The tradition of noticing 26 January began early in the nineteenth century with Sydney almanacs referring to First Landing Day or Foundation Day. That was the day in 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain and the first governor of New South Wales, arrived at Sydney Cove. The raising of the Union Jack there symbolised British occupation of the eastern half of the continent claimed by Captain James Cook on 22 August in 1770.
Some immigrants who prospered in Sydney, especially those who had been convicts or the sons of convicts, began marking the colony's beginnings with an anniversary dinner - 'an emancipist festival' to celebrate their love of the land they lived in. Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the emancipists' friend, made the thirtieth anniversary of the day in 1818 a public holiday, thirty guns counting out the years of British civilization, a tradition Macquarie's successors continued.
FIGURE 1: List of toasts and accompanying airs, United Australians' Dinner, 26 January 1837, Sydney. Source: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 28 January 1837, National Library of Australia
In 1826 at the centre of the anniversary dinner, 'Australia' a new word for the continent, entered the list of toasts. The term, recommended in his Voyage to Terra Australis in 1814 by Matthew Flinders, the skilful circumnavigator of the continent in 1801-03, and proposed by Macquarie to a reluctant British government in 1817, was taken up in Australia, especially by emancipists. The most famous of them, William Charles Wentworth with a fellow barrister had established the colony's first uncensored newspaper, the Australian, in 1824.
So strongly did some emancipists feel about being Australian that the anniversary dinner in 1837 was for only the Australian-born (Figure 1). Wentworth, invited to chair the dinner, declined, disapproving of this new development. Having become a wealthy landowner and squatter, he found that he had more in common with his former enemies, the exclusives, than his supporters who pressed for wider rather than narrower voting rights in discussions about political reform. That year the celebration widened with the first Sydney Regatta, the beginning of a new tradition — one which still continues today. Five kinds of races, including one for whale boats, drew crowds to the shore of Sydney Harbour. 'It was', the official newspaper, the Sydney Gazette reported, 'a day entirely devoted to pleasure'.