What is Australia Day? A public holiday and a day of celebration or Invasion Day, a day of mourning? Can the two be reconciled? Here are the facts.
January 1788. Two fleets of sailing ships met at Botany Bay, just south of today’s Sydney Australia.
The French fleet was trying to get into the bay. The English fleet was trying to get out.
Each commander planned to claim the land for his country. Success meant power, wealth and status for the man who succeeded. The weather was against both of them.
Captain Arthur Phillip finally managed to get just one boat, the HMS Supply, out of Botany Bay, up the coast, and into the more sheltered Port Jackson.
On the morning of 26 January 1788 Phillip was rowed ashore. Once there he took possession of the land in the name of King George III. He named the area Sydney Cove. The rest of the first fleet straggled in as the day went on.
On 7 February 1788 a formal proclamation of the colony and of Arthur Phillip’s Governorship was read out. This meant that, under British law, any unowned land in the colony became vested in the crown.
Sydney’s Aboriginal History
The land that Phillip claimed for Britain in these late January events of 1788 was the land of the Gadigal people.
Their relationship to this land was deeply spiritual. It stretched back through time immemorial and involved complex rights, duties and obligations.
Indigenous Australians’ rights to use the land for hunting, gathering, fishing and holding ceremonies, were essentially denied by the British.
They did this by adopting the legal fiction of terra nullius. Under this legal fiction the land was deemed to be empty with no one having any title to it or rights to use it.
What is Australia Day?
This day of taking possession, 26 January, is today the largest annual public event in Australia. Over two thirds of Australians actively celebrate Australia Day.
It is also variously known as an Aboriginal Day of Mourning, Invasion Day and Survival Day. Inevitably, the day brings to mind past injustices in Australia’s history and the great losses suffered by indigenous Australians.
So what is Australia Day today? The date remains highly contentious. There is an increasing appetite for changing the day on which we celebrate the nation to one with a different symbolism attached. My vote would be the date on which we finally become an independent republic.
But we haven’t reached tipping point on a date change yet so, for now, January 26 remains. Officially it is a day of both commemoration and celebration. It commemorates the survival of the Aboriginal people in the face of overwhelming odds. And it celebrates the interaction of Aboriginal and European cultures.
Australia Day Events
Starting with traditional Aboriginal smoking ceremonies, Australia Day events continue with the Great Australia Day swim and the Oz 10k Wheelchair race. Go here for details.
The city is thrown open for the day. Cheer the ferries as they race in the harbour, take advantage of free or reduced entry to museums, watch the fireworks at Darling Harbour. The list of things to do is long and it’s here.