MUNGO MacCALLUM. Captain Cook.

Aug 29, 2017

For months we have had to endure war on all fronts – the class war, the gender war, the religion war, the equality war, the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war against political correctness, the war on the ABC and of course the perennially convenient war on terror.  

You would think it would have been enough, even for the indefatigable warriors of the Murdoch press. But no – last week they have resurrected yet another campaign, in a reprise of the culture war.

It has never really ended, of course – the ongoing but sporadic debate over Australia Day resurfaced when two Victorian councils voted to change the date from the more-or-less anniversary of the inauguration of our wide brown land as a British penal colony for something a little more celebratory and inclusive.

There were the predictable screams of outrage and Malcolm Turnbull went back to the formula that whatever it may once have been, it is now a day for all Australians, so if you don’t like it, bugger off.

But this was only the overture; it got interesting when the vastly respected Stan Grant began musing on the bitter and divisive brawl over statues of confederate generals in the United States and asked if it might be time to end what has been called the great Australian silence over our own history.

He focused on the statue of James Cook in Hyde Park in Sydney, which includes the inscription: “Discovered this territory, 1770.” This, Grant avers reasonably, is hardly true; the Eora people were there a long time before then. So he does not want the statue removed, but the inscription tweaked to make it more accurate.

Enter our national daily with all guns blazing: it instantly called on the right wing historian Keith Windshuttle to slap down Grant, who clearly deserves it – after all, he works for the ABC, enough said. Windshuttle was the obvious choice; he is the man who insisted that whatever the oral evidence for most of the massacres perpetrated against indigenous Australians, they never really happened because there were no official police reports of such events.

To some critics this showed a touchingly naïve faith in the authorities of the time, while to others it was just perverse and silly. But it became part of the neo-conservative wisdom, and Windshuttle was rewarded first with a seat on the ABC board and then with the editorship of Quadrant, which he has taken even further to the right.

Windshuttle slammed into Grant, describing his ideas as misplaced and misleading. The inscription, he thundered, was perfectly accurate – “if you take the word territory to mean the eastern coast of the Australian continent.” But of course normal people don’t. When they read the words “this territory” they assume it is the land they are standing on, or at least part of it. And when they use the word “discovered” they assume that Cook found it first; that it was, in fact, terra nullius. It wasn’t, and for what it is worth Cook never landed in Sydney – he stayed in Botany Bay.

And even if Windshuttle’s version can be taken at face value, it is still inaccurate – Cook did not “discover” the entire eastern coast, almost all of which was inhabited. It is probably true, as Windshuttle believes, that Cook was the first person to traverse the coastline and view it – at least there are no records of the many Dutch, Portuguese or even Asian mariners who have claimed the distinction, although we know there were a few around before Cook arrived.

But that is not what the statue proclaims. Even in Windshuttle’s own assessment a fairer and more useful inscription would be: “As far as we know, the first European to sail the length of the east coast of Australia.” Not quite as snappy, perhaps, but it has the virtue of being true, something one might have thought important to conservatives. Instead they screamed about Stalinism and embraced their alternative “facts” – among them, shamefully, Malcolm Turnbull, who obviously knows better.

It took a long time to dispel even the basic lie of terra nullius from our statute books, and obviously there are those – apparently like Windshuttle – who still harbour a nostalgic affection for it; things were so simple when children could just chant “Captain Cook discovered Australia” and get on with ignoring the needs, rights and often the very existence of the Aboriginals.

But to hang on to that kind of denialism is an insult to our indigenous population and indeed to Cook himself. Lieutenant James Cook, RN, never said he had discovered Australia, although he did claim to have taken possession of it in the name of the mad king George III. He was above all an explorer, not a politician.

He was arguably the finest sailor and navigator of his times and his memory should be revered. But to overblow his feats in the way Windshuttle uses to promote his ongoing feud with what he imagines is the left is to demean his reputation, not enhance it. Windshuttle seeks to rewrite not only history, but also the meaning of words — the dictionary.

And let’s be sensible about this. This is not Charlotteville or any other deeply conflicted town in the southern states of America. No-one is suggesting an orgy of iconoclasm, except Tony Abbott and the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and they don’t count. Most of us can deal with our past in a civil and inclusive fashion without the provocations of the Windshuttles of this world.

And it can even be fun. The Hungarians did not destroy the loathed monuments to the communist domination of the last century by destroying, but by putting them into a theme park outside Budapest. There, to the strains of martial music, locals and tourists may view may view the excesses – some a little chilling, but most just risible.

And there is even a souvenir shop on site. I purchased a small sealed tin purporting to contain “the last breath of communism” and a T shirt bearing the legend: “Marx is dead and Lenin is dead and I’m not feeling too well either.” When I wore it to a writer’s festival, Gerard Henderson went apoplectic with outrage.

But then, the right has never had much of a sense of irony or humour. Windshuttle and Henderson should lighten up a little. There is no point in giving that advice to the fanatics of Newscorp. The elitist ideologues of its opinion (and nowadays news, as well) pages will never see how absurd their belligerent posturing has become.

Mungo MacCallum is Mungo MacCallum.   

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