Written: 27th Jan 2005 | Last Updated: 27th Jan 2005
What does Australia Day mean? It’s not a holiday linked to a declaration of freedom and independence like the splendid American Fourth of July - quite the opposite, really, as it’s the date eleven ships of the First Fleet landed on our shores (January 26, 1788) and established the first English colony in our wide, brown land. While many different tribes of aborigines already resided throughout the country, the newly-claimed settlement meant a new order existed under the Union Jack.
While our colonial beginnings remain historically significant for having opened up the land and forced us to join a wider world, our early status as a colony was anything but distinguished, being defined more by infamy than any specific greatness. We were in effect a dumping ground for felons, a target-rich environment for dodgy entrepreneurs and a private rum house for opportunistic soldiers.
That we possessed odd animals and bona fide savages made our continent a curiosity in 18th century England and elsewhere – our plants and marsupials got sent back to London for botanical/zoological classification. Even a few aboriginals were taken back for show and tell like so many anthropological specimens.
Artists from Europe endured long sea voyages to come and paint romantic, softened versions of our harsh landscape and took commissions for portraits of landed gentry and Sydney social-climbers. Enormous, lush pictures graced early colonial salons, and a few of the better ones made their way back to galleries in England where they gave an impression that the great southern continent was indeed a Garden of Eden, the Land of Milk and Honey.
While the struggle to become something other than a colonial outpost for vagabonds and ex-convicts preoccupied the higher thinkers, brave explorers and ambitious pastoralists, it was a long and bitter fight for recognition that really only climaxed during World War I. It was on the hills of Gallipoli that Australians won their stripes with sacrifice, and our national persona was minted - individualistic, brave, adventurous, cocky.
In war and peace, the twentieth century brought us international credibility and allowed our growing nation to stand up as a defender of human freedom. We also demonstrated that Australia was a bit of a social, creative, agricultural and industrial Petrie dish. From the outside, we may have seemed a bundle of contradictions, but we generally agreed that we lived in a land of opportunity. Many others from around the globe migrated to our shores to join in the great experiment.
After Federation in 1901, we may have remained under the flag of the Union Jack, but its crosses of St. Andrew and St. George shrank into the top left corner, while the constellation of the Southern Cross took over the heart. There have been campaigns to change the flag - to make it more representative of the way we are now. But most of us seem attached to the version held high in so many theatres of war, at so many Olympic Games, at the MCG and Anzac Day ceremonies around the country. It's part of our landscape.
Our colonial roots are a long way past now – even in the last forty years, the cord attaching us to those rascally old days has thinned to only a hair’s breadth. The awkward birth of our country perhaps made us try harder to make amends…improve…struggle to prove ourselves worthy of something better.
We rejoice in perpetually reinventing ourselves…we’re now a vibrant country living an envied lifestyle in an enormously diverse land, populated by a multicultural mix that enriches all our lives. We are more awake, we work harder, we are less intimidated and more fascinated by the world beyond our shores. We are proud Aussies, living our dreams, in love with our sunlight, seascapes, mountains and deserts. We know how lucky we are to call Australia home.
I guess that’s reason enough to celebrate Australia Day.
What we need to do to make things even more purposeful and meaningful for the future is to embrace our native aboriginal people, and share a unified commitment to and pride in our roles as brothers and sisters in this kaleidoscopic land. Some insist the government should say “sorry” for all the mistakes made by our colonial forbearers - but actions always speak louder than words. Let’s show we are one people, one country.