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.