January 26 continues to be a nettlesome date for the official celebration of the Australian nation and as a commemoration of our colonial foundation. Apart from the significant nuisance that it falls so close to the end of the holiday season, when our minds and emotions are trying to deal with seemingly more pressing obligations, its continued existence really asks a serious philosophical and moral question about not just about the date but also whether it should be celebrated at all.
The truth is that virtually every nation has a “National Day” of some sort. As a secular society, we are not disposed to have ours on a patron saint’s day and, despite the claims which are made for Anzac Day, there are persuasive counter-arguments against that solution. Some urge the case for January 1, to commemorate our Federation, but – leaving aside the inconvenience of that date being at a time when we’re little disposed to concentrate on anything serious or non-hedonistic, being so close to Christmas and clashing with New Year’s Day (not to mention that it really commemorates an Act of the British Parliament) – there is still residual ambivalence about Federation: after all, in 1933 the citizens of Western Australia voted overwhelmingly (almost 2:1) to secede from the Commonwealth and the outcomes of some of the various plebiscites in other states, just before the official and legal Federation in 1901, showed that support was, in those years, rather lukewarm. For some citizens, elements of that scepticism remain and occasionally reappear.
For indigenous Australians, conscious of their fraught and demeaning history since 1788, January 26 is no cause for celebration at all. Understandably, they consider that it was the beginning of an invasion and see no reason to rejoice in it. White Australians and, indeed, all immigrants can only respect that attitude; but we must do so reflectively.
The fact is, bluntly, that there are several distinct reasons to discard 26 January for our celebration of a National Day.
The first point is that the date is not when the founding fleet arrived in Terra Australis; it was not even the first real landfall on the east coast. That was, rather, at Botany Bay on 19-20 January, 1788. It was only because the officers were so disillusioned by how little resemblance that part of our shore bore to Joseph Banks’s glowing descriptions and because of an indifferent water supply that Governor Arthur Phillip made a reconnaissance to Port Jackson (which Captain Cook had not entered). The colonising venture was, thereupon, transferred to Sydney Cove. Even then, in the afternoon of 26 January, there was little time for formalities or any grander celebration than hoisting a flag and drinking the health of the King and the success of the colony with a few glasses of Porter, followed by the flourish provided by a round of rifle fire.
Just as members of Parliament do not become ministers when the Premier announces a new Cabinet, but only when sworn-in by the Governor, so it was not until 7 February that the Colony of New South Wales officially began. This was when the Judge-Advocate, David Collins, publicly read the commission to Phillip which King George III had issued on 25 April 1787. At least by early February tents had been erected and the marines’ band could provide some music and, when the official readings were completed, could intersperse a few bars of “God save the King” into the three rifle volleys which the marines produced.
Then, extending that festive atmosphere, as Manning Clark described it in his History of Australia, “After the ceremony, Phillip invited the officers to celebrate the occasion at a cold collation in his canvas house.” It all has a wonderfully Australian improvisatory feel about it, though for many of us that might not, of itself, be sufficient reason to change the date of the national day. The real reason, I think, is far more fundamental to our sense of our ethical selves.
This stems from what was included in Phillip’s royal instructions. Apart from requiring that there be a public reading of the commission, which invested the governor with his considerable powers and at the same time gave detailed orders for the setting up a court system, the King laid down some remarkable procedures covering the treatment of the native Australians. “You are to endeavour by every possible means to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all of our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them. And if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, it is our will and pleasure that you cause such offenders to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence”. Thus, in June 1790, Phillip could report to the British government that, “the settlers have little to apprehend from the natives, against whom I have never thought any defence necessary”.
Immensely regrettable though it was that so many later settlers were ignorant of that royal command (perhaps feeling secure in their distance from Sydney, let alone from London), and even though there is no denying that those colonists considered that the land was theirs to usurp, official policy was benign in its general intent (though we cannot avoid the enormous irony implicit in wanting to appropriate their land while at the same time being “kind” and “conciliatory” to the natives). There was, though, none of the official barbarity of the Spanish South American colonies, for instance.
It could be the case, therefore, that a change of our celebration to 7 February might not only be a recognition that this is, historically, the more apt day, but it might also be morally beneficial for us all. It should remind indigenous Australians of what might have been. Even more important, it could be a regular stimulus to our collective national conscience, an annual reminder of the sentiments which the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, expressed in Parliament in February 2008, and a be spur to us all to attain a humbler and more worthy view of our history.
John Carmody is a Sydney-based writer on medical and cultural history. He is President of the Australian Catholic Historical Society.