Most Australians would have been told of that joyous moment Captain James Cook sailed into Botany Bay and claimed the land as “Terra Nullius”. But that happened in April of 1770. The day we celebrate Australia was based on events that happened 18 years later.
And unfortunately, January 26, 1788 was not as eventful as the landing of Captain James Cook.
The man who is responsible for Australia Day was Captain Arthur Phillip. And he did not approve of Captain James Cook’s original landing spot. The land was terrible for cultivation. So, after landing in Botany Bay around January 20, they decided to move camp a few kilometres north to what is now called Sydney Harbour. And just as they began setting up their new camp at Port Jackson in Sydney Cove, they learned that two French frigates of the Lapérouse expedition had just sailed into Botany Bay. Not the French!
Because of this, the British flag was officially raised for the second time in Australia’s history. And thanks to this ceremonious event (and a harsh adaptation to their new home over the next few decades) the colony grew fond of the date.
But back then it wasn’t called Australia Day, and that’s because Australia was originally called New Holland. They preferred First Landing Day or Foundation Day, and it was purely a New South Wales thing, for that was the name of their new colony which would later become a state.
As other colonies set up camp across the land, they each created their own foundation days. And even after 1901, when all the states and territories officially formed, January 26 was still purely a New South Wales thing. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s when January 26 started to become an Australian thing.
And it wasn't until 1994 when it became an official holiday.
So there we have it! Australia Day celebrates the founding of Sydney Harbour and the uneventful raising of the British flag to officiate New South Wales under British rule for the second time, and for no other reason but because the French were coming.
But Was It Really Terra Nullius, Though?
Captain James Cook did more than just land in Botany bay and raise the flag. He met with the original inhabitants, too. And the way you interpret that story depends on who you ask.
According to Cook’s diary, he had met with two Aboriginal men, and in that encounter, one of the men threw a rock at him. Cook fired a warning shot, followed by two more which wounded one of the men. Cook then described the men throwing spears at Cook’s entourage.
But according to Dr Shayne T. Williams, whose ancestral roots run through the Aboriginal community of NSW, the story would have been different through the eyes of an Indigenous Australian.
“ If, however, you look at this same encounter from our perspective,” Dr Williams said, “you would understand that [the] two Gweagal men were assiduously carrying out their spiritual duty to Country by protecting Country from the presence of persons not authorised to be there.
“In our cultures, it is not permissible to enter another culture’s Country without due consent. Consent was always negotiated. Negotiation was not necessarily a matter of immediate dialogue, it often involved spiritual communication through ceremony.”
The history of Australia’s colonisation vs the Aboriginal communities shows how indifferent the two parties would have been of each other. The customs of the British are vastly different from the customs of the original inhabitants of this land. But you cannot blame the Aboriginal people for fighting back. What would you do if someone came into your house uninvited?
What’s worse about the colonisation and the sequential racism that ensued was the aftermath. We are the only colonised country that does not officially recognise the original inhabitants of the land. We have no treaty with them, and we have no solid connection to them. Throughout this land, Aboriginal culture is still vastly separated from white people. This is in comparison to New Zealand, who have built a strong bond with their original inhabitants. Even the USA is beating us in this regard.
Knowing this, how can we permit to have a national day that doesn’t formally bond everyone?
What Date Should We Celebrate Australia?
The answer to this question has been debated for far too long. Options vary from January 1 when Australia became a commonwealth to May 27 when the indigenous people, through a referendum, were counted on the census and allowed the government to make laws for them. But the problem with all these options is they don’t unify Australia.
It doesn't matter what day we celebrate Australia, because the Indigenous people are still not officially part of it.
If we were to have a day that celebrates Australia, it can only be a day where Australians, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders are seen as equals to this land.
We cannot forfeit the past; that is impossible. But we can make amends to it.
Of course, the generations today are not the culprits and they cannot be held responsible for the actions of their distant ancestors. But the more we deny the past, the more we fail at making amends to it. And how can we make amends to the past without accepting some form of responsibility? Not a responsibility for what our ancestors did, but a responsibility to our future relationship with the original inhabitants of the land.
Australia, we need a treaty. We need to recognise that we have an Indigenous population. We need to create equality, not just through laws or policies, but through the social fabric of this great country.
And then, when the dust settles and the unity is official, we can celebrate Australia Day whenever we bloody well want!