Sydney Morning Herald Column

Captain Cook and the New Iconoclasm

Published June 25, 2020
Captain Cook in the pink, in St. Kilda

At the end of the Cold War, Moscow created an impromptu memorial to the Soviet Union in a park alongside the Tretyakov Gallery. It was the dump of choice for statues of Bolshevik heroes torn from their pedestals by mobs celebrating the demise of the communist system. Looking around one could see the battered and broken likenesses of Dzerzhinsky, Kalinin, Sverdlov, even Lenin and Stalin. Today Muzeon Park is a tourist attraction in which the statues of the old communists have been restored and placed alongside figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Maxim Gorky.

One day there may be a park in Australia filled with statues of fallen heroes of the British Empire, where Captain Cook, Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria are condemned retrospectively as racists and imperialists. After the past few weeks of Black Lives Matter protests it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Captain Cook by Thomas Woolner, in Hyde Park, Sydney

Just before Australia Day this year a statue of Captain Cook in St. Kilda was drenched in pink paint. At the same time, the base of Thomas Woolner’s 1878 statue of Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park was sprayed with the slogan, “No pride in genocide”.

With the upsurge of recent protests Woolner’s statue has been graffitied once again, as has the Cook monument in Randwick, which has stood since 1874. Until they became targets for political graffiti it would be fair to say these statues were hardly noticed any more. It’s amazing to learn that when Woolner’s sculpture was unveiled on 25 February, 1879, there were more than 60,000 people in attendance. As part of the celebration the day was declared a public holiday in New South Wales!

This was one of the high points of Cook’s posthumous fame – the beginning of a local love affair that would rage for most of the 20th century, the other peak coming in 1970, when we commemorated the bicentenary of Cook’s landing in Australia.

The crowds that cheered in 1879 were proud British subjects who sang rousing choruses of Rule Britannia, but the singers were already a breed apart. The native-born saw themselves as a hardy, resourceful people who had achieved prosperity through their own best efforts. They embraced Cook not simply as the ‘discoverer’ of the continent, but as a humble farm boy from Yorkshire who had defied the British class system and attained greatness.

By 1970 the image of Cook as a proto-Australian working-class hero was even more firmly established. One need only watch Michael Powell’s film of the best-selling novel, They’re a Weird Mob (1966), to see how Australians pictured themselves. The lead character, Nino, is a journalist when he arrives from Italy but will find his bliss as a builder’s labourer.

A big night for Captain Cook & friends, Hyde Park, Sydney

In today’s Australia there fewer builder’s labourers (or journalists) who can afford a house in the suburbs and a comfortable lifestyle. A large percentage of Australians are now multicultural ‘aspirationals’ who work excessive hours to pay the mortgage on a tiny flat.

In the 1967 referendum we finally allowed Aboriginal people to be counted as citizens but otherwise there was little consciousness of indigenous issues. Today, after numerous land rights cases and an official apology to the stolen generations there is far greater public awareness of the injustices suffered by the first Australians. In 1970 it was possible to celebrate the bicentenary of Cook’s arrival with a year of outlandish celebrations but in 2020 festivities have been muted and qualified, as our understanding of national identity has become more complicated.

There are two issues at play in the vandalism inflicted on statues of Captain Cook on this 250th anniversary. Firstly we need to ask if the tradition of erecting statues to figures of historical importance has run its course. Secondly, is it fair that Cook has become the focus of so much anger?

Captain Cook in Randwick

Wallace Stevens, a poet who reflected deeply on the way we relate to works of art, saw a fundamental conflict between monumental statuary and modernity. For Stevens the key concept was “nobility”. He refers to Verocchio’s equestrian statue of Bartolommeo Colleoni (1480-88) in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice as a work that conveys an inviolable sense of strength, power and nobility. His invidious point of comparison is Clark Mills’s 1852 statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback, in Lafayette Square, Washington D.C. – a statue protesters tried to tear down last week because of Jackson’s treatment of native Americans.

Although Jackson may have been a greater, more influential figure than the mercenary Colleoni, Mills has portrayed the general on a rearing horse, raising his hat in a jaunty fashion. It’s a frivolous work that shows how much had changed in the relationship between monumental sculpture and its public in the four centuries that separate the two artists. (If you need any convincing, Donald Trump recently declared it “magnificent”). Stevens ironically quotes Bertrand Russell’s remark that “to acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to citizens of a democracy”.

The statue of Colleoni is forceful in its visual rhetoric, leaving us in no doubt as to the man’s heroic, superhuman stature. It helps that the soldier’s life and deeds have receded far enough into the past to be largely forgotten. All that remains is the impression created by the sculpture.

The statue of Jackson, by contrast, suffers from the conflicting motivations of an artist who has attempted to reconcile the classical motif of the noble rider with the democratic ethos of the United States. As a consequence, Jackson cannot remain aloof from the people he represents. He doffs his hat in a friendly fashion like a celebrity greeting his fans.

Verocchio’s statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, Venice

Stevens argues: “It is hard to think of a thing more out of time than nobility. Looked at plainly it seems false and dead and ugly. To look at it at all makes us realise sharply that in our present, in the presence of our reality, the past looks false…”

This was written in 1942. Today, to those looking back on a history of slavery and colonialism the past looks like a terrible fraud arranged by the European powers.

In the Victorian era Thomas Carlyle had a very different view of history. His ‘Great Man’ theory argued for the importance of those rare individuals that helped shape our society. One of the corollaries of this idea was an epidemic of statues in public places. No park or square was complete without the frozen likeness of some hero of the past or present.

Nowadays the public attitude towards politicians and monarchs is too cynical to encourage their immortalisation in bronze or stone. This style of commemoration has come to seem antiquated and stodgy. Neither do contemporary figurative sculptors have the skills to rival their predecessors. It’s only too obvious that most of the statues erected in public places today are mediocre works of art.

It’s partly that art itself has moved in so many different directions, first towards abstraction, and now large-scale digital technology. There’s no longer anything great about a great man standing on a pedestal in a park, unless you’re a weary pigeon.

With growing awareness of the crimes of colonialism, public cynicism has become retrospective, suspecting that anyone in a periwig must be a racist. This is not just the view of a Politically Correct few but is increasingly supported by the educated middle-classes. Children at school are learning that the land Captain Cook “discovered” was already in the possession of people who had lived here for tens of thousands of years.

Protesters attempt to tear Clark Mills’s Andrew Jackson from his pedestal

In this world it’s not surprising Cook has become a symbol of colonial sins, an agent of white supremacy and native dispossession. But symbols are not always reliable. One suspects that many of the protesters willing to tear down Cook’s statues have not the slightest knowledge of his achievements. Surely, if Cook is to be viewed as the nemesis of indigenous people, his antagonists should take Sun Tzu’s advice and get to know their enemy.

One of the worst offenses against history is to judge it exclusively in terms of our own preoccupations. Our present-day attitudes towards the environment or wildlife would not have made sense to ancient societies. Even the most ‘enlightened’ Europeans of the 18th century felt they were doing native peoples a good turn in helping them to ‘progress’ out of a state of savagery.

A figure such as Cook can only be judged by the moral standards of his own age. Anyone who reads his biography will find him to be a man of the Enlightenment who made strenuous efforts to treat native peoples fairly. This attitude persisted until the third and last voyage, when he had become an exhausted, intolerant figure. On his first voyage in 1770 we know Cook gave the order to fire at the Eora warriors who stood defying his landing party, but he did not ask his men to shoot to kill. It could be argued that he tried to communicate peacefully with the inhabitants of Botany Bay, only to be rebuffed. As such he can’t be compared to some of the murderous colonialists that followed, such as John Batman.

Indeed Cook understood the attitude of native peoples with startling clarity. “In what other light can they first look upon us but as invaders of their Country;” he wrote in his journal. He was, however, overly optimistic in assuming “time and some acquaintance with us can only convince them of their mistake.”

Beyond the encounter at Botany Bay we need to recognise that Cook was one of the greatest navigators of all time. His voyages helped speed the progress of science, and the maps made from his fastidious surveys won the highest praise. A man of vision, self-discipline and integrity, Cook was a inspirational personality that could rightly be called “noble”, even if we no longer value that quality.

Let’s remove the offensive plaques that say Cook discovered Australia, but leave him unmolested on his pedestal. Although there are still sporadic outbreaks of the desire to honour a great man (and it’s almost always a man) with a public effigy, the tradition has itself become a relic. Neither should we succumb to the temptations of political kitsch: erecting counter-statues of Bennelong or Pemulwuy to balance out the equation. The battle for history, and for a better understanding of race relations in Australia, is being fought in the schools and universities, in the media and the museums. No member of the younger generation is going to be inspired by a statue in the park. We need to tell better stories about the past to instill confidence in the future.


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 June, 2020