Australia Day or Invasion Day? A Guide to the Fraught Legacy of Australia’s National Holiday

A man holds the Aboriginal flag as people gather at a rally in Sydney, Australia. Photo Courtesy: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Each year on January 26, Australia celebrates what’s meant to be a national holiday known as Australia Day. Similar to Columbus Day in the U.S., the date is meant to commemorate the first contact between European colonizers and Australia’s Indigenous groups.

But much like Columbus Day and even Thanksgiving, the holiday has different implications for the country’s First Peoples. For many Indigenous groups, Australia Day is a day of mourning — and it’s taking on new meaning as Invasion Day, which recognizes the traumas experienced by the people who’ve historically been impacted most by Australia’s colonization.

January 26, 1788: The Origins of Australian Colonization

In 1786, the British government decided to form a penal colony in Australia in what was then known as New South Wales. It appointed Captain Arthur Phillip to oversee the task, with the goal of establishing an agricultural labor camp. Unsure what to expect from the voyage, Captain Phillip eventually assembled a fleet of 11 ships, called the First Fleet, that carried around 1,000 colonists — over 700 of whom were British convicts. 

After an eight-month journey, the First Fleet docked in the harbors of an area called Port Jackson on January 26, 1788. Much like the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, however, it wouldn’t take long for the new arrivals to realize that establishing a new colony wouldn’t go the way they anticipated. 

Faced with an unfamiliar climate and uncooperative soil, the colonists struggled; very few of those sent to work in the new agricultural area were actually experienced farmers. Nonetheless, Captain Phillip eventually returned to England in 1792 after the colony was able to establish a permanent settlement. 

The “founding” of Australia at Sydney Cove. Photo Courtesy: Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images

Historian Manning Clark noted that by 1808 the colonists were beginning to embrace January 26 as the “anniversary of the foundation of the colony,” which they celebrated with “drinking and merriment.” The first semi-official version of the holiday was held by the colony’s politicians in 1818 to mark the colony’s 30th anniversary on what was then known as Foundation Day.

In 1836, by which time the holiday had been rebranded as Anniversary Day, the first Anniversary Regatta sailing race was held. The regatta proved to be so popular that it became an annual January 26 tradition that still takes place to this day, though it’s currently known as the Australia Day Regatta

When the colony hit its 50th-anniversary mark in 1838, the first official public anniversary celebrations took place. They were followed by similar celebrations in years that marked major milestones in the history of the country’s colonization, such as 1888, 1938 and 1988. Australia Day didn’t become an official annual holiday until 1988, and it wasn’t until 1994 that it was agreed the official celebration would take place each year on January 26. 

Australia Has a Long-Overlooked Indigenous History

An Indigenous Australian family on the Tweed River, New South Wales, Australia, circa 1880. Photo Courtesy: P.C. Poulsen/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While many historians have cited 1788 as the year of Australia’s founding, this is only true through the lens of a European perspective. In reality, the country’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups had settled the land more than 60,000 years before the first white settlers ever set foot on its shores. 

Much like Indigenous groups in America, these First Peoples used their deep knowledge of the land to establish thriving villages, fisheries and farms. So thorough was their connection to the areas they lived in that their workdays were limited to around four or five hours, with plenty of time left over to contribute to the continuing development of complex spiritual practices and other culturally important ways of life. 

By the time Captain Phillip arrived in 1788, it’s estimated that Australia was already inhabited by over 750,000 Indigenous people from over 400 unique nations. For many of these First Peoples, January 26, 1788, would mark the beginning of the end of their way of life. 

Invasion Day Reflects the True History of Australia Day

Koomurri dancers perform at the WugulOra Morning Ceremony at Walumil Lawns, Barangaroo Reserve on January 26, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. Many Indigenous Australians refer to this date as Invasion Day, and there is growing support to change the date to one that all Australians can celebrate. Photo Courtesy: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

The arrival of the colonists quickly proved devastating for the Indigenous groups who had spent thousands of years isolated from European diseases such as influenza, smallpox and syphilis. In fewer than six months, over half of the Indigenous population of the Sydney Basin in New South Wales is estimated to have died due to smallpox

Coupled with the lethal mix of European weapons and prejudice, the theft of Indigenous land was all too easy for the white colonists. In 1845, Bishop Polding, the first Roman Catholic bishop in Australia, recorded his disturbance at overhearing “a man, educated, and a large proprietor of sheep and cattle, maintain that there was no more harm in shooting a native, than in shooting a wild dog.”

Due to these and other examples of colonizer brutality, celebrating what it means to be Australian on January 26 is incomprehensible to many Indigenous Australians. As Torres Strait Islander Nakkiah Lui explains, “…I refuse to celebrate, and every Australia Day my heart is broken as I am reminded that in the eyes of many, I am not welcome on my own land.”  

Some First Peoples now recognize January 26 as a day of collective grieving that they prefer to call Invasion Day or Day of Mourning. Others choose to celebrate it as Survival Day and use the date as a time to commemorate the survival of their culture despite impossible odds. Survival Day often includes a showcase of First Peoples artists, musicians and others who continue to uplift their cultures. 

Activists Push for Changes to Australia Day

Activists participate in an Invasion Day rally in Sydney, Australia, on Wednesday, January 26, 2022. Photo Courtesy: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The National Australia Day Council describes Australia Day as “the day to reflect on what it means to be Australian, to celebrate contemporary Australia and to acknowledge our history.” As Lui points out, however, “Most people just want a day to celebrate the place that they call home, to be part of a community, and to guide Australia into the future. I am one of these people, so why can’t we celebrate this on a day that includes all Australians? Surely there must be another historically significant date that can be trumped up to include every person in this country.”

To many native Australians, turning January 26 into a national celebration is offensive and traumatic. Several movements have sprung up among Indigenous groups, including the “Change the Date” movement, which seeks to assign Australia Day a more appropriate date of the celebration, and “Abolish the Date,” which seeks to eliminate it altogether. While the future of Australia Day remains controversial and unknown, the need for cultural communication and healing is obvious.