Australian prime minister apologizes for 'no slavery' claim

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Police guard a statue of British explorer James Cook as protesters gather in Sydney, Friday, June 12, 2020, to support U.S. protests over the death of George Floyd. Hundreds of police disrupted plans for a Black Lives Matter rally but protest organizers have vowed that other rallies will continue around Australia over the weekend despite warnings of the pandemic risk. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

CANBERRA – 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.