The 26 January, through 200 years or more of debate and controversy, has remained the traditional Australian celebratory 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 fledgling colony very soon began to mark the anniversary of 26 January 1788 with formal dinners and informal celebrations. Manning Clark notes that on 26 January 1808, the ‘anniversary of the foundation of the colony’ was observed in the traditional manner with ‘drinking and merriment’. John Macarthur senior had ensured his soldiers were amply supplied with liquor, bonfires were blazing and private houses illuminated.
By 1820, Australia was beginning to look undeniably prosperous and sentiments of Australian patriotism were being expressed at gatherings of ex-convicts. The sense of belonging to a new nation must surely have been encouraged in 1817 when Governor Macquarie recommended the adoption of the name ‘Australia’ for the entire continent instead of New Holland.
An article in the Sydney Gazette on February 1, 1817 records a typical anniversary dinner that was held on the 27 January in the house of Isaac Nichols*, a respected emancipist and Australia’s first Postmaster. Similar dinners are described involving William Charles Wentworth and friends on 26 January 1825 and 1828 when the catchcry and traditional toast had already become ‘to the land, boys, we live in’. Many of these ex-convicts had become the wealthiest and most successful businessmen in the colony.
The first official celebrations were held in 1818, marking the thirtieth anniversary of white settlement. Governor Macquarie ordered a salute of 30 guns to be fired from the battery at Dawes Point and in the evening gave a dinner at Government House for civil and military officers. A ball followed, hosted by Mrs Macquarie.
During this time the day was called Foundation Day. Throughout the early nineteenth century, the day became one for sporting events, with horse races in the 1820s and the regatta from the 1830s.
The growing sense of patriotism was being expressed in other ways. Young Charles Tompson, reputed to be our first Australian-born poet and the son of a transportee, was moved to compose eight stanzas of tribute to his native country for 26 January 1824 titled Wild Notes from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel.
Charles Tompson was no doubt one of that section of the Australian-born whom Edward Smith Hall, proprietor and publisher of The Monitor, had in mind when he wrote in 1821 ‘the circumstances of the parents of the most of them having come to the country in bondage, so far from making them humble, causes them to be the proudest people in the world……the circumstance of being free is felt by them with a strength bordering on fierce enthusiasm’.
A different commemorative event was held in the summer of 1836 when a group of seafaring Sydney friends decided to celebrate the founding of their new nation with a sailing regatta. The Australia Day Regatta, originally the Anniversary Regatta, is still held on Sydney Harbour on the 26 January each year and has become the oldest continuous regatta in the world.
Fifty years after Phillip landed, in 1838, a number of celebratory events were organised and the first public holiday ever marked in Australia was announced for the 26 January in that year. This inaugural public holiday in New South Wales was to become an annual event from that year, held on or around the 26 January.
In distinct contrast to the mainly private and somewhat elitist anniversary dinners in previous years, 26 January 1838 became a ‘day for everyone’ with the harbour foreshores crowded and many sailing vessels participating in races and competitions. Crackers and rockets ended the day’s exuberant festivities.
By 1888, Australia’s population numbered almost three million and many changes had taken place over the previous fifty years. Gold had been discovered in the 1850s bringing great wealth and immigration, and New South Wales had become self-governing in 1859.
While this wealth and prosperity was certainly not equally spread – the incoming NSW government of 1886 had inherited severe financial problems and over eleven thousand ‘centennial parcels’ of rations were distributed to Sydney’s poor on the 26 January 1888 – the first centenary of white settlement was celebrated with great enthusiasm.
With the exception of Adelaide, all colonial capitals had declared Anniversary Day 1888 a public holiday and celebrations took place throughout the colonies.
Ceremonies, parades, exhibitions, fireworks, banquets, church services and regattas were commonplace and 50,000 people watched the Governor, Lord Carrington, unveil a statue in honour of Queen Victoria. A march of thirteen thousand trade unionists culminated in the laying of the foundation stone for a new Trades Hall and many religious services were held.
Centennial Park, Sydney was formally reserved for public use on the 26 January 1888 and in Melbourne there was a Centennial International Exhibition which remained open from August 1888 to February 1889, attracting nearly two million visitors. The centenary was also marked by numerous historical publications and commemorative volumes as well as souvenirs and other centenary ephemera.
Australians were beginning to talk widely about other political questions of the day, including the move towards Federation. However, despite the pride in achievement celebrated in January 1888 and the moves towards a united nation, there were no doubts about the ‘continuing loyalty of the four million Australians to the mother country’. A description of the unveiling of Queen Victoria’s statue included the comment ‘the mood was British, the crowd was Australian’.
*Isaac Nichols was granted 50 acres of land at Concord, which is now the site of the Dame Eadith Walker Convalescent Hospital (Yaralla).