The controversy about confederate monuments in the southern states erupted in May this year while I was in the United States. I was impressed by the extent and the vigour of the debate. In the back of my mind I wondered if a similar controversy would eventually emerge in Australia. It did and with a speed that surprised me. But it was not simply a matter of reactive emulation. There are interesting similarities between American and Australian history and the way it has been remembered. And on the other hand there are instructive contrasts.
It is obvious that America is haunted by the history of slavery. The contentious monuments commemorate the confederate heroes Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis who fought to perpetuate slavery. But the malaise goes even deeper into national history. Washington, Jefferson and many other founders of the republic were slave owners. The stirring words of the Declaration of Independence, while inspiring, were also a crowning act of hypocrisy. They did not apply to the slaves. At the first national census of 1790 there were just under 700,000 in an overall population of 4 million. There was an unbridgeable gulf between the rhetoric of the Declaration and the institution of slavery.
Australia has a very different story. Though founded five years after the end of the War of Independence, it avoided the stain of slavery. Convict labour made it unnecessary. Australia’s early years saw a growing resistance to the slave trade. The first meeting of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was held in London on 22 May 1787, nine days after the First Fleet sailed from Portsmouth. William Wilberforce moved the first motion against slavery in the British Parliament in 1791 and in 1807 the Imperial government outlawed the Atlantic Slave Trade.
On the other hand Australia and the new republic shared a history of expansion into territory of the indigenous nations. But here too there were major differences. Australia as we know was founded on the principal of terra-nullius. There was no official recognition of indigenous sovereignty or of property rights. American practice had been quite different. Treaties were negotiated and Indian property rights were recognized. The first nations still exercise a form of internal sovereignty and have long been legally defined as domestic dependent nations.
Two official documents from 1787 illustrate the contrasting policies. Arthur Phillip received his formal instructions in April. He was to endeavour to ‘open an intercourse’ with the Aborigines and to ‘conciliate their affections’. He was to encourage all the British arrivals to ‘live in amity and kindness with them’. Anyone who destroyed them or caused ‘any interruption in the exercise of their several occupations’ was to be ‘brought to punishment’. Three months later the Continental Congress issued the North West Ordinance which was designed to control the expansion of settlement in the territory bounded by the Great Lakes and the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Article three dealt with the Indians. There were similar expressions of good intentions. The ‘utmost good faith’ was to be exercised. Laws which were to be ‘founded in justice and humanity’ would be implemented from time to time ‘for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them’. The phrases were similar, the sentiments comparable. But neither government had the will or the power to realize the professed policies.
There was no mention of land or property in Phillip’s instructions. The Congress, for its part, determined that the Indians’ land would ‘never be taken from them without their consent’. Their property, rights and liberty would never be ‘invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress’.
The contention over American monuments reminds us the legacy of slavery lives on, as does the eloquent commitment in the Declaration of Independence to liberty and equality. Australia has a similar problem. We live with the consequences which derive from the manner in which the British annexed Australia with no recognition of pre-existing indigenous rights. The contradiction cemented into the foundations of the republic are easy for us to see. We have greater difficulty recognizing the structural flaws inherited from our founding documents.
The commitment to the rights of private property was at the very centre of the ideas which informed the settlement of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. This had both ideological force and practical consequences. The whole system of transportation existed to punish and deter felons who were overwhelmingly convicted of offences against property. The severe punishment of theft was carried over into the legal codes established in the colonies. And yet for all that the Imperial government did not follow the American precedents and recognize indigenous sovereignty or property. It was un-blushing hypocrisy at least as egregious as that of the slave owning statesmen who enunciated universal principles abroad which they didn’t practice on their own estates.
There were always people who spoke out about Australia’s founding defect. One of the earliest and most influential was the English political philosopher Jeremy Bentham. In an essay on the constitutional arrangements made for New South Wales written in 1803 he observed that, legal obfuscation notwithstanding, the colony had been acquired by conquest. The Aborigines had been accorded no diplomatic power nor had their representatives signed a treaty with the King. He believed this created problems which would endure. ‘The flaw’, he declared, ‘is an incurable one’.
Both nations then have histories of territorial expansion and concomitant conflict with first nations. Both have apotheosised the pioneer in popular history. They both have historic monuments and nomenclature which whip up contemporary controversy. Two in particular provide us with instructive examples of the modification of historical monuments which has been canvassed as a way forward during the present testy debate.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, a monument was erected in the centre of the city in 1868 commemorating soldiers killed in the Civil War as well as the heroes ‘who had fallen in various battles with savage Indians in the Territory of New Mexico’. In 1973 an unknown activist chiselled the word ‘savage’ out of the sentence and it has never been replaced. There was some discussion about removing the monument but instead new words were added which explained : ‘ Monument texts reflect the character of the times in which they were written and the temper of those who wrote them.’ Thus contemporaries would see on this monument as in other records such terms as ‘savage’ which were no longer appropriate. ‘Attitudes change,’ the new plaque declared, ‘and prejudices hopefully dissolve’.
In 1913 the Explorers’ Monument was unveiled on the Fremantle Esplanade to commemorate three ‘intrepid pioneers’ who had been killed in their sleep by ‘the treacherous natives’ in the north of the colony 50 years before. There was also reference to the man who led a punitive expedition to recover the remains of the victims and exact retribution. In 1994 another plaque was added to the memorial declaring that it was erected by people who found the original monument offensive because it described the events from the viewpoint of the white settlers. It continued:
No mention is made of the right of Aboriginal people to defend their land or of the history of provocation which led to the explorers’ deaths. The ‘punitive party’ mentioned here ended in the deaths of somewhere around twenty Aboriginal people.
A forceful coda declared that the new plaque also commemorated ‘all other Aboriginal people who died during the invasion of their country’.
The two pioneer monuments in question were amended a generation or more ago. They are no longer controversial but they are both more interesting now than they were in their original form. Professor Bruce Scates, who played a major role in creating what he calls Fremantle’s counter-memorial, believes that it has national significance and at this juncture in our history suggests the way forward.
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian who has focused on frontier conflict between indigenous people and European settlers, and has written many books on that subject. His latest book is Unnecessary Wars.