As Woolworths and other retail outlets decide to reduce Australia Day merchandise offered for sale it might be time to examine why this particular date is important and whether our celebrations reflect the significance of the date.
A common mistake is to believe the date relates to the voyage of Captain James Cook as he explored the east coast of Australia.
Cook’s remarkable voyage of exploration took place in 1770 but was significant as he reported favourably on the island continent that had remained relatively unknown to Europeans to that point.
As terrible social conditions in Britain during the 18th century resulted in high crime rates, British gaols were overflowing.
The government decided to transport many prisoners to the other side of the world in an attempt to solve the problem.
Cook’s favourable report was the catalyst for choosing the Australian continent as the site for a convict settlement or as some might say, a dumping ground for unwanted prisoners.
British settlement began on 26th January 1788 as the First Fleet of eleven ships carrying about 700 convicts and 550 soldiers, government officials with only a few wives and children disembarked.
Every person of that First Fleet believed they would be back in Britain within just a few years.
Of the convicts very few ever returned to Britain once they received their Ticket of Leave as the price of ship travel was well beyond their finances.
It could be said the convicts were dispossessed of their homeland.
The task confronting every person on that First Fleet was enormous and totally overwhelming as they confronted a harsh environment with little knowledge of how to survive or possibility of outside help.
The unwanted of Britain were sent to the other side of the earth with very little concern as to whether they perished or not.
But survive they did.
The vast majority of convicts were guilty of mostly petty crimes such as Joseph Buckley who, at 38 years of age, stole a purse containing 40 shillings and received a sentence of transportation for seven years and was described by his guards as “tolerably decent and orderly”.
Margaret Bunn was a servant and 26 years of age when she disembarked the First Fleet having been convicted of stealing one linen handkerchief and a purse with one shilling.
She married another convict, Thomas McLean, on 18th March 1788 but he left her when his sentence finished in 1791 and she died in the colony in 1825 aged 63 years.
Mostly the convicts were not hardened criminals but were forced to commit petty crimes in order to survive.
Their survival instincts were to serve them well in this new inhospitable land.
The convicts built the colony and worked the farms during the early days.
Australians need to know their stories to understand why 26th January is so relevant to Australia Day.
We should be proud of their survival and how from such a poor beginning a great nation evolved.
Is the convict story one that should be highlighted more in our national day of celebration so all Australians understand why the date is so significant?
This article appeared in the Allora Advertiser, 24 January 2024.