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
|Marines’ wives and children
|45 + 9 born
|11 + 11 born
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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