Australia Day: It’s complicated

It's a day we usually associate with sunshine, time off, back yard barbeques and evening fireworks. However January 26, which precipitates for many people the last 'true weekend of summer' (for those with school-aged children anyway), has also become a day which sits uncomfortably with many Australians.


The true meaning of Australia Day and the date we should celebrate this has sparked debate across the country as we grapple with our complicated past and a future which we hope can be more united.

As a historian, I'd like more Australians to understand the significance of January 26 and the reasons why we might consider changing the date. Here I outline my arguments to UWA Videographer Rhys Woolf:



Many misconceptions

There are many misconceptions regarding the date on which we currently celebrate Australia Day. As I discuss in the video, January 26, 1788 represents a very partial and unrepresentative moment from our early colonial past. 

The 'First Fleet' departed from Portsmouth, England on 13 May 1787 to found a penal colony, the first British settlement in Australia. These 11 ships arrived in Botany Bay eight months and one week later, on January 18, 1788.

The Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, was disappointed to find that at Botany Bay 'very few places offered themselves to his choice, and not one sufficiently extensive for a thousand people to sit down on', as David Collins' eyewitness account tells us.

So Phillip weighed anchor and moved around the corner to Port Jackson, eventually disembarking his passengers in Sydney Cove, where he raised the British flag and proclaimed the colony on January 26. 

However, while many believe this day also marked the actual landing of all the colonists, as historian Ray Evans has noted, in fact only the male convicts were unloaded on January 26 - so a more accurate name to mark this event might be the 'Second Landing of Male Convicts Day'. 

The women were not landed until February 6, the last stepping ashore just before a huge thunderstorm hit. Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smythe wrote that 'The men convicts got to them soon after they landed and it is beyond my abilities to give a just description of the scene of debauchery and riot that ensued'. 

Historians debate the extent of this 'debauchery', however it does cast this 'foundational moment' in a somewhat troubling light!

Like all traditions, this one has been fluid, given new meanings and dates to suit each generation's needs. During the First World War an Australia Day was held on July 30, to raise support and funds for the war effort.

After the Second World War, Supreme Court Justice Brennan suggested that a day celebrating the arrival of convicts was too divisive – memories of transportation were still deeply shameful for many Australians, only becoming a matter for pride during the 1970s.

Outside New South Wales, other colonies commemorated their own imperial foundations. In our own state, Western Australia, Albany was first established on 26 December 1826 as a British military outpost. The establishment of the Swan River Colony (Western Australia) was officially commemorated on June 1 as 'Foundation Day' up until 2011.

In 1935, all states adopted January 26 as a shared Australia Day but this became official only in 1994. You can find a timeline of all these events here.

However, since at least 1938, the Sesquicentenary of colonisation, Aboriginal Australians have pointed out that, from their perspective, the arrival of the British is not a cause for celebration.

On the contrary, it ushered in an era of dispossession, fragmentation, and disadvantage that continues into the present. We now know that Indigenous Australians had been in possession for at least 60,000 years before the British arrived.

If we genuinely wish to include the First Australians within a modern Australian nation we must listen to their protest, and acknowledge that for them the arrival of the First Fleet is a day of mourning.

I vote for an Australia Day date of May 9, the day in 1901 when the first federal parliament house was founded in Melbourne – as historian Henry Reynolds has suggested, this more accurately marks the first moment of shared nationhood.

Talmadge 1937 Founding of Aus ptg

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Australia Day: It’s complicated

It’s a day we usually associate with sunshine, time off, back yard barbeques and evening fireworks however January 26 has also become a day which sits uncomfortably with many Australians.