Turning point: Dorney’s history revisited
I Chose You

Our horrible history

WInston-ChurchillCHRIS OVERLAND

ADELAIDE - The study of history is not likely to inspire belief in the inherent virtues of humanity.

There are so many conspicuous examples of our species’ propensity for violence, venality and depravity that it sometimes takes a certain resolve to stare the facts directly in the face and recognise them for what they tell us about the human condition at a given point in time.

At times historians can find themselves deeply affected by the awful reality of the evil that humans are capable of doing.

There are few, if any, significant figures in history whose conduct has been so exemplary as to justify unstinting praise for their moral and ethical virtue.

In fact, I would contend that there are no such figures in history and that even our greatest heroes are invariably flawed in some way.

This leads me to the current Black Lives Matter protests and, more particularly, to the calls for the removal or destruction of statues raised in memory of certain historical figures.

The targets of this sentiment are people who some now see as representing the worst aspects of Europe’s racist past.

For example, in the city of Bristol, a crowd tore down a statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721), an important figure in the city’s history, and then threw it into the sea.

That Colston made a fortune from the morally reprehensible business of slave trading cannot be contested.

What also cannot be contested is that he used much of the wealth he acquired in this way to do many worthy things for and on behalf of his fellow citizens.

Similarly, Napoleon Bonaparte (1765-1821) is a revered historic figure in France even though he was responsible for an enormous amount of death and destruction.

The French prefer to remember the glory of Napoleonic France and the many important scientific, architectural and cultural works initiated or supported by Napoleon, as well as the major administrative reforms he instituted which remain in place to this day.

Some of the BLM protestors in Britain have defaced a statue of Winston Churchill (1874-1965), demanding that it be pulled down.

Their apparent justification for this is Churchill’s unwavering support for the British Empire and his resistance to any attempts to, for example, grant independence to India or other imperial possessions.

In doing so, they are evidently choosing to ignore or downplay Churchill’s enormous contribution towards the survival of global democracy in the course of the two great wars of the 20th century.

Robert E Lee (1807-1870) was the Commanding General of the Confederate armies during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and is generally regarded as the most able military commander of that conflict.

Lee’s personal feelings about the institution of slavery were distinctly ambivalent and he certainly was no pro slavery ideologue, yet he led the fight to preserve what he himself described as an “evil institution”.

Consequently, he is reviled by some Americans and greatly revered by others and his statues have become a polarising source of contention in the former slave states in the southern USA.

In Australia, there are some people who believe that Captain James Cook (1728-1779) was a harbinger of doom of Aboriginal people and so ought not to be a celebrated figure in our history.

This is an especially unfair characterisation of a man who, in most respects, represented the very best aspects of 18th century thinking and was arguably the finest navigator and explorer of his era and, probably, any era.

What makes the criticism of Cook even more difficult to understand is that he was personally committed to cultivating good relations with the indigenous people he met on his travels and tried very hard to avoid conflict with those with whom he came into contact.

In this he was mostly successful although, ironically, he was killed in Hawai’i during a skirmish over a stolen boat.

In relation to Papua New Guinea, there are grounds for both criticism and praise for the early colonial administrators.

Sir Hubert Murray (1861-1940) was Lieutenant Governor of Papua from 1908 to 1940. He presided over a benign but undoubtedly authoritarian regime.

While deeply humane himself Murray accepted that his officers sometimes would be obliged to kill Papuans in the course of their efforts to pacify the territory and bring it under the rule of law.

One of Murray’s most famous officers, Jack Hides (1906-1938) led a 1935 patrol into the vast Papuan hinterland between the Purari and Strickland Rivers.

During the course of the patrol Hides came into conflict with the native population on a number of occasions, partly through misunderstandings and partly through desperation when the patrol stole food in order to survive.

At least 32 natives were killed and Hides was both criticised for his actions and praised for his fortitude and courage in desperate circumstances.

Each of the figures I have mentioned either sanctioned or committed acts that might be judged morally reprehensible or even criminal, especially if their actions are perceived and judged through the prism of our modern conceptions of what is fair, right and just.

The problem with this approach to history is that these people were not living in our time, or in our circumstances.

The values and ideas of their times were different to ours and so it is both unfair and unhelpful in understanding our history to judge them outside of their own historic and cultural contexts.

A great cultural and political problem today is that there is a rush to judgement about history that is based more upon both ignorance and sanctimony than a calm and methodical examination of the facts.

We live in era where moral outrage and irrational over reaction are the stock in trade for many in politics, religion and the media.

Both the left and right extremes of the political spectrum are especially prone to this and it invariably leads to drawing erroneous conclusions about history that support equally erroneous political ideas.

It is fair to say that human history is often very horrible to contemplate. It has been described as a story of almost incessant conflict punctuated by short periods of uneasy peace.

History reveals as much about humans that is stupid, disgusting, contemptible and risible as it does that which is wise, admirable, heroic and humane.

The current BLM protests are entirely understandable given the history of European imperialism and the continuing injustice and discrimination, both overt and subtle, experienced by people of colour.

However, dealing with this problem in an effective and enduring way is going to require a degree of political deftness, finesse and subtlety that is not much in evidence at the moment.

Vilifying historic figures based upon their sins, real or imagined, is largely unhelpful in this process.

This is not to say that it always is inappropriate to ban or remove certain symbols of the past. I would personally favour an outright ban upon the use of any Nazi symbology and most Confederate symbology, notably the Confederate Battle Flag.

Similarly, statues of historically divisive figures like Edward Colston could either be relocated to less prominent places or have signs attached to them drawing attention to those aspects of their lives that may be less than admirable.

Also, there is the potential to create modern symbology that better signifies the reality of our history.

The routine flying of the Aboriginal flag in Australia is a good example of this and an amendment of the constitution to recognise the Aboriginal people as the First People would be a further example of using powerful symbology to help change our view of history.

So far as I can recall, Papua New Guinea is not over endowed with many overt symbols of the colonial era. There are a few obscure and neglected monuments here and there, but these probably are mostly unknown to modern Papua New Guineans.

After all, why should they care much about figures like Christopher Stansfield Robinson or Ivan Champion or JK McCarthy or Rupert De Havilland?

One lesson of our horrible history is that a person’s fame and renown in one era rarely survives much past his or her death.

For this reason, it may be better to leave statues of people like Edward Colston or Cecil Rhodes or Robert E Lee or even Winston Churchill to quietly deteriorate largely unnoticed by the passing crowd, most of whom neither know nor care about their history.

This aspect of history is beautifully encapsulated in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem ‘Ozymandias’:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

In the end, like Ozymandias, our supposed mighty works, be they good or evil, rarely endure long, either in substance or in human memory.

That is a lesson from our horrible history that we would do well to remember before we seek to demolish or deface statues of historic figures in the mistaken belief that such symbols actually matter very much or that their removal might make any material contribution towards remedying historic or current evils.

Comments

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philip kai morre

the first white men who came to the highlands of papua new guinea was in 1933 (88 years) and few old people are still alive to tell their story. its a story of adventure and as well as blood shed and killings, early anthropologists both missionaries and colonial administration documented some events but other events are lost in antiquity. the second world war in 1942 to 1945 came in confusing the highlanders who were still isolated trying to comprehend the war. young men were forced into war as carriers and others as police men who have no formal training and combat experience. however, they were brave fighters . in the cause of this war things change. German missionaries were send to Australia until war ends. one thing that fascinate me was, before the white men came to the highlands in 1933 the first airplane was flown in the highlands for survey and exhibition reasons but fearing the people as they have never seen such a huge bird. the present kundiawa airport needed to name after the pilot who landed several times without the airstrip being build around 1932. it landed on the grassland and took off several times before the white men came. after few months missionaries arrived from the north from madang and Jim Taylor and leachy brothers from the east. fr. Alfonse Schaefer was already fluent in kuman language before he came to simbu. he learned the language from kawagle and his people in bundi before they bring them up. a lot of events and historical happenings are not recorded and our oral history is not telling us the real story.

harry topham

Chris Masters in his book titled” Not for publication” relates to the habit journalists adopt when chasing some errant culprit who refuses to be interviewed by showing pictures of the lair of the miscreant thus earning the matter subject as being titled “ Guilty Buildings.
Some similarities perhaps

Corney Korokan Alone

The absurdity of reverse racism ignores the slave catchers dogma that KKklananizes the police force in the United States of America with their 400 plus year of state sanctioned discriminatory lynching campaign.

It's only the smartphone camera and social mediascape that is amplifying this to a wider audience. Nothing unorthodox here really. Unless the prejudice empowered by legal authority and institutionalized control is broken, we will not be outraged by such shameful tragedies anymore.

Common sense would have it that, the current lives of full human beings (not three-fifths anymore) are respected and cared for without any discrimination so, that all man-made marble structures of dead figures long gone and properties are also respected.

Lindsay F Bond

Thank you Bernard, the link has more by Jonathan Cook saying "inclusive conversation about what we want our societies to be." Seemingly obvious step for each demographic corral of choral-ling voices, all participants expecting their individual input make for clear distinction at outcome of process, not leaving the delineation to be decided by a designated few or singular leader.
Yet mood of mob is not always in acceptance of value for 'each and every' as was of the era of fascism/narcism in Germany.
That there is a mood for change is clear. Outcome, is of hope, yet a bubble of huddle.

Bernard Corden

https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/06/15/symbols-are-invested-with-power-dont-dismiss-the-importance-of-toppling-a-statue/

Philip Fitzpatrick

One of the problems with removing statues like that of Colston is that we are removing a reminder of the bad things they did. It's a kind of burying of the historic head in sand. More better to amend the plaques.

Lindsay F Bond

Not exactly gentler times in the USA of the 1960s, as assassinations occurred. Yet hopes were buoyant with Kennedy, King and kind were leading aspirations.

So Chris’s “powerless beginning to demand a proportionate share” strikes as a sad summary, almost like still cutting in those 1800s coal mining pits as rippers, putters, trappers and tubs, an industry propped up by child labour.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_coal_mining_terminology

In those 1960s, Sidney Poitier captured imaginations (more than prizes), so at this years Oscars will it be that demographic recognition amounts to numbers of nominations and votes?

In PNG, reactions to apparent lack of “proportionate share” vary, for which contributing circumstances are prior ‘conditioning’ and ‘respect’.

At Ambasi on the north coast of Oro Province (as an example), the PNG government building on the headland would make for a grand home or commercial enterprise.

Yet in 2009, I saw it empty, neglected by government and unaffecting the people of Ambasi. There awaits a meaningful discussion, of respect more than rebellion.

Chris’s “critical turning point” awaits "to be seen”. It surely will be more than hue and cry. It will be about distribution, participation and expectation.

Chris Overland

Michael, I agree with you that the BLM protests are about power, but think that your analysis of the dynamics involved is only partially correct.

I believe that the BLM protests are, at their heart, the angry screams of black Americans who feel that they are not only at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole, but subject to capricious arrest and assault by the police

It is a case of the powerless beginning to demand a proportionate share of political power in the USA.

However, as usual, forces from both the left and right of the political spectrum are seeking to hijack the process for their own ends.

In this context, I think you are right to suggest that this includes a form of reverse racism on the part of the extreme left of the political spectrum.

The violence and looting we have witnessed is mainly due to the left and right extremists and, of course, those who are merely opportunistic criminals.

Whether this movement is just a footnote in history or a critical turning point remains to be seen.

Michael Dom

The people protesting under the bizarre banner of Black Lives Matter don't care about who George Floyd was or how he lived his life until it was brutally ended.

Floyd's death is a convenient tool towards achieving one simple objective: power.

BLM is a catch cry for reverse racism.

In the final equation:
Black Lives Matter = Black Deaths Matter

This movement will be a footnote in the tomes of history, researched on Twitter and lectured on Facebook, and providing the occasional YouTube seminar.

Jim Moore

My apologies, the recent film I referred to was in fact 'Just Mercy' not 'Cry Freedom', which was about the South African activist Steve Biko. Memory doesn't improve with age, I've found.

The man falsely convicted was Walter McMillan. He died in 2013 after having his conviction overturned and being released. The lawyer who saved him was Bryan Stevenson.

The events portrayed in 'Just Mercy' started in 1989, so we aren't talking about Civil War-era happenings, this is within the lifetime of many of today's activists.

Jim Moore

You are right, Paul, history needs to be interpreted through patterns that emerge over time and place.

Paul said, "In the recent BLM incident, the inconvenient facts about the victim's criminal past are being overlooked with the justifiable frustration over the circumstances that killed him."

If we look at George Floyd's past criminal history,
https://www.snopes.com/news/2020/06/12/george-floyd-criminal-record/
it consists in the main of reasonably minor (apart from one) incidents of drug use and behaviour that I think could be seen through the prism of "the war on drugs" that in the main, targeted poor, black and Hispanic Americans.

Why was that? Just possibly, because once one has a criminal record in parts of the USA, you can never vote again in elections.

Was there ever a concerted attempt by the white establishment to create and enforce such a regime? Of course we'll never be able to prove that, one way or the other. Future historians will debate it.

In any event, the last entry in his criminal record was dated 2007, so how could it have been relevant in the action taken against him?

Paul goes on to ask, was his killing the straw that broke the camel's back? Again, looking at the history of race relations and police behaviour over a long period of time, I can think of no better example than the recent film, "Cry Freedom", that portrayed the true experience of an innocent Southern black man, who was deliberately framed by a local white sheriff for a murder the man had nothing whatsoever to do with.

After around 20 years or so on death row, he was eventually exonerated, through the efforts of a black lawyer who made it his life work to assist men in that same situation. That lawyer saved a number of other black men from execution.

The sheriff who was happy to see a completely innocent man executed was subsequently re-elected five times as sheriff by the predominantly white people of his county, and was never held accountable for his actions, as far as I know.

While that might be just one example, taken over time there have been so many cases of law enforcement misbehaviour that historical patterns are clear enough for us to now understand why the backlash over George Floyd's killing has been so pronounced.

I agree we don't learn from history and change our patterns of behaviour because that is hard, and it goes against vested interests.

Just possibly, George Floyd's is a case where one incident is going to spark a movement that will force change, whether some people agree with it or not.

Philip Fitzpatrick

If I could work out what you are saying Lindsay I'd respond.

I know you speak English so maybe you could be more specific.

Lindsay F Bond

Stone the idea, Phil. Tools designed were found to be treasured by folk beyond Europe.

Only description of the distribution is contested, that is, regarding historical veracity.

Paul Oates

Contemplating history can be very confusing if you try to isolate a particular event and person and then draw some conclusions that might, with convenient 'cherry picking' present your own personal views and prejudices.

Touring the museum at Olympus in Greece some years ago, I wrote in the visitor's book, 'Thank you for looking after our history.'

The Greek tour guide arced up at that and said; "It's not your history, it's our history!"

'Well that depends on your perspective' I said. 'If your trace the history of the human race through the various civilizations and cultures to where we are currently at, you can see where it's all really just events in human history. For example, the Egyptians helped contribute with mathematics, the Assyrians with writing and the Greeks with philosophy and the Romans with military ideas and architecture. The Chinese and Indian cultures contributed such things as gunpowder and ceramics. Then the middle ages eventually progressed into modern ideas of government and administration until we now have the so called modern world.'

The young Greek tour guide then looked rather nonplussed. She initially didn't see it that way.

Whether the world would now be better off if the English, who are a conglomerate of various cultures ethnicities, due to previous invasions and settlements, had stayed in their own little island and not sought to explore and administer a quarter of the globe is now a mere conjecture. Much the same applies to any imperial nation.

In the recent BLM incident, the inconvenient facts about the victim's criminal past are being overlooked with the justifiable frustration over the circumstances that killed him. Is it just that his death just provided a final 'tipping point' whereby many other incidents of injustice have previously been and are being constantly swept under the carpet? Is it that many other malcontents are using this incident to further their own causes and frustrations? As Arthur points out, why is this one incident, lamentable as it was, any worse than countless other injustices that are constantly occurring in the world every day? Yet all these other, often far worse examples and far reaching actions seem to be conveniently ignored in an outpouring of rage and frustration.

What seems to be glaringly missing with all the anger being vented, is what can be learnt from history, our history, and what did and what would and could make our ever diminishing world a better place for everyone?

If this has happened many times before why hasn't anything been done about preventing it from happening again?

The answer is simply that humans are often just unwilling to learn from history unless forced to do so. It's just too easy and less stressful to march in the street and vent your feelings of frustration instead of working hard everyday, to try to make the world a better place. That takes long term commitment and personally putting yourself out everyday, to actually achieve something positive and constructive and help make long term changes and a better life for everyone.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I wonder whether the world would be a better place if the English had remained in England. Or the Spanish in Spain, the Dutch in Holland and so on.

I also wonder where the statue of Donald Trump will be erected.

Raymond Sigimet

European imperialism and its history for God, gold and glory is the underlying issue. The narrative of its rise and fall and its profound influence on people, geography, politics and the present order of things is being rejected. History has to be rewritten for truth and reconciliation to prevail in the world.

William Dunlop

Ah, Bernard, we have I am led to believe the efforts of a committee to thank for the ill-fated British Comet aircraft.

Bernard Corden

"I've searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees" - Gilbert K Chesterton

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