I want to wish my friends and readers in Australia a happy Australia Day, today. Even though this year’s celebration activities largely took place yesterday, the 26th is the actual Anniversary Day. There will probably still be some barbeques, parades, and summer day trips for fun today. The holiday is relatively young, in 1994, the states and territories agreed to celebrate the historically important date.
Most of us non-Australians were taught little about the nation in school. We usually remember that the colony was founded with the intention for it to be a prison colony. The British had originally named the colony, “New South Wales”. The British crown appointed Arthur Phillip as captain of HMS Sirius in October of 1786. He was commissioned to transport convicts and then establish an agricultural labor camp for the prisoners in the new colony.
His commission was poorly funded, so he encountered many problems putting together the fleet to accomplish his mission. Captain Phillip finally assembled a contingent of officers and Marines. He headed eleven ships manned by a group of almost 300 military and over 700 convicts around the Horn of Africa towards the East coast of Australia.
On January 26, 1788 the fleet arrived and took formal possession of the colony of New South Wales. The ceremonial raising of the Union Jack took place for the first time in Sydney Cove. This became known as “First Landing”.
New South Wales struggled to remain viable during the first several years. The settlers had no agricultural training and the soil was mostly unsuitable for farming, so the colony was often on the verge of starvation. Fortunately Captain Phillip turned out to be a very competent leader and director. Under his leadership, the first settlers managed to build a reasonably prosperous colony.
As a sense of solidarity and pride of place evolved, the colonists began to informally celebrate each January 26th as their “Founding Day”. Oddly enough, Australia is the only nation that believes that the arrival of Europeans is so important that the anniversary of the landing is its national day instead of its official national formation day.
January 26th was declared a legal holiday in 1818 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of British presence on Australia. During the next several decades, five additional self-governing colonies were founded and population increased steadily. All six colonies were officially united on January 1, 1901, forming the Commonwealth of Australia.
Not everyone on the continent is pleased and happy to celebrate the date. Many Aboriginal people commemorate the date as “Invasion Day”, “Survival Day”, or “Day of Mourning”. It is commonly known as “Aboriginal Sovereignty Day”. Just as in the Americas, the arrival of Europeans marked the beginnings of armed, forceful settlement by outsiders. Dispossession and genocide of Aboriginal populations took place.
The name, “Day of Mourning”, came about after a party of Aboriginals were transported to the 150th Anniversary Day in 1938. The Native Australians were brought to the re-enactment by officials, but the Aboriginals refused to participate. 1988 was named “A Year of Mourning” by and for the Australian Aboriginal People” to remember those who suffered and died during colonization. That year also saw the discontinuation of official re-enactments of the British landing.
By the way, the name of the continent was suggested by the English navigator/surveyor Captain Matthew Flinders. His crew was the first to circumnavigate the entire land mass and to identify it as a continent. The name Australia is the Latin word for southern. The name became official in 1824.