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Do You Know What Australia Day Really Means?

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By Abbie Dodson

Everybody is familiar with Australia. I know that many of my own relatives have tales to tell about a trip there in the blistering sun, and spiders bigger than their hands. However, England’s tumultuous history with Australia is lesser known. On the 26th of January each year, Australia Day is celebrated. The occasion offers a chance to showcase Australian culture and celebrate Australian people. However, the date that Australia Day is held marks the first British Ship arriving at Sydney Cove, signalling the start of colonisation. It seems like a pretty strange thing for the nation to celebrate, right?

After British colonisation of Australia, indigenous people were forced to leave their homes by European settlers, leading to lack of fundamental resources, such as food and water. Alongside the fleet of 11 ships which arrived in Australia in 1788, the British settlers brought diseases which the indigenous population were not immune to, such as smallpox, influenza and tuberculosis. This was followed by prolonged conflict and division between settlers and the indigenous people, which saw lives ruined and many different accounts of violent altercations.

However, some indigenous people have renamed Australia Day ‘Survival Day’ and ‘Invasion Day’, and protest in masses to raise awareness. These protests often take the form of rallies, and in 2018, a statue of Captain Cook was also vandalised. Captain Cook was credited with the first European contact with Australia in 1770 and was targeted to highlight the macabre origins of the holiday.

Australia Day is typically celebrated with concerts, parades, barbeques and other public events. Whilst a poll in 2018 found that only 38% of 1,417 Australians could explain the historical origins of Australia Day, over half of those surveyed said that they did not care when the day was celebrated. A mere 37% of the surveyed people agreed that the day was offensive to indigenous people. So, it’s no surprise that indigenous people are not willing to celebrate the beginning of their ancestor’s oppression. Are people simply unaware of the historical significance of Australia Day, or has the meaning of the day evolved into a celebration of Australian culture and being patriotic?

With so few Australians actually aware of the holiday’s origin, I asked family members who emigrated to Australia over thirty years ago what Australia Day meant to them. Over a pixelated video chat, they mused that the day was good fun, and only partially understood the origins of Australia Day. “I knew that it was something to do with British invasion”, one of my relatives claimed, “I just didn’t really understand the extent of it”. Perhaps this is the problem; people need to hear the awful stories of loss, disruption and damage that this day had on Australia’s indigenous population to become more sensitive and educated to why it may offend some people.

Despite the history associated with Australia Day, the holiday has evolved into a celebration of Australian lifestyle. It is unsurprising that Australians want to celebrate the beauty of their home and create a sense of community across the 6th largest country in the world. However innocent the celebrations may have become, perhaps a change of date would better convey the ‘new’ meaning behind the celebrations.

To reflect this, at the Students’ Union we are holding our Australia Day celebrations on 22nd January in Hideout with Aussie décor, kangaroo burgers, drinks deals and an Australia Awareness Day quiz in the evening.

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