuff before, but feel the need to do it again. Here, for example, is someone who wants place names erased if they belong to ‘racists’.
Who are ‘racists’? Well, apparently ‘Names such as Brisbane, Macquarie and Mitchell do not belong in modern Australian society’. Who is to decide who counts as a racist? If you think statues of Captain Cook and others should remain where they are, he says, you ‘should consider whether [you] really want the visual reminders of dispossession and genocide to remain on view.’
This is sweeping stuff, but I’ll have a go. Yes, I want the statues to remain where they are, and without defacement. They are part of our history. I would agree (with another revisionist) that to dwell on Captain Cook’s ‘discovery’ of Australia is a bit silly, since there were already people living there. But in terms of European and world history, his voyage actually changed the existing view of the world. An unknown section of the globe could now be filled in, helped later by Matthew Flinders.
Of course, if you don’t take a world-history view of things that is of no account. But the Aboriginal people had been living in terra incognita Australia for forty thousand years or so without making any impact whatever on humanity’s investigation of the planet. So I think Cook’s achievements are worth honouring, and I am glad that such honouring has been done. I would like it maintained, not washed out.
I don’t, as it happens, see place names and statues as visual reminders of dispossession and genocide, partly because I think those terms need a lot of examination, partly because the statues commemorate other things, and partly because I am mostly from Scottish heritage. I have paused at the entrance to Governor Macquarie’s house on Mull (it was a private dwelling) with an acknowledgment of his contribution to our society, which in my view was overwhelmingly positive. I am for Macquarie and against Macarthur, in terms of the fight between them. I served for nearly a decade at Macquarie University too, though I can’t remember any particular celebration of his name there.
Ah, the revisionist will say, to write is such terms shows you to be a white supremacist. I shrug at that sort of ad hominem. To repeat what I have said before, the Aboriginal people who were about in the late 18thand early 19thcenturies had no choice about what was to happen. The next century was decided in the northern hemisphere, as European nations went on a colonial binge, seeking places that they could say they ‘owned’. Their object was to be the biggest and the best in Europe, and the indigenous people they took over were a sort of collateral damage.
It is understandable that their descendants should feel aggrieved at what happened, but they have a life in a different society, and they have to make the best of it. History is not going to be reversed. More, the notion that ‘sovereignty was never ceded’, a currently fashionable claim from the BLM protest, is simply risible. In 1788 there was no Aboriginal ‘nation’, simply a widespread set of Aboriginal clans and tribal groups, speaking several hundred languages, trading, fighting and wife-seeking. There may have been several separate Aboriginal arrivals over the past fifty thousand years. In my view, the Aboriginal people probably did better with the British arrivals than they would have done with the other possible aspirants for takeover.
It is fine for those of mixed ancestry to choose to identify with their Aboriginal forbears, but there is no reason for the rest of us, without such distinction, to be impressed. That is a choice we can all make. I feel no special affinity with Scotland, though I have enjoyed being there, as I have enjoyed being in France and in Thailand.
In my view of things, I am an indigenous Australian, born here, with parents born here, and with grandparents, some of whom born here. Oral tradition in our family says that the earliest known ancestor here was in Hobart jail in the 1820s. I haven’t found him, though I have found English ancestors in the Manchester area in the 1750s.
I don’t usually write like this, but it’s time to say strongly what I think. Over my working life I have known a dozen or so Aboriginal people, most of them leaders of one kind or another. None of them, I think, have spoken out or been in the BLM demonstrations. They write in English, they use Western musical forms and instruments, Western painting techniques, they drive, operate sophisticated communications equipment, live in houses, and get on with their lives. They are caught between one part of their lineage and the fact of modern life. Increasingly, young Aboriginal people have to make the same choices, to dwell in an imagined past, where they are victims, or use their talents and their determination to make a success of their lives. Most seem to be doing the latter, and good on them.
I finish with two little anecdotes. I came across the statue of Sir Henry Parkes, in Sydney’s Hyde Park, I think. His face was covered with bird droppings, which his political opponents in the 19thcentury would have enjoyed. But no human being had defaced it. Parkes’s controversial career and style had long ceased to be important.
The second involved a graduate of my university, who was passed on and up to me to solve a problem really important to her. After an acrimonious divorce, she wanted her first degree’s testamur altered to remove her former married name and replace it with her new one. All those she had spoken to had said it was not possible. That’s who she’d been, and the testamur said so. We argued about it, and she was tearful. ‘You’re asking me to rewrite history,’ I said. She agreed it was so. ‘That’s what was done in the former Soviet Union,’ I pointed out. She agreed, but it was important to her. She thought she was a special case. I wouldn’t do it. She took us to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which threw her appeal out.
History should not be rewritten. Argued about, yes. Alternative versions proposed, yes. But you do not rewrite what was thought to have happened, and consign the earlier version to the fires. Hitler’s regime did that too.
Finally, there seems little likelihood of a referendum in the life of this parliament about including something appealing to the Aboriginal activists in the Preamble to the Constitution. If there were to be such a referendum, I would write, speak and vote against it. I want inclusion, not a distinction that will be irrelevant before very long.