It’s about invasion, of course, but perhaps Australia’s Indigenous people have every claim to mark not just this day, but many days as moments of invasion.
26th January 1788 wasn’t the day the first fleet arrived in Sydney. They got to Botany Bay on the 18th January.
It wasn’t the day the first of the ships sailed into Sydney Harbour. That was on the 21st when they almost certainly camped at what is now known as Camp Cove.
It wasn’t even the day Captain Arthur Phillip arrived at Sydney Cove. That as the day before, on the 25th.
And it certainly wasn’t the day that the convicts came ashore. This happened over the next few days, with the women having to wait until February 6th to set foot on terra firma.
On the 25th some men cleared enough ground to erect a flagpole. On January 26th, Phillip and a few marines came ashore to watch on while the British flag was raised and the new arrivals took possession in the name of the British government. Took possession of what, exactly? Not Australia. That name was not used until many decades later.
Later, on February 7th, when at last all of the first fleet ha disembarked, Judge Advocate David Collins finally got around to reading the royal proclamation appointing Phillip as Governor of New South Wales. The extent of the territory being taken extended south from Cape York, but it excluded all of what became Western Australia and half of what eventually became South Australia and the Northern territory. Those British officials marines and those first peoples who watched the flag being hoisted on its temporary pole had little or no concept of Australia, and until it was ‘discovered’ the whities had little or no idea of what lay beyond the immediate vicinity of Sydney Cove and Botany Bay.
Invasion as a slow burn that took place over the whole of the nineteenth century, and in some instances, well into the twentieth. Likewise European arrivals and footfalls and flag waving of various European nations had occurred for several centuries prior to Phillip’s big moment on January 26th 1788.
So 26th January commemorates only one thing – the raising of an imperial flag to claim possession of the land for Britain. Arguably it wasn’t even the day NSW became a colony. It is hardly an event on which to hang national pride. And until we jettison the last vestiges of our colonial relationship with Britain and become a republic in our own right perhaps there is no other day that could be used to replace the 26th. January. We can speculate that Aboriginal people will continue to mark the day as a day of mourning amongst many days of mourning, long after the rest of us have dropped this day as a vestige of our colonial mentality. We are not yet, in 2018, a fully fledged nation. When we are a republic, and when we have listened seriously to the desires and the rights of the country’s first people for genuine recognition and treaty, then a day will be found.