Breaking the spell of Cook

In his 1931 poem, Five Visions of Captain Cook, Australian poet Kenneth Slessor suggested that eighteenth century mariners were ‘more like warlocks than a humble man’. ‘Those captains drove their ships by their own blood,’ he wrote, ‘till yards were sprung and masts went overboard – Daemons in periwigs, doling magic out, Who read fair alphabets in stars’.

Slessor’s ‘visions’ of Cook – through the eyes of his crew – show us a man whose navigational skill was so magical it changed the world.


Cook sailed at night,

Let there be reefs a fathom from the keel

And empty charts. The sailors didn’t ask,

Nor Joseph Banks. Who cared? It was the spell

Of Cook that lulled them, bade them turn below,

Kick off their sea-boots, puff themselves to sleep,

Though there were more shoals outside

Than teeth in a shark’s head.


Slessor’s ‘spell’ referred to the contemporary admiration for Cook’s stunning navigational achievements, which revealed the rich cultures and places of the southern hemisphere to Europe. Writing during the interwar period, at a time when Australian ties with the British empire were at their height, Slessor’s Cook also helped consolidate the myth of Cook as ‘discoverer’ and founder of the later nations of Australia and New Zealand. This was a different kind of ‘spell’ that remains powerful in some quarters, emphasising some aspects of history but staying blind to others.


Here we are at the 250th commemoration of Cook’s ‘discovery’ of Australia and NZ, and we need to ask – why is the narrative of Cook so powerful?


One reason why Cook’s voyages are celebrated in Australia is because he provides a narrative that mirrors today’s cultural politics. He presents a British genealogy that entails ‘discovery’, conquest and settlement, therefore providing an Anglo heritage for the modern nation. From an Australian perspective Cook offers local commemorations for the east coast, allowing the nation to disregard the earlier voyages that inconveniently touched on the west coast [link to WA Museum website Dirk Hartog in 1616].


Lieutenant James Cook made three famous voyages to the South Pacific for the British Navy.


On his first voyage between 1768 to 1771, Cook reached New Zealand, following 127 years after the first European visit from Abel Tasman. Cook and his crew spent the following six months charting the New Zealand coast, before resuming their voyage westward across open sea. In April 1770 they became the first Europeans to reach the east coast of Australia, making landfall at Point Hicks, and then proceeding to Botany Bay.


Since the 1970s challenges to the ‘spell of Cook’ have come from Aboriginal Australians and Mãori, pointing out the Indigenous side of these exchanges, and their continuing legacies in the present.


However even during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were alternative visions of the pacific and its relationship to Europe. The lineal narrative of British conquest overshadows alternative conceptions of human equality and diversity – such as French voyager Labillardière’s prediction in 1800 of an antipodean ‘great future empire’led by NZ and Australia.


In 1800 Labillardière asked whether the period may arrive, ‘when New Zealand may produce her Lockes, her Newtons, and her Montesquieus; and when great nations in the immediate region of New Holland, may send their navigators, philosophers, and antiquaries, to contemplate the ruins of ancient London and Paris, and to trace the languid remains of the arts and sciences in this quarter of the globe. Who can tell, whether the rudiments of some great future empire may not already exist at Botany Bay?’


Rather than a lineal narrative of British heritage – both in the sense of a direct and one-way line from Britain to Australia, but also in the sense of a familial and exclusive bond –

Labillardière’s alternative vision of an antipodean ‘great future empire’ was grounded in a vision of human equality and unity that imagined the future progress of humankind as a whole. In these alternatives to Captain Cook-style genealogies of British conquest we see more inclusive, Indigenous-oriented, possibilities.


A key difference between the Australian and NZ encounters with Cook is the figure of Tupaia- priest, navigator, artist, translator and intermediary. Historian and anthropologist Anne Salmond​ argues that for many Māori in New Zealand in 1769, Tupaia was the key figure, not Cook. Here was a learned priest arriving from their homeland who was able to converse with them.

This is the focus of an amazing new film revealing Tupaia’s significant impact on Māori, and the recent detective work that has revealed his navigational and map-making achievements.


By contrast, in Australia, Cook’s encounters were almost non-existent. He misunderstood the complex Aboriginal protocols surrounding meetings, in which the visitor sits quietly, ignored by the hosts until they are ready. They fired and wounded a Gweagal man. As they sailed away from the Gweagal people of Kamay Botany Bay, Cook concluded that ‘we could know very little of [the Aborigines’] customs as we never were able to form any connections with them.’


In June, they encountered the Guugu Yimidhirr when they were beached at the Endeavour River, in what today is N Qld. There was some interaction but when a group of warriors were refused turtles, they set fire to the British camp, and Cook fired a musket at one of them. There were no stories, songs, or conversations such as took place in the Pacific.


This is a key historical difference that has continued to shape popular memory in each country. The historical lack of engagement with Aboriginal people is reflected in the ambiguity of Aboriginal voices today- and most debate has focused upon the return of artefacts. Just weeks ago, the Aus Labor party motion called on the federal government to hasten return of Aboriginal cultural materials – including ancestral human remains – in the name of “truth telling”. Image: Gweagal shield


Where are the Aboriginal stories?


Since the 1970s heated debates in Australia have focused on the memory and commemoration of the nation’s colonial past, often polarized between positions that see the past as a source of pride in the establishment of a nation, or of shame, because of the violent dispossession of First Nations peoples. These debates are comparable with struggles in many other countries about the contemporary value and meaning of memorials – such as civic statues of American heroes associated with slavery.


The notion that the continent of Australia was ‘terra nullius’ – empty and available for colonial settlement – is deeply embedded in the very statement that it was ‘discovered’ by Cook – ignoring Indigenous occupation of the continent of Australia since around 65,000 BP.


From a different direction, the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ is a national Indigenous consensus position on Indigenous constitutional recognition issued in 2017. It seeks a ‘Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.’


Such views have prompted echoes in the present, as artists alternative narratives question Western-centric histories – such as Lisa Reihana’s immersive wall video Emissaries – a stunning re-enactment of eighteenth-century Pacific encounters that brings the Indigenous participants to life.


Our debates about the past are often one-sided and rely on narratives produced by European historical actors such as Cook. Through immersive video art, Lisa Reihana reveals the Indigenous side of these encounters, challenging any unified account of the past and creating a path towards reconciliation.


Where the lineal view of history and progress continues to dominate Australian commemorations of Cook, NZ commemorations have identified the potential of multi-directional, cross-cultural, and many-sided conversations to bring to light more powerful histories. Through these alternative pasts, such emissaries show us how to break the spell of Cook, and instead, re-imagine a shared future.

Hidden women of history: Elsie Masson, photographer, writer, intrepid traveller

In 1913, at the age of 23, Elsie Masson was travelling on a steamer near Port Essington, 150 miles from Darwin, when it was approached by a small lugger. The boat was manned by one white man and two black men. As she later recounted,

The white man raised a sunburnt face, fierce with grief and excitement, and shouted hoarsely, ‘My mate – Jim Campbell – speared by blacks at Junction Bay’. It was curious what a thrill of rage the words brought to the hearers – a sudden instinctive spasm of hatred of white for black.

Masson’s account of her own and the steamer’s other passengers’ visceral response to this event remains unusual and powerful in its candid confession of race hate. Like the moment in Heart of Darkness when an African “boy” announces, “Mistah Kurtz, he dead”, for Masson, this moment marked a shocking moment of reckoning with the other.

Masson in 1917. Copyright unknown.

Yet Masson’s sympathy for the Territory’s Aboriginal people was actually awakened through this violent clash and its judicial aftermath. As a journalist, she attended the trial of those accused of murdering Campbell, reporting on the proceedings for the Northern Territory Times. Her growing advocacy for Aboriginal people expresses the contradictions of racial thought at this time.

As one of the “first white women” to travel in the Northern Territory, Masson’s newspaper articles and book An Untamed Territory – a profusely-illustrated narrative of life in the wild north – show how she popularized the “expert” views of her circle: an elite global network of colonial administrators, including the famous anthropologist Walter Baldwin Spencer.

Who was Elsie?

Elsie Masson was born in Melbourne in 1890, the second daughter of Lady Mary and Professor Orme Masson, the chair of chemistry at Melbourne University. Masson senior was a close colleague and friend of Spencer, anthropologist and foundation chair of biology at the university.

Masson was clever and well-educated. At 16, she was taken to Europe for an extended tour with her mother and sister, studying music in Leipzig and art in Florence, and developing a good knowledge of French, German and Italian.

When the Commonwealth Government assumed control of the NT in January 1911, it appointed Spencer to lead a preliminary scientific expedition with three other scientists, including University of Melbourne veterinarian John Gilruth, a forthright Scot. Impressed with their findings, the government appointed Spencer to Darwin for a year as Special Commissioner and Chief Protector of Aborigines. Gilruth accepted the post of Administrator of the Territory in February 1912.

Elsie Masson joined Gilruth’s household as au pair in April 1913, departing toward the end of 1914. She was recruited on the promise of “pretty walks” and a comfortable verandah, but she managed to fit in considerable travel and observation of Territory life during this time, as well as taking and collecting many photographs now held by Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum.

The ‘first white woman’

Masson’s life entailed daily interaction with a large, multiracial servant workforce, many of whom she photographed. These photos are unusual in that she named the subjects and sometimes recorded details about their lives.

However, they are also racially segregated, locating their subjects within their place of work. Her photos include Dhobie, the picturesque Chinese cook and laundryman; white Residence staff, and a labourer called “No More”, pictured with his buffalo.

Masson’s photo of Dhobie. Wayne Collection, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

As the “first white woman”, Masson travelled to outlying parts of the Territory, such as Pine Creek Railway Line, the Daly River, Oenpelli (now Gunbalanya) in Arnhem Land, and as far as the Roper River in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

She wrote a report for Spencer on the Roper River Mission, established in 1908 by the Church Missionary Society at Mirlinbarrwarr, now known as Ngukurr.

Baldwin Spencer, The Motor-Car in the Bush, in Masson’s An Untamed Territory. Author provided.

Masson’s relish of the exotic places and culture she saw disguised the harsh racial segregation implemented by Gilruth, Holmes and Spencer through new legislation and regulations. In her writings, Masson contrasted moments of modernity, such as the first car trip in the NT, with what she imagined to be a disappearing Indigenous way of life.

Household servants, Government Residence. Wayne Collection, Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

But today, the reader is struck most powerfully by Masson’s transition from dislike to respect, as she describes her developing relationships – with her Chinese hawker, whose strange vegetables the household learns to enjoy, the Aboriginal maidservants, and finally even black men accused of murder.

Her portrait of Aboriginal housemaid Nellie is framed by a humorous account of her “strange” dress sense. But Masson soon “forgets her first repulsion, and finds the good-humoured face almost comely, and an easy grace beneath”.

Recognising customary law

In 1913 Masson attended the trial of nine Aboriginal men accused of murdering James Campbell, a trepanger (fisher of sea cucumber). Despite her initial “thrill of rage” toward the accused black murderers, Masson’s views changed as she witnessed the men’s unfair treatment within the British legal system, due to the language barrier and cultural misunderstandings.

Masson’s account of this trial ultimately argued for the need to acknowledge the coherence of Indigenous tradition, and what today is termed customary law.

During the trial, one witness Ada, for instance, described how Campbell and his ten companions had been fishing one night when he was attacked. But she also explained that Campbell had been murdered in retaliation for his “punishing” an old Aboriginal man by putting him into a trepang boiler, causing a painful death.

Masson’s photograph of trepang boilers provided graphic testimony to this agonising assault, showing a crime scene, the aftermath of torture and death. Alongside portraits of the accused and their families, she effectively humanised these people for her audience, asking,

Who can blame them for what they did? … It is to be feared that only too often the savage black who commits an act of violence is only avenging equal outrages done to his own race by the savage white.

Many agreed with Masson. The judge sentenced five men to death, but after review, their sentences were commuted to imprisonment for life with hard labour. In the context of increasingly punitive “protection” policies, this was at least something.

While Masson never returned to the Territory, she married the famous Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, and they went on to live in six countries. Sadly her adventures ended all too soon, as Elsie was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1928, and died in 1935.

More about Elsie Masson can be found in Photography, Humanitarianism, Empire (Bloomsbury, 2016).

From the Conversation




Visualising Human Rights

Ten photos that changed how we see human rights

File 20181001 18997 808w5h.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
This 1904 photograph showing the massacre of villagers by Dutch KNIL forces in the Indonesian village of Koetö Réh was used by the Dutch to argue for the paternalistic colonial state as protector. We now see it as evidence of imperial atrocity.
Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen.

Jane Lydon, University of Western Australia

Nearly 70 years ago, in December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At this time, the UN’s cultural arm, UNESCO, sought to harness the “universal language” of photography to communicate the new system of human rights globally, across barriers of race and language.

UNESCO curated the ground-breaking “Human Rights Exhibition” in 1949, seeking to create a sense of a universal humanity through photographs. It sent portable photo albums around the world, so that the exhibition could be recreated by anyone, anywhere.

In the decades since, visual images have played an important role in defining, contesting, and arguing on behalf of human rights. Photographs are a crucial way of disseminating ideas, and creating a sense of a shared humanity – but they can also justify arguments for conquest and oppression. Here are ten photos that show how we have seen human rights.

A human ‘family’

Many of UNESCO’s 1949 photographs could be accused of picturing a falsely harmonious human “family” – literally, in this instance, by showing a collage of four families from different cultures, all seemingly alike.

Families. UNESCO, Human Rights: Exhibition Album (1949).
Author provided

Scenes of war

However a counter-narrative of atrocity and what it termed “struggle” was introduced through scenes of war. There were images of soldiers washed ashore on a beach and a heap of corpses at Buchenwald in a discourse centred upon the violation of human rights. Some visual theorists argue that such images are crucial in proving the existence of distant suffering and injustice. Others have criticised them for exploiting the victims further, or anaesthetising suffering.

War dead. UNESCO, Human Rights: Exhibition Album (1949).
Author provided

Dignity and humanity

Often, the power of seeing someone very different from ourselves can create a sense of proximity, and the recognition of another’s full humanity. For example, after Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838, he became a leading campaigner in the abolitionist movement in the United States. He believed in the power of his dignified and serious photographic portrait to counter racist caricatures, and became the most-photographed man of the 19th century.

Unknown photographer, Frederick Douglass (c.1841-1845), Full-plate daguerreotype.
Oondaga Historical Association.

A changed context

Sometimes, photographs taken for one purpose can come to have a very different meaning, as the social context for viewing them is transformed. In 1904, during the final throes of the Aceh War, the military doctor H.M. Neeb took a series of now infamous images that showed the massacre of villagers by Dutch KNIL forces in Koetö Réh, where more than 500 people died, 130 of them children. Dutch rulers subsequently used these photographs to argue for the paternalistic colonial state as protector. We now see them as shocking evidence of imperial atrocity.

H.M.Neeb, Koetö Réh, 14 June 1904.
Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen.

Biscuits in a revolution

Fifty years later, during the revolution in Indonesia in 1945-50, it became taboo to show the massacre of civilians. Instead, showing soldiers as humanitarians – for instance, distributing biscuits to local children – was the preferred image.

Collection Bob van Dijk, Soldier distributing biscuits to Indonesian children.
BC010, Image bank WW2- NIOD, Amsterdam

Transforming colonial classification

In Australia, many photographs of Aboriginal people were taken for official purposes, to classify them on racial grounds, or document the “progress” children were making in state homes. However, Aboriginal families now use these photos very differently. Photo-artist Brenda L. Croft uses photography to tell the story of her father Joseph, removed in the 1920s as a child from his Gurindji/Malgnin/Mudburra people of the Victoria River region in the Northern Territory. When he was physically reunited with his mother Bessie in 1974 their reunion was tragically short-lived. She died just seven months later.

Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’, diptych, 2016, from the series ‘blood/type’. Pigment print, 91 x 89.5cm.
Image copyright and courtesy of Brenda L. Croft

Croft uses photography to explore her journey home, re-asserting her connection with places and kin fragmented by the ongoing impact of colonialism. Her “shut/mouth/scream” shows Bessie’s face, cropped from an official mug-shot that classified her on racial grounds. Croft has transformed it into a confronting and emotional portrait.

Documenting protest

Other troubled histories are kept alive in the present through photographs that document protest. Vera Mackie’s images act as a witness to demonstrations staged at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul against the militarised sexual abuse perpetrated by the Japanese in the Asia Pacific War. They focus upon an “icon of peace”: a commemorative statue on the site of the protests.

Vera Mackie: The Peace Monument, Seoul.
Vera Mackie

Evading sterotypes

Australia is a party to international legal treaties such as the UN Refugee Convention, so is obliged to ensure that asylum seekers found to be refugees are not sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened. Yet many find it hard to engage with the plight of refugees currently incarcerated in sites of offshore detention such as Manus Island and Nauru. The Australian government has increasingly restricted media and public access to such places so we have difficulty seeing and understanding what is happening there.

Read more:
Friday essay: worth a thousand words – how photos shape attitudes to refugees

Australian photojournalists such as Fairfax’s Kate Geraghty have sought to document the refugee experience in ways that evade stereotypes either of victimhood or threat. Geraghty’s photograph of Iranian asylum-seeker Pezhma Gorbani holding his ID card against a bus window after his arrival on Manus Island in 2013 shows his despair and defiance, but also highlights the issue of press access.

Kate Geraghty, Pezhma Gorbani 2013.
Kate Geraghty, Sydney Morning Herald, Fairfax Media.

‘I was a refugee’

Some refugees have taken matters into their own hands, using social media as an act of protest and political solidarity with others around the globe. Using the hashtag #iwasarefugee, Alisha Fernando showed herself as a baby, asleep aboard a ship after her Vietnamese family was rescued at sea.

Alisha Fernando in 1982, Instagram post, February 2016.

Asserting control

Fernando contrasted this with a photo of herself and the captain of the boat that had rescued her, taken 21 years later, after she had become an Australian citizen. In this way refugees are asserting some control over their own image and eloquently demonstrating their humanity.

Alisha Fernando and Willem Christ in 2013, Instagram post, July 2016.

While visual theorists are often wary of the power of images to manipulate viewers or exploit their subjects, we must not assume that images are fixed in their meaning and effects. We cannot do without images that reveal atrocity, evoke fellow-feeling, and construct a shared humanity.

The book Visualising Human Rights has just been published by UWA Publishing and includes contributions from Sharon Sliwinski, Susie Protschky, Brenda L.Croft, Vera Mackie, Mary Tomsic, Fay Anderson, Suvendrini Perera and Joseph Pugliese.The Conversation

Jane Lydon, Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


What if? Re-imagining Pacific Encounters in a Postcolonial present

Today I was privileged to give a floor talk at John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University. This short essay summarises my talk.

Lisa Reihana’s immersive wall video Emissaries is a stunning re-enactment of eighteenth-century Pacific encounters that brings the Indigenous participants to life, with the effect of questioning Western-centric histories. National debates about the past are often one-sided and rely on narratives produced by European historical actors such as Captain Cook and his companions. Through immersive video art, Lisa Reihana reveals the Indigenous side of these encounters, challenging any unified account of the past and creating a path towards reconciliation.

Her artwork ‘Emissaries’ is inspired by a magnificent wallpaper produced in France in 1805, intended to plunge bourgeois Europeans into the newly-discovered sights and cultures of the Pacific. Entrepreneur Joseph Dufour, with painter Jean-Gabriel Charvet, produced the largest panoramic wallpaper of their time, titled Savages of the Pacific (Les Sauvages de Ia Mer Pacifique). It was inspired by exciting new discoveries in the Pacific, particularly those made by Captain Cook, which captured the imaginations of many Europeans. In our own time, the discovery of life on other planets might spark such excitement and the expansion of horizons.

On Cook’s first great Pacific adventure (1768-1771) he travelled with botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, surviving disease, shipwreck and encounters with a range of Indigenous peoples – some apparently manifesting Rousseau’s arcadian vision of ‘noble savages’ living in a tropical paradise. On Cook’s third and final voyage (1776-1779) he ‘discovered’ the Hawaiian Islands. At first welcomed by the Hawaiians, who were fascinated by the Europeans’ ships and their use of iron, Cook then left for almost a year while he searched for a northwest passage from the North Atlantic to the Pacific. On return, coincidentally midway through a festival dedicated to the fertility god Lono, the British sailors were welcomed as gods. But after their departure, damage caused by rough weather necessitated their return just a week later: this time, their reception was unfriendly and violent, and the theft of a small cutter prompted an angry confrontation in which the Hawaiians overwhelmed the British and killed Cook.

In her staging of this and many other encounters, Reihana’s immersive video peoples the magnificent painted settings with living Maori, Hawaiian, Cook Islands, Samoan and Aboriginal actors alongside Western heroes such as Cook, Banks and Solander. Emissaries is a form of visual re-enactment – and like all re-enactments, it is written in the past conditional: it asks, what if we had understood both sides of the exchange? What if these meetings had been conducted between equals, in full acknowledgement of the richness of their different cultural traditions?

Postcolonial scholars have pointed to imperialism’s reliance upon notions of the belatedness of the non-European world, as all ideas, energy and progress were assumed to emanate from Europe. Historians have now challenged the view that the colonies and their Indigenous people were always following behind, their savagery and primitivism needing to be uplifted and transformed into European civilisation. Reihana’s speculative re-enactment mirrors the recent concern of historians to bring metropolis and colony into a shared space of exchange, posing a profound challenge to one-sided imperial histories that celebrated conquest of Indigenous peoples.

In these encounters our view is no longer governed by British assumptions or interests: by bringing alive the Indigenous actors, we are shown their world view – their side of the beach – and they move from being props to playing main parts. The death of Cook can be seen as a terrible misunderstanding rather than a brutal attack by savages, a tragedy to be respectfully and ceremoniously acknowledged, commemorated, mourned.

Reihana’s meticulously researched re-enactment does not re-write the course of history- rather she opens it up to understanding the previously silent or hidden Indigenous side of the encounter. How does she do this? Emissaries is about more than simply seeing history come to life, as Reihana translates these encounters into the mode of traditional performance: through rhythm, music and ritual these well-known events are imbued with Indigenous meaning. She slows down the pace of these events from action-packed Hollywood drama to gracious ritual. The amazing soundscape governs our emotional response – for example when a Hawaiian sings over Cook’s dead body, violence transcended by spirit and recognition.

Like many Indigenous cultures, Reihana uses performance as a way of telling a shared story and giving the past meaning in the present. There is often a moral logic at work within traditional performance that conveys an Indigenous world-view. In this way Reihana employs re-enactment to de-colonise Western historical narratives, stripping away notions of primitivism, revealing the richness and beauty of Pacific tradition, and bringing both sides into the same shared space of encounter and uncertainty.

In the present, Emissaries’ irruptions of the past offer haunting counter-narratives to our stories of national progress that rely on Western dominance and progress. In her own words, Reihana explained ‘I was really inspired to create a work that kind of spoke back through time. Just kind of readdressed some of the look of the wallpaper and certainly to put a stake in the ground. And say yes Indigenous people are strong and yes we are still here.’Lisa-Reihana-Emissaries-02

Seeing Ms Dhu

Seeing Ms Dhu: how photographs argue for human rights

Jane Lydon, University of Western Australia and Donna Oxenham, University of Western Australia

Ms Dhu was a 22-year-old Yamatji woman who died in custody in the South Hedland Police Station in August 2014. Arrested for unpaid fines, she was already suffering from pneumonia and septicaemia caused by a broken rib, inflicted by her partner some months earlier. She became very ill overnight and died.

The 2015 coronial inquest into her death heard that police officers had believed that Ms Dhu was “faking”. At the inquest, footage was shown, reportedly revealing that police treated her roughly. Her family has asked that the CCTV footage of Ms Dhu’s final, agonising hours of life be released. So far, the coroner has refused this request.

For her family, the grief of seeing their girl die is outweighed by the need to demonstrate the injustice of how she died. An internal police investigation into Ms Dhu’s case found that 11 police officers failed to comply with police procedures, but none were fired or suspended.

It is time that authorities listened to the Aboriginal people most closely concerned, and agreed to release this footage.

Ms Dhu’s grandmother, Carol Roe (left), and mother, Della Roe, speak to the media before the inquest.
Angie Raphael/AAP

Ms Dhu’s family’s demand to make her treatment in prison public echoes the argument of many visual theorists today: if others are forced to undergo suffering and pain, surely the privileged observer has a moral duty to witness, acknowledge and respond to what they see? But even more than this obligation to witness injustice, today photographic evidence has come to stand as proof.

Critic Susan Sontag famously argued that “without photographs, there is no war” – meaning that we need to see distant events to be convinced of their reality. There is no doubt that such images have tremendous power, serving as witness to atrocity, heartbreak and injustice. Following WWII in particular, the horrors of war were effectively conveyed via photography – with the revelation of the treatment of Jews in concentration camps such as Buchenwald in April 1945 shocking the world.

However, such images are not straightforward in their effects. In Australia, as many Aboriginal people have argued, such imagery may disempower their subjects, showing them as abject, distant or less-than-human. For example, one of the most effective critiques of Aboriginal treatment during the 1950s was a film, Their Darkest Hour (1957), made by West Australian MP William Grayden about Ngaanyatjarra people in the Warburton Ranges area, on the south-eastern fringe of the Gibson Desert.

This film included graphic, shocking imagery of ill and malnourished Aboriginal people. It successfully mobilised public concern across Australia and overseas well into the 1960s, contributing to a growing international concern about racial discrimination.

Specifically, it is credited with fuelling a wave of public support for the Aboriginal rights movement. This eventually led to the successful 1967 referendum to empower the Commonwealth in Aboriginal affairs. Yet, today, its subjects and their relatives resent the film’s shameful exposure of their lives and question the benefits that have ensued for them personally.

Light graffiti, Perth.
Ethan Blue

Aboriginal people now demand control over their own representation, using photography to assert a strong identity. They demand change on the basis of rights, rather than pity, with its overtones of patronage and condescension.

The Bicentennial was a turning point that forced the nation to acknowledge Indigenous dissent, as protests and marches literally demonstrated their demands. Visual symbols such as the 1972 Tent Embassy, a stroke of media genius, could not be denied.

The sovereignty sign at the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra repainted in January 2012 on the embassy’s 40th anniversary.
Alan Porritt/AAP

Last week, Queensland Aboriginal man Noel Pearson tapped into this history of imagining Aboriginal suffering, in accusing the ABC of “racism”. Pearson suggested that the ABC needs:

blacks to remain alienated from mothers’ bosoms, incarcerated in legions, leading short lives of grief and tribulation – because if it were not so, against whom could they direct their soft bigotry of low expectations?

But many advances in the status of Aboriginal Australians have been prompted by revealing atrocious conditions and ill-treatment. Most recently, the ABC’s Four Corners revelation of a pattern of abuse, deprivation and punishment of vulnerable children within the Don Dale youth detention centre aroused intense public sentiment, prompting an inquiry into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory.

While we cannot – yet – see the CCTV footage of Ms Dhu’s treatment in custody, her family and supporters have tried to keep her presence alive in the city of Perth through clever use of light graffiti. Since 2015, they have been projecting night-time images of her face onto skyscrapers to assert her continuing memory and visibility. These storeys-high portraits of Ms Dhu and her family disrupt the urban landscape.

We believe that authorities must listen to her family and release the footage of Ms Dhu’s final hours. In revealing to all the injustice she suffered, her family hope that this graphic proof will arouse public opinion so that finally some good may come from her tragic death.

An Indigenous-curated exhibition, Rightfully Ours, Rightfully Yours, will open at the Perth Centre for Photography on Thursday, December 8. This exhibition will focus specifically on photography and Indigenous rights in Australia. It will open alongside a recreation of a historic photographic exhibition originally mounted by UNESCO in 1949 to explain the new Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These issues will also be the focus of the Visualising Human Rights Conference on December 5-6 at the Maritime Museum in Fremantle.

The Conversation

Jane Lydon, Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History, University of Western Australia and Donna Oxenham, Research Assistant, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The ruined ruins of Ninevah

The world is shocked at the destruction of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud – as the BBC reports, bulldozers have ‘looted the valuables in it and then they proceeded to level the site to the ground.’[1] It is understandable that ‘local tribal sources’ are distressed and angry about this- but why such an outcry about a place most will never visit, and whose on-going scientific significance has not been examined in this debate? The archaeological remains of Nimrud have only been known to the West since the 1840s, and considered as world heritage even more recently. Beginning in 1845, young British wanderer, Austen Layard, visited the ruins of Nimrud for the first time and began to dig there. Since then, much of the art and artefacts from the site’s archaeological investigation have been removed to national or international centres in Baghdad and London- and specifically, the British Museum, where many photos used to illustrate the news stories over the last few days have come from. That’s if the heavy-handed excavation techniques employed by Layard and his ilk can be termed ‘investigation’: at first glance, this engraving showing the removal of the famous winged lions, from Layard’s 1852 Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh, could be mistaken for the recent activities of the Islamic State. Many archaeologists would look at this image and shudder at the thought of the evidence lost in prising out the loot. (I for one would rather have a go at the pile of ‘rubbish’ lying in the foreground than gaze admiringly at the statues.)


(Layard, A. H. (1852). A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh. London: John Murray.)

The arrival of these winged lions at the British Museum confirmed the view that London was the centre of the world’s newest and greatest empire, and the natural home for such historic works of art. For some, this trophy raised fears of hubris: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1850 poem, ‘The Burden of Nineveh’, envisages future travellers from Australia digging up the massive Assyrian bull-god sculpture from the British Museum and assuming it to be a British god.

For as that Bull-god once did stand
And watched the burial-clouds of sand,
Till these at last without a hand
Rose o’er his eyes, another land,
  And blinded him with destiny:—
So may he stand again; till now,
In ships of unknown sail and prow,
Some tribe of the Australian plough
Bear him afar,—a relic now
  Of London, not of Nineveh!

Rossetti was drawing on a literary conceit popularised by Thomas Macaulay in 1840 that pictured a distant future ‘when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.’ This scenario evoked Britain’s temporal evanescence within a historical imagination that had been greatly enlarged by a growing appreciation of the time-depth of human civilization. Equally significant was a complementary awareness of the global diversity of humankind –largely prompted by Enlightenment exploration- that located Britain within a global community of nations. This temporally and spatially expanded historical consciousness entailed the assumption that Britain’s colonies would grow, prosper and eventually succeed her, as part of the cycle of imperial growth.

This notion of a globalised, shared culture originated in Layard’s time and was an integral aspect of imperialism, but has over the intervening century or so developed into a global system of heritage management, and the categorization of places such as Nimrud as ‘world heritage’.[2] On a personal note, I love it too, and I am sad to think that now I may never see this fabled place.[3] However some heritage scholars have pointed out that the concept of ‘universal value’ is fundamentally flawed, because it implies a shared, homogenous set of cultural and moral principles – that in practice, always seem to protect Western and European monuments and sites. So ‘world heritage’ was long an elitist Western ideal. Despite the more recent efforts of many knowledgeable and committed practitioners to correct this inherited bias, state and party politics continue to shape the way value is defined and certain traces of the past are protected and interpreted.[4]

Most important, current outrage overlooks the way that sites deemed to be of world heritage value actually form part of a broader field of values and rights. Although some reports note the Islamic cultural proscription upon ‘idolatrous’ or representational human figures, most media stories ignore this factor. Most commentators argue that these are politically motivated acts of destruction by thugs. They are probably quite right. But logically, why should Islamic State not make use of any weapons to hand? Why should they protect or value ruins, sculpture and art that means nothing to them and that clearly means a great deal to their enemies? In the context of full-scale war, with all the terror, violence and death such conflict entails, IS’s priorities lie elsewhere- for a start, with protecting their own people and inflicting damage on the enemy.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has also condemned the destruction, stating that ‘nothing justifies its destruction’ and that ‘the deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime’.[5] It is not that I wish to defend the destruction of such relics, but I believe that such critique is ridiculously narrow and Western-centric in refusing to acknowledge what is at stake for the people caught up in this conflict – that is, their very lives and futures. It dismisses world views that do not share UNESCO’s values. One normally insightful observer, Guy Rundle, actually argued that Iraq’s heritage is more valuable than human lives, because heritage gives human life meaning.[6] I could not disagree more. Where we now understand that cultural heritage is not a fossilized inheritance but rather a ‘dialogic medium for promoting discussion about social justice’ in the present, such critique is more harmful than useful.[7] It assumes that cultural heritage is a possession instead of acknowledging the wider range of practical resources that emanate from understanding culture as a political and social resource.[8] It echoes the forces of Western imperial greed that defined Nimrud as important in the first place – and overlooks local priorities and needs, that have been notably absent in reportage. It obscures the irony that current potentates exploit this Western-endowed value for their own ends.

So as Nimrud’s ruins become even more ruined, we should remember that its romance and mythological power were conferred by imperial decree less than 200 years ago, at the inception of our current system of ‘shared’ heritage and culture. Rudyard Kipling’s lament for declining British power and faith rendered Ninevah as a symbol of the hubris of ancient Mesopotamian civilisations: ‘Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!’

It seems that we won’t be forgetting Nimrud – as contested symbol of a shared human civilisation – any time soon.

[1] Nimrud is the Arab name for the ancient Assyrian city of Kalhu, situated on the River Tigris, near Mosul. Nimrud was the capital of Assyria during the reign of the king Ashurnasirpal II in the ninth century BC. ‘Islamic State Accused of bulldozing ancient city of Nimrud’, March 6, Thanks to Tracy Ireland, Steve Brown, Liz Conor and Denis Byrne for comments and encouragement. Any outrageousness is all down to me.

[2] ‘The Ancient City of Ninevah’ is on the World Heritage Tentative List (since 2000) for Iraq; and hence not currently on the World Heritage List. See Thanks to Steve Brown for this information. And see

[3] Video evidence is unclear:  ‘bulldozed Nimrud’ has made headlines but few of the videos actually show anything like this, instead showing the site fully conserved, or else the video of destruction of the Baghdad Museum statues, many apparently plaster casts. Some ‘released by IS’ show barrel bombs and a large explosion but we await clarification about exactly what has been destroyed.

[4] For a review of recent shifts toward a more inclusive approach see Kristal Buckley 2012, ‘International and Regional Perspectives on the State of World Heritage’. In Penelope Figgis, Andrea Leverington, Richard Mackay, Andrew Maclean and Peter Valentine (eds) Keeping the Outstanding Exceptional: the future of World Heritage in Australia. Australian Committee for IUCN, Sydney.   pp. 48-53. For analysis of world heritage and its implication in socio-political and especially state regimes of power see Sophia Labadi, UNESCO, Cultural Heritage, and Outstanding Universal Value: Value-based Analyses of the World Heritage and Intangible Cultural Heritage Conventions, AltaMira, 2012. For example Africa still lags much behind in the ‘tally board’ of numbers of listed World Heritage properties.

[5] UNESCO Director-General Condemns Desctruction at Nimrud, 13 April 2014

[6] Guy Rundle, ‘The complexities of Islamic State’s cultural destruction’, Crikey 13 March 2015, argues ‘without our heritage and a commitment to it, there is no ground to life, to meaning’.

[7] Neil A. Silberman ‘Heritage interpretation and human rights: documenting diversity, expressing identity, or establishing universal principles?’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 2012, 1-12. Quotation p. 7.

[8] Jane Lydon ‘Young and free: The Australian past in a global future’, in Lyn Meskell (ed) Cosmopolitan Archaeologies, Duke, 2009, pp. 28-47; Rosemary J.Coombe and Lindsay M. Weiss, ‘Neoliberalism, Heritage Regimes, Cultural Rights’ in Lyn Meskell (ed), Global Heritage: A Reader, John Wiley and Son, 2015, pp. 53-54.