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Historical Commemoration and Denial in Australia

Last month a statue commemorating Captain James Cook in Hyde Park in Sydney, Australia was attacked, the words ‘Change the date’ spray-painted on it. This act continues recent protests by indigenous people and their supporters which have called for the changing of the day upon which Australia celebrates its founding: 26 January 1788.

On that day nearly 230 years ago, the first governor of New South Wales, raised the British flag and confirmed the claim of possession to a vast swathe of the Australian continent that Cook had made in 1770 on the basis of a legal concept that Britain was the first European power to have discovered this land.

Many Cook statues were erected by white settlers in Australia in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and many of them, like the one in Hyde Park, proclaimed that Cook discovered this continent. This was part and parcel of a process by which settlers claimed that they belonged in this place and that it was theirs. In Possession: Batman’s Treaty and the Matter of History, the memorials they built were not only a means of remembering but a way of forgetting that this place had been and was home to many Aboriginal people and that they or their forebears had dispossessed them.

In my most recent work, I point out that for a long time settler Australians, seeking to re-member Australia’s history in a manner that erased the Aboriginal presence, were able to dominate the ways in which the history of this land was remembered and forgotten. But, as I also emphasise in that article, this has been much less true for some time, as the recent attack on Cook’s statue in Hyde Park, and the media attention it has claimed, reveals. However, many settler Australians still seem to find it very difficult to acknowledge the fact that the foundations of this country rest on the dispossession and displacement of its indigenous people, if not their destruction (the Cook statue in Hyde Park also had the words ‘No pride in genocide’ sprayed on it).

Australians still seem to find it very difficult to acknowledge the fact that the foundations of this country rest on the dispossession and displacement of its indigenous people.

The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seems to be a case in point. In response to the recent attacks on the Cook statue (as well as statues of Queen Victoria and an early Governor of New South Wales in the same park), he lambasted them in these terms, ‘it is part of a deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history but also deny it and obliterate it’ (my emphasis) before going on to observe that Stalin had also sought to banish people ‘from memory and history itself’. But, I would ask, who is really denying or disavowing the past here?

Responses such as Turnbull’s, which I presume are prompted by both conscious and unconscious forces, calls for analysis. I argue that denial of the past is especially marked in settler societies such as Australia, and that there are intriguing connections between denial in the remembering of a past ― historical denial ― and denial at the time of that past ― contemporary denial. Indeed that the former has been especially marked in this case because of the nature of the latter.

One of the examples I give of this phenomenon concerns the claiming of possession. I argue that contemporary denial was the product of legal, moral and psychological forces that were largely the result of the peculiar terms upon which the British claimed terra Australis, quoting a commentator in the 1850s: ‘We hold it neither by inheritance, by purchase, nor by conquest, but by a sort of gradual eviction’. I suggest that, without the consent of the indigenous people that purchase or a treaty tended and tends to imply, Australia, unlike neighbouring New Zealand, was left without a truly satisfactory and satisfying way of legitimising its claim of possession. Clearly, this contemporary denial played a major role in the historical denial that followed, and which continues to this day ― as the words of its Prime Minister demonstrate.

Featured image credit: Captain Cook statue, Hyde Park by State Archives NSW. CC by 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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