Monday, 6 February 2017

Would Governor Phillip have wanted 7 February for ‘Australia Day’?

This year there were some protests about 26 January as Australia Day. 

A chant on the streets was ‘Change the day’ and some of the commentaries suggested that ‘any other day’ would be better. 

Advocates for a date change are unlikely to be successful unless an alternative is proposed. There are a number of possibilities, each with pros and cons.

What might the first Governor of the Colony of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip, have suggested?

26 of January was not a public holiday until its thirtieth anniversary in 1818, when it was as much a remembrance of Governor Phillip himself, who had died only three and a half years before.

In the evening of the 26 January 1788, the ‘British colours’ were displayed on shore at Sydney Cove. Governor Phillip, with a few officers and others, assembled round the flag, drank to the king's health, and success to the settlement. This was done ‘with all that display of form which on such occasions is esteemed propitious, because it enlivens the spirits, and fills the imagination with pleasing presages.’


None of the people there gave the event much lasting importance, except perhaps for Lieutenant Johnson who liked to remind people that he was the first person ashore. The majority of the people in the fleet weren’t there; they remained where they had been for the previous eight months: on board the 11 ships of the fleet.

Some male convicts disembarked the next day to help establish the settlement and offload supplies. The process continued for several days. Female convicts and the sick were the last to come ashore on 6 February, by which time a tent hospital had been established and an area cleared to enable the group of about 1300 to be assembled.

The first official ceremony at Sydney Cove

The first official ceremony occurred on the 7 February 1788. The whole colony assembled with some formality around the Governor. The Royal Commission was then read by Lieutenant David Collins, the Judge Advocate. Arthur Phillip was officially appointed Governor of New South Wales. The territory for the Colony covered most of what we now know as Australia, except for what became Western Australia.

This was later called a ‘memorable day which established a regular form of Government on the coast of New South Wales’.  Sounds like a better date for an official annual event than 26 January already.

There is no record that any indigenous people were present. But after a couple of weeks of noisy tree cutting, the emergence of strange domestic animals, the smell of fires and unfamiliar cooking, together with the general noise which would have occurred, they can’t have failed to notice or keep watch. One can imagine them looking on at the proclamation ceremonies with amusement. Later reports indicate that many had been concerned about what these strange beings were.

While it is true that neither 26 January or 7 February were thought of as ‘Australia Day’, 7 February probably meant more to Philip. Apart from being the day he took office, it was also the opportunity for the expression of high hopes and the worthy intentions. Something worth celebrating. 

His instructions were quite clear. Amongst them, he was to ‘endeavour by every possible means to open an intercourse with the natives and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all [the King’s] subjects to live in amity and kindness with them.’

Whatever problems occurred later (and there were many), the stated formal aim of the colony and the personal wish of Phillip was to establish the best possible relations with the local inhabitants and to punish those members of the Colony who ‘wantonly destroy them, or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations’.

Phillip himself was at the end of an adventurous career and had nothing to prove. He was apparently a man of deep faith and strong ideals; he saw the potential for the Colony to become a vibrant new nation when most others did not. 

It is a pity that Phillip has been overshadowed historically by Cook, Nelson, and Washington, perhaps because he did not exude the same sense of his own place in history. Interestingly, the original of Phillip’s formal ‘Instructions’ in founding the Colony have been lost, but fortunately, a draft survived.

It is no surprise that, unlike the initial flag raising and toast of 26 January, all records from the First Fleet mention the ceremony on 7 February 1788

This is as Phillip would have wanted. 

Arthur Phillip has a think.

Read also: Australia Day: when would you like it?

Australia Day or Rum Rebellion Remembrance Day?