The history of January 26

Learn about the history of Australia's national holiday, January 26. Controversial events led to calls for changing or abolishing the day.
Australia Day: The History and Legacy of January 26

January 26 is the date of Australia’s national holiday, officially called Australia Day. It is marked as Invasion Day or Survival Day by many First Nations people and allies.

Despite annual debates about the day, there are widespread misconceptions about its history. A 2017 survey by the Australian Institute found only 38% of Australians could identify why the date was chosen.

Here are a few facts about the date and its legacy.

January 26, 1788

January 26 is the date the First Fleet arrived on the land and waters of the Gadigal people in 1788. Some accounts of the day suggest a British flag was planted at present-day Circular Quay, so it is often considered the symbolic beginning of British colonisation.

However, it was not the beginning of Britain’s colonisation. That came earlier, in 1770, when Captain James Cook claimed the land as British territory. The legal basis for Britain’s claim was that the land was ‘terra nullius’ (land belonging to no-one). The High Court of Australia eventually rejected that in 1992.

January 26, 1838

On January 26, 1838, exactly 50 years after the First Fleet arrived on Gadigal land and waters, there was a massacre of Gamilaroi people at Waterloo Creek in north-west NSW.

Gamilaroi men, women and children were murdered by police and settlers. Estimates of the death toll range from 40 to hundreds of people.

Imperfect records mean it is not possible to know the full extent of massacres of First Nations people, but this was one of hundreds of massacres we know about.

What came next

January 26 is marked by many as a day of mourning not just for the events on that day but also because of the violence and dispossession that followed the invasion.

In the Frontier Wars – a period of violence and genocide starting in 1788 – some estimates suggest the First Nations population fell by as much as 90%.

This legacy continued with the Stolen Generations, which saw thousands of First Nations children forcibly removed from their families. It also continues today: First Nations people are incarcerated at higher rates and have worse health and social outcomes.

January 26 celebrations

The naming of January 26 as ‘Australia Day’ is relatively recent. For much of the 1800s, the day was only marked in NSW. Events were held across the country in 1888 to mark the 100th anniversary. The name ‘Australia Day’ came into wide usage in the 1930s and 1940s, with a public holiday held on a day close to January 26.

The origins of the day in its current form are often traced to 1988, when a re-enactment of the First Fleet landing was held for the 200th anniversary. January 26 became a national public holiday in 1994.

January 26 protests

January 26 has been mourned and protested for almost as long as it has been celebrated.

A major First Nations-led protest was held in 1938 to mark a “Day of Mourning and Protest”. In 1988, tens of thousands of people marched in protest in Sydney. The tradition of protests continues today.

Change the date

Some protesters have called for the abolition of Australia Day, while others have campaigned to ‘change the date’.

A survey of 20,000 TDA readers this year showed 72% supported changing the date and 19% supported abolishing the day entirely. However, while other polls also suggest growing support for a new date, they ultimately show a majority of Australians support retaining the public holiday on January 26.

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