Thursday, June 10, 2021

Expunging history - the case of Benjamin Boyd

Moves to expunge the name Ben Boyd from a visible physical presence in Australia continue to gather strength. Examples here, here.  

I am a little tired of fighting some of these battles. In a way, I no longer care. Let the chips fall where they may. In the longer term, it probably doesn't matter. However, a word of caution may be advisable. 

Those who seek to have Boyd's name removed from settlements, roads and national parks do so because they are opposed to an aspect of his life. They wish to expunge Boyd's physical presence in the present day and replace it by a new narrative, part of an anti-colonial narrative. That is their right, but they risk a perverse result. 

Assume that they are successful, Boyd will move from a primary figure to a secondary footnote in another story. Even now, Boyd is largely forgotten. The current debate has, temporarily, restored him to a degree of prominence, but this will pass. Those who wish to use Boyd to teach a moral lesson, to show an historical injustice, would be well advised to maintain his name in some way. Once it goes, so will their narrative. 

Human memory is short. If you doubt this, look at the way the Whitlam dismissal has diminished, almost disappeared, from current memory. The passion remains among the diminishing number of those directly or indirectly involved, it has been recently strengthened by some nostalgia pieces, but the dismissal is still moving towards an historical footnote despite the drama involved. Doubt this? Then who was the Australian Governor who dismissed an elected leader, a huge event at the time?

If you wish to preserve our knowledge of Australian history, if you wish to use figures such as Benjamin Boyd to tell a story, you would be well advised to preserve names and monuments to act as an historical peg for your story. Get rid of them, and you risk the destruction of the story you wish to tell.