Australia Day: Why our destiny requires another date to celebrate

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch

As the 1788 First Fleet was one of history's great voyages of migration it should, despite the current Australia Day debate, continue to be commemorated, but as a maritime achievement, rather than birth of a nation.

In today's terms it was like flying to the moon; and could have been a disaster. Commodore Arthur Phillip skilfully commanded 11 second-rate ships sailing together for eight months. Naval officers, including my ancestor, Lt Philip Gidley King, Phillip's aide-de-camp, captains and sailors guided their crafts on a perilous 252-day voyage. Ship surgeons lost only 48 of 1350.

On arrival, First Fleet Judge Advocate David Collins said: "Thus under the blessing of God, was happily completed, in eight months and one week, a voyage which before it was undertaken, the mind hardly dared venture to  contemplate. We had sailed five thousands and twenty one leagues; had touched on the American and African continents; and had at last rested within a few days sail of the antipodes of our native country; without meeting any accident in a fleet of eleven sail." 

On the privately run 1790 Second Fleet, 267 lives were lost.  On the Third Fleet, 182 perished.

The First Fleet at Botany Bay. Illustration: Matt Davidson

The First Fleet at Botany Bay. Illustration: Matt Davidson

The passenger list on Phillip's Fleet included 759 convicts.  Some 164,000 men and women were to be transported up to 1868, confirming many of us as Boat People. Their one million descendants  – including John Fairfax, Dick Smith, James Packer, Ray Hadley, Helen Reddy, Gai Waterhouse, Shane Dye and Debbie Flintoff-King – illustrate the success of transportation.

 This maritime heritage is not acknowledged in Australia Day Council programs issued in each state. Instead they encourage holiday makers to have barbecues, sporting events and fun.

Canberra has always had difficulties with January 26. The federal government's opposition to commemorating the arrival on our biggest Australia Day ever – the First Fleet re-enactment  for the 1988 bicentennial celebrations – is well documented.

The Australian Bicentennial Authority which produced its own Parade of Tall Ships on Sydney Harbour as a headline event believed the privately run re-enactment would undermine its own maritime event, focus too much on the unsavoury convict and imperial heritage and also offend the Indigenous community.

Governor Arthur Phillip skilfully commanded 11 second-rate ships on a perilous 252-day voyage.

Governor Arthur Phillip skilfully commanded 11 second-rate ships on a perilous 252-day voyage.

The Senate Estimates Committee, which was asked to investigate the government's expenditure on the bicentennial celebrations, told Parliament in November 1988 that the ABA "had actively attempted to destroy the First Fleet Re-enactment expedition". Yet the January 26 arrival that year attracted three million cheering spectators, becoming Australia's largest most popular live spectator event.

Aware this symbol of colonisation would impact on the Indigenous community, First Fleet organisers sought advice from leaders, including Charles Perkins and Sydney activist Burnum Burnum, aka Harry Penrith, who planted the Aboriginal flag on an English beach in 1988 to claim Britain for the Aborigine.

Perkins, who took part in the 1965 Freedom Rides and was a public face of Aboriginal Australia during the 1967 referendum campaign, said: "Of course you should re-enact the First Fleet as you white fellas have gotta have your own Dreamtime because if you don't, you won't know where you have come from or where you are going".

Portrait of Captain Arthur Philip painted by Francis Wheatley. Photo: State Library of NSW

Portrait of Captain Arthur Philip painted by Francis Wheatley. Photo: State Library of NSW

Police still warned protesters could board ships, advised the wearing of  bullet-proof vests and feared  riots if First Fleet re-enactment crews came ashore.   

But nobody intercepted the fleet. Our ships flew Aboriginal flags, sailors gave three cheers for Aboriginal spectators, wore black arm bands, cast a memorial black, yellow and red wreath into the harbour and placed an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Heralddemanding a treaty. The welcome was also warm in other ports of call around Australia.

Aborigines made good use of the event, starting with Tracey Moffat protesting at our May 13, 1987, Portsmouth departure. On our arrival, thousands  demonstrated in Redfern, marching to Hyde Park.   The re-enactment provided a timely platform and effective catalyst. Four years later the Federal High Court recognised Eddie Mabo's Murray Island native claim, ushering in an era of land rights.

Despite Land Rights activist and lawyer Noel Pearson telling National Press Club last Australia Day we can still commemorate the Fleet but must honour Aboriginal arrivals 50,000 years earlier, a growing number of people are campaigning to abolish Australia Day altogether. 

The "Change the Date" campaign, which is supported by Aborigines and National Convention of First People, the Australian Greens, Triple J and Yarra, Darebin and Fremantle city councils, is gaining unstoppable momentum. Full-page newspaper advertisements have appeared demanding readers work on Australia Day.

Their passion makes Mark Latham's "Save Australia Day" campaign seem out of date. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seemed out of touch when he declared recently: "I am disappointed by the Change the Date campaign because the 26 January is the day that unites us all."

It's a misnomer anyway calling January 26 Australia Day because that is historically inaccurate.  The 26th was not the arrival anyway, they arrived in Botany Bay on January 18. 

On January 26 Phillip established a penal colony – not a nation. According to Lt King's journal they "drank the health of His Majesty & Success to the Colony", then "a feu de joie was fired by the Marines and the whole gave 3 Cheers". They did not drink to any nation, let alone "Australia" (a name not used until the next century). There was only one ship, Supply, in Circular Quay as others were still in Botany Bay because of unfavourable winds and meeting French navigator La Perouse whose two ships arrived that day.

Phillip did not even establish the government till February 7 as Collins said he had been too busy to read "His Majesty's Commissions appointing Commodore Phillip Governor-in-Chief over the territory of New South Wales". 

Collins said they raised their flag in New Holland, claiming only limited territory, "confined along the east coast of this continent to such parts of it solely as were navigated by Captain Cook, without infringing on what might be claimed by other nations from their right of discovery". Cook had called it NSW.

They were establishing one colony, never dreaming random British settlers would establish other ad hoc colonies or eventually occupy the whole continent.

We should instead transfer the Australia Day title to January 1, the day the nation of Australia was actually created. It is also less controversial, encourages us to celebrate achievements of our "Federation Fathers" uniting six antagonistic colonies against formidable odds – and still leaves room for commemorating the Fleet's safe arrival, but as a more general maritime event.

Advocating federation in 1889, colourful rags to riches hero Sir Henry Parkes tirelessly toured colonies educating voters, campaigning and negotiating to overcome parochial resistance. He could have failed. Initially convict-free Victoria feared contamination from convict colonies; Queensland refused to abandon slave trading and Western Australia wanted to secede. 

NSW voted against the first 1898 referendum but luckily the second in 1899 passed in most colonies though only by 8000 votes in Queensland. Rebellious Western Australia only joined the union six weeks before Queen Victoria signed approval.  A relieved Edmund Barton, the first prime minister, declared: "For the first time in history we have a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation".

January 1, 1901, was all about nation building – not British naval officers just founding one penal colony – but Australians creating their own nation.  Governor General's proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia in Sydney's Centennial Park united six competing colonies peacefully. America only won independence through bloody warfare. 

Our new Australia Day, already a holiday, should be more inclusive. Despite Aborigines not becoming full citizens until 1967 they now benefit from the government established then. 

Aborigines always felt locked out; they called it the "Day of Mourning" for the 1938 sesqui-centenary and held their own parade/march from Sydney Town Hall to the Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street, Surrey Hills. By  1988 they were calling  the bicentenary "Invasion Day". 

We can call January 26 "Sea Festival Day", celebrating our nautical heritage and arrival of all Aboriginal and migrant boat people including the British. Vietnamese boat person and comedian Ahn Do could launch it in 2019. And having successfully sailed those same high seas as the 1788 fleet, surviving sailors from the 1988 re-enactment  will certainly be sailing their tall ships on a pleasure cruise around Sydney harbour this Friday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their maritime achievement in completing that re-enactment expedition.

The sooner we switch Australia Day to January 1 the better. As the American founding father and third US president Thomas Jefferson noted, "The way a nation commemorates its anniversaries is a statement  to the world of its own sense of destiny".

A descendant of First Fleet officer Lt. Philip Gidley King, historian Jonathan King conceived, helped organise and sailed on the 1988 First Fleet re-enactment expedition.  

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop