Australia Day, past and present
Today is Australia Day and I am thinking how our attitudes to our history have changed over time. My childhood history book referred to Captain Cook ‘discovering Australia’ in 1770. That completely discounted the presence of indigenous Australians here for at least 40,000 years, not to mention all the European sightings of our continent long before Cook.
Then there is the changed attitude to a convict past. Not so many years ago it would have been a dreadful shame to have convict forebears. Now such ancestors are much sought after, as it associates us with pioneers, and we are amused by some of the rogues and think the Kelly gang bushrangers were forced into their crimes. Perhaps some people rewrite their history a bit by glossing over their ancestor’s ‘crime’ (“they were hungry so stole a loaf of bread”). I wonder what misrepresentations our descendants will accuse us of making?
The following is a letter to the editor published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday 9 December 1937 (page 3, see it in Trove) in response to preparations for the upcoming 150th anniversary of ‘Australia Day’. At that reenactment of the landing, they chose to gloss over even the presence of convicts in the First Fleet!
TO THE EDITOR OF THE HERALD,
Sir,-Dr. Mackaness, speaking at a meeting of the Royal Australian Historical Society last week, said that the 150th celebrations had done much for historical work and research. That may be so. It is interesting to note, however, that Dr. Mackaness made no protest against the inaccurate presentation of Australian history about to be made at the forthcoming celebrations. The landing of Governor Phillip without reference to the convicts, as decided by the 150th Anniversary celebration committee, is in conflict with Dr. Mackaness’s book, “Admiral Arthur Phillip,” just published, and here quoted . . .
“On 25th January at daylight, the Supply, with a company of marines and forty convicts on board, had weighed anchor, but could not leave the bay (Botany) till noon … anchoring the same evening at 7 o’clock, being obliged to turn up … At daylight on 26th January … the marines and convicts were landed from the Supply … The convicts were immediately set to work clearing a piece of land on which to erect the tents … After noon the Union Jack was hoisted on shore and the marines being drawn up to it, the Governor and officers to the right, and the convicts to the left, their Majesties and the Prince of Wales’s health, with success to the colony, was drank, in four glasses of porter, after which a feu de joie was fired and the whole (sic) gave three cheers …”
Here then is the landing scene. Take away reference to the convicts and you have the skeleton which is to be presented at the coming clebrations. Where are the protests of Dr. Mackaness, or the Royal Australian Historical Society? The silence of this society, which aims at historical accuracy, is astounding, while its motto, “Not unmindful of the past,” would appear to be a misnomer, at least as regards the convicts. The official voice of this society is dumb regarding the decision of the celebration committee to ban references to the convict pioneers, when this society’s protest should be loudest.
I am, etc.,
B. T. DOWD. Waverley, Dec. 7.