January 26 and the fight for Australian national identity

Marega, New Holland, New South Wales.

A long long time ago (“since time immemorial”, as they say), the first explorers came to Australia. This was the Pleistocene (Ice Age) epoch; when ocean distances were shorter and it was possible to walk from Papua New Guinea to Tasmania. Aboriginal people settled around the continent; setting up over 500 different nations across the many different climates and landscapes.

For somewhere between 40 and 60 thousand years (it’s hard to be too accurate over that kind of time scale), they lived on the vast southern continent with very little contact from other humans. Slowly though, other nations developed sea transport that enabled them to explore the coastline.

The first visitors were from South East Asia, possibly as early as the 15th century. Chinese people had developed a taste for trepang (commonly known as “sea cucumbers”); a sea slug that lives on the ocean floor and they felt worked as an aphrodisiac. Fishermen from Makassar (now Sulawesi in Indonesia) were their main trading partners in this field; and the search for resources led them to Northern Australia. They christened the land Marega, or “Land of the Sea Cucumber”. They returned year after year for centuries, employing and trading with aboriginal people in Arnhem Land.

The beginning of the 17th century saw voyages south from European explorers seeking riches and the mythical southern continent. There is evidence to suggest Portuguese may have been the first to land ashore; though the closest we get in documented voyages is the 1606 voyage led by Pedro Fernandez de Quiroz. Spurred on by missionary zeal, searching for “Tierra Austrialia del Espiritu Santo” (“South land of the holy spirit”), de Quiroz made it only as far as Vanuatu; though his first mate Luis Vaez de Torres sailed on and just missed the Australian mainland while navigating the strait that now bears his name.

That same year it was another European empire that would land on the Australian coast, this time the Dutch. Willem Jansz, captaining the Duyfken, landed near Aurukun on the Western coast of Cape York. He had some of his crew killed by aboriginals though, and beat a hasty retreat, naming the place he landed Cape Keerweer (“turn back”). A slightly better experience was had by Dirk Hartog in 1616, when he landed on Australia’s west coast. Another Dutchman Able Tasman would land on the island he called Van Dieman’s Land in 1642 and map the north-western coast in 1644. For the next century and a half; the continent would be known as New Holland.

In 1688, Englishman William Dampier landed near Broome on the west coast. Like all the previous explorers, he wasn’t exactly enamoured by the place or its inhabitants. Which maybe explains why no further explorations were made until James Cook, returning to Britain from his voyage to Tahiti and New Zealand, by accident more than design landed on Australia’s east coast on April 29th 1770.

Cook was somewhat of a romantic, so despite having spears thrown at him by the first aboriginal people he met and wrecking his ship on the Great Barrier Reef, he returned with glowing reports of the country and its people, about whom he said “they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them.

On August 22nd, as Cook left the continent, he raised the Union Jack on the newly named Possession Island in the Torres Strait and claimed for Great Britain the new colony of “New South Wales”.

Still, Britain didn’t seem too excited by its newest colonial acquisition; given the fact no British person went back there for 18 years. In fact it was only a pesky revolution in the United States of America, which stopped Britain dumping its criminals there; that led to them reassessing the value of Australia. On the 13th of May 1787, 750 convicts and 500 others packed into a fleet of 11 ships and, via Brazil and South Africa, headed for Botany Bay and the world’s biggest prison.

On January 18th 1788; the HMS Supply, carrying the new colony’s governor Arthur Phillip, landed at Botany Bay. Like Cook, they were greeted with spears by the locals, though like Cook the relationship seemed to have its more amicable moments too. For the next week, the crew and soldiers wandered around looking for a suitable place for the new civilisation while the convicts sat shackled on the boats. None was found, but a scout ship reported that just north at Port Jackson was “the most beautiful harbour in the world”. It was decided to move there.

In a bizarre coincidence, on the morning of January 26th another European power landed on Australia’s shore for the first time – Britain’s old rival France. The two ships, led by Jean-Francois de la Perouse, were not in fact hostile to the British. They had been at sea for two and a half years, exploring the Pacific in the French tradition of the flaneur. They were happy to find fellow Europeans, but Phillip was now determined to get to Port Jackson before the French could claim it. In their haste to leave Botany Bay, the ships of the first fleet crashed into each other repeatedly like aquatic dodgem cars. They escaped with “trifling damages” though, and managed by 7pm to land at what would henceforth be known as Sydney Cove. The convicts (most of them at least) were unloaded, and the Union Jack raised for the first time on the Australian mainland.

The convict women, mind you, were not there to witness this historic moment. While the male prisoners were put to work clearing land and building their masters’ accommodation, the women remained on the boats for another week and a half until February 6th. According to the journal of Arthur Bowes-Smyth, who came with the fleet as a doctor, their arrival was cue for a night of “debauchery and riot” aided by a wild summer storm.

The next morning the penal colony of New South Wales had its ceremonial birth, with Arthur Phillip sworn in as governor. He used his maiden speech to lay down the law to the convicts. If they didn’t work, they wouldn’t eat. Any male convict caught in the women’s quarters would be shot, as would anyone caught stealing food.

A Contested Date.

The above history can be read in more detail elsewhere, but I give it a rundown here firstly because it is a history not many Australians actually know much about, and secondly because it shows the somewhat arbitrary nature of choosing January 26 as the birth date of Australia as a nation.

The date, originally known as “Foundation Day”, was possibly commemorated by settlers from very early on. Definitely on the 30th anniversary in 1818, New South Wales governor Lachlan Macquarie announced the day would be a public holiday. It remained so in NSW from then on. Despite the unification of the colonies into one Australian nation on January 1st 1901, it wasn’t until 1935 that the other states joined NSW in commemorating “Australia Day”. When they did, it was on the Monday closest to January 26 each year – honouring the great Australian tradition of the long weekend. In 1994, 206 years after those convicts disembarked, it was established that Australia Day would be commemorated on January 26 each year in all states.

In recent years especially, the appropriateness of January 26 as a date has been a source of public debate. There was A.B. Original’s hit song, local councils like Fremantle and Yarra announcing they wouldn’t be holding official celebrations on the day, and radio station triple J announcing it would no longer be holding its very popular Hottest 100 countdown on the day. There has even been a recent film called Australia Day exploring themes of racial violence. Each development has been met with outrage from conservative media and commentators, and that guy at your workplace/sports club/local pub.

But the disputed nature of January 26 is certainly nothing new. In 1888, premier Henry Parkes announced an event to celebrate New South Wales’ centenary. When activist Thomas Walker interjected to say “we should do something for the aborigines”; Parkes replied, with admirable honesty, “and remind them we have robbed them?”

In 1938, on the 150th anniversary, a group of aboriginals; led by William Cooper and including the remarkable sports star/church minister/activist Doug Nicholls staged a “Day of Mourning” to mark the invasion and dispossession of their country. A motion was passed unanimously by attendees saying “WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, this being the 150th anniversary of the whitemen’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen in the past 150 years.”

The event was a historic moment in aboriginal protest. But white Australia’s leaders didn’t just ignore their demand for full citizenship rights for decades. In fact, while aboriginal people were meeting for their protest, the government was staging a re-enactment of the fleet’s landing at Sydney Cove. Not wanting to let the truth get in the way of a good story, the re-enactment would depict the whites chasing off hostile aboriginals – an event that never actually occurred. When approached, the aboriginals of Sydney refused to take part in it. So the government essentially kidnapped some aboriginals from Menindee in the state’s west. To protect them from being influenced by the Day Of Mourning organisers, the men from Menindee were locked in prison for the week before the ceremony. They were never paid for their thespian endeavours.

In 1972, four young men famously set up an aboriginal “tent embassy” on the lawn of Parliament House on January 26th to protest their treatment as foreigners in their own country. The embassy was repeatedly violently evicted, though in the 90’s it returned

as a permanent camp and now has Australian heritage status.

In 1988, 40,000 aboriginal people and supporters gathered for a protest against white Australia’s bicentennial celebrations. Since then protest marches and events like Sydney’s “Survival Day” celebrations have taken place each year.

Australian Identity.

Of course the vigour with which people defend celebrating January 26th is not because of any real attachment to what happened on that day in 1788. it is the assumed attack on white Australian identity that people react against, in the same way that most of us, when told our actions have offended or injured somebody else, are likely to get defensive as our first reaction. John Howard, citing historian Geoffrey Blainey, famously said he did not subscribe to “a black armband view of Australian history”. “I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed.

Critics of Howard suggested he had traded in his black armband for a white blindfold; while Noel Pearson quite rationally said “To say that ordinary Australians who are part of the national community today do not have any connection with the shameful aspects of our past is at odds with our exhortations that they have connections to the prideful bits”.

But the question of whether criticising Australia Day is an attack on Australian identity surely has to be preceded by a question of what actually is the Australian national identity. As with any question so broad, it’s hard to answer. But this one has specific challenges.

For one, Australia has always been a country with a large proportion of emigrants. From those early convict transportations, to free settlers, gold rushes, “ten pound poms”, “populate or perish” migration schemes. Even in the 2016 census, the data showed 28% of Australians were born overseas, a number which grew to 49% who had a parent born overseas. Those stats, of course, have been vividly brought to life by the recent parliament citizenship debacle. In those circumstances it’s difficult to isolate a uniquely Australian culture.

Also, Australia’s birth as a nation doesn’t offer the same dramatic narrative as you might find around the world. There was no heroic overthrow of tyrants to celebrate like France and the US (around the same time as Arthur Phillip was whipping convicts for stealing turnips) or various post-colonial states. The events of 1788 were tyrannical by any measure before you even get to the relationship with the aboriginals. The birth of Australia as a nation in 1901 was the result of years of peaceful negotiation between the various colonies and the imperial motherland. That could be seen as a positive, but it’s not quite satisfying. So it is that the bloodied birth of Australian nationhood is often associated with a doomed war on someone else’s soil – Gallipoli.

It’s an interesting sidenote here to contrast Australia with another British colony who mark a public holiday on January 26th – India. India also lost many lives in World War One – more than Australia in fact, though like us it was a war that had little to do with their nation. It’s certainly not an event India celebrates today. January 26 in India is Republic Day, and the event it commemorates is the congress of India declaring its swaraj (self-rule) in 1930. The British empire responded, as they often had before and would continue to for many years after, with violent repression. In 1948 the British finally left, and India’s national unity despite its many different languages and religions was forged in its tough struggle against its more powerful rulers. And for better and worse, that struggle continues to colour any discussion of Indian nationhood.

Australia’s unifying struggle is of course harder to find. We certainly had our strongly anti-British elements in the movement that led to federation, but many of our leaders at the time were at pains to protect Australia’s relationship to the mother country. One of the “fathers of federation” Alfred Deakin wrote in a London newspaper in 1901 that Britain had “scarcely among his dominions a more loyal people than those in the Southern seas”. On that first day of Australia’s nationhood, Australian troops were overseas fighting for the British empire in colonial wars in both South Africa and China. Much of former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s book Dangerous Allies is spent describing Australia’s historical pursuit of a policy of “strategic dependence” on great powers.

Which is not to say Australia never forged our own cultural identity. The new Australian migrants quickly asserted themselves as people with a remarkable sense of egalitarianism. Union organising in certain industries had limited the work day to eight hours by the mid 19th century – possibly the first workers in the world to achieve the feat. NSW and Victoria led the world in legally enshrining the 8 hour day for all workers in 1916. Only New Zealand passed a minimum wage law before Australia, same with giving women the vote. South Australia had earlier been the first government in the world to give voting rights to all (white) men, regardless of whether they owned property. It was there too that secret ballots were held for the first time, enabling elections free of intimidation. In implementing free education Australian colonies led the world.

Australian culture too carved out its individual identity. One of the early upper-class migrants, Judge Barron Field, had described the country as “where nature is prosaic, unpicturesque, unmusical, and where nature reflecting poetry is not yet born.” Yet quickly the distinctive colours and species of the Australian landscape became the subject of iconic art from Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin; of poetry from Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. The world’s first ever feature length film was made in Australia. Its subject was the cop-killing bank-robbing local folk hero Ned Kelly. Other rebels like shearers on strike and gold miners erecting barricades became the subjects of our most iconic songs and stories. Through the century since then Australia has developed plenty of culture that reflects our own lives and place even as those lives and places have changed.

White Australia.

Not that we should say Australia’s history was egalitarian in every way. Aboriginal people were removed from the land they relied on for survival when it became private farmland. They were often – very often – killed if they transgressed the new laws that had been forced on them, or even if they didn’t. Conservative estimates say 20,000 (many historians put that number much higher) aboriginals were killed directly by whites, and that’s not including those who died of newly arrived diseases for which they were not offered medical assistance.

Where I grew up, west of the Blue Mountains in NSW; soldiers were given free rein to kill aboriginal people following Governor Thomas Brisbane’s declaration of martial law in 1824. Bathurst farmer (and one of the rare allies of aboriginal people) W.H. Suttor said “where martial law had run its course, extermination is the word that most aptly describes the result.” By the end of that decade whites in Tasmania had achieved similar ends. The horrific history of massacres of aboriginal people is only recently being properly documented by historians like Henry Reynolds. For most of Australia’s history it had remained a dark secret.

That was the beginning and not the end though of the horrors for aboriginal Australians. Racist laws, forced labour, children forcibly removed, culture dismantled – these experiences were commonplace across the Australian continent. Even today there is a vast gulf in health, economic status and incarceration rates between aboriginals and the rest of Australia.

Chinese prospectors in the gold rush faced endless hostility; from laws which were written specifically to discriminate against them, to violence from fellow miners – most famously the Lambing Flat race riot in 1861 when Chinese camps were looted and destroyed and their inhabitants beaten by a mob of 3,000 whites.

As Great Britain and the United States were winding up their shameful histories of slavery, Australia was just beginning ours. 60,000 South Sea Islanders were kidnapped from their homes to work unpaid on Queensland’s sugarcane plantations. The practice only ended with the passing of racist laws demanding the deportation of all non-Europeans from Australia.

That law was passed within a year of federation by the new Australian government. Alfred Deakin, Australian Attorney-General, described the Immigration Restriction Act thus: “it means the prohibition of all alien coloured immigration, and more, it means at the earliest time, by reasonable and just means, the deportation or reduction of the number of aliens now in our midst.” Amazingly, the law stayed in place until 1966.

Not that you could argue Australian racism stopped with the abolition of the White Australia Policy. There are many examples since that could be cited.

Most famous is the Cronulla riots of 2005, when 5,000 mostly white Australians gathered at the Sydney suburb to indulge in the great Australian pastimes of beer and the beach before going on a violent rampage aimed at non-Europeans. Even this week the news has been full of reports of (white) vigilante gangs formed to combat the supposedly rampant crimes of young African migrants.

Now not all Australians are racist, and indeed if we wanted to talk about our flaws as a nation there are surely others we could include. But I mention these specifically because they show the problem with the construction of a national identity that excludes certain people. Our identity is not merely theoretical – this is an example of how it has tangible effects on people who live in this country. Others, for example many women and homosexuals, could also tell you of negative effects the classic Australian identity has on their day to day lives.

Whose Australia?

Faced with the dual natures (like droughts and flooding rains) of Australian national identity, we should now come back to the question of January 26 and how it fits in with all this.

Like John Howard (I don’t say that very often), I’m not one of those people who thinks everything in our history is bad or that any kind of cultural pride in post-1788 Australia is inherently a bad thing. Even as someone who thinks national borders are an unjust and immoral attack on human freedom, I think it’s normal and healthy to have a pride in the culture that formed you and its contribution to the world -as long as we hold a positive view of other cultures and are prepared for our own to change when it needs to. As a proud Australian I resent the creeping Americanisms and lowest common denominator culture that comes from a nation of television sets in every loungeroom, as well as the elitism of those who look to Europe or North America as the cultural vanguard.

I think in fact that the knee-jerk reactions to criticisms of January 26 reflect a lack of proper cultural pride. Immigrants to begin with, we are alienated from our landscape by faceless urbanism. We carry an incomplete history half gleaned from tv specials, a culture formed by entertainment corporations. Travel for many Australians means chasing cheap alcohol and sex in South-East Asia rather than exploring this continent. It’s awkward when our attachment to the place we are from is shown up as nothing more than flimsy allegiance to a flag or a public holiday date.

The preferred method of celebrating Australia Day (a barbecue with beers and some bangin’ tunes) and ANZAC Day (an hour of ceremony followed by a day drinking and gambling at the pub) reflects an unthinking patriotism that is all to do with blind allegiance rather than actual cultural pride. In a way I think people resent critiques of either day because it requires people to actually think about Australia.

Who is served by this blind patriotism? Is it the average Australian? Someone like John Howard used nationhood as a political device even though if he could he would have dismantled most of the achievements of that egalitarian society I mentioned earlier; his policies on taxation and workplace rights showed as much. His nationalism rejected the good parts of our history but embraced the bad, manifesting itself in overseas invasions and viewing asylum seekers as enemies.

Howard was of course a staunch monarchist whose politics owed much to American conservatism. His Australianism was limited to the sloganeering of war (as if every country in the world didn’t fight heroically and lose a lot of lives in the world war) and sport (naturally, his favourites were the traditional English upper-class sports cricket and rugby union).

Similarly, Tony Abbott would use the symbolism of Australia as often as possible (remember the press conference in front of six flags?). Yet his first budget in 2014 was the most comprehensive attempt ever made to attack the egalitarian welfare state Australians had struggled so hard to achieve. He was born in England, educated amongst the aristocracy at Oxford. When he made his “captain’s call” to reinstate knighthoods (again note the English upper class connotations) annually on January 26th; it took him precisely one year before he ran out of Australians to choose and knighted the prince of England. Tony Abbott doesn’t even like Australia except when it aids his political purposes.

Abbott this week, asked about changing the date, said Australians need to be “unambiguous about our country: Australia is a great country.” Late last year he bundled up the move to change the date with same-sex marriage and the safe-schools program as “an attack on our way of life”.

The truth is that the virtues we often claim as traditionally Australian – egalitarianism, anti-authoritarianism, larrikinism – don’t fit very well with the agenda of those in power seeking to leverage “Australian pride” to serve their own ends. If Australians really were the underdog-loving race we like to think we are; surely our historical view of colonisation would make heroes of the aboriginal people who tried to defend their country with spears against the guns of the British.

If Australians took a break from the beers and barbies and started talking about Australian history and culture on January 26, those conservative powerbrokers might find there was less in the day they wanted to defend.

An Australia Day for the future.

Like Australia’s history, this article has had a lot of disparate tangents – sometimes related, sometimes not, sometimes contradictory, yet linked by the simple logic of all being found in the same location. So how do I sum it up into a coherent point?

Firstly I should say I support changing the date of our national public holiday from January 26. Mind you, I don’t support rebelling by dutifully turning up to work like some socially liberal law firms have suggested. And I don’t do it because I think we should be ashamed of our history and culture or never talk about it. But there are a couple of reasons why I think it should be changed.

One is Australia’s very real denial of our aboriginal history. We’ve come a long way sure, but the disconnect between having a celebration that marks English arrival two centuries ago and not a corresponding holiday for the 40,000 years that came before is ridiculous. There should be a holiday dedicated specifically to celebrating aboriginal culture and its survival (like NAIDOC except hopefully with a better name).

Another reason is the nature of the cultural identity we invoke by celebrating January 26. It is an official history decreed from above rather than one we have lived and created ourselves. January 26th 1788 was a day of leaders unveiling the flag of their imperial lords while most of the people present were held in chains. And the way it is celebrated often perpetuates the idea of allegiance to flags and leaders rather than to our fellow Australians. Australia’s unique significant contribution to the globe’s culture has mostly come directly from our rejection of that kind of submission – our radical egalitarianism.

So let’s celebrate Australia. But not with allegiance to an arbitrary date. Let’s commemorate our history in a way that honestly marks the good and bad parts of our past. But let’s also do it in a way that looks forward to the kind of Australia we want to create. The migrants who have come here over the centuries, and those whose ancestors had always been here, built the country we have today not by slavishly insisting that things should be done the same way they have always been done; but by asking the questions of what kind of society we could create by working together on this beautiful southern continent. And that’s the kind of tradition we should be seeking to keep alive.


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2 responses to “January 26 and the fight for Australian national identity

  1. Oscar Delaney

    Thanks Andy, hadn’t gotten around to reading this until now but it seems just as relevant and insightful as when you wrote it. Particularly like your observation that if we were really on about celebrating the courageous underdog and the anti-system rebel as the bastions of our national identity Aboriginal warriors would be top of the list.

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