Featured Image: Australia Day is supposed to represent all Australians, but controversy still lingers over its symbolisation of the struggle of the country’s Aboriginal peoples.
Saturday, 26 January 2019, Sydney, Australia – Today is Australia Day, Australia’s equivalent of America’s Fourth of July. On this day the Australian Government’s official celebrations include citizenship ceremonies, awards and knighthoods, and a controversial re-enactment of the arrival of the First Fleet. Indeed, Australia Day commemorates the anniversary of the arrival of British ships in Australia on 26 January 1788, to claim British sovereignty over the country’s eastern coast. And this simple fact has generated enormous controversy surrounding the discrimination, subjugation, and near-extermination of Australia’s indigenous peoples.
Humans first populated Australia 65,000 years ago, making these the first Aboriginal Australians. The Aboriginal Community’s unique way of life remained untouched until 1770, when Captain James Cook landed on Australia’s southeast coast (modern day New South Wales) and made observations of the Aboriginal peoples, noting their dark skin. In the early 1780’s, Britain lost control of the thirteen colonies in North America. They had previously been using them as a penal colony, sending their prisoners there to live and work. But since Britain had lost control of the them, they needed a new place to send their prisoners. And they chose to send them to Australia.
In 1788, nearly 20 years after the first visitation by Cook, the First Fleet landed in Sydney Harbour to set up a penal colony. The First Fleet consisted of eleven ships carrying prisoners, supplies, explorers, and the colonial Governor. What followed that first landing was devastating to the Aboriginal community – primarily involving the their expulsion from their land so that white settlers could establish farms and cattle ranches, the removal of Aboriginal rights, and in some cases, outright genocide.
This historical fact, of white settlers oppressing, forcibly relocating, and sometimes killing Aboriginal people explains why many of them cannot celebrate the 26th of January, but rather, observe it as a day of mourning since the arrival of the British marked the beginning of Aboriginal cultural destruction. These people refer to 26 January as “Invasion Day”, rather than “Australia Day”. The first protests on Australia Day occured in 1938, when about 100 Aboriginal people marched through the streets of Sydney, convened at the town hall, and read a manifesto of Aboriginal civil rights. Their demands for constitutional rights were largely ignored. Beginning with this 1938 protest, the Aboriginal community has held protests on almost every Australia Day since then.
“WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in Conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, 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, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian Nation to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, and for a new policy which will raise our people to FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.”
-Manifesto of Aboriginal Civil Rights, 1938
50 years later, in 1988, marked the bicentennial of Australia. On this day, about 40,000 Aboriginal people organised a protest against Australia Day, and at the time, was the largest protest by Aboriginal people in history. In recognition of the Aboriginal people’s concerns, the motto of the Australian Bicentennial was made “Living Together”, to emphasise multiculturalism. The next (conservative) Prime Minister (Malcolm Fraser) changed the motto to “The Australian Achievement”, and the liberal Prime Minister after him (Bob Hawke) restored the original motto of “Living Together”.
This move was not without backlash from right wing groups, however. A conservative think tank in the country suggested that tradition had been discarded to appease the interests of a minority, and a historian claimed that the Prime Minister was attempting to remove the British from the history of Australia.
Reenactment of the British arrival in Australia (1988), which is perceived by the Aboriginal community as the moment their people and their culture were destroyed.
This year’s Australia Day drew some 80,000 Aboriginal demonstrators, double the number of demonstrators on the bicentennial in 1988.
The Australian Flag flies over Sydney Harbour on Australia Day.
Australia has a great deal to be proud of. But the chosen date of Australian pride and the events that commemorate it (in particular, a re-enactment of the landing of British ships in the country), are too painful to bear for Aboriginal peoples. Some local councils in Melbourne have even dropped their events for Australia day out of respect for the Aboriginal community.
It wouldn’t be hard to change the date of Australia Day, though. A poll found that 56% of Australians don’t mind if the date is changed, as long as there is still a day for national celebration. And multiple alternative days for Australia Day have been suggested. Among them include 27 May (when the Aboriginal community was finally granted constitutional rights in 1967), 1 January (when the British colonies of Australia united in 1901), and even May 8 (a pun on “mate”). There is also Anzac Day (25 April), a sombre public holiday that honours fallen veterans of Australia and New Zealand.
Currently, the country’s conservative government opposes any change to Australia Day’s date, insisting that the holiday is about Australian pride and multiculturalism. But as far as we can tell, there’s no reason it can’t be changed, and Australia has a lot of days to choose from to assert their national pride. So even though the subjugation and callous treatment of indigenous people by alien settlers is not unique to Australia (*cough* America and South Africa), a national day is meant to be representative of all of the country’s population without historical and political baggage. (We at DC Blogs like May 8 the best).