I passed by Hyde Park this week in the heart of Sydney and looked again on the statue of Captain James Cook. It has pride of place, a monument to the man who in 1770 claimed this continent for the British crown.
On the base of the statue is an inscription in bold letters:
DISCOVERED THIS TERRITORY
It has stood since 1879. When it was unveiled more than 60,000 people turned out. The procession at the time was the largest ever seen in Sydney.
No-one present then questioned that this was the man who founded the nation.
But think about that today. Think of those words: “Discovered this territory.”
My ancestors where here when Cook dropped anchor. We know now that the first peoples of this continent had been here for at least 65,000 years, for us the beginning of human time.
Yet this statue speaks to emptiness, it speaks to our invisibility; it says that nothing truly mattered, nothing truly counted until a white sailor first walked on these shores.
The statue speaks still to terra nullius and the violent rupture of Aboriginal society and a legacy of pain and suffering that endures today.
Heritage and hate
I have certainly been thinking about that this week as I have watched the spectre of American history cast a dark shadow over that nation.
I have pondered the questions of heritage and hate.
Statues are coming down, old flags of division are being put away and the country is tearing itself apart.
Fascists, neo-Nazis and klansmen who wrap themselves if the flag of the Confederacy are reigniting the old grievances of the civil war.
Charlottesville, Virginia, which has become a battleground for white supremacists, met with the resistance of anti-fascist protesters and it has ended in violence and death.
The world has witnessed the disgrace of an American President parsing his words and finding excuses for people who chanted Nazi slogans and vowed that “Jews will not replace us”.
Where other political leaders on all sides of American politics have called this evil by its name, Donald Trump has looked for blame “on both sides”, his press conferences betraying just how indebted Mr Trump is to the forces of extreme right, white-hate groups who have helped put him in the White House.
As The New York Times editorial read: “There’s a moral awakening taking place across America, but President Trump is still hiding under his blanket.”
We ignore our history
Donald Trump said he was saddened by “the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments”. (AP: Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Mr Trump is feeding a hate that burns deep in the American soul.
Race — racism — is written in American DNA. The war to end slavery — the Civil War — is seen by historians as the bloody birth pains of the nation.
Yet Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, Martin Luther King’s dream, the civil rights marches that brought an end to segregation, the election of the first black president, Barack Obama, none of these things have healed America’s wound.
The nation was founded on the brutal invasion of the lands of the first peoples; its wealth was created on the backs of Africans brought in ships and sold into slavery.
America has always struggled to uphold its creed off equality for all.
Black American writer Ta Nehisi Coates in his searing book, Between the World and Me, writes:
“Robbery is what this is, what it always was.
“In America it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.”
Yes, America tears itself apart trying to make itself better.
Race: Americans cannot ignore it, cannot deny it, cannot hide from it.
But what about us?
America cannot avoid the legacy of racism. We find it all too easy to avoid.
If America seeks to find what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”, we vanish into the “Great Australian Silence”.
Anthropologist Bill Stanner coined that phrase in the 1960s to describe what he said was “a cult of forgetting practiced on a national scale”.
We have chosen to ignore our heritage. So much history here remains untold.
Monuments to hate
Americans are tearing down the monuments to hate, but we remain oblivious to ours.
When I drive through the Blue Mountains west of Sydney to return to the country of ancestors, the Wiradjuri, I cross the Coxs River named after William Cox the pioneer and road builder.
In the 1820s, at the height of conflict between the Wiradjuri and the British — described in the Sydney Gazette as an “exterminating war” — the same William Cox called for the massacre of Aboriginal people.
In his book Blood on the Wattle, Bruce Elder quotes Cox addressing a crowd at Bathurst in 1824.
“The best thing that could be done is to shoot all the blacks and manure the ground with their carcasses. That is all they are fit for! It is also recommended that all the women and children be shot. That is the most certain way of getting rid of this pestilent race.”
William Cox is immortalised, he lends his name to our landscape.
Across Australia there are monuments to those who drove Aboriginal people from their lands.
There are reminders of frontier battles that are still not taught in our schools.
There is still no place on our War Memorial wall of remembrance for those Aboriginal people who died on our soil fighting to defend their country.
The German philosopher, Karl Lowith, once wrote: “To ask earnestly the question of the ultimate meaning of history takes one’s breath away.”
It is perilous territory; history can so easily inflame old hatreds. We see that in the United States.
Journalist and author David Rieff tackles head-on the question of historical memory in his book, In Praise of Forgetting.
He asks if we risk making a fetish of the past; if clinging to historical wounds impedes reconciliation.
For someone like me — an Indigenous person born into a legacy of suffering — these are bracing questions.
Our identities are tied to our histories; history forms us yet I know how damaging it can be to remain chained to it.
Rieff quotes the French historian Ernest Renan, who says that nations are built not just on what we remember but what we are prepared to forget.
But before we can truly put aside old enmity we must face it.
We must tell the truth. We must puncture the Great Australian Silence.
We can no longer maintain the fiction
A photo of the statue of Captain Cook in Hyde Park dated “after 25 Feb 1879”, which is the day it was unveiled. (Flickr: State Archives NSW)
America is tearing down its old monuments; it is hard and it is painful.
Captain Cook’s statue stands in the centre of our biggest city. There are Indigenous people who for good reason would prefer to see it removed.
Personally I accept that it remains; Cook is part of the story of this nation.
But surely we need no longer maintain the fiction that he “discovered” this country. It dishonours the people who reached this continent 60,000 years before Cook.
This was not an empty land.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, defending Australia Day this week, said it is also a day we honour Indigenous Australians.
If he is serious then what be more apt than to correct a monument that tells us, still, that in 1770 we did not exist?