Australia’s monumental errors

Like the US, Australia has a serious problem with monuments white-washing history.

Australia Statue - Aboriginal protest - Getty
The slogan 'Change the Date' was sprayed over the inscription 'Discovered this Territory 1770' on a statue of British explorer Captain James Cook located in Hyde Park in Sydney [Getty]

In Australia, there’s a growing discontent of statues that don’t accurately memorialise the past. From measured appeals to change the plaques, to bold proposals to remove the more problematic statues from the public domain, calls for action are building momentum. Unfortunately, these timely suggestions are being rejected by a dwindling clutch unwilling to fully accept Australia’s history.

There are justifiable reasons to remove or alter some monuments. Statues of people long dead, people whose celebrated deeds fall short of modern ideals of justice, freedom and equity for all. At the very least, the plaques on these problematic statues need to be rewritten to provide a more accurate account of history. There’s also a case for putting up more monuments that remind us of moments in history that have shaped the present.

The ‘Stolen Generations’ of Australia

From the mid-1800s to 1970s, tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (First Peoples) children were taken from their families. These children are now collectively known as “the Stolen Generations”.

During this time period, all Australian states and territories implemented policies to remove Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their homes without parental consent. Children were moved far from their communities, forbidden to speak their mother tongues or engage in cultural practices. After they received minimum education, many of these children served as unpaid labourers and domestic workers until they reached adulthood.

Combined with broad scale removal of First Peoples from ancestral lands, on to reserves and missions, this was an orchestrated attempt to force First Peoples to assimilate with the colonisers. Instead, these policies of cultural genocide have left a legacy of inter-generational trauma, health disparities, and inequity.  

OPINION: Australia’s ‘history wars’ heat up again

To remember Australia’s “Stolen Generations”, we need to build more monuments like Colebrook Reconciliation Park in Adelaide, South Australia. This memorial garden, on Kaurna land, is where Colebrook Home once stood. Established in 1944, hundreds of Aboriginal children were institutionalised in this Christian-run home. The site now features statues, plaques and landscaping that invite people to learn of and reflect on this shameful scar in Australian history.

Call a massacre what it is

If Australia wants physical reminders of past deeds, let’s put up more monuments that acknowledge First Peoples’ lives sacrificed in combat. Men and women who fought on foreign soils, in the service of a nation they were not citizens of (Australia did not grant citizenship to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people until 1967).

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander War Memorial in Adelaide, on Kaurna lands, was unveiled in 2013. This memorial is the result of many years of lobbying for a visual acknowledgement of First Peoples who served in Australia’s armed forces, from the Boer War onwards. Despite their contributions to Australia, First Peoples still have to fight long battles to erect monuments like this one on their own lands.

In collaboration with First Peoples historians and writers, the government should put up factual plaques on statues and memorials to help educate Australians about shared histories.


Let’s also put up monuments that acknowledge lives lost in conflicts on Australian soil. And don’t pander to those calling for a whitewashed version of history. Truth should not be obstructed, like what is currently happening at Elliston in South Australia on Wirangu land.

Elliston, nestled in Waterloo Bay, is the site of the most horrific massacre in South Australia. In 1849, more than 200 men, women and children were driven off the high sea cliffs of Waterloo Bay, to their death. After lobbying the government for four decades, Wirangu, and other descendants of those murdered, finally have a monument at Waterloo Bay.

Shamefully, the monument’s plaque remains blank to this day, because non-Indigenous people have objected to its proposed wording. They are calling for the word “massacre” to be replaced with “incident”. Some are even arguing that First Peoples’ oral histories are not to be relied on – they suggest only a handful of people were killed, in an unfortunate accident.  

This persistent refusal to acknowledge settlers’ brutal treatment of First Peoples needs to stop. Put up that truth-telling plaque at Waterloo Bay. Put up plaques at all the massacre sites, and other places where First Peoples’ blood, sweat and tears were spilled during the forging of a colonial empire.

Also, let’s get serious about protecting historical monuments. Starting with some of the oldest monuments, such as the standing stones of Burrup and Dampier Archipelago (Murujuga), in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Spread over many kilometres, these historical monuments are on the lands of Yaburara, who were massacred by settlers in 1868. Yaburara Mardudhunera, Ngarluma, Yindjibarndi, and Wong-Goo-Ti-Oo have custodial duties of the broad area.

READ MORE: Australia Day, a day of mourning for Aboriginals

Older than Stonehenge, the Murujuga monuments are some of the most archaeologically and culturally significant works of art in the world. And they are at risk. Approximately 10,000 petroglyphs have already been damaged by mining companies and vandals or stolen. Australians need to acknowledge this problem and work together to protect cultural treasures like these.

Correcting white-washed history

In collaboration with First Peoples historians and writers, the government should put up factual plaques on statues and memorials to help educate Australians about shared histories.

A new plaque on an old statue will not resolve concerns that some historical figures do not deserve a place of honour. But, given the chance, there would be many First Peoples’ artists who’d welcome the challenge to artistically change, or overshadow, these monuments so they tell a more honest story.

That said, we cannot make these revered scoundrels or their past deeds vanish. The colonisers that participated in blackbirding, ordered massacres, stole children and defiled First Peoples’ lands cannot be made invisible. Their names are on roads, universities, businesses, rivers, mountain ranges, and firmly entrenched in museums and libraries. Invaders, colonisers and explorers cannot be erased, nor should they be. They are now part of our shared stories.

But over 64,000 years of pre-invasion stories are also embedded in the sea, land and skies, and in songlines that crisscross this continent. With a strong culture of history-keeping, and an increasing number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics and authors, our histories are now published in books, peer-reviewed articles, and online, adding to Australia’s collective knowledge.

It’s time for honest discussions of history, that will lead to changes that are long overdue. It’s time for truth-telling, to help all Australians walk together.

Karen Wyld is an author, consultant and freelance writer from South Australia. Of Aboriginal descent (Martu), she has a background in community development, strategy and policy, community housing, social/health research, and Aboriginal community-controlled health.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.