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Happy Australia Day! If you have friends or relatives living ‘Down Under’, chances are they will be celebrating their National Day today, January 26th.

The date marks the anniversary of the arrival in 1778 of the first fleet of British Ships at Port Jackson (now Sydney Harbour) in New South Wales, and the raising of the British flag at Sydney Cove.

Today a visit to Australia could be the holiday of a lifetime; a trip to be keenly anticipated and long remembered. But in the earliest days of British colonisation it was more likely to be a prison sentence – deportation to a harsh land on the far side of the world where daily survival was the only priority.

Nowadays, Australians who can trace their roots back to the convict ships of the late 1700s and early 1800s wear it as a badge of pride. Of course, Australia was populated by its indigenous Aboriginal people for thousands of years before the explorers from the western world stumbled across the vast and remote continent.

The meaning and importance of today’s Australia Day celebration has evolved over time. The earliest celebrations were known as “Anniversary Day” or “Foundation Day”, marking the date when British sovereignty was declared over the eastern seaboard of Australia, then more often known as “New Holland”. It wasn’t until at least a century after the British landed that the first use of “Australia Day” is recorded.

Until 1901 Australia was a loose collection of separate and mainly British colonies, such as Victoria, the Swan River Colony in Western Australia, Queensland and The Northern Territory. The neighbouring island of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) was another colony.

On New Year’s Day in 1901, after a decade of planning, consultation and voting, the British Colonies formed a federation, effectively marking the birth of the modern, unified Australia. Officially it was the Commonwealth of Australia, a dominion of the British Empire, but throughout the 20th century Australia increasingly saw itself as an independent and self-governing nation, breaking away from British rule. This was especially the case leading up to and after the Second World War, when most constitutional links between Australia and the UK were formally ended.

Cultural links, however, remain strong, which is hardly surprising given the large numbers of Brits and Irish who have emigrated to Australia. The majority of Australians can claim English, Scots or Irish ancestry, although immigrants from other nations including China, Greece and Italy have also made their home there in more recent years.  

Australia’s population has quadrupled since 1920, with much of the increase due to immigration, but the country is so vast that it’s population density remains among the lowest in the world. After the Second World War, Australia actively encouraged immigration as it needed workers for its new and booming industries. An “Assisted Passage Migration Scheme” offered Brits and Irish the chance to sail to Australia for a fare of just £10 for adults and free for children. Tens of thousands took up the offer and became “Ten Pound Poms”, hoping to build a better life in a new country.

Today most Australians live in a handful of large and well-developed cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and the capital, Canberra. Australia remains the favourite destination for Britons looking to emigrate abroad.

As Australia’s sense of independence and nationhood developed, so did its desire for a national day of unity and celebration. By the late 1930s all Australian states and territories had adopted the idea of “Australia Day” on January 26th. It became even more important when the nation celebrated its bicentenary in 1988, and since 1994 the date has been consistently marked by a public holiday across the country, giving Australians a chance to celebrate a national day in their summer months.

For many Australians it has become a day when families gather together. Community festivals, concert and sports events are timed to coincide with Australia Day, and it is also a favourite date for citizenship ceremonies, officially welcoming new Australians. The “Australian of the Year” awards are presented on Australia Day Eve, and on the day itself comes the announcement of the Australia Day Honours list, with speeches by the Prime Minister and Governor General.

The date’s connection to the beginnings of British rule is largely forgotten these days as Australians celebrate their nation’s unique identity and considerable achievements. But for some Australians, including members of its indigenous people and those sympathetic to their cause, the date has a darker connotation and is mourned as “Invasion Day”. They argue if Australia is to have a national day, the date should be changed to one which reflects its emergence as an independent nation.

For now though, Australia Day remains on January 26th, so whether you’re throwing another shrimp on the barbie or cracking open a tin of the amber nectar, we wish you a bonzer day! 

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