It’s the 26th January, 2018. Today is the 230th anniversary of when Captain Arthur Phillip planted the British flag at the site of what became Sydney in the state of New South Wales. The place is New, it’s in the South, and it’s a bit weird, like Wales. Get it? The Dutch were even less original. They called the whole continent New Holland. What a laugh. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world that’s less like the Netherlands than Australia.
The 26th January has become Australia Day. When I was young (I must be honest) it didn’t mean much more than an excuse for a long weekend. Whatever day the 26th fell on, the closest Monday became the holiday. That changed not all that long ago. These days the holiday is on the date, whatever day of the week it might be. (Except, I believe, in the Australian Capital Territory (AKA Canberra) where they get a long weekend.  Really, as far as we Western Australians were concerned, British colonisation didn’t start until Governor Stirling sailed up the Swan River in June, 1829. WA didn’t have much to do with the Eastern States until the gold rushes in the 1890’s. All the other states were much the same. For quite a while you had to pay taxes to cross the Murray River between Victoria and NSW.
I suppose Australia Day is the equivalent of Columbus Day in the US – the day the White Man arrived. And that is why the date has become controversial to a minority of the population. Some (I stress ‘some’) Aboriginal people contend that it’s invasion day. And I suppose it is – for that tribe in Sydney when Philip arrived with his convicts and marines. (The Eora people) But it wasn’t for the Nyoongah in the area around the Swan River – that came forty-one years later. And so on, around Australia. However, I’ll concede it was the first deliberate landing by white men, with the intention of staying. (A few Dutch people became permanent residents quite by accident).
It constantly amazes me that the young are so ignorant of their own history. Why desecrate a statue of James Cook (who sailed up the East coast in 1770) on Australia Day? Many have no idea why 26th January is celebrated at all.
The REAL Australia Day, when the Commonwealth of Australia was created by uniting the Australian states into a federation, happened on 1st January, 1901. It’s the equivalent, more or less, of the American 4th July. But I think we’d all concede that January 1st is a bit busy already, what with fireworks and such.
What other date might be suitable for Australians to jointly celebrate their nation? Um… how about the date when Australians were no longer counted as British citizens? That was… oh… 26th January 1949. I guess the problem is that unlike the French, the Americans, and the Russians, we didn’t have a rip-roaring revolution to celebrate our nationhood.
It’s tragically true that many aboriginal people were shamefully treated – sometimes not so long ago, as I related in my post on my visit to Rottnest island. But life goes on. European history is a litany of invasions and take-overs. On a largish island off the coast of France, the Danes ousted the Romans who ousted the Celts. The Normans took over from the Danes – with murder, massacres, and repression much more common than we might believe. These days those different elements have all melted together and we call them Poms – okay, British. I find it refreshing to see Australians who count themselves as aboriginal, supporting retention of the 26th January as our national day. Jacinta Price, who is a half-aboriginal Alice Springs councillor, says ‘aboriginal people have become professional mourners and it’s time it stopped‘.
Well said, Jacinta.
26th January is a historically significant date. But that’s history. I love this country. I wasn’t born here, but it raised me. Today I will be celebrating what makes this nation such a great place to live. Enjoy Dorothea McKellar’s evergreen poem, as read by the author.
As for the history – I must applaud The Australian newspaper for its six-part serial on the voyage of the First Fleet to Australia in 1787/8. It’s a wonderful series of stories, describing the epic voyage from the point of view of various people who took part – willingly or unwillingly. The vignettes are put together from historical sources of the time – letters and journals written by people like Arthur Phillip himself. I’m not the only one who would love to see these essays published in book form. They’re the sort of thing that brings history to life – not dates and names. The convicts, in particular, suffered great hardship on that interminable journey, stuck below decks amongst the rats and the filth. There are tales of attempted escape, attempted mutiny, female convicts trading sex with the sailors and marines for small favours, the birth of a baby during a storm on Christmas day – and more. Look for a book written by Trent Dalton and illustrated by Eric Lobbecke. The Australian is a subscription newspaper, so there’s no point in a link.
And just because it’s so damned entertaining – here are the late great Douglas Adams’s thoughts on Australia. He was wrong about the snakes, though. Oh – and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Terry Pratchett’s wonderful novel The Last Continent. It’s about XXX, not Australia. But… <whispers> it really is about Australia. Sir T took the mickey out of every legend, every icon, every grand old Aussie characteristic. Nothing was sacred. Vegemite, beer, the man from Snowy River, Ned Kelly, Nellie Melba and the pavlova, Mad Max… Recommended.
And to finish, please enjoy a few photos celebrating the wide brown land.