Do you know why the 26th of January has been marked as an important date in Australia’s history? We are all familiar with the concept of “Australia Day”, however, having an understanding of the complex background helps us to understand the history of our country. Whilst heralded as a day of celebration, Australia Day has long been perceived as a day of sorrow and mourning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Here at PaintAccess, we would like to extend our deepest respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and acknowledge their stories and their suffering at the hands of harmful government policies. 

In this blog, we would like to explore the evolving notions of Australia day from back in the 1700s to the present day. Attitudes and traditions regarding Australia Day have shifted over the years - as Australians consider the role their ancestors played in the country’s history. Understandably, the date of Australia Day has become quite controversial given the injustices faced by Indigenous people on and following the day. By taking a journey back in time and exploring the complex history of Australia Day, we can progress in our journey towards celebrating Australia as the diverse country it is today.

The 1700s

Although we now know it as Australia, Aboriginal peoples had been living on the continent for more than 60,000 years, spanning at least 1600 generations. Australia was given various names by European cartographers throughout the sixteenth century, such as “Terra Australis” and “New Holland”. 1770 saw Captain James Cook raising the Union Jack, on what is now known as Possession Island, with the 22nd of August marking the naming of the eastern half of the continent as New South Wales, and claiming it for Great Britain. The First Fleet of eleven convict ships arriving from Great Britain and commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip arrived at Sydney Cove on the 26th of January. The Union Jack was raised, signaling the beginning of the colony. 

Arthur Phillip’s account 

“In the evening of the 26th the colours were displayed on shore, and the Governor, with several of his principal officers and others, assembled round the flag-staff, drank the king's health, and success to the settlement, with all that display of form which on such occasions is esteemed propitious, because it enlivens the spirits, and fills the imagination with pleasing presages.”

— The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay

The 1800s 

Throughout the early years of the 1800s, the 26th of January came to be known as “First Landing Day” or “Foundation Day”. Within Sydney, celebratory drinking and anniversary dinners became customary among its residents and especially the emancipated convicts. In 1818, Governor Macquarie acknowledged the day officially as a public holiday, on its thirtieth anniversary. In 1817, he had accepted the recommendation of Captain Matthew Flinders, circumnavigator of the continent, to name it Australia. A celebratory Sydney Regatta held on the 26th of January, 1838, marked the Jubilee of the British occupation of New South Wales.

 The Australian Natives’ Association was formed as a society that provided medical, sickness, and funeral benefits to the native-born of European descent and in 1871, became an advocate of the national holiday on the 26th of January. The centenary was celebrated by NSW leaders accompanied by representatives from Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and New Zealand. Although originally an NSW anniversary, the date was steadily becoming an Australian one. 

The 1900s

A new capital 

In 1901, the Australian colonies had federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia. The Union Flag continued to be used as the national flag and took precedence over the Australian red and blue shipping ensigns gazetted in 1903.  Melbourne had become the interim federal capital at this time, however, the Australian Capital Territory was created out of New South Wales in 1908, with the federal capital named Canberra in 1913. The Parliament House resultingly opened there in 1927.

The Aboriginal leaders’ fight for rights

 Whilst state premiers celebrated the Sesquicentenary in Sydney, Aboriginal leaders met there for a Day of Mourning. They protested their mistreatment at the hands of white Australians and wanted to seek full citizen rights. The protest was led by the Aborigines Progressive Association and its founders, Jack Patten and William Ferguson. The day began with a march through the streets of Sydney, attended by both Aboriginal people and non-Indigenous supporters of the cause. A unanimous resolution was then passed, stating the Association’s aim to “make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the white men in the past 150 years”, and “appeal to the Australian Nation to make new laws for the education and care of Aboriginies, and for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community.

Australia Day Committee 

Meanwhile, the formation in Melbourne of an Australia Day Celebrations Committee aimed to inform the public about the significance of Australia day. Similar bodies emerged in the remaining states and together they acted as the Federal Australia Day Council. Although Australians remained British subjects, The Nationality and Citizenship Act created symbolic Australian citizenship in 1948. 

Australian Independence 

In 1954, the Australian flag as we know it today was declared the Australian national flag and given precedence over the Union Jack. In 1994, celebrating Australia Day on the 26th of January became established. Australians ceased to be British subjects in 1984. Within the same year, Advance Australia Fair became the national anthem - replacing God Save the Queen. It was established a few years later, in 1988, that Australia Day should be celebrated on the 26th of January instead of with a long weekend. By 1994, celebrating Australia Day on the 26th of January had become established.

Invasion Day and Sorry Day 

In 1988, Aboriginal peoples had renamed Australia Day as “Invasion Day”. From 1998 onwards, an annual event is known as “National Sorry Day” or “National Day of Healing” was established. This significant event serves to remember and commemorate the mistreatment of Australia’s Ingenious population. It has since come to be recognized as an important step in the ongoing process of reconciliation. During the 20th century, Australian government policies caused children to be forcibly separated into their families and “assimilated” into White Australian Culture. The traumatic effects of these separations have been felt for generations including today. 


The 2000s

Australia Day has since become a significant day in the national calendar. Australians continue to recognise their country’s rich history - and acknowledge the suffering imposed on the Indigenous peoples by past governments. Australia Day has become the largest occasion for the acquisition of Australian citizenship, with more than 300 citizenship ceremonies taking place on the date in 2011.

Kevin Rudd’s Apology 

Kevin Rudd’s apology was a milestone in the reconciliation process as it signified a recognition and regret towards the damage that previous parliaments and governments had inflicted upon Indigenous Australians. It was also a highly significant event as Rudd became the first Australian Prime Minister to publicly apologise to the Stolen Generations. Thousands of people gathered outside the Parliament House in Canberra to witness the apology - which was met with crying, cheering, and clapping. 

In Rudd’s words

“We reflect on their past mistreatment. We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history. The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future. We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering, and loss on these our fellow Australians.”

Shifting attitudes 

A Newspoll in November 2009 reported that ninety per cent of Australians polled believed in the significance of recognising Australia’s indigenous people and culture as part of Australia Day celebrations. A similar proportion also agreed on the importance of recognising the cultural diversity of the nation. These results likely reflect the shift in Australians’ attitudes towards the history of the country in contemporary times - and the continuing efforts to ensure that the story of Indigenous peoples is never forgotten.