A monumental, crowning failure

Ben Boyd

An increasing clamour of calls to wipe slave trader Ben Boyd off the NSW map has come after state environment minister Matt Kean said he would investigate replacing the controversial name.

Boyd in the 1860s was responsible for ‘blackbirding’, a slave trade practice which involved tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders being forcibly brought to Australia to work on plantations in Queensland.

Statues are Not history

Commentorium

Ben Boyd’s memory is commemorated in and around Eden in southern NSW with Ben Boyd National Park, Boydtown – a village with a population of 70, Boyds Tower and Ben Boyd Drive. In Sydney there is Ben Boyd Road in Neutral Bay and a Boyd house, one of four houses for school competitions at Neutral Bay Public School

The furore over vandalised statues masks a set of deeper unresolved problems that need to be addressed.

History’s a funny thing. It gives the impression of being fixed, chiselled into monuments and memorials, but it really exists as a matter of storytelling. What ends up mattering most is who gets to tell what stories and what value the rest of us choose to give them.

That’s why the string of vandalised statues of colonial figures we’re seeing (with the occasional demand they be torn down) seems to elicit such a different official response than does the physical destruction of ancient, sacred Indigenous sites by mining companies across the country. The former is an expression of political resistance that is either lacerated or humoured, but ultimately dismissed. The latter is a repeated occurrence that occasionally evokes some hand-wringing but is almost always officially permitted.

And yet, for those truly concerned with history, it’s worth noting that only the Indigenous sites represent the true destruction of history and cannot be replaced. What’s being defaced in the case of those statues is not history itself, but rather commemoration. That’s quite a different thing.

The statues or memorial plaques are not historical artefacts in themselves and the protesters that want to remove them are not arguing for history to be forgotten or erased. They’re complaining about the way history is told. Indeed they’re asking for it to be more fully told, less airbrushed.

This discrepancy reveals that Indigenous history and culture has no serious purchase on the national imagination and no particularly grave place in the reckoning of government.

When the ministers give permits to mining companies to destroy these sites, they’re assessing whether the economic benefit outweighs the cost of lost heritage. But it’s not Indigenous communities that determine that cost and in some cases the law doesn’t require them even to be consulted.

That’s a problem because lost heritage is something you feel in your bones. Remember the ritual public mourning that overcame the world when Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire? That registered with us as tragedy because we value that expression of history and culture instinctively.

It’s impossible to imagine us tolerating a mining company destroying something like that for money. But when it comes to our Indigenous history, we’re so systematically separated from it that we lack those instincts. Many sites don’t even have heritage listing. Their routine destruction can only be possible because, on balance, we see that history not as invaluable but as an obstacle to profit.

That, I suspect, is partly what’s driving protests against colonial commemoration. Official celebration of explorers and governors, with no mention of the Indigenous people they killed or the slaves they drove, obscures not just the oppression of our First Nations, but the very notion of them as fully formed peoples with history and culture.

And you can’t be very well connected to a culture you won’t let yourself see. In that sense, I suspect this isn’t really about statues at all, which are probably a sideshow. It’s more about the idea that the commemoration of these figures is an extension of the colonial attitude itself, where Indigenous populations become unpeople: obstacles to enrichment, much like their culture before mining companies.

The protesters’ complaint, as far as I can grasp, isn’t that the people these statues sanctify failed by today’s standards. It’s that the legacy of their world view lives on, that the standards of their day still persist in subtle ways. Whether Australians are inclined to accept that argument or not, the trouble for us as a country is that we seem to have no real way to engage with it.

We might acknowledge the facts of Indigenous disadvantage and declare some targets for ‘‘closing the gap’’ which seem never to be met. But that approach might give the impression the problem is a technocratic one, to be solved by tinkering with policy settings. That rather sidesteps the point of the protests, which is to bring the whole colonial project into focus. That’s exactly why it won’t be seriously considered by people in power.

As things stand it can’t be, because its challenge is inevitably existential: the logical extension of saying Captain Cook should be torn down is to question the legitimacy of the nation itself. Not many countries respond well to that kind of thing, which is why these arguments so often produce a visceral response.

What we perhaps euphemistically call ‘‘settler societies’’ demand nothing as fundamentally as the acquiescence of the people they dispossessed. Without it, the questions become too big to process. The more these questions are asked, the more stuck we seem to become. It’s like we lack the political technology to come to a resolution.

That impasse will only change when we feel less existentially threatened by the fundamental objections of our Indigenous communities. That means finding a way to incorporate the grievances of dispossession into the very idea of Australia, somehow reconciling the modern nation unto its ancient ones.

That’s the role a treaty might play, for instance, because – in theory at least – it would mean some basis for coexistence has been agreed, making honest conversations about history less existentially loaded. But more broadly, it’s the national project of reconciliation, which strikes me as so important but which I hardly recall being discussed in the fury of this past fortnight.

Perhaps that idea died when a previous version of our government took the Uluru Statement from the Heart and then blatantly misled the public about what it meant and dismissed it without even leading a national conversation on it.

Perhaps that act of astonishing bad faith blew up the project of a reconciled Australia like so many sacred sites before and since.

Perhaps our crowning failure is to recognise that reconciliation isn’t some gift to give magnanimously to Indigenous people, but is rather something the nation as a whole needs for its own sake.

And perhaps in its absence there is nothing left any more but protests, anger, and statues.

Waleed Aly is a SMH regular columnist.

This article was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald