Australia Day is the official national day of Australia. Celebrated annually on January 26, it marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, New South Wales and the raising of the Flag of Great Britain at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip. In present-day Australia, celebrations reflect the diverse society and landscape of the nation and are marked by community and family events, reflections on Australian history, official community awards and citizenship ceremonies welcoming new members of the Australian community.
The meaning and significance of Australia Day has evolved over time. Unofficially, or historically, the date has also been variously named “Anniversary Day”, “Foundation Day”, and “ANA Day”. January 26, 1788, marked the proclamation of British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of Australia (then known as New Holland). Although it was not known as Australia Day until over a century later, records of celebrations on January 26 date back to 1808, with the first official celebration of the formation of New South Wales held in 1818. On New Year’s Day 1901, the British colonies of Australia formed a federation, marking the birth of modern Australia. A national day of unity and celebration was looked for. It was not until 1935 that all Australian states and territories adopted use of the term “Australia Day” to mark the date, and not until 1994 that the date was consistently marked by a public holiday on that day by all states and territories.
In contemporary Australia, the holiday is marked by the presentation of the Australian of the Year Awards on Australia Day Eve, announcement of the Australia Day Honours list and addresses from the Governor-General and the Prime Minister. It is an official public holiday in every state and territory of Australia, unless it falls on a weekend, in which case the following Monday becomes a public holiday instead. With community festivals, concerts and citizenship ceremonies, the day is celebrated in large and small communities and cities around the nation. Australia Day has become the biggest annual civic event in Australia.
Some Indigenous Australian events are now included. However, since at least 1938, the date of Australia Day has also been marked by Indigenous Australians, and those sympathetic to their cause, mourning what they see as the invasion of their land by Europeans and protesting its celebration as a national holiday. These groups sometimes refer to January 26 as “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day” and advocate that the date should be changed.
On May 13, 1787, a fleet of 11 ships, which came to be known as the First Fleet, was sent by the British Admiralty from England to New Holland. Under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, the fleet sought to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay on the coast of New South Wales, which had been explored and claimed by Lieutenant James Cook in 1770. The settlement was seen as necessary because of the loss of the Thirteen Colonies in North America. The Fleet arrived between January 18 and 20, 1788, but it was immediately apparent that Botany Bay was unsuitable.
On January 21, Phillip and a few officers travelled to Port Jackson, 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) to the north, to see if it would be a better location for a settlement. They stayed there until January 23; Phillip named the site of their landing Sydney Cove, after the Home Secretary, Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney. They also made contact with the local Aboriginal people.
They returned to Botany Bay on the evening of January 23, when Phillip gave orders to move the fleet to Sydney Cove the next morning, January 24. That day, there was a huge gale blowing, making it impossible to leave Botany Bay, so they decided to wait till the next day, January 25. However, during January 24, they spotted the ships Astrolabe and Boussole flying the French flag at the entrance to Botany Bay; they were having as much trouble getting into the bay as the First Fleet was having getting out.
On January 25 the gale was still blowing; the fleet tried to leave Botany Bay, but only HMS Supply made it out, carrying Arthur Phillip, Philip Gidley King, some marines and about 40 convicts; they anchored in Sydney Cove in the afternoon. On January 26, early in the morning, Phillip along with a few dozen marines, officers and oarsmen, rowed ashore and took possession of the land in the name of King George III. The remainder of the ship’s company and the convicts watched from on board Supply.
Meanwhile, back at Botany Bay, Captain John Hunter of HMS Sirius made contact with the French ships, and he and the commander, Captain de Clonard, exchanged greetings. Clonard advised Hunter that the fleet commander was Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse. Sirius successfully cleared Botany Bay, but the other ships were in great difficulty. Charlotte was blown dangerously close to rocks; Friendship and Prince of Wales became entangled, both ships losing booms or sails; Charlotte and the Friendship actually collided; and Lady Penrhyn nearly ran aground. Despite these difficulties, all the remaining ships finally managed to clear Botany Bay and sail to Sydney Cove on January 26. The last ship anchored there at about 3 pm.
The formal establishment of the Colony of New South Wales did not occur on January 26 as is commonly assumed. It did not occur until February 7, 1788, when the formal proclamation of the colony and of Arthur Phillip’s governorship were read out. The vesting of all land in the reigning monarch King George III also dates from February 7, 1788.
Although there was no official recognition of the colony’s anniversary, with the New South Wales Almanacks of 1806 and 1808 placing no special significance on January 26, by 1808 the date was being used by the colony’s immigrants, especially the emancipated convicts, to “celebrate their love of the land they lived in” with “drinking and merriment”. The 1808 celebrations followed this pattern, beginning at sundown on January 25, and lasted into the night, the chief toast of the occasion being Major George Johnston. Johnston had the honor of being the first officer ashore from the First Fleet, having been carried from the landing boat on the back of convict James Ruse. Despite suffering the ill-effects of a fall from his gig on the way home to Annandale, Johnston led the officers of the New South Wales Corps in arresting Governor William Bligh on the following day, January 26, 1808, in what became known as the “Rum Rebellion”.
In 1817, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser reported on one of these unofficial gatherings at the home of Isaac Nichols:
“On Monday the 27th ult. a dinner party met at the house of Mr. Isaac Nichols, for the purpose of celebrating the Anniversary of the Institution of this Colony under Governor Philip, which took place on 26 Jan. 1788, but this year happening upon a Sunday, the commemoration dinner was reserved for the day following. The party assembled were select, and about 40 in number. At 5 in the afternoon dinner was on the table, and a more agreeable entertainment could not have been anticipated. After dinner a number of loyal toasts were drank, and a number of festive songs given; and about 10 the company parted, well gratified with the pleasures that the meeting had afforded.”
— The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser
On the 30th anniversary of the founding of the colony in 1818, Governor Lachlan Macquarie chose to acknowledge the day with the first official celebration. The Governor declared that the day would be a holiday for all government workers, granting each an extra allowance of “one pound [c. 450g] of fresh meat”, and ordered a 30-gun salute at Dawes Point — one for each year that the colony had existed. This began a tradition that was retained by the Governors that were to follow.
Foundation Day, as it was known at the time, continued to be officially celebrated in New South Wales, and in doing so became connected with sporting events. One of these became a tradition that is still continued today: in 1837, the first running of what would become the Australia Day regatta was held on Sydney Harbour. Five races were held for different classes of boats, from first class sailing vessels to watermen’s skiffs, and people viewed the festivities from both onshore and from the decks of boats on the harbor, including the steamboat Australian and the Francis Freeling — the latter running aground during the festivities and having to be refloated the next day. Happy with the success of the regatta, the organizers resolved to make in an annual event. However, some of the celebrations had gained an air of elitism, with the “United Australians” dinner being limited to those born in Australia. In describing the dinner, the Sydney Herald justified the decision, saying:
“The parties who associated themselves under the title of “United Australians” have been censured for adopting a principle of exclusiveness. It is not fair so to censure them. If they invited emigrants to join them they would give offence to another class of persons – while if they invited all they would be subject to the presence of persons with whom they might not wish to associate. That was a good reason. The “Australians” had a perfect right to dine together if they wished it, and no one has a right to complain.”
— The Sydney Herald
The following year, 1838, was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the colony, and as part of the celebrations Australia’s first public holiday was declared. The regatta was held for a second time, and people crowded the foreshores to view the events, or joined the five steamers (Maitland, Experiment, Australia, Rapid, and the miniature steamer Firefly) to view the proceedings from the water. At midday, 50 guns were fired from Dawes’ Battery as the Royal Standard was raised, and in the evening rockets and other fireworks lit the sky. The dinner was a smaller affair than the previous year, with only 40 in attendance compared to the 160 from 1837, and the anniversary as a whole was described as a “day for everyone”.
Prior to 1888, January 26 was very much a New South Wales affair, as each of the colonies had their own commemorations for their founding. In Tasmania, Regatta Day occurred initially in December to mark the anniversary of the landing of Abel Tasman. South Australia celebrated Proclamation Day on December 28. Western Australia had their own Foundation Day (now Western Australia Day) on June 1.
In 1888, all colonial capitals except Adelaide celebrated “Anniversary Day”.
In 1915, a committee to celebrate Australia Day was formed, and the date chosen was July 30, on which many fund-raising efforts were run to support the war effort. It was run the next year on July 28, 1916.
In 1910, South Australia adopted Australia Day, followed by Victoria in 1931. By 1935, all states of Australia were celebrating January 26 as Australia Day (although it was still known as Anniversary Day in New South Wales). The name “Foundation Day” persisted in local usage.
The 150th anniversary of British settlement in Australia in 1938 was widely celebrated. Preparations began in 1936 with the formation of a Celebrations Council. In that year, New South Wales was the only state to abandon the traditional long weekend, and the annual Anniversary Day public holiday was held on the actual anniversary day Wednesday, January 26. The Commonwealth and state governments agreed to unify the celebrations on January 26 as “Australia Day” in 1946, although the public holiday was instead taken on the Monday closest to the actual anniversary.
In 1988, the celebration of 200 years since the arrival of the First Fleet was organized on a large scale, with many significant events taking place in all major cities. Over 2.5 million people attended the event in Sydney. These included street parties, concerts, including performances on the steps and forecourt of the Sydney Opera House and at many other public venues, art and literary competitions, historic re-enactments, and the opening of the Powerhouse Museum at its new location. A re-enactment of the arrival of the First Fleet took place in Sydney Harbour, with ships that had sailed from Portsmouth a year earlier taking part.
Since 1988, participation in Australia Day has increased, and in 1994 all states and territories began to celebrate a unified public holiday on the actual day for the first time. Research conducted in 2007 reported that 27.6% of Australians polled attended an organized Australia Day event and a further 25.6% celebrated with family and friends, making Australia Day the largest annual public event in the nation. This reflected the results of an earlier research project where 66% of respondents anticipated that they would actively celebrate Australia Day 2005.
Various music festivals are held on Australia Day, such as the Big Day Out, and the Australia Day Live Concert which is televised nationally. For many years an international cricket match has been held on Australia Day at the Adelaide Oval. These matches have included both Test matches and One Day Internationals.
Research in 2009 indicated that Australians reflect on history and future fairly equally on Australia Day. Of those polled, 43% agreed that history is the most important thing to think about on Australia Day and 41% said they look towards “our future”, while 13% thought it was important to “think about the present at this time” and 3% were unsure. Despite the date reflecting the arrival of the First Fleet, contemporary celebrations are not particularly historical in their theme. There are no large-scale re-enactments and the national leader’s participation is focused largely on events such as the Australian of the Year Awards announcement and Citizenship Ceremonies.
Possibly reflecting a shift in Australians’ understanding of the place of Indigenous Australians in their national identity, Newspoll research in November 2009 reported that ninety percent of Australians polled believed “it was important to recognize Australia’s indigenous people and culture” as part of Australia Day celebrations. A similar proportion (89%) agreed that “it is important to recognize the cultural diversity of the nation”. Despite the strong attendance at Australia Day events and a positive disposition towards the recognition of Indigenous Australians, the date of the celebrations remains a source of challenge and national discussion.
Australia released three stamps on October 1, 1937, to mark the 150th anniversary of the foundation of New South Wales (Scott #163-165). They each bore the same image of Governor Arthur Phillip at Sydney Cove designed E. Broad and F.D. Manley. The recess engraving was done by J. Ash. The denominations and printing inks were 2 pence red, 3 pence unltramarine and 9 pence violet. These were perforated 13×13½.