Tearing down statues is the latest salvo in the anti-historical mission

The statue of 19th century Tasmanian premier, William Crowther, erected in 1889, is the latest Australian memorial to be targeted by activists determined to use history as part of their arsenal in the war against the nation’s history.

Crowther was a popular and skilled Hobart surgeon who was, nonetheless, suspended from his medical duties in 1869 over allegations that he removed the skull from the corpse of deceased Indigenous man, William Lanne.

Although the suspension remained in place, no criminal charges were brought and the allegation against Crowther was never proved in a court of law. Indeed, the Circular Head Aboriginal Corporation recently dismissed the allegations against Crowther as “fanciful” and accused Hobart City Council ignoring historical facts.

Yet this single accusation against Crowther — albeit of a most distasteful action — was enough to warrant the council’s decision to make what it calls “a decision of principle” to erase him from Tasmania’s history and remove his statue from its prominent city-centre plinth in Franklin Park.

It’s the latest salvo in the ongoing history war that has seen accusations of colonialism, racism, and invasion framed as crimes associated in perpetuity with all non-Indigenous Australian ‘settlers’ – especially those white, Caucasian males from Great Britain responsible for the settlement of the continent in the 18th and 19thcenturies.

Identifying the villains of history is part of a growing movement of ‘decolonialisation’ sweeping Australia which aims to rid the country of all statues or memorials associated with deeds or words now deemed to dishonour Australian identity.

Statue-toppling protesters have decreed that Australian history has to be corrected — an exercise they like to describe as ‘truth telling’ — and the stigma of colonialism eradicated. Hobart City Council has now fallen into line and joined the decolonising project.

However, the Crowther statue will not be destroyed. As part of its commitment to historical truth, the council says it will spend taxpayers money to relocate it, replacing it with what are described as “interpretative elements”, for which Hobart residents will also foot the bill.

Not all councillors were in favour. One opponent, Simon Behrakis, likened removal of Crowther’s statue to “book burning”, arguing that if the discipline of history is to be faithful to its purpose of discovering empirical truth about the past, it needs to be preserved — “warts and all”.

But decolonialisation activists reject the notion of empirical truth and instead see history as a weapon with which to achieve certain political objectives. For the decolonisers, knowledge is always culturally conditioned by power, and truth is a subjective, ‘felt’ experience.

However, when it comes to handing out moral judgments, decolonising activists do find the idea of objective standards of truth useful, after all. In fact, they assert that their 21st century assessment of moral truth is absolute, eternal, and binding on all past ages. They refuse to accept that the customs of the age influence how people acted in the past.

No wonder the decolonising activists are quite content to use their own moral standards to judge the alleged actions of a 19th century Tasmanian surgeon who was clearly influenced by the scientific philosophy and practices of the late Victorian era.

Of course, if Crowther did remove secretly Lanne’s skull and replace it with another, it was a reprehensible act in breach of medical ethics – one which clearly prompted outrage in some quarters at the time. And if the accusations against him were substantiated, the deed would surely count as a negative mark against Crowther’s name.

But in that case, anti-history activists need to be clear about just what sort of immoral actions by an individual do warrant erasure from history. Adultery? Alcoholism? Bullying? Corruption? Tasmanian historian Cassandra Pybus has noted that Sir John Franklin, a former governor, also commemorated by a statue in the park that bears his name, did far worse things than Crowther is alleged to have done.

Proceed with unsubstantiated accusations that historical figures engaged in immoral acts and you’ll guarantee lots of empty plinths around the country. And apparently the alleged offence is all the more heinous if perpetrated by a white, Caucasian male.

No one living today is likely to condone what William Crowther is alleged to have done. Nor is it conceivable that a medical doctor working in 21st century Australia would ever do anything similar today. But history needs to record that Crowther — whatever he did — was a man of his time and age.

Condemning him for a specific offence alleged to have been committed 160 years ago not only overlooks the civic contribution he made to the state of Tasmania — the reason the statue was erected in the first place; it also perpetuates a sense of grievance about Australia’s past that threatens to unpick the fabric of our nation.

Peter Kurti is Director of the Culture, Prosperity & Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia