Remove the statue of James Cook & end the enduring legacy of colonialism in Middlesbrough

Remove the statue of James Cook & end the enduring legacy of colonialism in Middlesbrough

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Eleanor McGough started this petition to Rishi Sunak and

Around the country and indeed the world, statues to colonisers, slave traders and imperialists are rightfully being toppled. Middlesbrough now finds itself in the spotlight of this debate, owing to our continuing glorification of colonialism through the memorialisation of Captain James Cook. A tide is clearly turning, and now is the time for Middlesbrough to change with it. 

Here, we will provide an accurate historical account of Cook’s crimes and legacy, as justification for our calls for his statue to be removed and to dispel the harmful myths that circulate in our community. Firstly, Captain Cook did not ‘discover’ Australia. Indigenous people had been living there for over 60,000 years prior to the Endeavour’s landing, and they became the primary victims of Cook and the colonisers who followed him. The Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust reports that when Cook and his crew landed in New Zealand, they opened fire and killed the local chief and many other indigenous people. Cook is not viewed as a pioneer or celebrated explorer by the Maori people. He is regarded as an invader who paved the way for further colonial atrocities. The bay at which Cook landed in 1769, Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, was renamed by him as ‘Poverty Bay’, demonstrating his clear contempt for indigenous people and their land. 

While in Hawaii, Cook attempted to kidnap the ruling king Kalaniʻōpuʻu. This caused a fight between Cook’s crew and the natives, in which Cook, 4 crewmen and dozens of Hawaiians were killed. Over the ensuing week, hundreds more Hawaiians were killed and a town was burned. Cook’s legacy, like that of all imperialists and colonisers, is a violent, bloodstained one that should not be celebrated. 

The plaque on Captain Cook’s monument at Easby Moor stands testament to the racist myths of British exceptionalism that saturate our current collective history of Cook:

 ‘While the art of navigation shall be cultivated among men, whilst the spirit of enterprise, commerce and philanthropy shall animate the sons of Britain, while it shall be deemed the honour of a Christian Nation to spread civilisation and the blessings of the Christian faith among pagan and savage tribes, so long will the name of Captain Cook stand out amongst the most celebrated and most admired benefactors of the human race.’ 

These sentiments are nothing more than an extraordinarily racist celebration of colonialism, the likes of which should have no place in our society. 

As a symbol of colonial power, the statue signals that the people of Great Ayton and surrounding areas sanction the violence, murder and forced displacement perpetrated by James Cook and his fellow colonisers. Centuries have elapsed since indigenous groups were decimated by European theft of their land, however reparation has yet to be adequately made. Celebration of a figure who caused excessive and unreasonable harm has no place in our multicultural society and perpetuates an obsolete and monolithic myth of ‘British’ culture and greatness. This practice of glorification situates our area as a place ideologically committed to remaining in the distant past, when we very much want to embrace a bright and prosperous future, where inclusivity and progress are key. A petition supporting the ‘protection’ of the statue prioritises the memory of a violent, long-dead man over solidarity and care for the existing members and descendants of the very indigenous communities whose destruction Cook participated in. It also calls to vaguely preserve ‘all that comes with’ the statue. The authors and signatories to this counter petition find such an ambiguous statement disturbing and worry that it implies local pride should continue to be constructed on the legacy of crimes against humanity and that local citizens should support British exceptionalism/white eurocentrism. 

This is not about ‘erasing history’. In fact, the opposite is true. We wish to reveal the real history of Captain Cook and his colonial legacy to which our community currently turns a blind eye. 

We believe that the following demands are reasonable, justified and ultimately necessary if we are to properly confront our deeply problematic past and end the celebration of colonialism: 

1). Move the statue of Cook from the Great Ayton village green to a museum (such as the Schoolroom Museum) where it can be accompanied by a proper historical account of Cook's crimes.

2). Open conversation about Cook’s legacy in Middlesbrough and commit to ending our glorification of colonialism. 

3). Remove the racist plaque on Captain Cook’s monument on Easy Moor and have an educational board installed in its place. 

The aforementioned colonial legacy includes slavery as well as the destruction of indigenous communities- the repercussions of both of which are still sorely felt and experienced in modern Britain and by marginalised groups in our own community. We must evidence compassion, and strong, unified commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement through self-reflexivity and by scrutinising our local relationship with historical violence. This begins with vocally and materially denouncing perpetrators of past harm like Cook, in order to avoid committing hypocrisy and to deter future harm and hate crimes perpetrated by those who employ the rhetoric of white nationalism and British exceptionalism. We are confident that our warm and welcoming community will, having read this petition, agree that retaining the statue of Captain Cook in its current form contradicts our famed northern hospitality and hinders the development of the inclusivity we so desperately need to heal our community in these exceptional times. 

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