On 26 January 1788, 11 British ships carrying 1,023 people concluded their voyage from Portsmouth in the United Kingdom to Warrane (Sydney Cove). It was there that Captain Arthur Phillip raised the flag of Great Britain and proclaimed a colonial outpost on the sovereign lands of the Gadigal Peoples of the Eora Nation.
This act commenced the invasion by British colonists of lands already occupied across the continent. A continent that was home to over 250 individual Sovereign Nations, inter-connected by trade, knowledge sharing, cultural values and spirituality.
This date marks the formal establishment of the colony of NSW and the start of the Colonial Frontier Wars, a period of armed conflict between settlers and First Nations Peoples which lasted until the Coniston massacre in 1930 (arguably even later). It ushered in a period of dispossession, land grabs, oppression, massacres, child removal, suppression of languages and lore and the spread of disease at the hands of colonial powers.
Starting on 26 January 1788 and continuing today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities have been forced to fight to protect their Country, people, culture, languages and history. But 26 January 1788 also marked the beginning of a period of active and sustained resistance from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander custodians of the lands. Creative resistance, resilience, refusal and survival have been hallmarks of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives every day since invasion.
First Nations women in particular engaged in creative and bold acts of resistance in order to reclaim their autonomy and resist oppression – a (his)herstory that is not often told. This cultural resilience and resistance continues today.
History of ‘Australia Day’
Australia Day as a national public holiday was not consistently celebrated across Australia until 1994. But where did it begin?
Early celebrations of what is now understood to be Australia Day began in Sydney in the early 19th century, also referred to as Foundation Day. By 1838, it was declared a public holiday to mark the 50th anniversary of the colony.
As other colonies were established, they chose different dates to celebrate their foundation. By 1888, all colonies except South Australia observed the day. Still, these early celebrations of a national holiday – at this stage held on 24 May, the late Queen Victoria’s birthday – were more imperial than nationalist in spirit. By 1915, ‘Australia Day’ emerged as a fundraising effort for the first world war, held on July 30.
In these early years of the 20th century, it was thought that a national day of celebration would create a greater sense of cohesion between the separate colonies as they attempted to forget Australia’s ‘convict stain’ and focus on the future. But it was not until 1935 that the states all agreed to use the name Australia Day for the celebration and the date chosen was 26 January. The decision, however, was not without controversy or protest.
On 26 January 1938, while many Australians celebrated the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the day the British flag was hoisted at Sydney Cove, a group of First Nations men and women gathered at Australia Hall in Sydney in official protest to declare a Day of Mourning.
WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people TO FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.
Indeed as far back as 1888, questions around the significance of the date to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were bubbling in our collective consciousness. When Henry Parkes, NSW Premier at the time, was asked in 1888 which activities would be included for First Nations peoples in the celebrations marking a centenary of British colonisation of Australia, Parkes replied: “And remind them that we have robbed them?”
26 January 1972 was a particularly significant day of resistance as the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was erected on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra. It was called an embassy to symbolise the feeling of many First Nations people that they were foreigners in their own country. On 26 January 1992 the tent embassy became a permanent site, and in 1995 it was listed on the National Estate by the Australian Heritage Commission.