CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s prime minister apologized on Friday to critics who accuse him of denying the country’s history of slavery, as a state government announced it will remove a former Belgian king’s name from a mountain range as part of a global re-examination of racial injustice.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended the legacy of British explorer James Cook, who in 1770 charted the site of the first British penal colony in Australia, which became present-day Sydney.
Morrison, who represents the Sydney electoral district of Cook in Parliament, described the British naval hero on Thursday as “very much ahead of his time,” and urged people calling for the district to be renamed to “get a bit of a grip on this.”
“While slave ships continued to travel around the world, when Australia was established … it was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia,” Morrison told Sydney Radio 2BG.
But he made a rare apology on Friday after critics pointed out that tens of thousands of South Pacific islanders had been forced to labor on Australian sugar cane plantations in the 19th century and Australian indigenous people had been forced to work for wages that were never paid.
Satirical website Betoota Advocate ran a headline, “‘Australia Never Had Slavery,’ Says P.M. Who Thinks The Sugar Cane Just Cut Itself for 100 Years.”
“My comments were not intended to cause offense and if I did, I deeply regret that and apologize for that,” Morrison said, adding that slavery was not lawful in the original Sydney colony.
While Morrison was seeking public restraint in re-evaluating historical figures in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the Western Australia state government announced it will rename the King Leopold Ranges in Australia’s northwest.
State Lands Minister Ben Wyatt, an indigenous Australian, described Belgium’s King Leopold II as an “evil tyrant” who should not be honored.
The announcement came after a statue of the monarch, who forced many people into slavery in the Congo, was defaced and removed from the Belgium city of Antwerp.
Morrison’s denial of Australian slavery came as a second blow to many indigenous Australians after he expressed gratitude after Floyd’s death that Australia did not share the U.S. problem of police violence against the black population.
Aborigines account for 2% of Australia’s adult population and 27% of its prison population, with more than 340 indigenous Australians dying in police or prison custody in the past three decades.
A statue of Cook in a Sydney park was a focus of anti-racism protesters in Sydney on Friday. A cottage built by Cook’s parents in England in 1755 that was moved to the Australian city of Melbourne in the 1930s has also been targeted by activist vandals.