Australia Day

26 January 2015

93 days to go

1938: The Sesquicentenary and The Day of Mourning

By 1938 Australians, still 98 per cent British in background, had, after almost one hundred years, found agreement on the name, timing and nature of the day's celebration they had come to share. All six state premiers were in Sydney, again very much the focus of the Australia Day celebrations. But Brisbane's Courier-Mail warned against seeing those celebrations as 'merely of local interest': 'Sydney has the pageantry, but the event it recalls and reconstructs is significant to all Australians. A nation was founded when Governor Phillip landed at Port Jackson. To that nation we all belong'. The heading for the editorial was 'A dream that came true'.24  That nation now had its own capital, Canberra (in the Australian Capital Territory, cut out of New South Wales in 1908) and a provisional Parliament House. (The Northern Territory, controlled by the federal government from 1911, was to gain self-government in 1978.)

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FIGURE 16: The flyer, with resolution, advertising Australian Aborigines' Conference and Sesquicentenary Day of Mourning and Protest, 26 January 1938. Source: Broadside 405, National Library of Australia.

The NSW government, seeking to match Victoria's celebration of its centenary in 1934, had chosen as its centrepiece the re-enactment of Captain Phillips' arrival and flag-raising at Sydney Cove, followed by a pageant. The 120 motorised floats, stretching 1.5 miles, took one and a half half hours to pass through the streets of Sydney. The pageant's theme, March to Nationhood, became the title of a film documenting the celebrations. The first float depicted traditional Aboriginal life, followed by the pastoral and other industries. There was no mention of convicts, following a decision of the executive committee of the Celebrations Council, endorsed by the president of the Royal Australian Historical Society.

But the organisers saw Aborigines as essential to the day's proceedings. They brought twenty-six of them from Menindee, a settlement of Wiradjuri and Barkendjii people on the River Darling, and from Brewarrina east of Bourke (the Murawari people) to act out Aboriginal resistance to the British landing, and to pose on the first float in the pageant. There were also about one hundred other Aborigines in Sydney on that day who had come to present a different view of the celebrations (figure 16). Among their leaders pressing for Aboriginal rights were William Cooper, founder of the Australian Aborigines' League in Victoria in 1936, and Jack Patten, Bill Ferguson and Pearl Gibbs, who headed the Aborigines' Progressive Association, formed New South Wales in 1937. For them and those they represented, Australia Day was a 'day of mourning'.

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FIGURE 17: Aborigines outside the Australian Hall, Sydney, Australia Day, 1938. Source: Man (Syd.), March 1938, National Library of Australia.

The meeting of Aborigines at the Australian Hall on 'the 150th Anniversary of the Whitemen's seizure of our country' passed unanimously a resolution  protesting at the whitemen's mistreatment of Aborigines since 1788 and appealing for new laws ensuring equality for Aborigines within the Australian community (figure 17). Also endorsed was a list of ten points, suggesting ways of achieving full citizen status, for a deputation to take to a meeting with the prime minister on 31 January. Living conditions for Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia had worsened as the economy deteriorated from the 1920s. Controlled by largely unsympathetic 'protectors', dependent on white charity, and without the right to vote, Aborigines struggled to improve their situation. They were out of sight of most Australians, who, living in the capital cities, knew or understood little of their plight.

There were some, like the reporter in Hobart's Mercury in 1935, who acknowledged 'the white invasion' as well as the '147 years of civilisation'. But most Australians assumed that Aborigines were 'a dying race', a phrase used in the foreword to the book commemorating the Sesquicentenary, Australians 1788-1938. Yet statistics showed that was not so. On the evening of Australia Day 1938 state presidents of the ANA broadcast their messages on the national network of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. The organisation which had shepherded Australian natives towards a national day by 1935 could delight in their achievement.28  But how could they include the Aboriginal natives of the country?  What place would there be for them at the Bicentenary in 1988?

Next - 1988: The Bicentenary