Adelaide’s Colonel Light statue before it was defaced. Picture: Tait Schmaal
Adelaide’s Colonel Light statue before it was defaced. Picture: Tait Schmaal

Statue vandals desperately need a history lesson

Rage manifests itself in different ways.

It can become the catalyst for powerful and persuasive nonviolent campaigning, as evidenced by the likes of Dr Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi.

It can also spur action that seems mindless and senseless, which rather than shifting public opinion, has the reverse effect of galvanising people in favour of the status quo or making them indifferent to injustice.

The attacks we have seen in the past 48 hours on statues here in Adelaide are a compelling example of this second manifestation of rage.

There was collective outrage a month ago at the terrible images of George Floyd's final moments on the streets of Minneapolis and the culture of entrenched racism and casual brutality that caused his demise. But the manner in which these protests have spun into an indiscriminate, scatter gun attack on every vestige of Western culture risks setting back a movement that would otherwise win more mainstream support.

Here's a couple of facts about the two historic markers that were defaced in Adelaide in the past 48 hours.

The first involved a British-Malaysian town planner whose swarthy hues, inherited from his mother who had Thai/Malay ancestry, suggested that the man who designed the City of Adelaide could be hailed as one of the first success stories of multiculturalism.

Instead, Colonel William Light has found himself tagged up by graffiti artists as a racist, with "no pride in genocide" and "death to Australia" scrawled in red ink on the plinth of the statue on Montefiore Hill.

Vandals defaced the Colonel William Light statue. Picture: Mike Burton
Vandals defaced the Colonel William Light statue. Picture: Mike Burton

It is an extraordinarily misplaced sledge for a person who didn't wield a blunderbuss but a pen as he sat at his draughtsman's table envisaging a democratically designed city with wide streets, ringed by parklands, in which everyone could share.

The second statue that's been targeted is the North Tce memorial to the Boer War, featuring a horseman from the 1899-1902 conflict. That conflict was the first in Australian history where indigenous men served alongside other officers. Just down the road from the Boer War statue stands a magnificent memorial at the Torrens Parade Ground recognising the broader history of indigenous service across all of Australia's wars.

The monument was dedicated by then governor-general Quentin Bryce in 2013, and gives a moving account of the manner in which indigenous Australians yearned to serve our nation, even though racist policies prevented them from enlisting, or during World War I, predicated their service on whether they had at least one white parent.

History is filled with tragedy. History is contestable. There is no harm in arguing about history. Indeed, this country is often far too defensive when a gutsy person such as Adam Goodes comes along and asks us to think about things from the perspective of indigenous Australians, and why they might have a few issues with some of the mindless triumphalism that accompanies an event such as Australia Day.

Adam Goodes has pushed Australians to think from the perspective of indigenous people. Picture: The Australian Dream / Madman Films
Adam Goodes has pushed Australians to think from the perspective of indigenous people. Picture: The Australian Dream / Madman Films

But you don't address the worst excesses or injustices of history, or do anything to address modern day deprivation, by running around with a texta or a length of rope and defacing or tearing down statues.

We are not talking here about statues that wrongly commemorate people who made millions out of trading in slaves, started the Ku Klux Klan, or led confederate troops into battle in defence of slavery.

You can understand some of the arguments in the US and UK about the more reprehensible figures venerated in marble.

But in the Adelaide context, the idea of raging against a town planner, or a war fought overseas which was the first to feature Aboriginal soldiers, shows the people who are targeting these monuments know less about history than simply causing trouble.

And as Captain Cook's biographer Peter FitzSimons has written - FitzSimons being a leftie who is wholly sympathetic to the indigenous cause - Cook himself was not some Hernán Cortes-type figure, the lead Spanish conquistador who went to war with the Aztecs in Mexico. By the standards of his day Cook was an enlightened figure who wanted to learn from indigenous people and actively opposed slavery.

I had the pleasure last year of visiting the Tillett Memorials workshop in Brompton, run by the four-generation family of stonemasons who built all of the memorials along North Tce, as well as most throughout SA and many interstate. Suzanne Tillett, whose husband Chris is managing director of Tillett Natural Stone Industries and Tillett Memorials, told me how distressed the family had been at the vandalism that occurred last year at the Kintore Ave war memorial, where a bunch of homeless people had set up camp and defiled the memorial with rubbish.

Workers erect a protective barrier around the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in London’s parliament Square in anticipation of statue-topplers. Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images
Workers erect a protective barrier around the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in London’s parliament Square in anticipation of statue-topplers. Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images

She said the family was particularly galled by the incident because Chris's late father Steve, who built the Kintore Ave memorial, was very badly injured while serving in World War II, spending a full year recovering in hospital in Darwin.

"The war effort and the sacrifices made in serving one's country is not lost on us as a family and in the work that we so very proudly undertake," Ms Tillett told me at the time.

The Tilletts hold a special place in this state's history, and have done a remarkable job documenting our history, be it for good or for ill.

They supplied and crafted stone for the main war memorials in Darwin and Katherine, the National Police and Vietnam War memorials in Canberra, the Kokoda Trail, the London war memorial, and even some of the stone for the Sydney Opera House, the National Gallery in Canberra and Hobart's MONA.

Tellingly, they have also crafted memorials to our indigenous heritage, including the aforementioned Aboriginal War Memorial, with the artist Tony Rosella. They also made the Aboriginal Massacre memorial on SA's West Coast at Waterloo Bay, near Elliston, where some 260 indigenous people are alleged to have been marched to their deaths off a cliff by white settlers in 1849.

The idea that indigenous heritage is not acknowledged in this country is a fallacy.

The idea that you would vandalise statues that have no bearing whatsoever to the mistreatment of indigenous people will only alienate people from your cause.

David Penberthy is a columnist for the Adelaide Advertiser.

@penbo

Originally published as Statue vandals desperately need a history lesson


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