Why Do We Celebrate Australia Day On January 26?



“Derr, it’s because that’s when the First Fleet landed in Australia!” Congratulations! You’ve successfully passed Grade 3 SOSE! Here’s a shiny sticker to put on your name badge on your desk! Yes, we all know that’s what happened on January 26, 1788, at least I assume that most people in Australia know that’s what happened. No, the real question I’m posing is why we decided to make this our national holiday. Not quite making sense? One of these things is not like the others.

United States of America – National holiday is Independence Day. On the 4th of July 1776, the then Continental Congress accepted the Declaration of Independence which announced that the United States was no longer under British rule.

Canada – National holiday is Canada Day. On the 1st of July, 1867, the British North America Act, 1867, was officially entered into force. This gave independence to the colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada (subsequently split into Ontario and Quebec) and federated them into the new nation-state of Canada.

India – National holiday is Independence Day. On the 15th of August 1947, India officially gained independence from the British Empire.

Mexico – National holiday is Día de la Independencia (Independence Day). On the 16th of December 1810, a priest by the name Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gathered the residents of Dolores outside the town’s church. From there, he addressed his congregation and urged them to revolt against their Spanish rulers, thus heralding the start of the Mexican War of Independence.

Sri Lanka – National holiday is Independence Day. On the 4th of February 1948, Sri Lanka was granted independence from the United Kingdom after several years of civil unrest.

Kenya – National Holiday is Jamhuri Day. On the 12th of December 1963, the British colony of Kenya was granted independence and became a republic (Jamhuri is the Swahili word for Republic) within the British Commonwealth. This too occurred after years of bloodshed that was the Mau Mau uprising.

Australia – National Holiday is Australia Day. On the 26th of January 1788, a small group of ships arrived from England carrying a large group of convicts and a small group of soldiers. The ships landed in what is now the city of Sydney and began to establish a prison colony that only existed because the British lost their prison colonies in that disobedient part of the world now known as the United States of America.

All the states listed were once part of a colonial power before gaining their independence through war, popular vote, government degree or a combination of the above. However, of these, Australia is the only one which celebrates its national holiday on the day that European settlers first arrived. The first successful English settlement in North America was Jamestown which was founded on the 4th of May 1607 (14th of May in the Julian Calendar), yet this date is nowhere near as significant as Independence Day. When it comes to Canada, it’s quite hard to pinpoint an actual date of European colonisation. To begin with, there was a Norse settlement at modern day L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland but no written records survive from this. During the age of exploration, many settlements were established in what is today Canada but these were frequently destroyed and/or abandoned due to starvation and disease. Therefore, it’s understandable that Canada chose the date of its independence from Britain to be its national holiday. So, why then did Australia ignore how these other former colonies placed their national holidays?

The reason for this is that Australia was federated (sort-of gained independence from Britain) on the 1st of January 1901. This was the date when the six colonies of Australia (New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland) officially formed the Commonwealth of Australia. Unfortunately, the 1st of January also happens to be New Year’s Day, the day when a significant percentage of the population is physically and mentally recovering from the alcohol and drug-fuelled night that is New Year’s Eve. Celebrating a national holiday isn’t as pleasant when you have to clean up that pile of vomit on your front porch and figure out how he or she managed to get into your bed even though you can’t remember his or her name or where the condom ended up (not being much of a ‘party person’, I’m assuming this this is what most normal people have to deal with on New Year’s Day). The other problem is that the 1st of January is a public holiday, and this is Australia, the country that loves days off so much that we give ourselves a long weekend if a public holiday happens to fall on a Saturday or Sunday. So, this explains why Australia decided to choose the white-people-coming-here-on-boats-day over Australia-became-a-country-day as our national holiday.

However, the 26th of January isn’t without its own problems. An increasingly large portion of the population sees this date as ‘Invasion Day’, the day that began what was a drawn-out (yet unsuccessful) killing off of the Aboriginal people who inhabited the country. Indeed, many non-Aboriginal Australians have also essentially boycotted any parties or celebratory events in favour of a day of mourning and awareness of the atrocities committed against the Aboriginals throughout Australia’s history. Do I agree with these people that nobody should be celebrating on the 26th of January? That’s not the point of this post. The point I’m making here is that large numbers of Australians of many different ethnic backgrounds believe that the 26th of January is not an appropriate date to be celebrating our national holiday on. As I pointed out in the other examples, first European settlement is also a rather odd thing to celebrate.

So, with the 26th of January becoming increasingly unpopular and the 1st of January not being an option for, err, logistical reasons, what other dates do we have to choose from? According to Wikipedia (yes, I got pretty much all my information for this post from Wikipedia), several dates have been suggested. These include the 25th of April (ANZAC Day), 9th of May (opening of the first parliament) and the 3rd of December (Eureka Stockade rebellion of 1854). However, compared to the other former colonies that I mentioned, these dates don’t work particularly well. ANZAC Day is meant to be a sombre day to reflect on the horrors of war and how thankful we are that our servicemen and women fought to keep Australia free from tyranny (even though devout nationalists often try to hijack it for their own political gain). There’s also the problem that ANZAC Day is already a public holiday and reducing the total number of public holidays is something that would not go down well with most Australians. The 9th of May is just the date when a group of politicians sat down together in a large room for the first time and discussed some things. As for the 3rd of December, the Eureka Stockade Rebellion isn’t actually as significant as people make it out to be. Though it is often seen as a seminal moment of Australian workers uprising against the British authorities for independence, there wasn’t really any nationalist sentiment at the uprising. In fact, the main cause was the tension between miners (many of whom were only in Australia temporarily) and the local authorities. Of course, by Australian standards the rebellion was a very bloody affair, but it had little to no connection with any Australian independence movement which is why it would not make a very appropriate day for our national holiday.

The problems of choosing a different date are rather indicative of Australia’s history. We never had an energetic declaration which then set off a violent struggle for independence against our colonial rulers. Indeed, we should be very thankful for this but a lack of any such date does cause a problem if people want our national holiday changed from the 26th of January. However, a possible solution to this problem came from a friend of mine, funnily enough, at an Australia Day Party (I don’t really subscribe to nationalism very much so I usually regard it as Triple J Hottest 100 Announcement Day). I posed the question to him and he gave this following suggestion. At some point, Australia is going to become a republic (we still have Queen Elizabeth II as our head of state). After we as a country vote to become a republic, the date that we officially make our head of state an elected official should become our new national holiday. Not only do we get to choose the date on which this happens so as not to come into conflict with any other public holidays, but those who feel that the 26th of January is inappropriate can celebrate a new Australia Day on a different date. There, the Australia Day/Invasion Day/Survival Day problem has been solved. Now, if only we lived in a perfect world where every politician listened to every opinion that every blogger ever had.


About alexcarrette

University of Queensland graduate (Bachelor of Journalism and Arts with majors in History and International Relations), rock/metal musician, amateur photographer, and massive military history nerd.
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