HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA DAY
Did you know that the history of European Australia has ties to the American Revolutionary War?
When the 13 American Colonies were part of the British Commonwealth, it was convenient for England to transport its convicts to the Colonies. Indeed, it was considered more humane to “transport” prisoners than to execute them, and there were getting to be so many convicts.
Following the 1730s, the British population began to increase, and with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, crime became a more significant problem in England. What to do with all the prisoners? Even the debtors’ prisons were swelling. America seemed to be a likely landing place. In 1732, a royal charter was granted to a group of philanthropists interested in helping the “worthy poor.”
Specifically, it was granted to the Trustees of the Province of Georgia.
But the goal of settling Georgia as a repository for convicts was never fully realized, despite recent claims to the contrary. Several disagreements and altercations between the American Colonies and the British Crown – which we don’t have time to go into here – resulted in the American War of Independence from Britain. You have no doubt read about it. It was in all the papers.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, British Captain James Cook (not Kirk, not Hook) arrived in Australia in 1770, claiming it for the British Empire, and sailing down the coast, arrived at what is now called Sydney Harbor. He was carrying British convicts.
One part of the area was lush with various flora and fauna, which caused Captain Cook to write in his journal later that he named it Botany Bay.
War of Independence
Up until this time, about 60,000 convicts had been transported to America. However, the American Revolutionary War in the 1770s and ’80s ended this destination for prisoners, and the British government needed an alternative. Australia was it. On May 13, 1787, the First Fleet was assembled in Portsmouth, England, and sailed to Botany Bay in modern-day Sydney, arriving on January 20, 1788. They established the first European colony in Australia on January 26, 1788.
Over the next 80 years, Britain transported more than 165,000 convicts to Australia. One may like to think that these Australians might otherwise have become Americans.
Since 1988, the 200th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet, national participation in Australia Day has increased. In 1994, all Australian States and Territories began to celebrate a unified public holiday on that day for the first time.
How is Australia Day celebrated? There are parades, awards, honors, citizenship ceremonies, family events, sporting contests, boat races, concerts, fireworks, and – of course – barbeques.
There is a contemporary movement afoot to “Change The Date” of Australia Day, as greater awareness of Aboriginal indigenous people has for the last 30 years invoked an “Invasion Day” commemoration with attendant protest marches. Thousands marched in protests, demanding a change of date.
As a historical aside, the SS Botany Bay is the name of the “sleeper ship” in the original Star Trek episode “Space Seed.” Khan Noonien Singh, played by Ricardo Montalban, is awakened – along with his fellow eugenically enhanced would-be world conquerers – by Captain James Kirk of the USS Enterprise in the first season episode and then again in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
So, on this historic Australia Day, take an Aussie to lunch since Americans have so much in common with them culturally… and talk about Star Trek. It’s part of their heritage.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian