Monday, April 18, 2011

26 January 1788 – Origin of Australia Day

Australia Day, celebrated each year on 26 January is a public holiday taken by all states and territories. But, as the country's national day, what exactly is being commemorated? What do we know about what happened on that date in 1788 to deserve such a large celebration every year?

The Australian Government website describes Australia Day as:

"Australia's national day is held on 26th January in recognition of the arrival in 1788 of the First Fleet, a group of 11 ships that sailed from England to establish a colony in Australia."

The Australian citizenship test resource book explains the day as:

"26 January is the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet from Great Britain in 1788 to set up a convict settlement for the British Government. The commander of the First Fleet was Captain Arthur Phillip."

The Australia Day Council website says:

"That was the day in 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain and the first governor of New South Wales, arrived at Sydney Cove."

The 'Australia Day in Victoria Website' says:

"January 26, through more than 200 years of debate and controversy, has remained the Australian celebratory national day since that date in January 1788 when 'formal possession was taken of the Colony of New South Wales. On that day, Captain Arthur Phillip became Governor of the Colony, having jurisdiction over the area bounded by latitude 10 37' to latitude 43 49' south and inland to longitude 135 east'."

The Australian Government and the citizenship resource book definitions imply that it is the date the First Fleet arrived in Australia, but that isn’t the case. Captain Arthur Phillip, the first Governor, arrived at Botany Bay a week earlier on 18 January 1788. The Australia Day Council definition says that it was the day that Phillip arrived at Sydney Cove, but this is incorrect as well, he arrived on 25 January, a day before. The 'Australia Day in Victoria' website says it was the day that the 'formal possession' of the colony occurred, but that didn’t occur until 7 February 1788 when Phillip read the proclamation.

So what did actually happen on the 26 January 1788? Fortunately, a few of those who were part of the First Fleet have left details of the events (the excerpts have been transcribed and inserted with their original spelling). These few records were written by the officers of the First Fleet, whilst there are some records from sailors (for example, Jacob Nagle, whose account was written 40 years later). There is no account from the local indigenous people’s viewpoint. To find out exactly what did happen on the 26 January 1788, the words of those who left records will be used to give an account of the events that occurred.

18-20 January 1788
22 January 1788
25 January 1788
26 January 1788

18-20 January 1788

When the First Fleet set out from England in May 1787, their destination was Botany Bay, and it was there the infant colony was to be formed. Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Botany Bay on the 18 January 1788, the rest of the fleet arrived over the next two days after an eight-month voyage. Phillip very quickly ascertained that the location was far from ideal to form a settlement.

"The next care after landing was the examination of the bay itself, from which it appeared that, though extensive, it did not afford a shelter from the easterly winds: and that, in consequence of its shallowness, ships even of a moderate draught, would always be obliged to anchor with the entrance of the bay open, where they must be exposed to a heavy sea, that rolls in whenever it blows hard from the eastward.

Several runs of fresh water were found in different parts of the bay, but there did not appear to be any situation to which there was not some very strong objection. In the northern part of it is a small creek, but it has water only for a boat, and the low lands near it are a perfect swamp. The western branch of the bay is continued to a great extent, but the officers sent to examine it could not find there any supply of fresh water, except in very small drains.

Point Sutherland offered the most eligible situation, having a run of good water, though not in very great abundance. But to this part of the harbour the ships could not approach, and the ground near it, even in the higher parts, was in general damp and spungy. No place was found in the whole circuit of Botany Bay which seemed at all calculated for the reception of so large a settlement..."

Source: The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay by Arthur Phillip

"During our stay at Botany Bay, the Governor had made himself well acquainted with the Situation of the Land Nature of the Soil &c. &c. which he not finding so Eligible, as he could Wish, for the Purpose of forming a Settlement, He determined, before he fixed on it, to visit an Inlet on the Coast, about 12 Miles to the Northward of this Bay which, our great Circumnavigator, Captns Cook, discovered, and named, (in honour of one of the then Commissioners of the Navy) Port Jackson..."

Source: Journal of a First Fleet Surgeon (1788) George B. Worgan (1757-1838)

Figure 1. ‘Botany Bay, Sirius & Convoy going in: Supply and Agents Division in the Bay. 21 Janry 1788’ From Bradley’s Journal.

22 January 1788
25 January 1788
26 January 1788

22 January 1788

After the reminder of the fleet had arrived safely at Botany Bay, Phillip set off to examine Port Jackson:

"On the 22d of January they set out upon this expedition, and early in the afternoon arrived at Port Jackson, which is distant about three leagues. Here all regret arising from the former disappointments was at once obliterated; and Governor Phillip had the satisfaction to find one of the finest harbours in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line might ride in perfect security.

The different coves of this harbour were examined with all possible expedition, and the preference was given to one which had the finest spring of water, and in which ships can anchor so close to the shore, that at a very small expense quays may be constructed at which the largest vessels may unload. This cove is about half a mile in length, and a quarter of a mile across at the entrance. In honour of Lord Sydney, the Governor distinguished it by the name of Sydney Cove."

"The Next Day the Governor, Cap.t Hunter the Master of the Sirius & Myself Went to Examine an opening about 12 Miles North of Botany Bay, Where Capn Cook Supposd there Was a Harbour to Which he Gave the Name of Port Jackson. We found it Perhaps as fine a Harbour As Any in the World With Water for Any Number of the Largest Ships. Here We Stayd two Days Examining the Different Little Bays or Coves with which the Harbour Abound One of which (about 5 Miles from the Entrance of the Harbour) the Governor fixd upon & to which he Gave the Name of Sidney Cove."

Source: David Blackburn - letters received by Richard Knight, 12 July 1788, 19 March 1791

Phillip arrived back at Botany Bay on the 24 January 1788 and preparations were made to move the entire fleet of 11 ships to the newly named Sydney Cove. However, during the time the rest of the fleet spent at Botany Bay they started to prepare for a settlement, trees were cut down, a saw pit set up, land cleared round a stream of fresh water "and other preparations made for disembarking, in case the governor had not succeeded".

Source: An Account of the English Colony of NSW Vol 1 by David Collins

25 January 1788
26 January 1788

25 January 1788

On the 25 January, Phillip took the Supply and returned to Sydney Cove with the rest of the fleet to follow when the wind conditions allowed.

"On the 25th of January therefore, seven days after the arrival of the Supply, Governor Phillip quitted Botany Bay in the same ship, and sailed to Port Jackson."

"The governor, with a party of marines, and some artificers selected from among the seamen of the Sirius and the convicts, arrived in Port Jackson, and anchored off the mouth of the cove intended for the settlement on the evening of the 25th; and in the course of the following day sufficient ground was cleared for encamping the officer's guard and the convicts who had been landed in the morning. The spot chosen for this purpose was at the head of the cove, near the run of fresh water."

Source: An Account of the English Colony of NSW Vol 1 by David Collins

"Friday. 25th. The Transports were reported ready to proceed with the Sirius. AM. The Supply got under sail with 2 Long boats, at 6 the signal was made for the Convoy to get under weigh which most of them did, the flood tide ran so strong that they fell to leeward on which the signal was made to Anchor."

 Source: William Bradley journal: A Voyage to New South Wales, December 1786 - May 1792

Figure 2. Entrance of Port Jackson 27 January 1788. From Bradley’s Journal

26 January 1788

26 January 1788

Phillip and the crew of the tender Supply had already landed at Sydney Cove. John White, the surgeon reported:

"The Supply had arrived the day before, and the governor, with every person that could be spared from the ship, were on shore, clearing the ground for the encampment."

Many of the officers thought that Port Jackson was a magnificent harbour

"as an Harbour, None, that has hitherto been described, equals it in Spaciousness and Safety. the Land forms a Number of pleasant Coves in most of which 6 or 7 Ships may lie secured to the Trees on Shore. The Whole, (in a Word) exhibits a Variety of Romantic Views, all thrown together into sweet Confusion by the careless hand of Nature."

"Our passage to Port Jackson took up but few hours, and those were spent far from unpleasantly. Having passed between the capes which form its entrance, we found ourselves in a port superior, in extent and excellency, to all we had seen before. We continued to run up the harbour about four miles, in a westerly direction, enjoying the luxuriant prospect of its shores, covered with trees to the water's edge, among which many of the Indians were frequently seen, till we arrived at a small snug cove on the southern side, on whose banks the plan of our operations was destined to commence."

So on the 26 January the ships of the First Fleet left Botany Bay and assembled in Sydney Cove, Phillip in the Supply having landed the day before and erected a flag pole.

"In the evening of this day the whole of the party that came round in the Supply were assembled at the point where they had first landed in the morning, and on which a flag-staff had been purposely erected and an union jack displayed, when the marines fired several vollies; between which the governor and the officers who accompanied him drank the healths of his Majesty and the Royal Family, and success to the new colony. The day, which had been uncommonly fine, concluded with the safe arrival of the Sirius and the convoy from Botany Bay."

"On the Evening of our Arrival (26th January 1788) The Governor & a Number of the Officers assembled on Shore where, they Displayed the British Flag and each Officer with a Heart, glowing with Loyalty drank his Majesty's Health and Success to the Colony."

"In the evening of the 26th the colours were displayed on shore, and the Governor, with several of his principal officers and others, assembled round the flag-staff, drank the king's health, and success to the settlement, with all that display of form which on such occasions is esteemed propitious, because it enlivens the spirits, and fills the imagination with pleasing presages."

Figure 3. "The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788" / Original [oil] sketch [1937] by Algernon Talmage R.A.

Some of the First Fleet journals and letters do not even mention this little ceremony, there were only a few officers and men involved. There appear to have been no convicts on shore for this ceremony, or if they were, they didn’t rate a mention. A number of the officers were also not present nor mentioned it in their journals. Those who were not on shore or who did not mention this incident include: Worgan, White, Tench, Collins, Blackburn, Bradley and Clarke.

This could indicate, to the participants, this was nothing more than a thanksgiving for their safe arrival. None of the reporters give the incident much importance, unlike the reading of Phillip's Commission on 7 February 1788. Some of the male able-bodied convicts were disembarked the next day, 27 January, and the remainder over the next few days. None of the female convicts were allowed off the ships until 6 February 1788, when the sick were also landed and admitted to the tent hospital.

Therefore, in reality, on 26 January 1788 the only event was the anchoring of the ships of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove, the running up of a flag and a toast to the King and success of the colony.

The official ceremony occurred on the 7 February 1788.

"The 7th of February, 1788, was the memorable day which established a regular form of Government on the coast of New South Wales. On a space previously cleared, the whole colony was assembled; the military drawn up, and under arms; the convicts stationed apart; and near the person of the Governor, those who were to hold the principal offices under him. The Royal Commission was then read by Mr. D. Collins, the Judge Advocate. By this instrument Arthur Phillip was constituted and appointed Captain General and Governor in Chief in and over the territory, called New South Wales; extending from the northern cape, or extremity of the coast, called Cape York, in the latitude of ten degrees, thirty-seven minutes south, to the southern extremity of the said territory of New South Wales, or South Cape, in the latitude of forty-three degrees, thirty-nine minutes south, and of all the country inland to the westward, as far as the one hundred and thirty-fifth degree of east longitude, reckoning from the meridian of Greenwich, including all the islands adjacent in the Pacific Ocean, within the latitudes aforesaid of 10°. 37'. south, and 43°. 39'. south, and of all towns, garrisons, castles, forts, and all other fortifications, or other military works which may be hereafter erected upon the said territory, or any of the said islands."

Even when the proclamation was read, it didn’t cover the entire continent, all of Western Australia and almost half of the Northern Territory and South Australia were not included. However, the territorial boundaries detailed did not give an eastern longitude, but did include all the adjacent islands in the Pacific, so could this mean it included New Zealand under Cook’s discoveries?

All of the records from the First Fleet mention this incident, indicating that it was much more important to them than the little ceremony held on the 26 January.

The anniversary of the 26 January is not recorded as being commemorated again for another three years, when Collins makes a very brief note in January 1791:

26th. Our colours were hoisted in the redoubt, in commemoration of the day on which formal possession was taken of this cove three years before.

The Queen’s birthday celebrations were a much bigger event, and this occurred a week before the 26 January. The next notable event that happened on the 26 January was the Rum Rebellion in 1808, when Governor Bligh was deposed from office by the NSW Corps. That evening Bligh had been hosting a private dinner with his friends and adherents to mark the 20th anniversary of the landing. The colony was without a legitimate government until 1810 when Lachlan Macquarie became the fifth Governor.

The 26 January 1788 was not publically commemorated again until 1818, or at least there is no record found. This was the 30th anniversary and Governor Macquarie declared it a holiday, the military fired a 30-gun salute and there was a ball that evening given by Mrs Macquarie.

The next reported commemoration of the date was in 1820, when a dinner was held and a song written by a Mr Robinson. The 26th January was marked in subsequent years with the raising of the flag at Dawes Point and a salute fired, the number of guns matching the amount of years since the founding of the colony. Private dinners and occasions were held but very few of them were reported in the newspapers.

In 1837 an anniversary dinner was held that was exclusively for those born in Australia, even the Governor was excluded as “he was not a native”. Native at this time referred to European people born in the colony rather than of Aboriginal descent.

Figure 4. Native Dinner. The Australian Tuesday 24 January 1837

The dinner was a huge success, despite the non-attendance of the Governor and Wentworth, and the ‘United Australians’ decided that it would become an annual event.

The first Sydney Regatta was also held on the day, an event that continues each Australia Day since and is now the oldest continually held regatta in the world. 2011 marked the 175th Regatta.

Figure 6. Circular Quay on Anniversary Day 1866 - Mitchell Library SPF

A history of the day from the 1830s, including the controversy and debates about the date, has been written by Dr Elizabeth Kwan. It can be found at this site:

The 26th January was celebrated first as First Landing Day, Anniversary Day or Foundation Day. The other colonies didn’t celebrate the 26th January, instead they commemorated their own foundation days; initially, the date was mainly a Sydney event.

It took 49 years, until 1837, before the 26th January began to be celebrated in a form that Sydneysiders would recognise. People gathered at The Rocks and Dawes Point to watch the boat races, display the flag and have a drink, very much like what happened on the 26 January 1788, and again in 1837; although now everyone is invited, not just an exclusive few officers or the ironically self-named ‘native born’.

Figure 7. Crowds throng the slopes of Dawes Point on 26 January 1882 to see the Regatta - SHFA Collection