Surprising fact Aussies don't know about January 26

Penny Burfitt
·Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
·5-min read

The date of Australia Day celebrations becomes more hotly debated with every year that passes, as many First Nations Australians and allies call for the date to be marked as one of national mourning for lost Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives and cultures, and others fiercely defend a date they see as integral to modern, multicultural Australia.

While the day continues to be held on January 26, considered by pro-Australia Day advocates to be an immovable date of national significance, what many don’t realise is that January 26 has a relatively short history as the official Australia Day.

Invasion Day January 26 protest
January 26, or Australia Day to some and Invasion Day to others, has a much shorter history as a national day than many realise. Photo: Getty Images

The actual date was only declared a national public holiday for all states and territories 27 years ago in 1994, making it younger than many of its fiercest defenders.

Of course, the significance of January 26, and Australia Day have both been celebrated for far longer than that, but not always at the same time, and not always in the same way.

The first Australia Day – July 30

Australian War Memorial Australia Day July 30 1915 tea towel
A tea towel commemoration the first ever Australia Day held on July 30. Photo: Australian War Memorial

In fact, the first ever celebration of an ‘Australia Day’ took place on a different date entirely – July 30, 1915.

According to the Australian War Memorial, records show the day was intended to raise funds for the WW1 war effort, and to galvanise the collective Australian spirit.

The flexibility of the date the day was celebrated on was immediately apparent, with the next year’s celebration of Australia Day changing to July 28 out of convenience.

So what of January 26 and its historical significance?

The many dates we have celebrated Australia Day

Man hold Aboriginal flag and Australian flag during Australia/ Invasion Day march
January 26 means different things to different people, but it has only been a public holiday for 26 years. Photo: Getty Images

For European settlers and later White Australia, the day was celebrated as far back as the first years of the 19th century, not as a national holiday but as the anniversary of the day the penal colony of Australia was declared by Great Britain on January 26 1788. At the time it was referred to as First Landing Day or Foundation Day.

In fact, January 26 wasn’t even the first time the British colonisers had set foot in the country – Captain Cook disembarked in Botany Bay in April 1770.

According to a report by SBS, for years the day was only celebrated in the Eastern States while other Aussie states marked what we now know as Australia Day on different dates entirely.

In Western Australia, the official national day was celebrated on June 1 and called Foundation Day. The date marked the founding of the first British colony, the Swan River Colony, on the Western shore in 1829.

In South Australia, it was celebrated as Proclamation day on December 28, marking the day the government was established in South Australia in 1836.

From 1838, Tasmania commemorated Abel Tasman's discovery of the land in 1642 on Regatta Day held on December 1.

January 26 as a national holiday

It wasn’t until the 1930s that all states and territories collectively celebrated the landing of the First Fleet at all. In 1935, the Monday closest to January 26 was made a national holiday called Anniversary Day in NSW, and Foundation Day elsewhere.

In fact, it was First Nations people who first claimed the date itself as a national day, theirs one of mourning.

Aboriginal people gather at the Australian Hall to hold the first civil rights protest in Australia at Day of Mourning. The 'Day of Mourning' was held on Australia Day 1938, the sesquicentenary of white settlement in Australia. Picture taken outside Australia Hall on 26 January 1938. (Photo by The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images)
First Nations people gathered at the Australian Hall to hold the first civil rights protest in Australia at Day of Mourning on 26 January 1938. Photo: Getty Images

In 1938, three years after ‘Foundation Day’ was recognised, the Australian Natives Association declared a National Day of Mourning on January 26, while the rest of the country celebrated 150 years since the penal colony was established. The day was also used to campaign for full citizen rights for First Nations people.

At this point, the day was still not considered the national holiday, each state and territory continued to celebrate their own separate holidays.

January 26 as the national Australia Day – 1946

It wasn’t until 1946, at the close of World War II, that the national and state governments agreed to unify the state-based Australia Day celebrations into one, national holiday. This is when January 26 first really became tied to the national holiday for the first time, but at the same time, they were loose bonds.

At the time it was decided that the national ‘Australia Day’ would celebrate the January 26 landing, though much in the way we celebrate the Queen’s birthday on a different date each year, the day would simply be held on the closest Monday to ensure a long weekend.

Australian Flag Australia Day celebration
When January 26 was decided as the date of Australia Day, the Union Jack and not the Australian flag, was still considered the primary national flag. Photo: Getty Images

At the time, Australia Day may even have been celebrated with a few Union Jacks, as our modern flag wasn’t declared the National Flag until almost a decade later in 1954.

The still-loose national celebrations weren’t properly cemented until 1979 when according to the official Australia Day website, the Commonwealth government created a National Australia Day Committee in Canberra to make future celebrations ‘truly national and Australia-wide’.

It wasn’t until 1994, that the date itself became the fixed Australia Day public holiday, finally tying the date and the day together officially.

Between the initial establishment of ‘Australia Day’ in 1946 and 1994, Australians had ceased to be considered British subjects, we had replaced God Save the Queen with Advance Australia Fair, and we had created Australian citizenship separate from Britain.

In other words, massive changes to our British bonds had taken place, but we decided to hang onto January 26 all the same.

In recent times, activists continue to call for the date of January 26 to be recognised as a day of mourning for First Nations people and cultures killed by the British, and for Australia Day to be moved to a day that celebrates our modern nation and it’s 60,000-year history, rather than the establishment of a British colony in 1788.

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