Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologized at a Friday news conference for saying earlier that there was “no slavery in Australia” after critics accused him of denying the country’s history of racial injustice and forced labor.
“My comments were not intended to cause offense and if I did, I deeply regret that and apologize for that,” Morrison said, adding that there were in fact “all sorts of hideous practices that have taken place.”
"I was simply trying to make point that Australia, yes, we have had issues in our history, we have acknowledged them, I have acknowledged them, and we need to address them,” he concluded.
Morrison faced backlash for his comments in defense of British explorer James Cook, who charted the site of the first British penal colony in Australia that later became Sydney. Morrison currently represents the Sydney electoral district of Cook in Parliament.
As cities across the world are reevaluating historical figures and monuments in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Morrison had said Thursday that people calling for the district to be renamed to need to “get a bit of a grip on this.”
Morrison praised Cook for being “very ahead of his time” on Sydney Radio 2BG.
“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 said.
Australia was not as reliant on slave labor as, for example, the American South prior to the Civil War, but Aboriginal people and Pacific Islanders were enslaved in the country in the 19th century, and the practice endured in some areas until the 1950s, The Guardian reported.
The practice of “blackbirding” was also common. The term is used to describe the practice of coercing people to work as indentured laborers, often through deception or force.
Morrison’s comments came after London Mayor Sadiq Khan said that statues of imperialist figures throughout the city could be taken down as he announced a commission to “review and improve diversity.”
Black Lives Matter demonstrators across the United States have pulled down several statues of Confederate leaders, slave owners and explorer Christopher Columbus as they march in protest of police brutality and racial injustice.
The city of Antwerp removed a statue of former Belgian King Leopold II due to his oppressive rule over what is now Congo. As many as 10 million Congolese people died during his reign.
The Western Australia state government announced that it would also rename an iconic mountain range linked to the former "tyrant" monarch.
Morrison criticized the toppling of the statues in the radio interview, saying the protests are being taken over by “much more politically driven left-wing agendas.”
“We've got to acknowledge the positive and the negative,” he said. “But, you know, I think we've also got to respect our history as well. And this is not a license for people to just go nuts on this stuff.”