On August 18, Stan Grant, Indigenous Affairs editor at the ABC published an analysis piece, “America tears down its racist history, we ignore ours” on the ABC website.
Stan reflected on the words inscribed on the statue of James Cook standing in Sydney's Hyde Park – 'DISCOVERED THIS TERRITORY – 1770' – at a time when the significance of America's monuments is causing hatred and violence amongst Americans.
There is no doubt that James Cook was an extraordinary navigator and explorer. There is no doubt that he was the first Englishman to lead an expedition to Australia and sail along its eastern coast. But he definitely was not the first person to 'discover' the continent of Australia or the 'territory' that became a British colony.
That honour belongs to people – some small group of intrepid travellers – whose identity, language, culture and technology we can only imagine. We cannot even be sure of when they came, their route or where they landed, but we know that it was at least 65,000 years ago. Whoever they were, their descendents flourished over thousands of generations to build strong, resilient and rich cultures in every part of this enormous island continent – many surviving to this day.
If we are honouring the people of our past with monuments, we should be careful with the facts. It is true to say that James Cook “discovered for the British crown this territory”. It was a memorable feat and no doubt worthy of a monument, but its significance should not be devalued by factual errors.
And as our national narrative truly begins with the achievements of those first explorers so long ago, they should be at least equally honoured. Perhaps a sculpture could be commissioned to stand in Hyde Park to help us imagine their lives and remind us of their extraordinary legacy. It will not cover over the scars of the past, but it might help to restore and commemorate for future Australians the truth of our earliest origins.