If statues are purely about recounting history and only recounting history, then let’s erect one to Martin Bryant at Port Arthur.
I have heard this argument countless times in the last few days:
‘Statues are our history’ and ‘this is the modern-day version of book burnings’.
If this is truly the case, that statues are only there to acknowledge history, no matter how distasteful the history in question may be; then undoubtedly the person who has had a substantial impact on Tasmanian and indeed national history is mass-murderer Martin Bryant, of the 1992 Port Arthur Massacre infamy.
So traumatic was the killing of 35 innocent souls, it is seared into the collective memory of all Australians, even those not born at the time. It was the catalyst for drastic and long overdue reforms around gun safety and ownership – reforms that our citizenry, by and large, are immensely proud of.
It is inarguable that the Port Arthur Massacre was, and still is, a defining moment of Australia’s young being. The calamity of that cold April day directly affected many people who lost loved ones, including children, and indirectly affected Australians for a generation.
With that being the case, if statues are how we learn from history, as I am so often told by many people that I immensely respect, then following that logic, we should erect a statue to Martin Bryant. As loathsome as he is, his actions irrevocably altered Australia’s trajectory, Australia’s values and Australia’s psyche.
This is a ridiculous proposition on its face.
How insulting would it be to the victims and the families of the Tasmanian shooting, as well as all of us, if the government were to raise a statue to an absolutely vile human being who does not deserve to even have his name written down?
It’s because statues are not merely about history, they never have been. Statues are about glorification and reverence. The acts of raising them and tearing them down is a contextual part of history, not history itself.
A group of activists breaking or defacing a statue may be distasteful, dangerous, improper, and arguably undemocratic – but it is NOT the equivalent of ISIS destroying ancient artefacts and structures in Syria. The only event in recent days that comes close to that was Rio Tinto’s wilful destruction of a sacred site, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people.
Statues honour a person deemed worthy by the powerful of the time of their erection. By their nature, statues of notable figures are rarely placed while the person is at their peak, and sometimes only done so when said person has died.
Definitionally, statues cannot be considered historic monuments of their time.
It’s why sports clubs and stadiums put up statues of legendary players and coaches, such as Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, Thierry Henry at The Emirates and even Wally Lewis in front of Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. Not just because they were members of the team at one point, but because their contributions to their clubs were deemed to be of such a calibre that they should be memorialised.
A statue being dismantled is equivalent to a statue being dismantled – that’s it.
In 2003, the people in Iraq, with aid from the US Military, brought down the towering sculpture of the tyrant Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Did Iraqis decide that the despotic rule of Mr Hussein never happened, that any and all mentions of his regime must never be uttered?
Of course not. His legacy continues to live on in Iraq and is taught in the appropriate manner – at schools and universities, not by staring at a statue and reading its plaque.
In 1948 the newly declared Republic of Ireland removed a statue of Queen Victoria that stood in front of the Oireachtas or parliament. Did Ireland decide to completely and utterly scrub the legacy of British colonialism on their island?
Again, the answer is a very obvious not.
The Irish continue to learn from the past injustices inflicted upon them and will continue to do so. The statue’s erection was a symbol of British power over the Emerald Isle and its removal was a symbol of Irish autonomy. The statue was not history in and of itself, only history in context.
In Germany and its surrounding countries, there are no statues of Adolf Hitler, despite his world-changing existence (to put it mildly). But in Poland, the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp still stands.
Nobody in Germany, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic, etc. pretends that Hitler never existed, that the murder of 8 million Jewish people never occurred – in fact the opposite is true.
The death camps stand as a reminder of the horror’s humans are capable of. The statues exist, not to remind, not to teach, but to honour and glorify.
So, when we have this discussion in Australia, about the statues of James Cook and Lachlan Macquarie, let us please avoid the strawman arguments. James Cook did arrive in 1770 and the First Fleet settled this land (Indigenous land that has never been ceded I must add) in 1788, nobody is pretending this didn’t happen.
Be honest please, if you are defending that the statues of these men, and other British figures of Australian history, it is not because you are worried about Australia erasing its past, because you fear we will repeat this past if we remove our statues – it is because you fundamentally believe that they were right and honourable people.
You may be unaware of the cruel history brought about on Indigenous Australians, who still live with the legacy of colonialism and racism to this day.
You may be unaware that Governor Macquarie at best was unconcerned with soldiers under his command killing innocent Indigenous families at Appin and at worse directly ordered it.
You may be unaware, just as the Prime Minister was, that Australia (although not named as such) has a history of slavery involving both Indigenous Australians as domestic help, as well as Pacific Islanders – shipped into Queensland as indentured servants of the sugar cane farmers.
Or you may very well be aware and are just indifferent to it.
Possibly, you believe that the benefits of these men outweigh the negatives. You understand very well that statues are intended for glorification and you want to glorify these men because you are proud of British colonial history on this continent.
This may be true from your perspective, but from the perspective of Indigenous Australians this is a blight on 60,000 years of history.
If you are truly concerned about our history, then please advocate for it to be truthfully taught. Not the whitewashed version that I, and many others taught in an Australian school received, but the total and complete history.
Teach of the founding of New South Wales AND teach that settlers may have purposefully introduced smallpox to Aboriginal communities.
Teach of Burke and Wills exploring the interior for white settlers and that they starved to death while doing so, but DO NOT omit that many Indigenous people lived in these exact areas with bountiful food and it was the racism of Burke that led to their starvation.
Teach of the arrival of the First Fleet from the perspective of soldiers, settlers, convicts AND of Indigenous Australians at the time.
Teach of ‘The Black Wars’ of Tasmania where Indigenous Australians were persecuted and massacred by British colonialist and that it meets most of the definitions for attempted genocide.
Teach about the enduring legacies of Australian settler racism, which led to Indigenous Australians exclusion from Australia’s constitution, barred them from voting until 1965, and segregated country towns.
Teach about the kidnapping of mixed-race Aboriginal children in an attempt to ‘breed out’ Indigenous blood that continued into the 1970s.
Teach that as a result of racism and colonialism, a gaping and persistent gap exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians both economically and physically. That we treat Indigenous Australians as third-class citizens on their own land.
If and only if you are willing to do this, can you engage in good faith arguments about whether or not these statues may stay.
However, if you cannot accept this, then you must argue for the erection of a statue of Martin Bryant at Port Arthur. That, or you must own your hypocrisy.