As a contemporary leader might have said, the first Australia Day 200 years ago was an exciting time to be an Australian, but it was also a fine time for the first official celebration of the national day. With his talent for the right thing at the right time, Lachlan Macquarie, Governor from 1810 to 1821, chosen to inaugurate the anniversary on January 26, 1818, to mark thirty years since the colony was founded.
It was the time when the small penal settlements clustered around Sydney, Hobart and Launceston burst through the enveloping bush to become the Australia we know. It was also the time when this country got its name.
The Blue Mountains barrier had been crossed in 1813 and a road to the inland opened in 1815—as it happened, a century to the day before the Gallipoli landing. The flocks and herds were on their way west, and also soon afterwards north and south. By 1820 the grazing boom was well under way, spreading white occupation across south-eastern Australia over the next twenty years.
Emancipated convicts living free, mostly honest and productive lives, their children and grandchildren and other non-Aboriginal “native-born” and free immigrants were together becoming the majority of the population.
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Sydney and Hobart at last had their streets laid out and were growing up from ramshackle collections of timber and mud huts. Permanent buildings were beginning to rise—such as those along Sydney’s new Macquarie Street—and the first rural townships were being established.
The Bank of New South Wales (incorporated into Westpac only in 1982) had opened in 1817 and in 1819 the Savings Bank (absorbed into the Commonwealth Bank in 1931). In 1813 the first distinctive, if primitive, Australian currency, the cut-up “holey” Spanish dollar, had been introduced. These developments steered the colony away from the old economy based on rum and barter.
The name “Australia” was coming into common use around 1818 and with it a nasal and drawling “colonial” accent. Aborigines were being called “Australians”, as in “the Australian race”, and Australian-born whites were being called “natives”, but as the century progressed the names became interchangeable.
For centuries sailors, explorers and geographers had been using variations on the name “Terra Australis”, Latin for south land, for the little-known land mass in the southern hemisphere. In the early 1800s Matthew Flinders used the Anglicised “Australia” on his circumnavigation charts of the continent and the name gradually stuck. Governor Macquarie was advocating it by late 1817. He expressed his blessing for the new name on December 21, 1817, in a report to Goulburn, the Under-Secretary for Colonies in London, reporting on coastal exploration that would “make very important additions to the Geographical knowledge already acquired of the Coasts of Australia, which I hope will be the Name given to this country in future, instead of the early erroneous and misapplied name, hitherto given it, of New Holland”. Historical Records of Australia says that this and a reference by Macquarie in April 1817 to Flinders’s charts were “probably the first occasions when the word Australia was used in official correspondence”.
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The earlier name “Botany Bay” for the Sydney settlement area was also outmoded by then and “New South Welsh woman” was a mouthful. The Australian Encyclopaedia says: “On the whole, the naming of Australia can be said to have been brought about through local usage by Australians themselves, the word being introduced probably by the early naval officers.” London officialdom was at first slow to recognise the name, but it was in authoritative use by 1829 in the legislation to establish the colony in Western Australia and then the 1834 South Australia Act under which the UK Parliament provided for the settlement at Adelaide. Proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 was the last step in a long journey.
Australia Day also evolved from the bottom in much the same way as the country’s name, rather than being imposed from the top. From an unrecorded time around 1800, veterans of the First Fleet were celebrating January 26 with a dinner in Sydney to mark the “First Landing”, as they called it and drinking the toast: “To the land, boys, we live in”. Given the unpromising raw material, after thirty years the foundation Australians had developed into an almost estimable, if rough bunch, as shown in Molly Gillen’s The Founders of Australia, potted biographies of the First Fleeters. Their descendants were by 1818 proving fine citizens.
Governor Macquarie’s public holiday and ball in official recognition of the anniversary on January 26, 1818, were a major turning point. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser of Saturday January 24, 1818, proudly proclaimed in Georgian officialese:
Monday next, the 26th instant, being the 30th anniversary of the Landing of Governor Phillip in New South Wales and of the Establishment of the Colony; His Excellency The Governor, in Commemoration of the Event, and as a just Tribute to the memory of that highly respectable and meritorious Officer, hereby orders and directs that at the Hour of one o’clock in the afternoon of that Day a Salute of 30 Guns, being the number correspondent with the Age of the Settlement, be fired from the battery at Dawes’ Point.
His Excellency is pleased also to direct that, the Artificers and Labourers in the immediate Service of the Government be exempted from Work on Monday next, in Honour of the memorable Occasion; and that each of them receive an extra allowance of One pound of Fresh Meat as a Donation from the Government, which the Deputy Commissary General is directed to issue accordingly on that Day.
Notices beside it on the front page included the award of more than a hundred grants and leases of land, among them grants to John McArthur, that would be seed beds for the wool industry. (It also announced a toll to help pay for the western road.)
On the day itself, said the next issue, “a Dinner was given at Government House to the Civil and Military officers at Head Quarters, in commemoration of the establishment of the Colony, which on that day attained its thirtieth anniversary”. And of the gala summer night that followed:
In the Evening a Ball was given by Mrs Macquarie to a numerous party, which was continued with spirit to a late hour. We were particularly gratified with a likeness of Governor Phillip (executed by Mr Greenway, who felt much pleasure in the opportunity of celebrating the memory of the Vice Admiral … [Francis Greenway was Macquarie’s gifted convict architect.]
Not only was the pastoral invasion of the inland beginning in both New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, it was about to produce some of the best and most plentiful fine wool the world had known.
The 1820s brought a separate administration for Van Diemen’s Land, the early beginning of the federal system. The feared convict island was by then breeding superb Merino sheep and by 1834 “Vandemonians” would be crossing Bass Strait with some of these Merinos to found what would become Victoria. In 1824 the remote prison colony was founded that would in fifteen years become Brisbane.
Small legislative councils established in the mid-1820s in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land began the journey to representative and then independent government in Australia. By the 1820s too, New South Wales was beginning to outgrow the era of autocratic governors, after the decade of Macquarie’s tough but much appreciated love. Independent law courts, a fairly free (and argumentative) press and an expanding civil service further helped produce a society much more like our own.
Just over another thirty years on from 1818, in 1850, the British Parliament passed the Australian Colonies Government Act, which provided representative government—and effectively mostly self-government—and allowed the separation of what became Victoria and Queensland. The next year brought the gold rush. By then perhaps half a dozen First Fleeters were still alive but the population had reached half a million, compared with 30,000 whites in 1820.
Macquarie intended the January 26 anniversary ball to be transformative for his policy of absorbing the rehabilitated ex-convicts and their children as well as the non-convict “exclusives” into one Australian society. It took time, but invitations to the ball for both groups launched a gradual process of Australianisation.
A generation or two ago, the Left and nationalists regarded Macquarie’s emancipation of ex-convicts into fully functioning citizens as a critical step in fashioning Australian identity and egalitarianism, leading in later generations to the independent-minded Australian bush worker who “cocked his hat to no man”. Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) was the classic example.
January 26 was regularly officially observed from 1838 in New South Wales, which then covered all of eastern mainland Australia. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the colony, when First Fleeter ranks were thinning fast. Gradual evolution continued. Occasions and names differed and changed among the colonies and states. The centenary in 1888 saw the premiers declare a National Day, prompted by the Australian Natives Association, which campaigned for fuller celebration. It became “ANA Day” for a time in Victoria. In New South Wales it was at various times “Anniversary Day” and “Foundation Day”.
The Scullin Labor government proclaimed Australia Day a national holiday in 1931, but mainly on the nearest Monday; the lure of a long weekend in summer was a brake on patriotism. It was not until 1994 that governments ruled that the holiday must be observed on January 26.
The fate of the indigenous people has long cast a shadow over Australia Day and they made their “Day of Mourning” view clear on the 150th anniversary in 1938. Government intentions towards the Aborigines were nearly always benign, however, whatever the practical difficulties in the field. From the first settlement, London had ordered “amity and kindness” towards them.
Seen from the years around 1818 there was hope for integration. Macquarie had begun conferences with the Sydney-region Aborigines in 1814 and then granted blocks for them to start farming, and established the Native Institution at Black’s Town (now Blacktown) for schooling. Aborigines gave formal education a low priority, however.
In 1819, Maria, daughter of a Hawkesbury Valley elder who twenty years earlier had led his people in standing up to—rather than outright resisting—the incoming whites, topped the colony scholastically, ahead of about one hundred whites and twenty other Aborigines. She went on to marry Robert Lock, an English convict carpenter. In the decades to come their ten children would have hundreds of descendants, over time identifying as both indigenous and white.
This was when governments had little thought of racial, as distinct from cultural, difference. Their aim was to “civilise” the Aborigines, by which they meant mainly to get them to use the land more productively, observe British law as over-riding, learn to read and write, and perhaps adopt Christianity.
The peaceful, integrating mixed-race people who in recent decades have become the underpinning of a strong Aboriginal revival were emerging by about 1818 as a distinctive mid-way culture. Surprisingly little has ever been written or recorded about them, though they are the great majority of people today identifying as indigenous.
“Dispossession” is a concept which has never reflected the actual circumstances at any time. Whites and blacks got along fairly well in the Sydney coastal region from the start, as shown in Paul Irish’s recent Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal People of Coastal Sydney (reviewed in Quadrant in October 2017). Inland Sydney west of Parramatta had more lethal conflict. The worst incident was a massacre at Appin in 1816 when soldiers, in pursuit of the killers of nine whites on the newly settled upper Nepean River, killed an officially estimated fourteen Aborigines, including two of the settlers’ killers. The background was complicated, as with most racial violence, and records indicate that was the end of conflict east of the mountains.
As far as we can tell from records, the pastoral invasion beyond the mountains was mostly peaceful until a new period of sporadic conflict on the remote grazing frontier which lasted from 1838 until the mid-1840s and then extended patchily northwards. The context by 1838 was complicated, and the limited evidence does not suggest much outright resistance to the pastoralists. Determined Aborigines could, if they wished, have fought off slow-moving sheep, bullock drays and men on foot. Spears and muskets were an approximate match as weapons.
The big exception to this generalisation—though more skirmishing on foot in the bush than massacres—was violent conflict in the mid-1820s in the Bathurst–Mudgee district and the mid-Hunter. Official estimates indicate the total number of Aborigines killed as forty to fifty, but critics suspect this is too low. Both episodes have been attributed to provocative white mistakes rather than to indigenous resistance.
The tragedy of the Aborigines in pioneering Australia was that they died early and did not have many children. The indigenous population within the modern borders of New South Wales alone, as given in Australians: Historical Statistics, published in 1988, fell from an estimated 48,000 in 1788 to 16,000, and still plummeting, in 1861, when the pioneer days were ending. (The number bottomed at 7434 in 1901.) In Tasmania they fell from an estimated 4500 (a figure which may be too high) to eighteen, when the indigenous Tasmanians were close to extermination—though a substantial mixed-race community has subsequently developed.
For all Australia, the statistics, most of which are necessarily based on contested estimates, give an indigenous population of 750,000 in 1788 declining to a minimum of 74,000 in 1933, after which it has returned to the 1788 number—but the figures require considerable interpretation.
The contribution to the population decline of violent conflict with whites is contested, but probably relatively minor. Illness was the principal cause. The extent to which it came unintentionally from the white presence or from many other factors, including smallpox from visiting Indonesian fishermen, is debatable and historians tend to avoid the subject as too complicated.
The tragic fall in the indigenous population makes Australia Day a partly sad occasion. But there is also good reason for pride in our origins and in remembering both aspects on the day our promising, if not wholly illustrious, forefathers instituted in a pub more than two centuries ago.
Australia Day has always evolved. It seems bizarre to disown it, to want to make it go away in shame or in the excessive hope of being “inclusive”. A better way surely would be to add to its significance by more constructive engagement with Aboriginality, by a fuller—and more accurate, less anguished—understanding of the mutual history and cultures.
Robert Murray is the author of The Making of Australia: A Concise History (Rosenberg).