Text by Nici Cumpston, Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art

Australia Day is held on 26 January, the date in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip and his crew raised the Union Jack flag on the beach at Warrane, on the unceded sovereign land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

This action signalled the beginning of the penal colony at the place that from then on became known as Sydney Cove, situated between two headlands where today the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge stand.

Captain Phillip had actually arrived on 20 January further south at what is now Botany Bay, with the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain. The site lacked a reliable source of fresh water, so Phillip and his crew looked north and found Warrane, which had suitable places to anchor their ships, and a freshwater stream now called Tank Stream.

Botany Bay had previously been identified by Lieutenant James Cook and the botanist Joseph Banks on a journey they had undertaken in 1770. It was then that Cook claimed Australia for Britain, under the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’, a Latin term meaning ‘land belonging to no one’.

According to international law in Europe in the late eighteenth century, Britain could take possession of another country if the country was uninhabited; hence, the claim that it was ‘terra nullius’. This meant that they could claim ownership of the land and ‘settle’ the country.

The truth was, however, that more than 250 different nations of Aboriginal people lived on their own lands across what became known as Australia. More than 500 language dialects were being spoken, as well as rich, deep cultural practices that enabled people to survive and thrive on these precious lands since time immemorial. Australian Aboriginal people have the longest surviving continuous cultures in the world, spanning more than 65,000 years at the latest estimate.

The date of 26 January 1788 holds great significance for First Peoples of this country as it signifies the day when the country was invaded/colonised. Because of this, life as people knew it ceased, people were dispossessed from their lands, and they were moved away from their Country on which they and their families had lived and had cultivated and had been responsible for over many tens of thousands of years. This is a deeply disturbing fact for all First Peoples of this country and is a fact that cannot be denied.

Vincent Namatjira, Western Aranda people, Northern Territory, born Mparntwe (Alice Springs), Northern Territory 1983, Close Contact, 2018, Indulkana, Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, South Australia, synthetic polymer paint on plywood, 188.0 x 62.0 x 3.5 cm; Gift of the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation for the Ramsay Art Prize 2019, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © Vincent Namatjira/Copyright Agency, photo: Grant Hancock.

This date was declared a national holiday only in 1994. Before that, ‘Australia Day’ had been celebrated on different dates throughout the year, and each state had its own date to mark European colonisation. Changing the date from 26 January will allow everyone who calls Australia home to be able to celebrate what we now have, without disrespecting the experiences of the past. This is not to deny that there are still far too many injustices facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that need urgent attention.

On 26 January 1938, when Australia was celebrating 150 years of colonisation, Aboriginal people in Sydney held the first Day of Mourning. It was the first national gathering of First Peoples protesting about the prejudice and discrimination that had become a part of daily life, marking an important moment in the Aboriginal political movement. The Day of Mourning was a result of years of dedication and hard work by the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) and the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA). The day began with a march through Sydney and concluded with a congress of 100 Aboriginal leaders. The text distributed at the congress began: ‘This festival of 150 years’ so-called “progress” in Australia also commemorates 150 years of misery and degradation imposed on the original native inhabitants by white invaders of this country’.

On this same day, one of the events that had been organised was a reenactment of the landing of Captain Arthur Phillip. Aboriginal people in Sydney had refused to take part, so men from Menindee in western New South Wales, where my family are from, were brought in and locked up in the Redfern Police Barracks stables until the re-enactment took place. On the day of the event, they were made to run up the beach away from the British, which was an inaccurate version of historical events. Footage shows the men were not willing participants.

Jack Patten, one of the Day of Mourning organisers, made a statement:

We, representing the Aborigines of Australia, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, and we appeal to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community.[1]

The Day of Mourning became an annual event held in January. It was later moved to July and evolved into National Aborigines Day and eventually into NAIDOC Week (NAIDOC stands for the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee), which is celebrated across the nation each year. As a counterpoint to Australia Day, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Sydney have held the Yabun festival (meaning song with a beat, in the Gadigal language of the Sydney area) on Survival/Invasion Day since 2001. It was established by Gadigal Information Service, home of Koori Radio. People in capital cities and towns across the country now hold their own events as a way to come together and celebrate our ongoing survival on our land.

A number of organisations have boycotted the Australia Day celebrations, including Triple J radio station, which has moved its Hottest 100 songs countdown from 26 January to the last Saturday in January; the City of Fremantle, which has shifted its celebration to 28 January; and the City of Darebin and the City of Yarra in Melbourne, which do not refer to 26 January as Australia Day.

The most important issue in all of this debate concerns creating a better country, with laws that support the betterment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That means having governments that are aware of the atrocities that have occurred and continue to occur and that are committed to making changes that ensure these changes happen. It also means creating a safe space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be at the table in local, state and federal government, bringing the voices of community into parliament and making decisions based around fact.

There are many organisations that work towards a better future for the First People of this country and that provide up-to-date information. They include (but are not limited to): IndigenousX, Reconciliation Australia, the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and Koori Curriculum.

Text by Nici Cumpston, Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, first published in 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art in the Classroom volume 2'.