Australia Day

26 January 2015

128 days to go

1888: The Centenary

Representatives of the Australian sister colonies, now five in number, went to Sydney to celebrate with New South Wales in 1888. New Zealanders were also there. Victoria had separated from New South Wales in 1851, and Queensland in 1859. (In 1863 control of the Northern Territory passed from New South Wales to South Australia.) Only Western Australia was not self-governing by 1888, having a smaller population and developing more slowly, even after taking convicts between 1850 and 1868. Essentially transportation to New South Wales had ended in 1840. Van Diemen's Land, with self-government by 1856, had gained a new name, Tasmania, having ended transportation a few years before.

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FIGURE 5: The grand bicycle steeplechase, Albert Ground, Sydney, Anniversary Day 1870. Source: Illustrated Sydney News, February 1870, National Library of Australia

Their attitudes towards celebrating 26 January were mixed. South Australia's Advertiser took pains to point out that New South Wales, though 'senior', was not 'the parent colony' of all the   others, which had their own 'local memories and historic dates'. That day was not 'in any sense', it insisted, 'the anniversary of a common birthday' because 'the idea of Australia' was too closely linked to 'the unpleasing circumstances of its early occupation'. The Brisbane Courier was more direct: Australia as 'the cesspit of England' had been infected with 'the cancer of convictism'. Its editor acknowledged that Australia had 'witnessed much that had best be forgotten, much that cannot be contemplated without shame, but also much of which the Anglo-Saxon race may well be signally proud'.

For Tasmania's Mercury the central fact was 'the centenary of the occupation of the country by the British people'. The editor expected all Australians to celebrate the centenary whether they were 'natives or merely dwellers in an adopted land'. 'Natives' was the term now widely adopted to describe the native-born of European descent — their strongest advocate being the Australian Natives' Association (ANA), founded in 1871 in Victoria to provide medical, sickness and funeral benefits. By the 1880s it had also become a powerful voice for the federation of the Australian colonies and the celebration of a national day.

South Australians, despite their misgivings, were prepared to commemorate 26 January as 'the first stage in Australian colonisation'. They acknowledged that while the day had 'special interest for New South Wales', all the colonies were joining in what was 'really a national festival'. Australians were, after all, the Mercury explained, 'in reality one family…one people' because of the British background they shared. South Australia's Advertiser agreed: the united celebrations in Sydney showed 'the substantial oneness of what is rapidly becoming, if it has not already become, the nation of Australia'. Further west, the West Australian predicted that the day would come to 'be regarded as the national holiday of Australia'. Later that year the West Australian government legislated to 'commemorate the Foundation of Australia' with a public holiday. Not until 1910 did the South Australian government follow, by moving the surplus holiday on 22 January (the late King Edward's accession) to 26 January as Australia's 'Foundation Day'.6

FIGURE 6: The flagship at Circular Quay, Sydney Regatta, Anniversary Day, 1866. Source: Illustrated Sydney News, February 1866, National Library of Australia

There had been much debate in Sydney about what kind of celebrations should mark the centenary. Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, planned something for everyone, or almost everyone. When questioned about what was being planned for the Aborigines, Parkes retorted, 'And remind them that we have robbed them?' At the centre of his plans was the unveiling of a statue of Queen Victoria, the British sovereign since 1837, the opening of Centennial Park, a park for the people, and a great banquet for leading citizens. And, of course, the Sydney Regatta. The celebrations were to last a week, making the visit worthwhile for governors, leading politicians, civil servants and others who had travelled far by train or ship. The Federal Council of Australasia, established by an intercolonial conference in 1885 to handle defence matters, was meeting in Hobart before Sydney's celebratory week, though not all colonies had joined that body.

Across Australia celebrations usually centred on sports (foot, cycle, yacht and horse races) and picnics, with extra trains and trams available, especially to the sea in the summer heat (figure 5). The Sydney and Hobart regattas continued their well-established traditions, the Hobart Regatta including skittle alleys and sideshows, games and food stalls for those on shore (figure 6). The ANA organised excursions and associated activities in Victoria, where it was strongest, but also in the other colonies, where branches had been established. In Brisbane, it hired a steamer to go down to the bay, with guests leaving the boat at Lytton for games and dancing. A novelty was a cricket match between ladies and gentlemen, the latter carrying broomsticks instead of bats. The ladies won. In Fremantle, the ANA branch held a conversazione. In Adelaide where the day was only partially observed as a public holiday, there was an inter-denominational thanksgiving service, cycling races and a Sheffield handicap foot race in the afternoon, with fireworks at night.

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FIGURE 7: The Australian Natives' Association's harriers' one mile foot race, Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Foundation Day 1897. Source: Australian Unity Limited Archives Melbourne

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FIGURE 8: The Australian Natives' Association's wheel race, Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Foundation Day 1897. Source: Australian Unity Limited Archives Melbourne

South Australia's Advertiser judged Sydney's centenary celebration a success, feeling that it had 'certainly drawn the colonies closer together', putting them 'on somewhat better terms'. The colonies were more inclined to put aside their differences and seek to develop their mutual interests, especially after Parkes agreed to drop his legislation to re-name New South Wales as Australia. Some months later Victoria put on its international exhibition in Melbourne's massive Exhibition Building, viewed by more than two million visitors during the nine months it was open. Victoria's gold rush in the 1850s had fuelled the colony's population growth and development, outstripping New South Wales and Sydney until the early 1890s (figures 7, 8, 9).

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FIGURE 9: The Australian Natives' Association's fete, including musical and elocution competitions, Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Foundation Day 1899. Source: Australian Unity Limited Archives Melbourne

By 1888 more than 60 per cent of the continent's population was native-born, a contrast to some 20 per cent in 1838.17  The colonies beyond New South Wales acknowledged the significance of Anniversary Day in 1888 though this seemed to be due as much to their British background as to their feelings for the continent they shared. But would these colonies continue to celebrate the day beyond the centenary?

Next - 1901: Federation