History Hits the Headlines.Our Troubled Past

History haunts many countries at the moment. This is especially true of the United States. But Australia , New Zealand, Britain, France and Belgium are being forced to once again face up to their legacy of colonial brutality and attendant racism.

Swelling crowds of protesters are demanding change but they also want a reckoning with troubled pasts. In Britain the streets of Oxford echo with renewed demands for the removal of the bust of Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College. In Bristol the statue of the slaver Edward Colston was pulled down and rolled into the harbour. A similar fate met the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan standing at the West India Docks. In New Zealand the Hamilton City Council removed the statue of Captain John Hamilton from outside the Council Chambers after a local Maori elder threatened to take it down by force. Statues of Confederate leaders are being defaced and removed in many American cities.

The statue of Captain Cook in Sydney has again received painted, political comments. As before any threat to the sanctity accorded Cook whips up a storm of righteous anger. People defacing statues were threatened with heavy fines and possible jail time. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald Tom Switzer and Jacinta Price, of the Centre for Independent Studies, argued that an attack on Cook’s statue was an attack on the nation itself because it ‘only exists because of James Cook.’ But as several commentators have observed conservative outrage is highly selective coming at exactly the same time that we heard of the truly shocking destruction by Rio Tinto of the Rock Shelter at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara. The headline of Switzer’s article asserted that censoring history’ makes the past impossible to grasp’. One might have thought that high explosives make it even harder. But he reserved his outrage not for the largely foreign owned corporation which destroyed an archaeological site of global significance but the people who had sprayed graffiti on the busts of John Howard and Tony Abbott in Ballarat.

The destruction in the Pilbara attracted international condemnation. The President of the Society of American Archaeologists expressed his profound disappointment at what had happened because the antiquity of the site ‘was rare anywhere in the world.’ The rock shelters were ‘of outstanding global archaeological importance.’ The continuity of occupation was breathtaking stretching back for 1000 or so generations. The rock shelter provided an extraordinary record of human survival and adaption to dramatic climatic changes. It was also of special interest because inland sites of such antiquity are rare. So what we have lost is a monument of a very different kind. One which helps us learn more about one of the most remarkable stories in the history of the continent—the slow migration inland from the coasts which marked the exploration, adaption to and settlement of the whole continent stretching over many thousands of years. It was a monument to Australia’s first discoverers and explorers whose achievements dwarf those of Cook and the European navigators who preceded him.

It was an egregious mistake by the Company especially when Rio had played such an important role in the 1990’s in breaking rank with the rest of the mining industry in accepting the consequences of the Mabo Judgement and developing good relations with native title holders. It is true there were apologies to the traditional owners and regret for the distress that had been caused. But it was the sort of apology that one might offer following a minor social offence or a breach of good manners. There was no indication that the Company had any sense of the gravity and irreversibility of the destruction, of the grievous cultural vandalism. There was no apology, no expression of genuine regret addressed to the people of Australia. In fact The Guardian reported that Rio’s iron ore chief executive told a staff meeting that the apology was for any distress caused to the traditional owners not an admission that the Company had done anything wrong. He also said that Rio maintained the backing of political leaders of both sides. The report noted that neither the Federal nor the Labor State Government had criticized the Company. Perhaps we should not expect any more from a largely foreign owned company whose head office is in London with a largely British board. But why aren’t Australian governments expressing deep concern about such neo-colonial pillage and demanding appropriate reparation? No threats here of heavy fines and possible jail time.

At this moment when the weight of history presses down upon us the Federal Minister of Education Dan Tehan has announced a doubling of University tuition fees for humanities and social science subjects. It is a very strange decision which has not been adequately explained. He especially named history and philosophy as subjects of dubious worth. So whatever is going on? Is this just the latest assault in the long running culture wars which dates back to John Howard’s campaign against what he called ‘black arm band’ history of twenty five years ago? Is the obsession of conservative Australians with our British heritage one aspect of a rejection of several generations of revisionist history?

Tom Switzer gave full voice to fashionable conservative hostility in his recent article wherein he attacked’ university history departments across the western world’ which far from paying attention to the main facts of history concentrate ‘ on imposing the “woke” values of a noisy, self-advertising minority on a very different past.’ And then in full flight he thundered:

Context is irrelevant to these people: political figures who had attitudes or performed deeds which today’s society rightly disapprove are to be vilified and despised, with no quarter given. That is why statues and monuments are being ripped down or defaced around the world. For these people, the purpose of history is not to seek the truth, but to deploy it as a weapon-however crude and distorted—to manipulate the present.

History departments ,in Switzer’s view, have much to answer for. They have produced young men and women who rejected democracy who were, simultaneously, both Marxists and anarchists which was a somewhat surprising achievement. It’s all good knockabout stuff. The hyperbole and the hysteria notwithstanding it must be taken seriously. Switzer is the Executive Director of one of the largest and most influential right wing think tanks in the country. It is reasonable to suppose that his views about history are influential in the federal government and may well be the hidden spring behind the Minister’s assault on the humanities.

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Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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