After months of sailing, Captain Arthur Phillip and his English crew made landfall on January 26th, 1788. As the settlers raised the British flag on Australian soil for the first time, they could not have known the profound, lasting impact they would have on the Indigenous peoples of this continent. Crew on this humble expedition could not have known that their voyage would mark the beginning of a horrific, vicious genocide, unique in its scope and in its shocking cruelty. In the coming decades, tens of thousands of Indigenous Australians would be forced from their land, murdered by colonial settlers in vicious attacks. Aboriginal communities across the nation would be decimated by disease, famine, warfare and dispossession. This dark, tortured history began on that fateful day, January 26th. It is not a date worthy of national celebration.
January 26th is not a date worthy of national celebration because it marks the beginning of the destruction of the Indigenous way of life. Captain Phillip’s settlement precipitated the destruction of Indigenous society and a huge collapse in the Indigenous population. The British colonial project would decimate Aboriginal communities across the continent. The historical record shows that Europeans mounted a systematic, genocidal campaign of extermination against Indigenous peoples on the frontiers of settlement to gain access to the richest pastoral land. Consider the diary of Captain John Wallis, a soldier who wrote that ‘’It was a melancholy but necessary duty’’ to massacre an Aboriginal clan in the Appin-Bringelly districts of New South Wales in 1816. As early as the 1870s, the English novelist Anthony Trollope described targeted killings in his writings: ‘’We have massacred (Indigenous Australians) when they defended themselves … and taught them by hard warfare to acknowledge us to be their masters.’’ Surveying such evidence, esteemed historian Henry Reynolds concluded in his seminal work An Indelible Stain? The Question of Genocide in Australia’s History that ‘’white Australians (showed) no desire or will to ensure the survival of the Aborigines as a people … it was common (during the colonial era) to welcome the passing of the Aborigines’ as an indicator of colonial progress, a measure of achievement.’’ Colin Tatz describes how a pre-contact Indigenous population that numbered at least 400,000 people was reduced to just 31,000 by 1911, just 123 years after settlement. This may not be the history the vast majority of Australians celebrate on Australia Day. But it is a history that cannot be separated from Phillip’s voyage and the subsequent British settlement of Australia.
To many Indigenous Australians, there is precious little to rejoice about on January 26th. It marks the loss of traditional land, the loss of family and the very near destruction of a culture that had endured for tens of thousands of years. It marks the beginning of discrimination, persecution and oppression; the beginning of a structured system of economic and social inequality that persists today. Indigenous people on average die 10 years younger than non-Indigenous people. The Indigenous infant mortality rate is almost twice as high as the rate for non-Indigenous people. These shameful statistics owe to the higher rates of poverty most Indigenous communities continue to face. Analysis of data from the 2011 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were almost twice as likely to experience poverty than other Australians. It is understandable that Indigenous people do not find much to celebrate on January 26th. It marks the beginning of a cruel system of oppression, the effects of which are still being felt today.
January 26th is not a date worth of national celebration. Changing the date will not fix everything. It won’t erase the very real inequities Indigenous Australians continue to face – only a concerted societal push to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous outcomes could do that. But changing the date means acknowledging that there was a real, concerted effort to eradicate the Aboriginal race here in Australia. Owning up to this dark history would be a healthy symbolic step towards reconciliation. In the interests of lasting inter-cultural understanding, Australia’s national celebration cannot be commemorated on a day that marks the beginning of a genocide. The date of Australia Day must be changed.