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Byron Shire
May 11, 2021

January 26 is simply the wrong date if we want all to celebrate

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Fremantle Town Council took the brave decision last year to move Australia Day celebrations to Saturday, January 28.

The mayor was moved by how the local Indigenous community felt about commemorating the start of colonisation.

The Council stood firm with their decision, despite significant opposition from many quarters.

Three Melbourne councils – Moreland, Darebin and Yarra – have followed suit this year by not celebrating on January 26.

Twenty-four years ago, the Fremantle Council also led Australia by being the first to fly the Aboriginal flag on a public building.

I flew to Perth last year to support what Fremantle Council called ‘One Day in Fremantle’.

It started with several hundred people attending a smoking ceremony at a site where thousands of indigenous people had been imprisoned and died at the beginning of colonisation.

People from all over Australia attended, including a mob from Musgrave Park, Brisbane.

Then over 15,000 people – mainly families – packed Fremantle Esplanade to enjoy various art workshops and activities.

The day ended with John Butler, Dan Sultan and Mama Kin performing. The whole day went without a hitch.

Fremantle are repeating it this coming January 28. Communities from around Australia will either travel to be a part of it and/or establish their own celebrations on the same day.

Byron Council also has a history of making courageous decisions. I hope that it and the community will choose to celebrate next year on an alternative day.

No doubt many of our local indigenous and non-indigenous artists would love to support such an initiative and make it just as successful.

Julie Pirotta, Goonenegerry


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  1. January 26 is the wrong date for so many reasons. It marks the establishment of the penal colony of NSW, not the birth of a nation.

    As far back as learning Australian History at school I was always disgusted that we celebrated the day that shiploads of poor wretches arrived, many having died during the voyage, in appallingly cruel conditions of incarceration. Some were likely hardened criminals but many no doubt were forced to crime by the poverty and inequality of the society in which they found themselves. A society whose prisons were bursting at the seams, a government that offered little support and resourcing once they were safely out of sight.

    There was nothing edifying about this event for our British forebears. This was my personal view anyway long before I was made aware of the indigenous perspective. It’s high time we found another date, if we
    must have a national day. In the meantime come on Byron Shire let’s join the other Councils in grass roots change that’s too much of a hot spud for the major parties.

    • I am someone who is descended form two First-fleet convicts and eight others who arrived as convicts, and I do not agree that 26 January 1788 is not a date to remember with some pride, while still recognising the harm that early contact brought to many individuals. The history that you learnt at school is questionable. Given the era and large number of people very few people died at sea – Britain had the word’s best logistics and avoided ports that harboured disease. The convicts were criminals – while doubtless social conditions contributed to their offending, other people in Britain did not resort to crime to survive (just as most people from disadvantaged backgrounds today do not). Having done the wrong thing though most avoided the harsh discipline, were granted tickets of leave and soon commenced farming and working. Transportation provided economic and social opportunities that would not have been available in Britain .

      We do know that many aboriginals died from influenza and other disease in the period of early contact, on top of smallpox from South East Asia which was already decimating the aboriginal population, and the common land that they enjoyed was rapidly being privatised, but within a generation more were taking advantage of the demand for labour and the higher productivity of British farming and technology to have a more secure diet, a much better standard of material welfare and housing. Many aboriginal women in particular quickly embraced the opportunities to work and to marry – de-facto or de-jure – into the new society which offered a less arduous life, and for some, shelter from sexual abuse and violence.

      On 26 January we need to recognise that history is never black and white. Many suffered through the penal system and through dispossession of land and diseases, but we need to also cerebrate what was the birth of what quite quickly became one of the first societies where the great majority of people could enjoy a peaceful, secure and relatively prosperous life . At the very least if people do see it as our national day, then we certainly should continue to celebrate in NSW it as the birth of our state.

  2. Thanks, Peter for the salutary reminder that nothing is completely black and white and history open to interpretation. A few thoughts. Deaths on the first fleet were generally considered low in comparison with later convict voyages and saying that they should be considered in context is of no comfort to me – the context was generally brutal. To be fair, those who died on the voyage may have been the lucky ones given the condition in which the survivors arrived and the future that faced them.

    True, the ticket-of-leave system gave rise to some of the most successful of the fledgling colony’s citizens but I think this occurred more by accident as some carrot had to be provided for good behaviour and a solution found to the growing number of convicts to be supervised. I doubt that rehabilitation and opportunity were high on the original priority list. Nor have I seen any evidence of a motivating grand vision for a prosperous, free and egalitarian nation.

    Comparisons between present day and 18th century disadvantage are ludicrous. We have evolved some way with a welfare state and recognition of basic human needs and rights despite the best efforts of some on the political right. What also about the child convicts and political prisoners? As for your suggestion that white settlement was good for the indigenous population because some got jobs and were paid in western provisions (flour, sugar and worse) and some women got to hook up with white men (who were never abusive, ever!) all I can say is – you are kidding right?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite grateful for the way history turned out and I got to be raised in this pretty great country. If I must get all misty-eyed and celebratory though I think I need a date or concept that exemplifies some important values that most (I can’t imagine all is possible) can appreciate. Our federation fathers mucked up the date and should have shown more imagination than to clash with New Year’s Eve but I’m sure we can come up with something better than the arrival of the first fleet.

    • Thanks for taking the time with your considered response Liz. A few points of clarification. The ticket of leave system was not accidental. The philosophy of the convict system was reformist, it was not unremittingly harsh, and the hardships of first arrival were overcome in the following decade. My GGG-Grandfather William Small was born in Sydney in 1796 to ex-convict parents. At the first centenary in 1888 he was the oldest Australian born person and told the SMH he recalled the cruelty meted out to some convicts. He also recalled as a child in Ryde “ we were a handful of white men camping in an unknown country crowded with hostile or doubting blacks. Even during the day we scarcely dared go outside the house unarmed,…” and “When I was a boy. I learned all sorts of things from the blackfellows. They soon got friendly, and I was sorry to see them gradually dying out. I had many playmates amongst them, and I havn’t forgotten the principal words of the tribes round here yet.” It is important to note that even in his childhood a modus vivende had been reached such that a child could play with the locals. And just as he learnt the local dialect and skills from aboriginals, there is no reason to suggest that the majority of the first post-contact generation of aboriginal who survived the ravages of disease would not have learnt the skills needed to work, live and prosper in the new society.
      There is no evidence that the men who married or lived with aboriginal women were more violent to their spouses than other men, and it is important to note aboriginal woman chose to enter those relationships. While colonial society could be cruel, harsh and violent, it was still a Christian society that extended a measure of compassion and rights to woman that, along with material benefits like housing and food security, some aboriginal woman valued and preferred. The stories of those mixed families are largely lost to us, and it is difficult to know how many there were. Because of the “convict stain”, 19c Australia was a society where people avoided discussing their backgrounds and many people of mixed decent who were doing well in what was a society that was relatively prosperous, but as the 19c moved on an increasingly racist one, would have found it easy and more beneficial to hide their aboriginal past. Also it is difficult to trace such ancestry as in the early period the aboriginal parent was often not baptised and the marriages were usually defacto. Those aboriginals who survived but for whatever reason were less successful in the new society – probably a minority – would have tended to marry others of similar background and remained more identifiably aboriginal, relying for survival more on strong family support systems and later the handouts or payments of food that you refer to.
      Some of indigenous descent whose families suffered more from early contact and racism understandably feel less than enthusiastic about 26 January. We need to respect that but, even if not as Australia Day, we still should celebrate the birth of a new society that you well describe as “pretty great”.

    • That is an opinion Andrew, not a fact. That you have capitalised “Invasion Day”, shows it is what you and others call 26 January, not what it is. . Do read my posts to list. It may be that Australians do want to change the date of our national day, but we should continue, certainly in NSW, to commemorate the birth of our state and our what Liz calls so aptly, our “pretty great nation”.

  3. I feel privileged to call it home, Peter, but privilege is the operative word. I am aware that I’m the privileged beneficiary of a dark history. I want to recognise this but not celebrate it. I also don’t see January 26 as the birth of our pretty great country – it was more evolution than revolution. One of the important steps was the groundswell of protest against transportation that started in the next century, a true indication of an affinity with a new homeland and a vision for loftier ideals than ridding an empire of the administrative difficulties of its iniquitous class system. Some milestone in this movement would hold more significance for me and its consistency with a more civilised society may meet with wider acceptance. I am not convinced though that we need a national day and if it’s possible to find an event that was good news for both the indigenous and more recent population.

    • Liz The groundswell of opinion against transportation was pernicious and one of the main reasons that the convict system is seen in history in such a bad light. The convicts and their families had already quite quickly identified with NSW and with the advantages it offered them – in the early 19c people remarked on their cocky confidence and disdain for newcomers from Britain. Many of the newer free migrants however regarded themselves as inherently better people than the convict stock, and saw advantage in diminishing the system, the convicts and their families. To achieve their ends, well meaning protestant campaigners like the Fairfaxes in the press and in missives to supporters in Britain focused heavily on, and exaggerated, the horrors of the system and the supposed depravity of the convicts (ironically Warwick Fairfax the son of the founder of the newspaper empire married into my First Fleet convict family). Anne Summers’ portrayal in Damned Whores and Gods Police of early convict women and their daughters as being for the greater part whores is exaggerated and inaccurate in part because it drew on some of these accounts (none of my dozens of female convict-background ancestors who lived in the time Summers covered fitted her description, though some did become God’s police). As the anti-transportation campaign gathered pace decedents of convicts had to hide their backgrounds against the growing prejudice against them, just as decedents of aboriginals who were able to found it better to avoid racism by hiding their black background.
      Bringing people who did wrong and putting them in a situation where they prospered, craved respectability and created what quickly became one of the most prosperous and law-abiding societies anywhere, with much less of of the British class system are surely things to celebrate. People of aboriginal decent, almost all of whom have white ancestors, should not be put in a position where they feel they have to be ashamed of their white ancestors because some people are putting out exaggerated, narrow and misleading histories of what happened.


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