Australia Day 2019
26 January marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships into Port Jackson, New South Wales, and the raising of the Flag of Great Britain at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip. The principal officers and others apparently assembled round the flagstaff to drink to the King’s health and to the success of the new settlement.
There is no official record of the words that were said, but Phillip did not use the occasion to declare this new land for the possession of the King. That task had been formalised by Lieutenant James Cook 18 years earlier. Interestingly, Cook had declared possession only of ‘the whole of the Eastern Coast’, to be named New South Wales on behalf of George III. Cook acknowledged that the western and northern coastlines of the country, known then as New Holland, had already been discovered by ‘Dutch Navigators who retain the honour of any claim’.
Cook’s declaration of possession ignored instructions specifically written into the directive issued to him by the British Admiralty. These orders stated, in part: ‘You are …. with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain.
Cook was further advised ‘To have it still in view that shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature – They are human creatures, the work of the same omnipotent Author, equally under his care with the most polished European, perhaps being less offensive, more entitled to his favour. They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit. No European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country or settle among them without their voluntary consent.’
That consent was not requested by Cook or by Phillip. Certainly, consent was never given.
Over the next century tens of thousands of aborigines were murdered with the tacit or expressed approval of the colonial authorities - either shot, drowned, driven off cliffs, poisoned, or died from the deliberate introduction of smallpox. Other European diseases killed many more. A proud people estimated at first contact to number 250,000 had reduced to just 60,000 by1920.
As far as I know, no other country celebrates its national day on the anniversary of the day another country commenced possession and who then permitted a program of genocide against ‘troublesome’ first inhabitants.
I will happily join with any celebration to commemorate my nation’s journey so far and to wish our future generations all happiness and prosperity.
But I’m not sure 26 January is the date to do it.