In anticipation of tomorrow’s Australia Day holiday here in Australia, this guest post by John Carmody examines whether or not 26 January is really the most appropriate date for Australia Day. John Carmody is a Sydney-based writer on medical and cultural history and (in the interests of full disclosure) is closely related to the Stubborn Mule.
January 26 is a nettlesome date for the official celebration of the Australian nation and as a commemoration of our colonial foundation. Apart from the significant nuisance that it falls so close to the end of the holiday season when our minds and emotions are trying to deal with more pressing obligations, it really asks a serious philosophical and moral question.
For indigenous Australians, conscious of their fraught history since 1788, it is no cause for celebration at all. Understandably, they consider that it was the beginning of an invasion and see no reason to rejoice in it. White Australians and, indeed, all immigrants can only respect that attitude; but we must do that reflectively. The fact is that there are several distinct reasons to discard 26 January as that festive occasion.
The first point is that the date is not when the founding fleet arrived in Terra Australis: that was, rather, at Botany Bay on 19-20 January, 1788. It was only because the officers were so disillusioned by how little resemblance that coast bore to Joseph Banks’s glowing descriptions and because of an indifferent water supply, that Governor Arthur Phillip made a reconnaissance to Port Jackson (which Captain Cook had not entered) that the venture was transferred to Sydney Cove. Even then, in the afternoon of 26 January there was little time for formalities or any grander celebration than hoisting a flag and drinking the health of the King and the success of the colony with a few glasses of Porter, followed by the flourish provided by a round of rifle fire.