January 26, 1788: The day Captain Arthur Phillip landed on Australian soil with the First Fleet of British ships, raising the British flag at Sydney Cove to claim New South Wales as a British Colony. This day marks the beginning of a long and brutal colonisation of people and land. On this day, every year, people of this country are asked to celebrate Australia Day.
It’s understandable why Australia Day celebrations are not completely embraced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Massacre, land theft, stolen children, Australians all let us rejoice! For many First Australians, this day is recognised as Survival Day or Invasion Day, mourning the history that followed the steps of Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet.
It was in 1935 that all Australian states and territories adopted the term ‘Australia Day’, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the whole nation celebrated with a national public holiday on 26 January. While this day represents the founding of Australia for some, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples it marks the beginning of a long fight for recognition as the original occupants and custodians of Australia, as well as the fight for equality in this country.
On 26 January 1788 the British flag was planted in Australian soil under the falsehood of terra nullius (land belonging to no one). Nakkiah Lui, Gamilaroi and Torres Strait Islander playwright and actor, sees 26 January as a day that divides us:
“Most people just want a day to celebrate the place that they call home, to be part of a community, and to guide Australia into the future. I am one of these people, so why can’t we celebrate this on a day that includes all Australians?”
Paul Gorrie, a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta man, speaking to the Aware Project, also sees it as a day of mourning because of the long term consequences of colonisation:
“All over the world, when communities have traumatic experiences, there are long term consequences. Their children and grandchildren are affected, and depending on whether and how wrongdoings are acknowledged and continuing problems are addressed, the trauma tracks down the generations.
Australians of today are not directly responsible for what happened in the past. But it is part of our shared history as Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and, together, we are responsible for what happens in the future.”1
Dr. Tom Calma AO, Aboriginal elder of the Kungarakan people and Chancellor of the University of Canberra, makes the point that “Indigenous Australians have felt the impact of racism from ‘day one’ in white Australian history.” So, our First Australians are being asked not only to celebrate Australia on the day colonisation began, but to celebrate a country which won’t even include them in its Constitution.
Some argue that the sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was lost in 1788, and on 26 January there is an opportunity for First Australian's to raise awareness around sovereignty. Marches are held in cities around Australia protesting against the celebration and the social injustices faced by the First Australians to this day. These protests have been happening in Australia for over a century, beginning in 1888 when Aboriginal people boycotted centenary celebrations.
In 1938, on the 150th anniversary, Yorta Yorta man William Cooper and other members of the Aboriginal Progressive Association held the Day of Mourning and Protest on the 26th of January.
Since the first day of morning, each year thousands of Australians march to change the date. Invasion Day protests are growing year on year. In 2018, it was estimated that 25,000 people marched in the streets of Melbourne, while smaller protests were held in cities and towns around the country.
There are many who believe that to truly celebrate this country we must find a date that includes all Australians. Yawuru Lawyer Mick Dodson AM, speaking to the Koori Mail, said that he believes that someday, Australia will change the date to one that is a “comprehensive and inclusive date for all Australians.”
(1) Recommendation 290, National report overview and recommendations of the Royal Commission Indigenous Deaths in Custody 1989 to 1996 AGPS, 1991