What is there to celebrate on January 26?                                                                            

Peter McGregor

“The people who had just invented the steam engine were face-to-face with people, who, though rich in many branches of knowledge, could not boil water. The two peoples, face-to-face, had contrasting concepts of ownership, family, land, technology, territory, and death.”  Geoffrey Blainey


‘Terra Incognito’ (the unknown land that became Australia) was always going to be settled or claimed by one or other Western power(s). If not the British, then the French (La Perouse was only a couple of days behind Arthur Phillip and his mottled band of sailors and convicts), or the Spanish (who had a history elsewhere of rape, pillage and mass murder in search for treasure), the Dutch (loathed in Indonesia for their colonial rule), The Portuguese in Timor or Germans (who seized part of Papua New Guinea); and the Russians and Japanese also had colonial aspirations in the Pacific.

In fact, Phillip and La Perouse (and James Cook before them) were part of the gradual spread of the Enlightenment across the globe, the widespread scientific inquiry and search for knowledge in every aspect of the natural world and human life. (It was, for example, only in that century that scientists discovered that blood circulated throughout the body). The entire ‘known’ world was curious about what lay beyond the boundaries of their knowledge at the time.

However, there were rules about what could be claimed by the various powers. ‘Terra nullius’ (unoccupied land) was the legal internationally-accepted term that applied to lands that were apparently unoccupied: no government, no substantial dwellings, no crops, no-one who spoke for the entire land or nation. In the understanding of nations and people almost 250 years ago, the Great South Land was just such a place. (It is very easy to criticise people of that time for not knowing everything we know today – I wonder what people in 250 years’ time will know that we don’t?)

What many Australians don’t realise is that Arthur Phillip was a truly remarkable man. Apart from his later accomplishments, he was a man of the Enlightenment: humane and principled. A friend and acolyte of anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce , he was determined that whatever else happened at Botany Bay/Port Jackson, there would be no slavery – which he had seen at first hand in the West Indies in his time there – and that the native people would be treated with compassion and respect and that the Rule of Law would apply equally to both indigenous and immigrant peoples.

First Settlement

January 26, 1788, is a significant date: it is the date that Arthur Phillip relocated his fleet of ships (and 1420 souls, including 780 convicts) from Botany Bay, which had no fresh water supply, to Port Jackson a short distance north which did; it also had a safe and beautiful harbour that was ideally suited to settlement. The intention was not to conquer but to survive. There was nothing that occurred that could remotely be described as an invasion; unlike most of what happened in Central and South America, not to mention North America, Africa, India, China and elsewhere.

January 26 is significant because it represented the arrival in this unknown land of the Rule of Law, education, agriculture, scientific knowledge, a national language, the idea of multiculturalism (starting with the Irish, the Scots, the English and later the Chinese – though they weren’t always welcomed); also, the beginnings of democracy, the arrival of books and newspapers, currency (once rum was replaced), capitalism, trade with the rest of the world and the establishment of Christianity. (People today have differing views about the worth of all these but they, nevertheless, are a part of Australia as we know it.) In other words, most of the things we take for granted in Australia today began in one form or other in 1788 yet the protesters imply that nothing worthwhile happened after 1788. This is demonstrably false.

The safe arrival of Arthur Phillip’s fleet was also an incredible achievement, something that had never been done before, nor since. He had led a fleet of 11 ships across 17 000 nautical miles “in the most extraordinary and treacherous flotilla voyage in history”1 – without the loss of one life. When he arrived at his destination after eight months, he dropped his pants to illustrate to the local inhabitants that he was a man, not a god.

It is not generally understood (it seems) that before January 26 there was no Australia – there was no nation as such; this is a Western concept – almost everything that people today associate with Australia began from January 26, 1788: parliaments, hospitals, schools, museums and libraries. There were only disparate warring clans or tribes with little or no means of communication between them. They had no knowledge (or way of measuring) how long their peoples had lived on the land before them and no idea of the mineral wealth that lay more than a few inches under their feet. Average life expectancy has been estimated in the mid-40s – which it was in most countries before the Industrial Revolution.

It is sometimes suggested that the Europeans brought not only science and civilisation, but also diseases and death to the native population. There is certainly some truth to this, though not by design. The instructions to Philip and other governors was clear: they were to befriend the local people and do them no harm. In fact, the consequences for indigenous populations was often catastrophic, as it was in every other continent: some diseases (though not smallpox which has now been traced to the trepang fishermen emanating from Indonesia and impacting Torres Strait Islanders) and both official and unauthorised clashes (often over the uses of land) beyond the reaches of settlements and the law.

The saddest thing about all this is that it is increasingly clear that most Australians have no idea why January 26 is significant and that many people (especially the young, in their ignorance) are prepared to dispense with commemorating the achievements of not only a number of remarkable British men and women in Australia (Caroline Chisholm comes to mind) who established the foundations of our modern nation, but also many pioneers of the Enlightenment (such as Cook), the Industrial Revolution (James Watt) and British culture (Shakespeare) from which all Australians have benefited.

[1 ‘Captain of a Nation’, The Australian 20/1/18]

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