Activists in Australia have toppled a statue of Capt James Cook and daubed a statue of Queen Victoria with red paint in protest at British settlement of the country more than two centuries ago.
The bronze statue of the British explorer was sawn off at the ankles, with vandals spraying the words “the colony will fall” on its granite plinth.
Capt Cook, who was born in Yorkshire and claimed the eastern coast of Australia for the British Empire, was described as a “murderer for British imperialism” by protesters.
The damage to the monuments, both of them in Melbourne, came on the eve of Australia Day on Friday, the annual holiday which commemorates the arrival of the British First Fleet of convicts in Botany Bay in 1788. Capt Cook had landed there and planted the British flag 18 years before, in 1770.
Australia Day has become increasingly contentious, with some Aboriginal Australians calling it “Invasion Day” and saying it marks the start of a process of dispossession and disaster for the original inhabitants of the continent.
Politicians condemned the attacks as inexcusable vandalism and police are investigating.
The statue of Capt Cook, which was erected in 1914 in a park in St Kilda in Melbourne, was toppled at around 3am local time on Thursday.
The Queen Victoria statue, which was unveiled in 1907 and is located near the Royal Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, was sprayed with red paint.
Video footage of the attacks was posted on an anonymous Instagram account. It showed masked and hooded protesters climb the plinth of the Capt Cook statue and cut it off at the ankles with angle grinders.
“Captain Cook was a murderer for British imperialism, Queen Victoria a director and overseer of genocide,” a message on the Instagram account read. “Colonialism will never be celebrated, only toppled.”
Jacinta Allan, the premier of Victoria, said the vandalised statues would be repaired and cleaned.
Marcus Pearl, a councillor, said the statue of Capt Cook should “definitely be repaired and reinstated to all its glory… it’s going to take a little bit of time and a bit of craftsmanship.”
John Pesutto, the leader of the opposition in Victoria and a member of the centre-Right Liberal Party, also condemned the attacks, describing them as “totally unacceptable”.
He acknowledged that Australia Day, celebrated each year on Jan 26 with picnics and barbecues, “is a source of pain for a number of Indigenous Australians.”
But, he said, “we must always debate and discuss our differences in a respectful manner”.
Statues of British colonial figures have been attacked several times in the past, particularly in the lead-up to Australia Day.
Heather Cunsolo, a local mayor, said: “We understand and acknowledge the complex and diverse views surrounding Australia Day. We cannot condone, however, the vandalism of a public asset where costs will ultimately be borne by ratepayers.”