The History of Jan 26

As a nation, Australia has been on a long ‘journey’ when it comes to January 26.

As a nation, Australia has been on a long ‘journey’ when it comes to January 26.

Historically, January 26 1788 was the date that Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain, and the first Governor of New South Wales, arrived in Australia - where Aboriginal peoples had lived peacefully for more than 50,000 years –raising the Union Jack to signal the beginning of a British colony.

Referred to as First Landing Day and Foundation Day, the earliest references to celebrating January 26 were in almanacs and the Sydney Gazette dating around 1804. In Sydney, celebratory drinking, and anniversary dinners later became customary, before Governor Macquarie acknowledged the day officially as a public holiday on the thirtieth anniversary in 1818.

In 1888, state leaders and NZ leaders gathered in Sydney to celebrate the centenary of British occupation and the NSW anniversary became an Australian one known as Anniversary or Foundation Day.

For the next 100 years, the date of this celebration was held around, rather than specifically on January 26, and generally on a Monday to create a long weekend and was only officially formalised in 1994 as the day for Australia Day celebrations.

In 1938, while state premiers celebrated the Sesquicentenary together in Sydney, Aboriginal leaders gathered for a Day of Mourning to protest their mistreatment by white Australians and to seek full citizen rights.

Fifty years later, in 1988, Sydney continued to be the centre of Australia Day celebrations and ceremony and the states and territories agreed to celebrate on 26 January, rather than with a long weekend. Bicentenary celebrations for the year were often dominated by descriptions of a shared positive experience of life that was common to all Australians - a narrative that was increasingly being regarded as a myth.

By this time, some of the rights sought by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander protesters in 1938 had been achieved, but there was still great inequality between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians, with the release of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had revealing just how devastating the effect of white colonisation had been on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This same year, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples renamed Australia Day, 'Invasion Day' and declared their opposition to the celebrations of 26 January 1988, with posters that declared 'White Australia has a Black History — Don't Celebrate 1988' and 'Australia Day = Invasion Day 1988'.

Building on the protest of 1938, the events on 26 January in 1988 developed new traditions, especially the Survival Day Concert, which from 1992 took place each year at La Perouse, later moving to Waverley Oval near Bondi.

Most striking though, was the protest march for land rights of more than 40,000 people, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from across the country and non-Indigenous supporters, in what was then the largest march in Sydney since the Vietnam moratorium. The march ended at Hyde Park where several prominent Aboriginal leaders and activists spoke, among them activist Gary Foley who said, ‘It's so magnificent to see black and white Australians together in harmony… this is what Australia could and should be like.'

A National Australia Day Council, founded in 1979, formally recognised the need to encourage reconciliation between Aboriginal and other Australians in Australia Day celebrations. Later the Council worked with Reconciliation Australia, the private organisation which in 2001 succeeded the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan for implementation in 2007. This initiative suggested a healing role for the Council in bringing Australians together, despite the difficulties of the date's associations and the alienating symbolism of the flag. The Council has taken several steps, including the introduction of Australia Day Dawn, 'a moment of reflection before celebration', to make Australia Day celebrations more inclusive.

However, to many Aboriginal Australians there is little to celebrate and it is a commemoration of a deep loss. Loss of their sovereign rights to their land, loss of family, loss of the right to practice their culture.

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