Despite its relatively short history as a federated nation, Australia has been a known and occupied country for thousands of years. In fact, to tell the story of Australia Day, we must first trace our roots back much further than the first settlement.
For more than 60,000 years, Aboriginal peoples have occupied the land now known as Australia. Over this time, it’s believed that as many as 1600 generations of people lived and died on the shores of Australia. However, the rest of the settled world didn’t become interested in this mysterious continent until the thirteenth century when they heard stories from Asia about a land far to the south. By the sixteenth century, European cartographers and navigators started researching the country they knew very little about and gave it various names, including Terra Australis – meaning Southern Land – and New Holland.
Australia’s First European Settlement
On August 22, 1770, Captain James Cook raised the Union Jack on Possession Island in New South Wales, effectively laying claim to the eastern half of the continent on behalf of Great Britain. At this point in time, Cook claimed Australia to be ‘Terra Nullius’ or ‘No Man’s Land’. It wasn’t until Captain Arthur Philip, the commander of the first fleet of eleven convict ships arrived in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788, that this initial claim was found to be wrong. As his ship approached Australia’s eastern coast, Philip claimed he could see “the natives lining the shore shaking spears and yelling”.
However, despite resistance, the Union Jack was raised on January 26, 1788, to officially mark the beginning of the first colony.
The Emergence of Australia’s National Day
During the early days of Australia’s settlement, almanacks and the Sydney Gazette referred to the day of the first fleet’s landing as ‘First Landing Day’ or ‘Foundation Day’ and was often celebrated by drinking or with an anniversary dinner. Most celebrations were held by emancipists.
It wasn’t until 1817 that Governor Macquarie accepted Captain Matthew Flinders’ suggestion to officially name the country Australia and the following year, in 1818, Macquarie proclaimed January 26 of that year to be a public holiday in NSW in celebration of the colony’s thirteenth year of settlement. In 1838, this was made an annual public holiday for NSW, which was celebrated with a Jubilee.
Jump forward to 1871 and the Australian Natives’ Association formed a society to help native-born children of European descent obtain sickness, medical and funeral benefits. It was this same society that would later advocate strongly for the Federation of the Australian colonies within the British Empire and for January 26 to become a nationally recognised holiday.
A hundred years after the British settled in Australia, representatives from Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and even New Zealand joined leaders in NSW to celebrate Australia’s centenary. This day is usually referred to as ‘Anniversary’ or ‘Foundation Day’.
After more than a hundred years as a British colony, the Australian colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Melbourne stood as the interim capital of Australia until the Australian Capital Territory was formed out of NSW in 1908. By 1913, the federal capital had taken the name Canberra, with Parliament House opening there in 1927. However, at this point in time, Australia Day still wasn’t recognised nationally as a public holiday.
Campaigning in Victoria commenced in 1930 to make Australia Day an official public holiday, which was passed in 1931, with the remaining states and territories following by 1935.
However, while ‘white Australians of British descent’ celebrated the colonisation of Australia, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders were still mourning the loss of their native lands. As such, in 1938 Aboriginal leaders met in Sydney for a ‘Day of Mourning’ where they started campaigning for full citizen rights.
Over the years, some people have proclaimed Australia Day to be insensitive to Indigenous communities, with some local councils in Australia officially renouncing Australia Day. However, presently, Australia Day is still a nationally recognised, widely celebrated holiday for Australians.
Australia Day in 2018
228 years after Australia’s settlement and Australia Day is still going strong. This annual anniversary is celebrated with the Australian of the Year awards, parades, races and flag raising’s across the country.
If you’re keen to show your Aussie pride, talk to Tudor House about our Australian and Aboriginal flags and banners today!