Every year as the heat of January mounts, we are urged to “celebrate Australia Day” as though it signifies something of which all the nation should be proud.
Various dates were designated ‘Australia Day’, July being most favoured, until 1935 when all the Australian states and territories decided to use 26 January. It is certainly not a long established tradition as it was not until 1994 that it became a national public holiday.
I am sure that my great great great granny, Ellen Wainwright, 17 years old, sent forever to a place at the other side of her world, might have celebrated the date as she sweated in the stinking hold of the wooden “Prince of Wales,” for it meant she would be allowed time on land.
The First Fleet had brought her to Sydney after a voyage of eight months. She was one of a handful of convict women sent to establish a settlement on Norfolk Island on 15 February 1788.
26 January 1788 was also the day on which the decimation of the indigenous people began.
The Europeans introduced smallpox to which the local people had no immunity. When the explorers in later decades estimated their numbers, they thought that there were about 300,000 indigenous Australians in 1788 but it is now understood that smallpox and other diseases may have caused their population to decline to only 20% of what it had been when European settlement began. That is why most indigenous organisations call 26 January “Invasion Day” not Australia Day.
One of the reasons for the British settlement in Port Jackson was that France, the great power rival of Britain at that time, was also exploring the east coast of Australia. A British settlement established the claim of Britain to the land of New Holland. The indigenous inhabitants were not considered to have any claim over the land they had lived upon for the past 50,000 years.
One of the myths about the settlement at Port Jackson was that it was solely to take Britain’s overflow of convicts. The plantations of America were no longer demanding convict slaves from Britain after the War of Independence in 1776. African slaves were better workers, stronger and did not become free after serving judicial sentences.
Port Jackson was conveniently located for British trade in the Pacific. It permitted ships to avoid the pirate ridden Straits of Malacca and Sunda Strait, if they stayed in the westerly winds from the Cape of Good Hope.
Port Jackson could provide cheap convict labour to establish a restaurant port, where the wooden ships could be repaired, get new ropes from New Zealand and Norfolk Island hemp and , it was hoped, new masts from Norfolk Island pines. The ships could then sail north towards China and the tea trade, north east towards Vancouver and the seal trade or into the whaling areas, for whale oil was a valuable resource of the time. The convicts were temporary slaves for the purposes of British trade.
Muslims were few and far between in those days, but my great-great-great granny on Norfolk Island must have met John Hassan, Saib Sultan and Mahomet Cassem (or Cassan), sailors on the “Endeavour”, a ship bound for India which had started leaking and was run aground in Dusky Bay, New Zealand in 1795.
Probably Indians from British occupied India, they were dumped, free men, on Norfolk Island as there was no room for them on the remaining ships. Abandoning free Muslims on Pacific islands is not a new policy for Australia.
That day in January should be commemorated perhaps as First Fleet Day, but not as the day on which our nation was established. Tony Abbott thought it was the most significant date in our history, but he is certainly not our teacher. 31 July was good enough in 1915.