Aboriginal Day of Mourning, 26 January 1938 Man magazine, March 1938 Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a429002 / Q 059/9)

Aboriginal Day of Mourning, 26 January 1938 Man magazine, March 1938 Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (a429002 / Q 059/9)

The debate about the name and date of Australia Day has been contested for a very long time, and remains as topical as ever. Many members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community call it Survival Day, while for many others it’s Invasion Day. Let’s take a closer look at how this date and name has always generated fierce debate.

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January 26 was known as Anniversary Day in New South Wales until 1935. In 1818, Governor Lachlan Macquarie marked the 30th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove and the establishment of the colony with a 30-gun salute, a dinner for civil and military officers and a ball at First Government House. Convicts in government employ were granted a holiday and an extra ration of meat.

From 1837 Anniversary regattas took place. Thousands of spectators would gather to watch the yachts race across Sydney Harbour; a race which continues today! The Sydney Morning Herald declared in 1848: ‘Most countries and colonies have their peculiar annual rejoicings, but we know of none where a greater abandonment to pleasure and diversion is evinced than in Sydney on the 26th of January.’

The day first became known nationally as Australia Day in 1935 (when it was officially celebrated on Monday the 28th), but  wasn’t marked consistently across the country until 1994.

1788 - 1938 150 Years of Progress poster vy Charles Meere Courtesy: National LIbrary of Australia (nla.pic-an7944958)

1788 – 1938 150 Years of Progress poster vy Charles Meere Courtesy: National LIbrary of Australia (nla.pic-an7944958)

On 26 January 1938, 150 years after the First Fleet made landfall at Sydney Cove, about 100 Aboriginal men, women and children gathered in a hall on Elizabeth Street in Sydney. They called the event a Day of Mourning and Protest saying the day ‘is not a day of rejoicing for Australia’s Aborigines…This festival of 150 years of so-called ‘progress’ in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed upon the original native inhabitants by the white invaders of this country.’

The protest was the first national Aboriginal civil rights gathering. And the protests would continue. In 1988 during the Bicentenary activities, there was a re-enactment of the arrival of the First Fleet from Botany Bay to Circular Quay. Meanwhile a march from Redfern Oval to Hyde Park took place celebrating 200 years of Aboriginal survival. Later, crowds gathered at La Perouse for an all-night festival with fires and dancing. By 1992 this gathering had become formalised as the Survival Day Concert.

For many decades, protests and debate around this date and its name have characterised Australia Day activities, including the more recent Change the Date campaign. It is an important day and one during which we should think about history and the role it plays for many in the broader community.

Listen to Nicole & Nic here and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Nic Healey on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

You can also hear Nic’s conversation with proud Wannadilyakwa woman Emily Wurramara on what January 26 means for Indigenous Australians Listen now

Other links:
Australia Day
Amnesty International
Barani: Sydney’s Aboriginal History

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