Echoes of a shameful past

In the wake of Fremantle Cr Sam Wainwright calling for statues of key figures in WA’s colonial past who committed atrocities against Aboriginals to be pulled down, we received a collaborative THINKING ALLOWED from DARREN HOLDEN, a PhD candidate at Notre Dame.

CONFEDERATE statues are being torn down in the United States, Sydney’s statue of James Cook is producing controversy: monuments to the worst excesses of the colonial project are being questioned.

And Fremantle has already been rethinking the meanings of the traces of the past. Indeed, the cities of Yarra and Darebin in Victoria are following Fremantle’s lead in recasting the most divisive monument of all: the monument to nationhood—Australia Day.  Recently, two Notre Dame post-graduate students and an academic analysed the monuments of Fremantle and ‘One Day’ in 2017. They presented their work during the Fremantle Heritage Festival:  this is a condensed summary.

Australia Day, in the national psyche, is a monument. To many it is a monument that marks a moment on the path to nationhood and national identity. To others it marks the invasion and suppression of their ancient culture.

Governor Macquarie laid the foundations of Australia Day by declaring a holiday in 1818, thirty years after the establishment of the colony of New South Wales and eleven years before the establishment of our own. Macquarie’s statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park and tomb in Scotland include inscriptions that describe him as a “guardian angel” and as the “Father of Australia”. Yet Macquarie himself diarised an alternate image as he relentlessly crafted his plan to eradicate the first peoples “by clearing the country of them entirely” and “hanging up on trees the bodies of such Natives as may be killed…in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors”. The grief felt by modern indigenous Australians comprehends not only culture shock and loss of lands, but also the remembrance of a systematic and brutal genocide. If Macquarie is the Father of Australia, he is also the Father of Australia Day, a great administrator, yet also a monument to colonial brutality.


In Fremantle we have our own monuments to the worst excesses of the colonial project.

Our oldest building sits atop Arthur’s Head and, like European castles, reminded those around it that authority sits high above them. The Round House is a literal example of Bentham’s panopticon, productive of unrelenting misery, a place of penal servitude, long used as holding cells for Indigenous men, held in neck-chains before they were shipped across Gage Roads to the prison on Wadjemup/Rottnest Island.

Just southeast of the Round House stands the Explorer’s Monument. This bust of Maitland Brown traditionally celebrated his punitive search party and its retributive massacre of Indigenous people at La Grange Bay in 1865. Approximately 250 metres to the northeast of the Round House, forming an apex of the triangle with the Explorer’s Monument, stands the statue of C. Y. O’Connor. The engineer wears the tailored coat of a gentleman, and the dusty, broken-in leather boots of a pioneer. Contrary to the statue’s investiture notice he does not look proudly over the port that he built.  Rather, O’Connor gazes thoughtfully eastwards towards the vast interior of Western Australia. He is imagining the water-filled belly of his steel snake, the Mundaring-Kalgoorlie pipeline, carrying the sustenance of life and industry into the interior. He is not claiming the land, as Maitland Brown’s pioneers did, he is taming it, just as he did in excavating Fremantle Harbour— O’Connor blasted a reef that had previously allowed Nyoongar to cross the river.  Out of protest the Nyoongar sang to make him crazy and, just before the completion of his pipeline to Kalgoorlie, O’Connor died by suicide at South Beach.

For some, Indigenous and Wadjela alike, the flag waving and partying associated with ‘Australia Day’ is no less than an offensive re-vocalisation of loss and pain and is as much a symbol of masculine colonial power as the Round House, Maitland Brown’s monument or the numerous memorials of Macquarie.  This is not the stuff of history— a new Macquarie monument was unveiled in Sydney as recently 2013, and the use of Australia Day as the occasion for a nationwide Bicentennial party in 1988 (and then from 1994), despite more than 50 years of active opposition.

As the City of Fremantle has demonstrated, in 2017 as in 1994, our historic monuments need not necessarily be torn down, but can be recast to recognise both the solemnity of the loss and the commemoration of our history, all of our history.

3 responses to “Echoes of a shameful past

  1. What a pile of crap, just more anti Australia rethoric
    History is history
    What we see now is just the greens stirring hate and division in our country like normal it is their agenda
    Now we will see more of what Fremantle has become famous for vandalism and Grafitti

  2. Wow what an interesting and sad history. Shocking to hear it called a pile of crap. So much ignorance and lack of depth. I wonder how things would be if we had actually respected the locals, and worked together.
    I feel very proud when wrongs are righted as a white 6th generation Aussie.

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