Captain James Cook has fallen. Not on the shore of Hawaii’s Kealakekua Bay on Valentine’s Day 1779, but in the Melbourne bohemian bayside suburb of St Kilda. His statue was sawn off at the ankles in the dead of night with an angle grinder; his plinth daubed in a blood-red, anti-colonial slogan.
The culprits haven’t been caught yet. Their act of vandalism happened on the eve of Australia Day, celebrated on 26 January as the anniversary of the day in 1788 when a British penal settlement was established by a motley crew of seamen, marines and convicts, which ultimately became the great city of Sydney and the birthplace of modern Australia.
If polls are right, 26 January is still the day the majority of Australians prefer for celebrating Australia Day. But there is a growing vocal, noisy and militant minority demanding Australia change the date. They argue that the arrival of the British almost 250 years ago marked the start of dispossession – and worse – for the indigenous peoples who had occupied the continent for tens of thousands of years. They like to frame 26 January as ‘invasion day’.
Worse, those people – who include a cross-section of Australia’s activist and political Left – use every publicity and media platform available to them (in the case of Cook’s statue, literally de-platforming him) to strong arm the majority to bear the shame of what they define as Australia’s original sin. Former prime minister John Howard called such unrelentingly dark views of Australia’s national story ‘black armband’ history. He argued this grossly distorts the truth that, while Australia’s colonial past was far from unblemished in its treatment of the country’s prior inhabitants, the overall story is a positive one of national success against the odds.