Clover Moore’s decision to stop wearing the City of Sydney’s historic mayoral chains is based on ignorance. Not just the ignorance of wearing a symbolic outfit for fifteen years before suddenly deciding that it was racist, but a more pervasive problem of Australians completely failing to understand their history.
The Lord Mayor claims that the motto “I take but I surrender” sitting below the image of an Aboriginal man and a colonial settler, refers to the taking of land from Australia’s Indigenous population and is therefore insensitive. However, even brief historical research reveals that the motto was never intended to refer to Indigenous Australians at all. An administration should not be making decisions to remove historical symbols if they have not even bothered to attempt to understand those symbols.
If not for acting rashly and claiming authority, Moore’s mistake would be fairly excusable. After all the Sydney Town Hall’s website, run by the City of Sydney, makes a similar claim. It says that “The motto ‘I take but I surrender’ was meant to imply that the early settlers came to New South Wales and took the land, but in doing so, also gave it back. Today this concept is regarded as ambiguous so the City of Sydney uses a simpler version of the coat of arms.”
This is incorrect. In 1881 the city authorities were asked to clarify the intent of the motto and they said that “it means that the city takes from the citizens in the shape of rates something which it surrenders in improvements and other benefits”. At the time the City of Sydney was one of the few incorporated municipalities in New South Wales. Incorporation was then voluntary, but few areas took up the opportunity because it meant being asked to pay more in taxes for services that would otherwise be administered directly by the New South Wales Government. This situation would endure until the Carruthers Government introduced a system of comprehensive local government in 1905.
In such circumstances it was necessary for councils to make a claim that the extra taxation was worthwhile. The coat of arms did this through both the motto and an image of a beehive symbolising bees collecting pollen that would then be transformed into beneficial honey. This image was later removed to make way for a set of three coats of arms. Those of Viscount Sydney, the city’s namesake, Captain Cook, and Sir Thomas Hughes, the first Lord Mayor.
The idea that “I take” referred to the taking of land seems to have been entirely extrapolated from this new graphic design and the image of the Aboriginal warrior which had always been there. The misconception had already set in by the 1930s, though in a more positive form. In that decade several newspapers reported that “I take but I surrender” referred to the British Government voluntarily giving New South Wales responsible government. It was thus seen as a celebration of the birth of Australian democracy.
In a climate where people are prone to focus on the shameful parts of Australia’s history, somewhere along the line the perceived emphasis of the motto has been shifted so that it is no longer on the British surrendering their Colony to its people, but on the British taking the land in the first place. Even if we excuse not investigating the motto’s true meaning, this is almost a deliberate attempt to find something sinister that was never intended. Though we should acknowledge the dark parts of our past, it is worth noting that in New South Wales Aboriginal men were not denied the vote, so they too had something to celebrate in the coming of responsible government.
The fact that even the Sydney Town Hall’s official website could get this so wrong reveals a bigger problem, Australians fundamentally do not know their own history. Until this is rectified it is pointless to have a discussion about removing colonial imagery like Sydney University’s statue of William Wentworth. Tearing down symbols through ignorance only promotes further ignorance. If Clover Moore cares about our colonial past enough to discard her chains, maybe she should engage with it.
Dr Zachary Gorman is a historian and Research Fellow with Institute of Public Affairs and the author of Sir Joseph Carruthers: Founder of the New South Wales Liberal Party.