History of Australia Day


How did Australia get its name?”

It seems such a basic Australian history question but it’s one that people often struggle to answer.

For the record, we can thank explorer Matthew Flinders for the naming of our continent.

Flinders was the first European to circumnavigate the country and produce an accurate map of the entire continent. He completed the map in 1804 while in prison on the island of Mauritius having been captured by the French on his return journey to England.


Across the centre of the map he wrote the word ‘Australia’. Until that point, Australia was known as New Holland and Terra Australis. It was the publication of Flinders’ work which generated the usage of the term Australia. New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie recommended in 1817 that it be formally used and the British Admiralty officially approved the name in 1824.

Flinders’ original 1804 map is therefore Australia’s ‘birth certificate’.


The tradition of having Australia Day as a national holiday on 26 January is a recent one. Not until 1935 did all the Australian states and territories use that name to mark that date. Not until 1994 did they begin to celebrate Australia Day consistently as a public holiday on that date.

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 civilisation, a tradition Macquarie’s successors continued.

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. 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’.

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7 thoughts on “History of Australia Day

  1. As a passive lover of history (that sounds really bad, but what I mean is that I love reading about and listening to history stories), I loved this. Well told. Thank you for this history lesson.
    One of the great things I heard about Australia is that, people are fond of saying it was a prison colony, but the types of criminals that were shipped there weren’t murderers or even thieves because those types of criminals were subject to the death penalty. These were criminals who were considered so for things we wouldn’t even imagine were crimes in the modern context. Any way, Happy Australia Day!

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