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Accuracy forgotten when remembering the past

CONTROVERSIES occasionally arise over whether a proposed monument – a bust or obelisk – ought to be erected at a particular site on WA’s coast.

True, it’s not a burning issue, compared with, say, hospital or education funding.

But there’s a serious side to it and a growing need to somehow formalise precisely how locations with alleged historical significance ought be identified and validated.

Monuments have significant tourism value and are educationally relevant.

Yet WA may be on the way to developing a reputation of not always being spot-on with its monument sitings.

If adults involved in such planning cannot get details correct, such as the identity of a seafarer or where that person or his crew landed, that is certainly not giving proper guidance to school students.

WA has a Dutch connection, arising from tiny and dynamic Holland’s commercial and other contacts with what is now Indonesia during the 16th and 17th centuries.

WA also has a French connection, dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when French explorers – often accompanied by scientists who came to study and investigate WA’s flora, fauna and indigenous people – sailed to the southern seas.

Such ventures – led by men like Bruny D’Entrecasteaux, Nicolas Baudin, Emmanuel Hamelin and Louise de Freycinet – can be fairly compared to the current efforts of the United States, Russia, and several other scientifically advanced nations with the International Space Station.

What generally happens is that, as an anniversary approaches, enthusiasts convene and work towards erecting a monument on what’s seen as an appropriate site.

Publicity follows and local MPs become involved. Then, while all looks rosy, queries arise about an aspect of the undertaking.

To date a series of queries have surfaced over the appropriateness of certain sites, or whether the celebrated explorer was appropriate.

This happened in 1997 at Cottesloe, when enthusiasts set out to commemorate the landing of Willem Vlamingh. The plan was to erect something on a conveniently situated high mound behind a rocky coastal outcrop near the old Cable Station.

It emerged that Vlamingh hadn’t actually landed there but at nearby Leighton Beach, in the municipality of North Fremantle.

Vlamingh would never have allowed his men to land on the rocks when there was an exquisite beach close by, now two municipalities away.

It also emerged that the chosen mound was a covered wartime communications bunker.

This prompted the planners to resort to various belated explanations, with one even claiming the plan had been modified to designate the entire area between North Fremantle-Cottesloe-Mosman Park and Peppermint Grove a Vlamingh precinct.

So, if you can’t get the precise landing place – which requires detailed historic research - broaden it into a precinct until that spot is (perhaps) covered.

Earlier, Esperance had entered into a twin town relationship with the French town of St Martin de Re, birthplace of navigator Baudin, whereas D’Entrecasteaux chart-ered Esperance Bay in 1792.

Baudin bypassed Esperance well out to sea in 1803, searching for the continental shelf, and wrote in his log he didn’t need to visit it as D’Entrecasteaux had chartered the area.

The twin towns idea would have been more appropriate with D’Entrecasteaux’s village in Provence or nearby Aix-en-Provence.

And there’s the case involving Englishman William Dampier, who is commemorated by a memorial in Broome, whereas he landed about 100 kilometres away.

Baudin recently was at the centre of another controversy involving Cottesloe, which he also sailed past, well out to sea.

A committee, reportedly linked to French Government funding, offered a Baudin bust and two plaques free of charge.

According to Australia’s leading expert on Baudin’s expedition and other French Southern Hemisphere scientific missions, Perth historian Professor Leslie Marchant: “The only coast Baudin could claim to have discovered was the small section between near Mt Gambier and Encounter Bay.”

Both are in South Australia, more than 2000km from Cottesloe.

Although Baudin landed in WA, it was near Eagle Bay, more than 200km from Cottesloe.

In each case the mariners being commemorated never actually saw or visited the sites chosen.

Reforms are needed that ensure accuracy and appropriateness in siting monuments. What is needed is a committee of experts, including historians, navigators, cartographers, a Nomenclature Committee and the office of the Surveyor-General representatives.

It would have power to issue validations that, if carried on monuments, meant they were correctly located according to available records.

The WA Municipal Association should back such a structure to ensure accuracy, so locally erected historic monuments are guaranteed educational soundness and foreign tourists don’t visit the wrong sites.

Local councillors, politicians, and enthusiastic ad hoc pressure groups aren’t appropriate adjudicators, especially at the early planning phases of monument erection.

No one wants our coastline – and inland for that matter – to have a network of monuments that are displays of embarrassing errors, revealing sloppy decision-making and lacklustre local administration.

WA’s Dutch, French, and British, connections should be treated with greater caution and respect.

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