Sun. Feb 25th, 2024

    Australia Day: What Really Happened on January 26, 1788

    The nation may be divided over whether Friday is ‘Australia Day’ or ‘Invasion Day’, but historians say some basic facts about the date should be kept in mind.

    The First Fleet sailed from England with explicit instructions that no indigenous population was to be harmed when it arrived in New South Wales.

    When the fleet landed at Sydney Cove in Port Jackson on January 26, 1788, no shots were fired and no one was physically injured.

    Whether the country was ‘invaded’ or ‘settled’ – much like what happened over the next two centuries – is at the heart of the debate over how and when we celebrate Australia Day.

    The First Fleet sailed from England with explicit instructions that the country’s inhabitants were not to be harmed upon arrival in New South Wales. Above is an oil painting by Algernon Talmadge of Captain Arthur Phillip raising the flag at Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788

    The 1992 Mabo decision granting native title to Indigenous Australians was based on the fact that the land had been settled and not invaded.

    In that ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the “terra nullius” doctrine – that the land mass belonged to no one – without overturning the view that the continent had a fixed value.

    In the 236 years after the arrival of the First Fleet, terrible injustices against the Aboriginal people took place.

    All these atrocities – the massacres, the human rights abuses and discrimination – are part of the debate over whether the country should change the date of Australia Day.

    But what really happened on January 26, 1788?

    Captain Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy was authorized under British law by King George III to establish a penal colony in NSW.

    Whether the country was ‘invaded’ or ‘settled’ – much like what happened over the next two centuries – is at the heart of the debate over how and when we celebrate Australia Day.

    The land he was assigned to settle had been occupied by Aboriginal people for perhaps 60,000 years, but was not legally recognized as a sovereign nation.

    Eleven ships under Phillip’s command left Portsmouth in May 1787 with approximately 1,400 men, women and children on board, bound for Botany Bay.

    The ships were small, each no bigger than a Manly ferry.

    At the head of the fleet were two Royal Navy ships, which accompanied three store ships and six convict transports.

    One of Phillip’s instructions upon reaching his destination was that the lives and livelihoods of the Aboriginal people were to be protected and friendly relations established with them.

    The First Fleet’s initial landing was gradual, with ships arriving at Botany Bay, south of Port Jackson, where James Cook had anchored 18 years earlier, between 18 and 20 January.

    When the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove in Port Jackson on January 26, 1788, no shots were fired and no one was physically injured. The Sydney Opera House was lit up on Friday with artwork by Indigenous artist Brett Leavy

    According to the NSW Migration Heritage Centre, local Aboriginal people met the fleet in an “uneasy standoff” at what is now called Frenchmans Beach in La Perouse. There was no violence on that occasion.

    Not satisfied with Botany Bay as a suitable location to establish a colony, on January 21 Phillip led a small party in three boats to explore other options further north.

    He entered Port Jackson, which he later described in a letter as “the most beautiful harbor in the world, where a thousand sails of the line can sail in the most perfect safety.”

    Phillip’s party returned to Botany Bay two days later to find representatives of another colonial power exploring the coast.

    On January 24, two French ships of the scientific expedition led by Jean-François de La Pérouse were seen just outside Botany Bay.

    The French, who stayed in Botany Bay until March 10, shot at the Aboriginals in February.

    Eleven ships under Phillip’s command left Portsmouth in May 1787 with approximately 1,400 men, women and children on board, bound for Botany Bay. Phillip is pictured in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788

    On January 26, the First Fleet sailed for Port Jackson and landed at a place Phillip named Sydney Cove, after Lord Sydney, the British Home Secretary.

    Only Phillip and some officers and marines from the Navy ship Supply initially went ashore, while the rest of the crew watched from the water.

    During a short ceremony, the British flag was planted and formal possession was declared.

    The remaining ten ships of the fleet did not arrive until later in the day. There was no armed conflict with the local Eora population.

    Phillip’s instructions regarding the existing inhabitants of the country were that he would ‘conciliate their affections’, ‘live with them in amity and kindness’.

    He was to punish anyone who “willfully destroys them, or gives them unnecessary interruptions in the exercise of their several professions.”

    Phillip’s instructions regarding the existing inhabitants of the country were that he would ‘conciliate their affections’, ‘live with them in amity and kindness’. La Perouse Gamay dancers are pictured on Bondi Beach on Friday for a morning reflection and smoking ceremony

    These instructions were standard British orders for the time and were initially largely followed.

    Historian Grace Karskens wrote in the Dictionary of Sydney: ‘Phillip and the officers were sincerely committed to establishing and maintaining friendly and peaceful relations’.

    ‘The first meetings in Botany Bay and Port Jackson were often characterized by friendliness, curiosity, gift giving and dancing together on the beaches.

    ‘This is so completely different from previous violent and murderous encounters between Europeans and indigenous peoples.

    ‘It is also very different from the frontier violence that dominated pastoral expansion in Australia well into the twentieth century. In that sense it was enlightened and human.”

    James Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770, 18 years before the First Fleet sailed into the same port. A statue of the explorer in Melbourne’s St Kilda was cut off at the knees on Thursday

    Professor Karskens stated that the arrival of the First Fleet and the establishment of a small camp at Sydney Cove were only of great importance because ‘it marked the origin of a great city’.

    “But at the time it was just a tiny pinprick on the edge of a vast and ancient Aboriginal continent – ​​barely a ripple at first,” he wrote.

    ‘From this perspective, the idea that Phillip’s first footstep on the beach of Botany Bay brought about instant death and corruption across the continent is Eurocentric nonsense.

    “Aboriginals didn’t drop dead or lose their culture the moment they saw a white person.”

    Professor Karskens noted that the Eora immediately experienced an alarming influx of foreigners onto their lands and waterways.

    “Phillip forbade anyone from shooting or otherwise harming Eora,” he wrote.

    ‘But by anyone he meant convicts. He had them punished severely for that and for stealing Eora.

    As the colony spread, violence increased and more and more land was seized. A protester is pictured holding a sign at an Invasion Day rally in Sydney on Friday

    ‘But this did not mean that officers and other soldiers did not shoot at Aboriginal people – they did, usually with small shots – usually because warriors threw spears and stones at them.’

    According to Professor Karskens, the first fatal shooting may not have occurred until September 1789, when a Henry Hacking shot a group of Aboriginal people hunting on the North Shore.

    As the colony spread over the next few years, so did the violence. More and more land was taken and massacres took place all over the continent.

    Many Australians believe that all these abuses should be the sole focus of any anniversary of the First Fleet arriving at Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788.

    But there was no violent confrontation on that first Australia Day.

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