The defacement of a statue of Captain Cook has sparked a fresh debate about the value and meaning of colonial monuments. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

History wars and monument politics

The statue of Captain James Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park that was vandalised last week.

Before his statue’s defacement last week, worse things had happened to Captain James Cook. On his third circumnavigation of the globe, voyages that had secured his fame a world away, Cook lay bleeding in the shallow Hawaiian surf. Propped on one elbow, he vainly fended against the blades. He bled out in the sea and was then baked over fire to better peel his flesh. His bones were removed, polished, and stored in sacramental wicker baskets.

His shipmates were no less reverential. In the possession of the New South Wales State Library is an extraordinary artefact – a tiny, hand-carved coffin, wrought from parts of HMS Resolution. It contains a figure-eight lock of Cook’s hair and an intricate painting of his death. On it reads the inscription “Lono and the Seaman’s Idol”.

But the circumstances of Cook’s death – like the legacy of his life – are contested. Little is settled. There is disagreement between local lore, official accounts, historians, anthropologists and cultural theorists. Turn the looking glass slightly and it becomes a kaleidoscope – shapes and colours shift. One story asserts that a weird mix of superstition and coincidence killed him: that, as HMS Resolution disembarked in Kealakekua Bay, its captain was benignly venerated as the deity Lono. Having departed, the ship’s mast was found to be badly compromised, and Cook ordered the ship’s return. This was a grim portent for the locals, who had celebrated the ship’s initial berth as providence but saw its return as heralding disaster. Revered as a God, Cook would now be killed as one – his murder necessary to stave off the profound changes his return suggested.

Now turn the kaleidoscope a little to the left. This European theory of deification – that the Hawaiians were beguiled by the explorers’ technology, and so conferred upon them supernatural status – is derided as ethnocentric, as too smugly confirming the European sense of superiority. In his 1995 book, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere wrote: “I doubt that the natives created their European god; the Europeans created him for them. This ‘European god’ is a myth of conquest, imperialism, and civilization – a triad that cannot be easily separated.”

There’s another story. A story of cascading misunderstandings between the visitors and the visited. Accelerating enmities is Cook himself, once admired for his equanimity but now, after too long at sea, made irrationally violent. Like Mistah Kurtz, Cook was malfunctioning. For years he served his ambition and his majesty by sailing with gales and mountainous waves while watching his men succumb to accident, suicide and murder. He captained ships ensnared by reefs, and, having escaped them, ordered their return so that the reefs might be properly mapped. Death and discovery were inseparable, and now Cook was cracking up. Hospitality was ignored, a local priest shot. The first domino was pushed. In this story, his gruesomely slashed body is the last.

In the history wars, there are many Cooks. Which one you see depends on how you hold the kaleidoscope. There is an uncomplicated hero, a sacrificed deity, a corrupted adventurer, a cruel imperialist. But the history wars rarely permit nuance, or for two competing elements to co-exist.

Eighteen years after Cook’s “discovery” of the fabled southern continent, and nine years after his death, the First Fleet entered Botany Bay. Cook had originally called it Stingray Harbour, but changed his mind after his botanist, Joseph Banks, enthused about the bay’s strange flora. The Endeavour returned triumphantly to Britain holding a new world found in maps, journals and Bank’s vast botanical collection. Cook didn’t realise, and would never see, that he had helped found the bizarrely distant point for Britain’s penal colony – and set the course for the murderous European settlement of Australia.

All of which asks the questions: Which Cook was a vandal defacing last week? Which Cook do some want to remove?


The defacement of Sydney’s Captain Cook statue – spray-painted with the words “No Pride in Genocide” and “Change the Date” – encouraged a long, impassioned response from the prime minister.

“Today’s vandalism of statues of James Cook and Lachlan Macquarie is a cowardly criminal act and I hope the police swiftly find those responsible and bring them to justice,” Malcolm Turnbull wrote on his Facebook page.

“But it is also part of a deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history but to deny it and obliterate it. This is what Stalin did. When he fell out with his henchmen he didn’t just execute them, they were removed from all official photographs – they became non-persons, banished not just from life’s mortal coil but from memory and history itself. Tearing down or defacing statues of our colonial era explorers and governors is not much better than that.”

In the week before the vandalism, Indigenous journalist Stan Grant wrote a long essay for the ABC in which he contemplated Australia’s difficult history. “A statue of Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park maintains that he ‘discovered this territory 1770’,” Grant wrote.

“I have questioned that, prompted to look at how we grapple with our history by America’s violent struggle with its own. Statues there – reminders of a racist past – are being pulled down.

“I have never advocated the same here, but should we look upon his statue in silence, should our history be met with the shrug of indifference? For me that is impossible.”

Following the defacements, Grant quickly – and unequivocally – denounced the vandal. “It is disgraceful criminal behaviour,” he told The Australian. “They don’t support Indigenous people, they dishonour us.”

As gentle and meditative as Grant’s essay was – and as clear and strident as his condemnation of the vandalism – he was variously denounced as egotistically divisive and Stalinist in the tabloids and on talkback radio.

Indigenous leaders with whom I spoke this week – who did not want to comment on the record, mindful of “inevitable” vilification – described frustration with the superficiality of the arguments and its aloofness from international conversations about the status of colonial – or Confederate in the United States – monuments and place names.

Turnbull is right to be alarmed by the prospect of the statue’s removal – but there’s little evidence that this is what more than a handful want. It certainly isn’t what Grant argued. The recurring suggestion is for the monument’s revision, not banishment. The Cook statue’s inscription reads: “Discovered this territory 1770”. Labor MP Linda Burney, the first Indigenous woman elected to the federal lower house, said: “My view is that the statue should remain. We reject absolutely the graffiti and the damage to both Macquarie and the Cook statues. But the plaques are inaccurate. They are historically inaccurate and I would argue strongly that the plaques need updating to tell the truth. And that’s all we are talking about here.”

Revision, not erasure. Bill Shorten initially agreed. “This country works best when we work together, so an additional plaque on Captain Cook’s statue is fine by me,” he said. In subsequent days he would qualify his remarks – seemingly distancing himself from them – stressing that symbolism was less important than practical steps to close the gap. While a dispiriting distraction for some, the “statue wars” were hot. Shorten didn’t want to get burnt. Former prime minister Tony Abbott told Sydney’s Radio 2GB that a Shorten government would offer “political correctness on steroids” and that one “can just imagine all the statues of Captain Cook being taken down, all the statues of Governor Phillip being taken down”.

In a subsequent piece, seemingly stung by the response to the first, Stan Grant wrote:

“It seems to have taken some people by surprise, the idea that people were here for more than 60,000 years before the Endeavour dropped anchor. What were we doing all that time, just waiting for white people to find us? And to dare challenge this ‘discovery’; how impertinent. I can hear someone saying ‘know your place’.

“It has certainly ignited a debate and that is a good thing. History is not dead, it is not past or redundant, it is alive in all of us: we are history. Responding to the tearing down of racist monuments in the United States prompted me to ask questions about our history; the story we choose to tell ourselves … The inscription that Cook ‘Discovered this territory 1770’ maintains a damaging myth, a belief in the superiority of white Christendom that devastated Indigenous peoples everywhere.”

The symbolic erasure of history is disturbing – as is the moral vanity that compelled the vandal – but so too are the hysterical exaggerations that have filled columns and radio waves in the past week. The history wars rage on.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 2, 2017 as "History rebuffs".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.