26 January 2015


The Regatta became the greatest attraction of the anniversary. In 1838 the Sydney Gazette detailed 'numerous crowds of gaily attired people, attended by servants and porters…bearing the supplies for the day's refreshments… wending their way towards the water's edge'. People crowded the decks of three steamers, 'each decked out in their gayest colours' (figure 2). Four Australians had hired one of them, the Australia, to take their friends out on the harbour. The raising of its flag drew 'the most deafening and enthusiastic cheering'. It was the NSW ensign — a white British ensign with a blue cross bearing five white stars — which the Australian newspaper expected would become 'the emblem of an independent and a powerful empire' within fifty years (figure 3). Though not quite in the way the paper imagined, the flag would become an important Australian symbol by the end of the nineteenth century.

FIGURE 2: Advertisement for viewing the Sydney Regatta, 1838. Source: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 25 January 1838, National Library of Australia

Among the many toasts at the anniversary dinner in 1838 was one to 'The Sister Colonies': Van Diemen's Land, Western Australia, and South Australia. The first, occupied in 1803 by officers, guards, convicts and free settlers from Sydney to pre-empt the French, became a separate colony in 1825. Three years later Britain claimed the western third of the continent, again to forestall the French, with settlers but not convicts arriving at the Swan River in Western Australia in 1829. The settlement of South Australia, again without convicts, followed in 1836.

These colonies celebrated their own beginnings, rather than that of New South Wales. Regatta Day in early December marked Abel Tasman's claiming of Van Diemen's Land for Holland in 1642, and the proclamation of its separation from New South Wales in 1825. Foundation Day, 1 June, in Western Australia commemorated the arrival of settlers in 1829, and Proclamation Day on 28 December the beginnings of British government in South Australia. Hobart was proud of its regatta, begun in 1838, considering it better than the one in Sydney. Certainly the winner of its whale boat race, awarded the Tasman Prize of thirty sovereigns that year, was almost three times better off than his Sydney counterpart.

Van Diemen's Land had prospered with British capital and cheap convict labour. Although still primarily a gaol during the 1830s, the colony was attracting larger numbers of free settlers, who campaigned against the transportation of convicts. Not surprisingly, Regatta Day, established in 1838, commemorated not its convict beginnings but its discovery by Europeans and its emergence as a separate colony. For the two colonies of Western and South Australia, settled from Britain not Sydney, their choice of anniversary reflected pride in their free origins. This was despite Western Australia's early struggles, due in part to inadequate planning and the lack of labourers. South Australia benefited from that experience but by 1838 had barely begun.

FIGURE 3: NSW Ensign of 1832 bearing the stars from the Southern Cross. Source: Ralph Kelly, Flags Australia

Anniversary Day was essentially a Sydney celebration of prosperity after only fifty years. 'From a miserable neglected Colony of outcasts', observed the Sydney Gazette, New South Wales had 'sprung into a settlement already of some importance in the scale of nations'. The colony was now a significant producer of wool for Britain's mills — a significant achievement. Both the Gazette and the Australian, in reflecting the attitudes of the time, drew a sharp contrast between the 'untutored savage' and 'industrious and civilised man'. In fifty years, the 'miserable gunya of the wandering Aborigine' had given way to 'the extensive and flourishing town' (figure 4); his 'tiny bark canoe' to 'a goodly fleet of Colonial traders beside numerous visitants from the various quarters of the world'.

The British and their sheep had expanded at the expense of the Aborigines, who, in resisting the invaders, were becoming a minority in their own country. The fate of Aboriginal resistance leaders, such as Pemulwoy in the Sydney district at the turn of the nineteenth century and Yagan in the Swan River district in the early 1830s, foreshadowed the wider fate of their peoples. In Van Diemen's Land the attempt to end the conflict with settlers in Van Diemen's Land, by removing and 'civilising' Aborigines in exile on Flinders Island in Bass Strait, had failed by 1838. The government's model village had become 'a death camp'.

Native-born children of the immigrants, both convict and free, though known as Australians or natives, retained their British sentiment. Those who had hailed 'The land, boys, we live in' at their anniversary dinners, still considered themselves Britons. Their list of almost twenty toasts began with the monarch, the royal family, the British navy and army, 'The Mother Country', or 'The Land of our Fathers' and ended with 'Civil and Religious Liberty all over the World'.10  What difference would a further fifty years make to the relative strengths of these sentiments and the celebration of Australia?

Next: 1888 - The Centenary