Australia Day, as everybody but the mentally impaired know, falls on January 26th, but historically, what does that signify? Not much, actually. The story begins in earnest on May 13th, 1787, when the First Fleet of 11 ships, was dispatched by the British Admiralty to what was then called New Holland. Their plan was for this fleet to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay. The fleet arrived between January 18th and 20th, in 1788. However, it was immediately apparent to the commanding officer, Captain Arthur Phillip, that Botany Bay was entirely unsuitable.
On January 21st, Phillip and a few officers and men travelled to Port Jackson, some 6 nautical miles to the north. They stayed at Sydney Cove, where they had landed, for a couple of days, and at the same time made contact with some of the local Aboriginals. When they returned to Botany Bay, on the evening of January 23rd, Phillip ordered the fleet to move to Sydney Cove the next morning. However, their departure was prevented by a gale, so they waited until the following day. At this time the gale was still blowing and only one of the ships, HMS Supply made it out of the bay and to Sydney Cove on January 25th. The other ships arrived subsequently. Early next morning, Phillip, along with a few marines, officers and sailors rowed ashore and took possession of the land in the name of King George III. Lieutenant James Cook had actually claimed the whole east coast for King George III, when he landed on Possession Island, a small island in the Torres Strait on the 22nd of August 1770, and wrote in his journal “I now once more hoisted the English Coulers (sic) and in the name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast from the above Latitude [38 degrees S] down to this place by the name of New Wales (one of the copies of Cook’s Journal, held by the Admiralty, calls it New South Wales). Presumably, Phillip, would have known this, but went ahead and claimed if for the king again on January 26th, 1788.
This date of January 26th was also not the formal establishment of the colony of New South Wales. The formal proclamation of the colony, and of Arthur Phillip’s governorship, were not read out until almost two weeks later, on February 7th, 1788. The vesting of all land in the reigning English Monarch, King George III also dates from February 7th, 1788.
At the time of the arrival of the first fleet, more than 500 indigenous groups lived in Australia and totalled about 750,000 people. It is estimated that between 1788 and 1900, this Indigenous population was reduced by 90%. This was mostly due to the introduction of diseases previously unknown to the Indigenous population. As a consequence, they had no immunity to diseases like smallpox, measles and influenza. Governor Phillip reported, in a letter to Lord Sydney, that smallpox had killed half of the population of Indigenous people in the Sydney region within fourteen months of the arrival in Sydney Cove. Sexual abuse and exploitation of Indigenous girls and women introduced several venereal diseases to the Indigenous population. These were again diseases to which they had little immunity.
In addition to the introduction of diseases, settlers forcibly acquired Aboriginal lands for farming. As reported by the Wesleyan Missionary, Francis Tuckfield, “The Government is fast disposing of the land occupied by the natives from time immemorial. In addition to which settlers under the sanction of government may establish themselves in any part of this extensive territory and since the introduction of the numerous flocks and herds. . . a serious loss has been sustained by the natives without an equivalent being rendered. Their territory is not only invaded, but their game is driven back, their marnong [daisy yam] and other valuable roots are eaten by the white man’s sheep and their deprivation, abuse and miseries are daily increasing.”
This competition for land and resources quickly and often led to violence. There is a great deal of debate about the levels of frontier violence, but historical records do document over one hundred occasions on which Indigenous people were hunted and massacred, with at least 20,000 Indigenous people being killed in these massacres. It is also estimated, that 2,000 to 2,500 settlers were killed by Aboriginals.
So, it is not really surprising that many Aboriginals call January 26th ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Survival Day’.
Quite often you will hear ignorant bogans and right wing nut jobs say things like ‘It happened so long ago, Aboriginals should get over it’. As a nation, we still seem to have a strong belief that Anzac Day should be suitably ‘celebrated’ as a remembrance of those that fell at Gallipoli in 1915. What is probably surprising for most of these bogans and other halfwits is that the last massacre of Aboriginals took place in August to October 1928 (the Coniston Massacre), and official records state that 31 Aboriginals were killed, but unofficial estimates say the death toll could have been twice that. Should we get over Gallipoli too?
Sometimes, really stupid bigots will say something like “It’s our country now, not aboriginals” (sic). This clearly shows the minimal level of intellect of which some people are capable. They seem to equate Australia Day as being a day to gloat about being white and as thick as a brick.
I find it disturbing to hear views like this and I blame politicians, almost all of them, but mostly of the conservative persuasion, who are forever telling us how they are doing everything they can for Aboriginals, but nothing changes, with the implication that it must be the Aboriginals’ fault. They do the same with refugees, and anyone else they do not like, or more importantly, that bogans do not like. Politicians are a gutless breed who, rather than having a vision of a nation for everyone, simply pander to the lowest common denominator.
This country needs to grow up and its politicians need to grow a spine, so I suggest that we change the date of Australia Day to May 27th. That was the date of the Referendum in 1967, where over 90% of the population in all states carried the amendment to the constitution, which prevented the states making laws regarding Aboriginals. The ability to make laws for “peace, order, and good government”, with regard to any race was restricted to the federal government. In addition, section 127 of the constitution was completely removed. This section stated that Aboriginals should not be counted as part of the population of the nation. This did not confer citizenship on Aboriginals; that had been done in 1949 when all Australians became citizens, rather than British subjects. At that time, they also received the right to vote in federal elections, provided they were eligible to vote in state elections (no Aboriginals were allowed to vote in Queensland at all at that time). It is also a myth that aboriginals were classed as ‘fauna’ prior to the 1967 Referendum.
Given that the 1967 referendum was a significant step in Australia growing up, May 27th seems to me to be a much more appropriate day to celebrate what it is to be Australian.