On this day: The origins of January 26

By Lydia Hales | January 24, 2014

What are the origins of January 26, and should it be our national day?

ON 25 JANUARY 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip and the crew of the Supply first anchored off Sydney Cove, a small bay inside Port Jackson that is today’s ferry hub at Circular Quay. The rest of the First Fleet remained bobbing in Botany Bay having arrived there on 18 January, a week before, and would follow the Supply into the cove the next day.

The Supply had set out after the officers of Fleet had agreed that Botany Bay was less than ideal for a large settlement: it had a limited supply of fresh water and little protection from the winds for anchored ships.

In contrast Sydney Cove seemed luxurious. An officer on board later wrote that it was considered “a port superior, in extent and excellency, to all we had seen before”.

26 January origins

It was an uncommonly fine evening on 26 January 1788 when the crew of the Supply gathered to toast the King, the Royal Family and the success of the colony, hoisting a banner up a newly planted flag pole.

Rob Mundle, author of Cook: from Sailor to Legend, suggests this flag would actually have been the old Union Jack or Queen Anne flag rather than the darker, newer Union Jack commonly depicted in paintings and historical accounts of the day.

Australia thus celebrates the arrival of the British on the 26 January with a public holiday. It’s a day that raises debate over its interpretation from a number or angles, and has been dubbed Invasion Day by some.  

Australia Day – is it the right date?

In addition the date of Australia Day sometimes raises brows. Indeed, in the History of New South Wales from the Records it’s noted that Arthur Phillip makes no mention in his report to England of the ceremony on 26 January 1788. And, it wasn’t until 7 February that the whole colony was formally assembled in Port Jackson, and Arthur Phillip was appointed Governor.

The next significant record of the 26 January was three years later, when a flag was raised in recognition of the first ceremony. The day later became an occasion for anniversary dinners, held by those arrivals who had thrived in the new land after either serving their sentences or being pardoned.

It was made a public holiday in 1818 by Governor Macquarie, and thirty guns were fired over the harbour to represent each year since the colony was established.