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Australia’s National Day

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Robinson's aeroplane map of Sydney [with Sydney Cove circled]. (Sydney, H.E.C. Robinson 1922.) Library of Congress Geography and Map Division,
Robinson’s aeroplane map of Sydney [with Sydney Cove circled; click map to zoom]. (Sydney, H.E.C. Robinson 1922.) Library of Congress Geography and Map Division,
Today, January 26, is Australia Day, a national public holiday in Australia that commemorates the arrival of the “First Fleet” of convict ships that resulted in the establishment of the first British penal colony on the continent. It is considered Australia’s national day.

On January 26, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip raised the British flag at Sydney Cove, a small bay on the southern shore of Port Jackson. Several days prior, the fleet of eleven ships that he commanded had sailed into Botany Bay, but Phillip had decided it was not a good place to land and instead sailed farther north. The ships, which had traveled for more than 250 days, carried around 1,400 people, including more than 700 convicts, along with marines and civil officers and some of their families. As I noted in a previous post, many Australians are proud of their convict ancestry, and being a descendant of a “First Fleeter” (whether a convict, sailor, or officer) is a particular source of pride.

The journey to January 26 being Australia’s national day was actually a bit winding. The anniversary of the landing at Sydney Cove was celebrated by Australia’s early immigrants. In 1818 the New South Wales governor officially marked the date for the first time and exempted “Artificers and Labourers in the immediate service of Government” from work (as well as granting them an extra pound of meat as a donation from the government). However, it wasn’t until 1838, following the 50th anniversary of the landing, that the day was officially pronounced an annual public holiday in New South Wales, originally called “Foundation Day” or “First Landing Day.” Other Australian colonies celebrated their own various anniversaries or founding days (and a couple still do). Then, in 1888, all of the colonies commemorated January 26 as “Anniversary Day” or “Foundation Day.” Some started calling it Australia Day, and this largely became the norm in 1935.

The Commonwealth and state governments agreed to all celebrate Australia Day in 1946, although the holiday was to be observed on the closest Monday to January 26. It was not until 1994 that all jurisdictions celebrated Australia Day as a public holiday on January 26 itself.

The designation of January 26 as a public holiday called Australia Day, and observation of the day on the following Monday if January 26 falls on the weekend, is found in the legislation of each individual state and territory:

With the holiday falling towards the end of the Australian summer, it is mostly celebrated with outdoor gatherings and “barbies”/BBQs. There are various organized events in each state and territory, while the main official government celebrations involve the awarding of Australia Day Honours and other awards as well as ceremonies to swear in new Australian citizens.

As with some other national days or other holidays in different countries, including New Zealand’s Waitangi Day, Australia Day is not without controversy and protest. In particular, the celebration of the day is seen as hugely offensive to Aboriginal Australians, who suffered greatly from the time of the landing of the First Fleet. Between 1788 and 1900, it is estimated that the indigenous population of Australia was reduced by as much as 90% “under the impact of new diseases, repressive and often brutal treatment, dispossession, and social and cultural disruption and disintegration.” In the 1930s, a group of Aboriginal rights leaders labelled Australia Day as a “Day of Mourning.” On January 26, 1938, on what was termed “the 150th Anniversary of the Whitemen’s seizure of our country,” Aborigines who met in Sydney at Australian Hall unanimously passed a resolution protesting the mistreatment of Aborigines since 1788 and “appealing for new laws ensuring equality for Aborigines within the Australian community.”

In 1988, the bicentenary of the landing, major protests took place to mark what was called a “Year of Mourning,” as well as being a celebration of survival. By then, other terms for January 26 had come to be used by Aborigines and their supporters, including “Invasion Day” and “Survival Day,” and ralliesprotests, and other events continue to be held throughout the country on this date.

Australia is the only Commonwealth country in which the national day celebrates the date of physical colonization, rather than say the date of the country’s independence or some other significant day. For a number of years, arguments have been put forward for the national day to be changed to mark a different historical event (there is currently a hashtag on social media for this discussion – #changethedate). However, the current prime minister stated recently that the government would not consider changing the date (as have others before him) after one city shifted the date and format of its official celebrations. Some commentators have instead advocated changing the “tone” of Australia Day, rather than shifting the day itself.

The Library of Congress holds multiple items about the First Fleet, including books that list the convicts on board and their crimes. The Law Library also holds many items related to Aboriginal rights and the law in Australia.

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