Australia Day celebrates the anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillip unfurling the British flag at Sydney Cove and proclaiming British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of Australia on 26 January 1788. That’s 219 years!
The quest for the celebration of a united Australian national day commenced within a few years of the First Fleet landing and the subsequent white settlement of this island continent.
January 26, through more than 200 years of debate and controversy, has remained the Australian celebratory national day since that date in January 1788 when ‘formal possession was taken of the Colony of New South Wales. On that day, Captain Arthur Phillip became Governor of the Colony.
The fledgling colony soon began to mark the anniversary of 26 January 1788 with formal dinners and informal celebrations. Manning Clark noted that on January 26, 1808, the ‘anniversary of the foundation of the colony’ was observed in the traditional manner with ‘drinking and merriment’. John Macarthur Senior had ensured his soldiers were amply supplied with liquor, bonfires were blazing and private houses illuminated.
By 1820, Australia was beginning to look undeniably prosperous and sentiments of Australian patriotism were being expressed at gatherings of ex-convicts. The sense of belonging to a new nation was encouraged in 1817 when Governor Macquarie recommended the adoption of the name Australia, instead of New Holland, for the entire continent.
An article in the Sydney Gazette on February 1, 1817 records a typical anniversary dinner held in the house of Isaac Nichols, a respected emancipist and Australia’s first Postmaster. Similar dinners are described involving William Charles Wentworth and friends on 26 January 1825 and 1828, when the catchcry and traditional toast had already become ‘to the land, boys, we live in’. Many ex-convicts owned and ran the wealthiest and most successful businesses in the colony.
The first official celebrations were held in 1818, marking the 30th anniversary of white settlement. Governor Macquarie ordered a salute of 30 guns to be fired from the battery at Dawes Point and in the evening gave a dinner at Government House for civil and military officers. A ball followed, hosted by Mrs Macquarie.
During this time the day was called Foundation Day. Throughout the early 19th century, the day became one for sporting events, with horse races popular from the 1820s and regattas from the 1830s.
The growing sense of patriotism was being expressed in other ways. Young Charles Tompson, reputed to be our first Australian-born poet and the son of a transportee, was moved to compose eight stanzas of tribute to his native country for 26 January 1824 titled ‘Wild Notes from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel’.
Edward Smith Hall, proprietor and publisher of The Monitor, had people such as Charles Tompson in mind when he wrote, in 1821, ‘the circumstances of the parents of the most of them having come to the country in bondage, so far from making them humble, causes them to be the proudest people in the world…the circumstance of being free is felt by them with a strength bordering on fierce enthusiasm.’
Fifty years after Phillip landed, in 1838, a number of celebratory events were organised and the first public holiday ever marked in Australia was announced for the 26 January in that year.
In distinct contrast to the mainly private and somewhat elitist anniversary dinners in previous years, January 26, 1838 became a day for everyone.
By 1888, Australia’s population numbered almost three million and many changes had taken place over the previous 50 years. Gold had been discovered in the 1850s, in places such as Bendigo and Ballarat, bringing great wealth, immigration from all over the world and increased agitation for democratic reforms (taxation and representation).
The first centenary of white settlement was celebrated with great enthusiasm. With the exception of Adelaide, all colonial capitals declared Anniversary Day 1888 a public holiday and celebrations took place throughout the colonies. Ceremonies, parades, exhibitions, fireworks, banquets, and church services were popular. In Melbourne there was a Centennial International Exhibition that remained open from August 1888 to February 1889, attracting nearly two million visitors.
The centenary was also marked by numerous historical publications and commemorative volumes as well as souvenirs and other centenary ephemera. Australians were beginning to talk widely about other political questions of the day, including the move towards Federation.
In 1871 the Australian Natives Association (ANA) was formed in Victoria. This was the first Australian Friendly Society and its motto was Advance Australia. The group, which had particular influence in the period between the 1890s to around 1914, had strong nationalistic aspirations and its members included Edmund Barton (who became our first Prime Minister), Alfred Deakin (Australia’s second Prime Minister) and Sir Isaac Isaacs (our first Australian-born Governor-General).
The ANA grew rapidly and branches were formed across Victoria and in all states as well as a branch in London. By the 1880s, the group was making a nation-wide impact.
The ANA supported many issues including afforestation, an Australian-made goods policy, water conservation, Aboriginal welfare, the celebration of proper and meaningful citizenship ceremonies, following the increased levels of migration after World War II, and the adoption of the wattle as the national floral emblem (accepted in 1912).
However, some of their strongest support was for Federation and a united Commonwealth (along with the Federation League), the celebration of a unified national day and the naming of that day Australia Day.
The general public appears to have embraced the 150th anniversary in 1938 with great enthusiasm. There were many celebrations and events for the Sesquicentenary – picnics, balls, musical performances and fireworks.
A significant amount of memorabilia remains from the celebrations – invitations, pamphlets, program brochures, tourist leaflets from large regional towns and musical, art and literary competitions, indicating the number of events that took place. However, little in the way of permanent structures and reminders were created during 1938, unlike the 1988 Bicentenary.
The euphoria of the 150th anniversary celebrations was maintained as February 1938 saw the staging of the British Empire Games in Australia for the first time. Of the 70 events held in Sydney, Australia won 24, far ahead of her nearest rival Canada with 13.
Since its formation in 1871, the ANA Association had been working towards the unified naming and dating of our national day. Following their concerted efforts and with the support of similar movements, the Commonwealth Government and all States and Territories finally agreed, in 1946, to observe the same National Day – 26 January – and to call that day Australia Day.
Separate Australian citizenship became law for the first time in 1949. The waves of non-British immigration after 1945 led to a new role for Australia Day, one that celebrated new citizenship with naturalisation ceremonies (now citizenship ceremonies).
An article in the Australia and New Zealand Weekly in January 1963 commented on the timing of naturalisation ceremonies for January 26, claiming that ‘this year, 4,500 ‘New Australians’ will become fully-fledged Australian citizens’. Citizenship ceremonies are still an integral part of Australia Day celebrations around the nation.
Celebrations began to recognise Australian excellence with Sir MacFarlane Burnet named the first Australian of the Year in 1960. Eight years later Lionel Rose became the first Aboriginal Australian of the Year. This annual award is now a popular tradition.
In 1979 the National Australia Day Council was formed and the Australia Day Committee (Victoria) was formed in 1982. From its inception, the Committee encouraged local celebrations, working with Councils and communities across Victoria to celebrate Australia Day. The Australia Day Committee (Victoria) also organises the Australia Day activities in Melbourne, and co-ordinates a number of year round programs associated with Australia Day.
However, the Australia Day public holiday was still held on the Monday closest to January 26 and to the broader community it was just another holiday.
By 26 January 1988, the community was ready to join in the excitement of the Bicentennial Celebrations. The world saw a ‘spirited and emotional country’ as Australians enjoyed the many spectacular events. In our bi-centenary year, 1988, the Australia Day public holiday was held around the nation on January 26. The highlight of the many celebrations was a re-enactment of the First Fleet’s voyage that departed from Portsmouth on May 13, 1987 and arrived in Australia in early January. Britain presented the tall ship, Young Endeavour, to Australia as its bi-centennial present.
1988 was also named a Year of Mourning for Australia’s Aboriginal people, who regarded the year as a celebration of survival. It was the most vocal Indigenous presence ever felt on January 26.
It was not until 1994 however, that all the states and territories endorsed the celebration of Australia Day on the actual day instead of the closest Monday. United Australia Day celebrations have been held on 26 January ever since.
Since 1988 Australia Day celebrations across the country have continued to grow in number and stature. Ceremonies now appeal to a broad community audience and attendances have increased considerably over the last 5-10 years.
While January 26 has remained our National Day from the time of Phillip’s landing, discussion has taken place since the 1800s on the pros and cons of this particular date. Over the years, the reason cited for a possible change of date has been varied – historical, practical and most recently, the desire for reconciliation with our Indigenous population.
The Centenary of Federation celebrations, held throughout Australia in 2001, opened and closed on Australia Day.
For Indigenous Australians, Invasion or Survival Day is an annual reminder of the occupation of the country they had inhabited for tens of thousands of years and recalls the damage to their relationship with the land, culture, traditions and beliefs that followed. However, many Indigenous people are active within Australia Day committees today. Australia Day is an important annual opportunity to recognise the honoured place of Indigenous Australians in our nation’s history, and to promote understanding, respect and reconciliation.
The date remains January 26 and the discussion continues.
Australia Day today is a community day. With formal ceremonies around the country – flag raisings, citizenship ceremonies and the presentation of community awards – combined with local events and fun activities, the day belongs to the people.
Celebrations now include a strong festive aspect with special events encouraging the participation of the entire family and all members of the community. Australia Day committees involve their ethnic and Indigenous communities, service clubs, sporting and cultural organisations while local government is increasingly supportive. Nationally, Australia Day celebrations are growing each year. Recent polls show that an overwhelming proportion of Australians now view the celebration of our National Day as a significant and important event and actively participate in some way – at organised celebrations or with friends and family.
While the historical significance of January 26 remains, there is a greater awareness of the wish to celebrate modern Australia. It is a land of many people, but one nation. It is a young, fresh and vibrant country in one of the oldest lands on earth, with one of the oldest cultures. It is a land of extremes but also a land of harmony and of the spirit of the fair go. Australia is one of the few countries in the world to celebrate 150 years of continuous democratic government.