SYDNEY – Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Friday that calls to replace or modify statues of English colonialists, including explorer Captain James Cook, were tantamount to a “Stalinist” rewrite of history.
Pressure has grown in the wake of the furor over Confederate monuments in the United States to reconsider statues in Australia that some deem offensive to the country’s indigenous people.
Sydney, Australia’s largest city, is deciding whether to alter a monument erected in Hyde Park, 1879, to commemorate Cook, who charted Australia’s east coast for the first time.
At issue is the engraving on the base of the statue, which says “Discovered this territory, 1770.” Aboriginal people had lived on the continent for an estimated 60,000 years before Cook dropped anchor in Botany Bay.
Sydney City Council has referred the issue, along with a second statue of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the administrator who turned the British penal colony into a free settlement, to an indigenous advisory board.
The council has not yet indicated what changes it might make.
Turnbull played down the issue as a preoccupation of the “left sort of fringe” in politics.
“We can’t get into this sort of Stalinist exercise of trying to white out or obliterate or blank out parts of our history,” Turnbull told radio station 3AW.
“Trying to edit our history is wrong,” he said. “All of those statues, all of those monuments, are part of our history and we should respect them and preserve them — and by all means, put up other monuments, other statues and signs and sights that explain our history.”
The debate has intensified since the political battle in the United States over whether to remove statues of pro-slavery Confederate leaders turned violent.
Sydney commemorates its Gadigal and Eora traditional owners with public artworks and Welcome To Country ceremonies before official meetings, but Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the community needs to talk about how to tell its history.
“I think that’s a conversation that really needs to have federal leadership, because it’s about Australia, it’s about who we are,” she told reporters on Friday.
Indigenous people are campaigning for constitutional recognition in Australia and debate has raged over whether to change Australia Day from Jan. 26, which commemorates the day British colonists first settled Aboriginal land.