A Brief History of Australia Day

All public holidays are equal. Some, however, are more equal than others. It’s true that you should never look a gift horse in the mouth. That’s not just because the thing has failed to brush its teeth (and, to be fair, it’s hard to attend to your oral hygiene needs without opposable thumbs), but also because it can seem ungrateful. So it is with public holidays.

All public holidays are equal.  Some, however, are more equal than others.  It’s true that you should never look a gift horse in the mouth.  That’s not just because the thing has failed to brush its teeth (and, to be fair, it’s hard to attend to your oral hygiene needs without opposable thumbs), but also because it can seem ungrateful.  So it is with public holidays. 

Deep down, we all know the Queen’s birthday is a rort  (her Majesty’s birthday is in April, not June and is only occasionally on a Monday) but are too afraid to say anything in case someone takes it away.  The monarchy may well be an antiquated historical hiccup that defies modern notions of democracy, but that doesn’t mean that the Queen’s Birthday holiday is anything less than untouchable.  But although all public holidays are considered vital, it’s true to say that some invite more self-reflection than others.  You often hear people talk about the true meaning of Christmas.  Rarely, if ever, does anyone bother to contemplate the true meaning of New Year’s Day.  Whereas Christmas is about the power of giving, so far as I can tell, the sole purpose of 1 January is as some kind of global sick day.

It’s hard to talk about the true meaning of Australia Day.  To do so can leave you vulnerable to charges of being unpatriotic or, worse still, ‘un-Australian.’  It’s a funny thing that we often find it easier to define what is not Australian rather than what is.  Other nations tend to define themselves in the positive. So what is the meaning of our national day?  Perhaps it’s in the way we celebrate it.

On its front page, The Sunday Territorian had a story under the headline ‘Australia Day Biffo’.  Celebrations of our national holiday turned sour when a fight broke out in between a pie eating contest and a bikini competition.  Frankly, it sounds like a scheduling problem.  Everyone knows you should never, ever put a pie-eating contest on at the same time as a bikini competition.  It puts a gentleman keen to compete in both in, frankly, a dreadful situation.  Fans of both activities will feel hopelessly compromised and such conflicts can easily be avoided by ensuring events of a disparate nature are timed to clash.  If, by way of example, the pie-eating contest was on at the same time as a performance of Wagner’s ‘Die Wulkure’, such problems could be avoided.  Or, to be safe, if Richard Wagner’s opera could be turned into a pie-eating contest, that might be even better.  The thought of Ride of the Valkyries being performed through a mouthful of mince is compelling, to say the least.

To some, ‘Australia Day’ represents the landing of Captain Phillip and the First Fleet at Sydney Cove.  That our national day should be founded on simply turning up is kind of nice.  Better than that, it’s worth remembering that the rush to lay claim to our continent was driven by a desire to get in first.  Having spotted a couple of French ships lurking around the entrance to Botany Bay, Arthur Phillip gave orders to hightail it to Sydney Cove.  So began a tradition.  To this day, people arrive at the local park in the dead of night to lay claim to an electric barbecue before anyone, including the nation of France, can beat them to it.

As early as 1808, 26 January was the day on which emancipated convicts chose to honour the land in which they lived.  Rather than by silent reflection or the breaking of bread, it was said that the celebrations took the form of ‘drinking and merriment’.  Back then, the main toast of the evening was to Major George Johnston – the first officer to make it to shore.  It’s worth noting that old George did so on the back of a convict by the name of James Ruse.  James, I feel, may well deserve a toast of his own. 

It was also in 1808 that celebrations, arguably, got slightly out of hand, resulting in the armed overthrow of Governor William Bligh.  Again, it was George Johnston leading the charge.  History is silent, however, as to whether he was, once again, mounted on his good steed James Ruse.  The overthrow is now known as ‘the Rum Rebellion’.  Perhaps a little of the spirit of 1808 was responsible for Darwin’s pie eating / bikini competition face-off.  I’d like to think that, in years to come, it will be known as the ‘Rum and Coke Rebellion’.

Some people think Australia was discovered on Australia Day, but that’s just not so.  Plenty of people had been here before and the land had been inhabited for tens of thousands of years before either George Johnston or James Ruse got a boot down.  At the risk of being ‘un-Australian’, I think Americans have it right.  They celebrate ‘Thanksgiving’.  Those emancipated convicts understood it, too.  History is a complicated thing, but it’s worth being grateful.  For me, I like to think about my grandparents, who travelled here from Ireland.  Whether you were born in this country or chose to come, the fact that you’re here is cause enough to give thanks.  On Saturday, I saw footage of people lining up to become citizens on 26 January. It’s hard to think of a better way to spend a public holiday.  Happy Australia Day.

Leave a Reply