In the American mind, little is known about the “land down under” when compared to their knowledge of other parts of the world. So here’s where you learn about Australia, Australia Day, and why it’s controversial for some.
Most Americans’ knowledge of Australia is limited to the unusual animals like the kangaroo and duck-billed platypus, Hollywood’s Crocodile Dundee, and “put another shrimp on the barbie”.
But any understanding of Australia Day must begin with knowledge of the colonial history of the country and an overview of how that narrative is intertwined with the culture and history of the first people to settle the continent thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.
The First People of Australia
Although it is considered among the world’s oldest cultures, Aboriginal Australians have a rich, vibrant, and living culture today. Aboriginal peoples form two groups: those descended from people who already inhabited the continent when Great Britain began colonizing the island in 1788, and the Torres Strait Islander peoples, who are descended from residents of the Torres Strait Islands, part of modern-day Queensland, Australia.
Academics believe there is evidence of complex social behaviors among the native people including cremation, personal ornamentation in the form of shell beads, and long-distance trade. Watercraft were used for some travel by aboriginals to Bali and Timor, and this is thought to be the earliest confirmed seafaring in the world.
Traditional scholarship holds that Australia’s indigenous peoples were hunter-gatherers who did not practice agriculture. Recently, though, some historians and archaeologists have argued that native peoples did use agricultural practices. Despite being nomadic, aboriginals were very much attached to their home territory.
Aboriginal peoples understood the world through interpretation of “the Dreaming” (or “dream-time”), a concept embodying the past, present, and future. This comprehensive belief system includes creation at the dawn of time when supernatural beings made the land with flora, fauna, and humans. These beings also gave rules for social life.
Aborigines make up nearly 800,000 out of a total Australian population of 25 million. Per capita, they suffer higher rates of suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and incarceration when compared to the general populace. This is the legacy of British colonial rule which decimated the aboriginal population through the introduction of new diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza, the acquisition of native lands by British settlers, and direct and violent conflict. It’s estimated that in the ten years following the arrival of the British, the indigenous population was reduced by 90%. Since aboriginal culture connects with the land, the annexation of native lands was particularly disastrous for indigenous peoples.
European Knowledge of Australia
As far back as the 2nd century CE, the Roman mathematician, astronomer, and geographer Ptolemy, despite no observational evidence, hypothesized the existence of terra australis incognita (“the unknown land of the south”). This southern land intrigued medieval European scholars for centuries. From the 16th century, European cartographers and navigators began including this “Australia” on maps, and as sailing technology advanced, it was inevitable that Europeans would eventually reach the continent.
British Arrival in Australia
By the 1700’s, Great Britain was ascending to the place of unrivaled dominance of the high seas. By 1770, Captain James Cook planted the Union Jack on what is now called Possession Island, claiming the eastern half of the continent for the British. On January 26, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet of convict ships from England arrived at Sydney Cove to establish the colony of New South Wales. January 26 has become known as Australia Day by the general population, but also as “Invasion Day” by Aboriginal Australians (more about this below).
Through the 1800’s, the British control and colonization of the continent continued rapidly, and this meant persecution of native peoples, including dozens of massacres throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1901, the various British Australian colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia which was given “dominion” status in the British Empire in 1907. By the 1940’s, most of the constitutional ties with the United Kingdom were severed, and the Australia Act of 1986 dissolved the rest. Today, Australia has a federal democratic parliamentary system of government but remains a constitutional monarchy with the British sovereign as a figurehead.
Famous Australians and Their Accomplishments
Daisy May Bates (born Margaret Dwyer in Ireland in 1859) was an Australian journalist, welfare worker, and lifelong student of Australian Aboriginal culture and society. Revered among some aboriginal people, Bates was referred to by the name Kabbarli, or “grandmother.”
Vincent Lingiari (born in 1908) was an Australian Aboriginal rights activist. Early in life he was a stockman at Wave Hill Station, a pastoral lease in the Northern Territory. A pastoral lease, or run, is when Australian government-owned Crown land is leased out for the purpose of livestock grazing. Aboriginal workers were paid only in rations, tobacco and clothing. In 1966, after workers demanded higher pay and improved working conditions, Lingiari led the workers in the Wave Hill walk-off, also known as the Gurindji strike. In 1976, Lingiari was named a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to native aboriginal peoples.
Rupert Murdoch (born in Melbourne in 1931) is an American media mogul and billionaire. He owns hundreds of local, national, and international publishing outlets worldwide, including in the United Kingdom (The Sun and The Times), in Australia (The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and The Australian), and in the United States (The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post). He also owns book publisher HarperCollins and television network Fox News.
Germaine Greer (born in Melbourne in 1939) is among Australia’s most controversial authors seen by many as one of the major voices of the radical feminist movement in the second half of the 20th century. Her first book, The Female Eunuch, published in 1970, made her a household name. Greer has also championed the environment. Her book, White Beech: The Rainforest Years, is the story of her efforts to restore part of a rainforest in the Numinbah Valley in Australia.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye (born in Alhalkere country in 1910) one of the country’s most significant contemporary artists. She grew up in a remote desert area known as Utopia. Kngwarreye began painting late in life (age 80), however she was a prolific artist producing over 3,000 paintings in her eight-year painting career. That’s an average of one painting per day. Her work was inspired by her cultural life as an aboriginal elder, and her custodianship of the women’s Dreaming sites in her clan country. She died in 1996.
January 26 is an important date in Australia’s history, but its meaning has changed over time. Australia Day started in 1808 as a celebration for pardoned convicts and gradually developed into a celebration of Australia that reflects the nation’s diverse people. However, for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the date has long symbolized sorrow and mourning.
Opposition to Australia Day
Aboriginal leaders formally met for the first time in Sydney in 1938 to mark a Day of Mourning to protest the mistreatment of native peoples by the British and white Australians. They also were seeking full citizen rights for aboriginal people. 50 years later, many native leaders renamed Australia Day as ‘Invasion Day’. Protests have been held almost every year on Australia Day with some calling it “Survival Day” to emphasize that despite British colonization, aboriginal culture has survived.
Protesters have pushed for treaties between native and non-native Australians and recognition in the county’s constitution. They also want the date of Australia Day to be altered or abolished. Victoria state is working toward a first-of-its-kind treaty with its aboriginal population that would recognize the sovereignty of Aboriginal Australians and include compensation. However, federal Australia itself has never made such a treaty. It’s the only country in the British Commonwealth not to have ratified a treaty with its indigenous peoples.
Changing the Date
For many Australians, January 26 is a symbol of inequity and institutionalized racism. However, a survey by the Institute of Public Affairs says 69% of Australians want the date to remain unchanged.
Several dates have been proposed, including January 1, when the Commonwealth of Australia was born in 1901 and Australia, as one united nation, was created. Some feel, though, that this date change would do nothing to address the unfair treatment of native peoples in the past and present.
Some have argued that Australia’s “National Sorry Day” (observed each year on May 26) should be a new date for Australia Day. National Sorry Day memorializes the mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Another, more tongue-in-cheek, suggestion for a new Australia Day date is May 8. Say the date quickly and you’ve got the word “mate”. Proposers say being a mate can surmount cultural and racial barriers.
Resources for Teaching about Australia
Help Teaching has created many educational resources including
KidsKonnect.com has worksheets on
- Australia Day
- Aboriginal Peoples of Australia
- Australia Facts
- Convicts in Australia
- White Australia Policy
- Australia (Continent)
- Stolen Generation
- Australian virologist Macfarlane Burnet
Check out these free resources from BusyTeacher.org.
- Welcome to Australia (PowerPoint)
- Australian Animals
- Australia: The Upside Down World (PowerPoint)
There are free curriculum resources from Australians Together. Cool Australia has produced 52 lessons that investigate racism, privilege, truth-telling, cultural pride, and resilience. Mr. Donn has produced many worksheets and activities about Australia. In Clarendon Learning’s “All About Australia” lesson plan, students learn Australian history and culture.
The National Museum of Australia has loads of free resources for teaching about Australia. You will find plenty of resources for teaching specifically about Australia’s indigenous population at the Aussie Educator website. ABC Education offers free educational content including videos, digibooks, games and audio lessons about many aspects of Australian history and culture.
Australia is a wonderfully diverse place worthy of study. G’day, Mate!
Image source: Freepik.com
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