Every year, as January 26 approaches, Australians raise the same difficult questions about our shared history and national identity, and we reflect on what’s worthy of celebration and what that celebration should look like.
It’s an emotional subject; morning TV, talk-back radio, social media and comments sections are flooded with anger, frustration, defensiveness, hurt.
Watch: How to be an ally to First Nations people on January 26…
But as we tousle toward that date for 2020, it’s worth taking a step back for a moment and considering the facts.
1. January 26 was the day the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove in 1788.
Research published by The Australia Institute in 2018 revealed that only 38 per cent of Australians know that.
Yet, it’s the very source of the heartache around January 26.
When Captain Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack on the Port Jackson shoreline on January 26, 1788, and proclaimed British sovereignty, he did so on the land of the Eora people.
As well as signalling the beginning of dispossession for a culture that had thrived for 80,000 years, the invasion also resulted in the deaths of thousands of First Nations people through the introduction of European diseases.
According to the National Museum of Australia, a smallpox epidemic that broke out the year after the arrival of the First Fleet is estimated to have killed up to 70 per cent of the First Nations population living in the Sydney Basin.
Seventy per cent.
2. January 26 wasn’t adopted as ‘Australia Day’ until 1935.
It wasn’t until 1935 that all states adopted a common date — January 26 — and name for Australia Day. Prior to that, colonisation was marked on a variety of dates under a variety of names.
Sydney colonialists referred to January 26 as “First Landing Day” or “Foundation Day”, and celebrated with anniversary dinners and later an annual regatta on the harbour.
Listen: Three things Indigenous Australians want the government to do. Post continues after audio.
By the centenary of colonisation in 1888, it was referred to as “Anniversary Day” and was a holiday in all capital cities except Adelaide. But after the federation of the states into a single nation — the Commonwealth of Australia — in 1901, the push for a nationwide holiday ramped up. And so, in 1905, Empire Day was introduced on May 24, the late Queen Victoria’s birthday.