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Whence Australia Day

All this talk about changing the date of Australia Day, tearing down statues and rewriting our history seems to be missing the broader story of the arrival of the first fleet in 1788, a momentous feat of seamanship and navigation by any standards, bringing eleven wooden sailing ships half way around the world without the loss of a single vessel.

Even by comparison with the major voyages of exploration, the achievement of Arthur Phillip was commendable for that era.

By contrast, Columbus in 1492 was only at sea for a little over two months in his first voyage of exploration, leaving Spain on 3 August 1492 and sighting land – San Salvador in the Bahamas initially – on 12 October.

Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe was an immense undertaking for the 16th century, leaving Spain on 20 September 1519 with five ships and 270 men but the losses were enormous, including the death of Magellan in the Philippines. Just one ship, the Victoria, under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano and a crew of 18 men, returned to Spain on 6 September 1522.

The epic Mayflower voyage was a snip in 1620 with the Mayflower departing Plymouth, England, on 6 September 1620 and arriving at Cape Cod on 9 November 1620, after a 66 day voyage.

Arthur Phillip’s voyage, with eleven vessels, left England on 13 May 1787 sailed southwest to Rio de Janeiro, then east to Cape Town and via the Great Southern Ocean to Botany Bay, arriving over the period of 18 to 20 January 1788, taking 250 to 252 days from departure to final arrival. Comprising two Royal Navy vessels, three store ships and six convict transports, carrying between 1,000 and 1,500 convicts, marines, seamen, civil officers and free settlers and a vast quantity of stores this epic voyage was a triumph and whilst precise numbers differ reports indicate the fleet comprised:

Embarked at Portsmouth Landed at Sydney Cove
Officials and passengers 15 14
Ships’ crews 323 269
Marines 247 245
Marines’ wives and children 46 45 + 9 born
Convicts (men) 582 543
Convicts (women) 193 189
Convicts’ children 14 11 + 11 born
Total 1,420 1,336

There is no doubt that European exploration and settlement of the new world had instant and long term detrimental and devatating impacts on native peoples, particularly in the Americas but no less in Australia and the Pacific region and we can’t change that.

But is this a reason to completely dismiss the historic significance and our national commemoration of the arrival of the first fleet? Establishing an outpost in the Pacific had become a priority for the British in an era when colonial expansion had become a frantic race of acquisition and had the British not settled Australia there is little doubt that the French would have.

Australia Day in the modern era should represent a celebration of the achievements of all Australians, migrant settlers and the First Australians. Whether this recognition takes place on 26 January or another date is beside the point. We should not allow the achievements of Arthur Phillip and the first European settlers and convicts to pass without recognition: to do so would not only be disrespecting their memory but also a denial of our recent history.

 

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21 comments

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  1. Ian Ellis

    A bank robber who acted with skill is still a bank robber. Does one applaud the marksmanship of a murderer? Navigation skills and fortitude by ‘explorers’ when seeking to steal someone else’s country are obviously different to the writer of this article. I fail to see why, however.

  2. Florence nee Fedup

    When Captain Cook located and map the eastern coast, the name Australia didn’t exist. It was know as New Holland.

    Cook deserves respect and admiration for what he did. Except he didn’t discover Australia. Didn’t even exist when he sailed up the coast. It was named Australia 1804.

  3. stephengb2014

    I understand Australia day did not exist untill 1935 and not as a public holiday untill 1944.

    Australia day surely should be an anniversary of the day when Australia became a untited country of States and called Australia.
    1 Jan 1901

    S G B

  4. Harquebus

    I think that our Aboriginal Australians have a good argument and that we have not compensated them nearly enough.

  5. Florence nee Fedup

    Better known as NSW Foundation Day.

  6. Johno

    Australia Day in the modern era should represent a celebration of the achievements of all Australians, migrant settlers and the first Australians.
    Well then, wouldn’t it be more befitting to have a date that is significant to the first arrivals, let the Aboriginal Australians decide on the date for all of us to celebrate.

  7. wam

    it is a fair jump from magellan to phillip about the same as phillip to 2017. Australia should celebrate the first fleet for the reasons you outline but they do not represent the Australia of today and jan 26 is not an appropriate date to celebrate our country.
    ps we are of course familiar with lauding crooks?

  8. Johno

    Those ships were the early version of, out of site, out of mind. Every form of waste was dumped over the side. I read one account of one of these ships caught in the doldrums. The stench from the waste around the ship gets so bad that the sailors take to the rowboats to pull the ship away from the stench. Then there is the slaughter of wildlife to keep there eye in and relieve the boredom.

  9. diannaart

    Irrespective of how the voyage of Arthur Phillip is viewed, the 26th of January is not an inclusive nor auspicious date upon which celebrate the achievements of an entire nation – not just NSW and not just post 1788 colonialists.

  10. LOVO

    An inclusive day for all – ; first Australians; British ancestor Australians; Immigrant Australians, has been celebrated in ‘our’ Australia for over one hundred years- its called Australian National Wattle Day. It is already gazetted as an national day and symbolises many of the positive and inclusive things/ views of what it is to be an Australian.
    It’s on the 1st of September each year and is still celebrated in many places across this wide brown land of ‘ours’.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wattle_Day
    http://www.wattleday.asn.au/
    http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/Publications_Archive/CIB/cib9596/96cib1#ROLE
    https://www.thecultureconcept.com/wattle-day-1st-day-of-spring-celebrate-australian-culture

  11. diannaart

    How many First Nation people have been asked for their preference? As First Australians, should they not be entitled to first choice?

  12. Mark Needham

    I’m offended. Let’s change something.
    Australia day, is fine as it is.
    If our First Nation Mob, want a day, then let them have it.

    Ian Ellis August 27, 2017 at 6:25 pm
    “A bank robber who acted with skill is still a ban…”
    A very good argument, for something, just not sure what for. Well, I do know, but the comment is so ludicrous, that I….can’t help myself.

    Mark Needham

  13. jimhaz

    Even if it had been on another day all along there would still be protests – it is about non-natives celebrating the opening up of the land to the English. The whole thing about changing the date is just a power struggle – the date is just being used as an excuse. Nothing will be solved by changing the date – the left have just jumped on the band wagon cause it sounds at face value like a good cause. I’ve no time for it.

  14. OPPOSE THE MAJOUR PARTIES

    There was no such thing as an the state or nation of ‘Australia’ before 1 January 1901. Before that it was officially various colonies. ‘Australia’ in practical effect only came into existence in the hearts and minds of the people on 31 July 1900 when Western Australia finally said ‘yes’ to Federation at its referendum after which time all the people of all the colonies eligible to vote had voted and the vote was passed in favour of federation. Hence 31 July 1900 is the date at which Australia in practical effect came into existence and the people for the first time saw themselves as one country. Further, the 26 January is not the date the first fleet landed. It landed on 19 January at Botany Bay. My convict ancestor was on board the Scarborough which was the second ship of the fleet to arrive at Botany Bay. They remained at Botany Bay for a few days avoiding La Peruse and then snuck out at night to land at Port Jackson because the water supply was slightly better there and Sydney Cove offered greater protection from rough seas etc. Philip hoisted the Union Jack and again claimed the area for Great Britain etc but that had already been done by Cook so Phillip’s raising of the flag was merely symbolic. Thus, the 26 January has little to do with Australia and is an arbitrary date. It should be changed in my view to 31 July to reflect the will of the people agreeing to become one country called ‘Australia’.

  15. OPPOSE THE MAJOUR PARTIES

    stephengb2014August 27, 2017 at 8:34 pm
    I understand Australia day did not exist untill 1935 and not as a public holiday untill 1944.

    Australia day surely should be an anniversary of the day when Australia became a untited country of States and called Australia.
    1 Jan 1901

    This was considered when official Australia days were being considered but due to its clash with New Years Day etc was not adopted.

  16. helvityni

    jimhaz, so many of our Coalition politicians seem to have dual citizenships, obviously they don’t care about the Aussie Rules regarding having ONLY one citizenship ( Australian) if you want be a Parliamentarian.

    So why would they worry about changing the date of the Australia Day….they don’t care about what the country’s Indigenous people want…

  17. jimhaz

    [It should be changed in my view to 31 July to reflect the will of the people agreeing to become one country called ‘Australia’.]

    No can do – Financial year end.

  18. jimhaz

    [So why would they worry about changing the date of the Australia Day….they don’t care about what the country’s Indigenous people want…]

    I do not believe in treating indigenous people as special – in allowing them more power than other citizens (excluding land rights). That would seem like racism to me. I have the same approach with the rich. Land rights are a bit different as that would give them not that much more than a group of settlers would have been given – we owe those still living in traditional areas the right to that land. “Special” can also be used in relation to levels of funding to bring issues such as education and aboriginal health closer to the norm and similar needs based funding should be applied across the board.

    I have no guilt over what happened – rather I am thankful as without what occurred I would not be here and I was born with Australia long being in existence.

  19. Ian Ellis

    Mark Needham, like so very many Australians, pretends that he doesn’t know the shameful history – and almost as shameful a present – of the situation in which the Aborigines have found themselves
    James Cook was doing reconnaissance for the British government, and his dishonorable task was to search for another country for his government to invade and to steal from its rightful owners. His seamanship and courage can be acknowledged, but his task was dishonourable.
    (The well written article above focuses upon the skill of Cook, as if this skill forgives the task.)

    I’m sure Mark understands this.

    However, his insulting and patronising use of the pronoun ‘our’ ( ‘our Aborigines’!) is beyond the pale! (It implies ownership of the Aborigines as well as their country.) I suspect that he would write a lot more humbly if he got to know some tribal Aborigines.

  20. Johno

    Another thing about Oz day is the amount of meat consumed. The barbi has become a sacred site to stand around and worship the death of more herbivores. We are the highest per capita consumers of meat in the world.

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