The Memory of Wounds

The author of a new book on the controversy of statues approaches the subject from a different angle.
Yagan's statue at Heirisson Island, Western Australia. Credit: Creative Commons
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The Memory of Wounds

It has been said that ignorance of history ensures its repetition. This view surely extends the power of knowledge beyond its limits. If history teaches us anything, it’s that knowledge is in thrall to denial, vengeance, hate, love and there seductions of human emotion: we can know we are on a familiar path yet deny that knowledge, even as the bones crunch beneath our feet.

Of course it’s true that each historical event is unique, has its own time and place, so when we say that history repeats itself, what is it that recurs? According to the Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani what is repeated ‘is not the event itself but its structure’. He warns us against being ‘swayed by the similarity of historical events…for it is only the structure that recurs’.

This compulsion to repeat was first defined by Sigmund Freud, principally in his 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle. He noticed how his 18-month old grandson coped with the daily departure of his mother by repeating the structure of her disappearance and return. He did this by throwing a wooden reel attached to a piece of string out of his cot, accompanied by a cry, ‘o-o-o-o’, which Freud interpreted as ‘fort’ (‘gone’). The child then pulled the wooden reel back into his cot and celebrated with a joyful cry of ‘da’ (‘there’). Freud saw in this behaviour, the child’s attempt to soothe its pain by repeating its cause in an act of psychological alchemy: the child became an active agent in a situation where he was passive and emotionally overwhelmed.

History is replete with such alchemical acts. A common structural pattern is the belief that the wrong committed against one group can be avenged by another and a stable outcome achieved. An example of this occurred on 31 August 1997, when an Aboriginal delegation repatriated the head of Yagan, a Noongar warrior murdered by colonial settlers in July 1833. During his battle against the colonists, Yagan’s bravery earned him the titles of ‘Black Napoleon’ and the ‘Wallace of his Age’. In death, the skin adorned with tribal tattoos was flayed from his back by trophy-hunters, his head was wedged in a tree-stump and preserved in the smoke of gum leaves and a cockatoo headdress was placed on his head, in a mocking reference to his status as an Aboriginal leader.

Diana, Princess of Wales. Credit: Creative Commons

In September 1833, Ensign Robert Dale acquired Yagan’s head and transported it to England. He hawked it around fairs as an ‘anthropological curiosity’ before it was eventually buried in a cemetery in Everton. Determined to free his spirit to enter the Dreamtime, the Noongar people never gave up the search and in August 1997, after a protracted legal battle, Yagan’s head returned home. As the plane made its way to Australia, a Mercedes entered the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris at high speed. The driver lost control and the car smashed into a stone pillar. The driver and a male passenger were declared dead at the scene. The woman died three hours later. Her name was Diana, Princess of Wales.

A few days prior to the British handing over Yagan’s head to the Aboriginal delegation, Ken Colbung, a leading member of the delegation described Australia as ‘a racist country…They don’t really recognise us as having our own traditions, our own religion and our own culture’. When the plane carrying Yagan’s head landed at Perth International Airport, Ken Colbung described the death of Diana, as ‘Nature’s Revenge’. He saw it as a cosmic act of retributive justice: the death of the ‘People’s Princess’ settled the debt owed to the Noongar people for the murder of their ‘Black Napoleon’. A few days later, an unknown iconoclast, describing himself as a ‘British Loyalist’, beheaded a statue of Yagan on Heirisson Island in Perth. The head was reattached before the act was repeated and Yagan’s statue was beheaded for a second time.

In the same way as Freud’s grandson sought to heal an emotional wound by repeating its structure, Colbung imagined healing the harm done to his people by seeing the same harm inflicted upon an innocent woman he identified as his oppressor. The unknown iconoclast no doubt justified his violence in the same way. History is littered with this compulsion to heal old wounds by making new ones. ‘It is possible,’ wrote the Polish writer Czesław Miłosz, ‘that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds’ and in Empireland, Sathnam Sanghera, wrote ‘it is hard to function if you walk around with full knowledge of every terrible thing that has ever happened’. If that is the knowledge we carry, then history will repeat itself in ever deepening cycles of hate and retribution. Such is the revenge our nature takes on our ignorance.

Peter Hughes is the author of A History of Love & Hate in 21 Statues.