A century-old statue of Captain James Cook has been sawn off at the ankles and another of Queen Victoria doused in red paint, in apparent acts of protest on the divisive Australia Day national holiday.
The Cook statue – one of Australia’s oldest monuments to the British explorer – was photographed on the ground in Melbourne with the words “the colony will fall” spray-painted on its plinth.
It is not the first time in recent years that protesters have targeted the 1914 statue of Cook, who charted Australia’s east coast in 1770 and claimed it for Britain, as the country marks the anniversary of British settlement.
Arguments in the country over how history should remember a fleet of 11 British ships carrying a human cargo of convicts that arrived in present-day Sydney on 26 January 1788, establishing the state of New South Wales as a penal colony.
The holiday is celebrated by many Australians with barbecues and day trips to the beach, and is also a popular date for immigrants to receive their Australian citizenship.
But for many activists, Australia Day is known as “invasion day” as it marked the beginning of a sustained period of discrimination and dispossession of Indigenous peoples without the negotiation of a treaty.
The lack of such a treaty puts Australia out of step with comparable countries, including the US, Canada and New Zealand.
A referendum proposal to create an advocacy committee to offer advice to Australia’s parliament on policies that affect Indigenous people – the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic minority – was resoundingly rejected by voters last October.
Two colonial statues in Melbourne vandalized on the eve of Australia Day.
The statue of Captain Cook in St Kilda, Melbourne was toppled overnight with "The colony will fall" spray painted on its base.
The Queen Victoria statue in Melbourne CBD was covered in red paint. pic.twitter.com/fUurRnKXhQ
— Radical Graffiti (@GraffitiRadical) January 25, 2024
“We understand and acknowledge the complex and diverse views surrounding Australia Day,” said Heather Cunsolo, council mayor of Port Phillip where the Cook statue is situated, adding: “We can’t condone, however, the vandalism of a public asset where costs will be ultimately borne by ratepayers.”
Ms Cunsolo said her council had arranged for a security guard to protect the Cook statue on Thursday, but the incident occurred before they were scheduled to arrive.
Jacinta Allan, Victoria’s premier, said the government would support the local authorities to repair and reinstate the statue, adding: “This sort of vandalism really has no place in our community.”
Work was also underway to clean the Queen Victoria memorial in central Melbourne.
Police said they were investigating both incidents.
Pat Cummins, Australia’s cricket captain and one of the country’s most popular sportsmen, has led calls to change the date of Australia Day, which Anthony Albanese’s ruling Labor Party has rejected.
Many companies in Australia now allow employees to mark the holiday on another day, while retailers have scaled back the sale of Australia Day merchandise for what they say are commercial reasons, leading to calls for a boycott from opposition leader Peter Dutton.