Jan 262014


Today is Australia Day, the official national day of Australia.  26 January marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British Ships at Sydney Cove, New South Wales, and raising of the flag of Great Britain at that site by Governor Arthur Phillip (see 13 May). In contemporary Australia, celebrations are marked by community and family events, reflections on Australian history, official community awards, and citizenship ceremonies welcoming new immigrants into the Australian community.


The meaning and significance of Australia Day have evolved over time. Unofficially, or historically, the date has also been variously named “Anniversary Day,” “Invasion Day,” “Foundation Day,” and “ANA (Australian Natives’ Association) Day.” 26 January 1788 marked the proclamation of British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of Australia (then known as New Holland), rather than the simple arrival of the First Fleet, which had arrived in several stages at Botany Bay based on advice from Captain Cook. Finding the location unsuitable for a colony, the fleet moved as a unit to Sydney Cove where they claimed the land.


The First Fleet encountered indigenous Australians when they landed at Botany Bay. The Cadigal people of the Botany Bay area witnessed the Fleet arrive. When the fleet moved to Sydney Cove they encountered the Eora people, including the Bidjigal clan. A number of the First Fleet journals record encounters with Aboriginal people. Although the official policy of the British Government was to establish friendly relations with Aboriginal people and governor Arthur Phillip ordered that the Aboriginal people should be well treated, it was not long before conflict began. The colonists did not understand Aboriginal society and its relationship with the land, and the Aboriginal people did not understand the British practices of farming and land ownership. Furthermore, the colonists did not sign treaties with the original inhabitants of the land. Between 1790 and 1810, Pemulwuy of the Bidjigal clan led the local people in a series of attacks against the British colonizers.

At the time, Australia was the only continent in the world where the indigenous peoples were exclusively foragers (hunter/gatherers) with no domesticated plants or animals.  Foragers worldwide (even to this day) have no intrinsic interest in land ownership. They are often seasonally nomadic, following resources as the seasons change.  They do have notions of land rights (for hunting, water, etc), but not of ownership.  So when the British settlers claimed the land as their own and excluded the aboriginal people from land they had rights over – and because no treaties were signed – conflict was inevitable.  There was an inherent arrogance and ignorance on the part of the British in assuming that because the aborigines did not have a legal system that they could recognize, treaties were unnecessary.  To this day indigenous peoples are contesting the legality of seizure of their land without treaty, with some measure of success (see Mabo Day, 3 June).

Although it was not known as Australia Day until over a century later, records of celebrations on 26 January date back to 1808, with the first official celebration of the formation of New South Wales held in 1818. On New Year’s Day 1901, the British colonies of Australia formed a Federation, marking the birth of modern Australia. But there was no national day of unity and celebration following Federation. It was not until 1935 that all Australian states and territories had adopted use of the term “Australia Day” to mark the date, and not until 1994 that the date was consistently marked by a public holiday on that day by all states and territories.

In contemporary Australia, the holiday is formally celebrated by the presentation of the Australian of the Year Awards on Australia Day Eve, announcement of the Australia Day Honours list, and speeches from the Governor-General and Prime Minister. It is an official public holiday in every state and territory of Australia, unless it falls on a weekend in which case the following Monday is a public holiday instead. The day is celebrated in large and small communities and cities around the nation with community festivals, concerts, and citizenship ceremonies. Australia Day has become the biggest annual civic event in Australia.


For some Australians, particularly indigenous Australians, Australia Day has become a symbol for adverse effects of British settlement on Australia’s indigenous people. The celebrations in 1938 were accompanied by an Aboriginal Day of Mourning. A large gathering of Aboriginal people in Sydney in 1988 led an “Invasion Day” commemoration marking the loss of indigenous culture. The anniversary is also known as “Survival Day” and marked by events such as the Survival Day concert first held in Sydney in 1992, celebrating the fact that the indigenous people and cultures have not been completely wiped out.

In response, official celebrations have tried to include indigenous people, holding ceremonies such as the Woggan-ma-gule ceremony, which was held in Sydney in 2006 and honored the past and celebrated the present; it involved indigenous Australians in tandem with the Governor of New South Wales.

“Invasion Day” has been widely used to describe the alternative indigenous observance of Australia Day. Although some indigenous Australians celebrate Australia Day, Invasion Day protests occur almost every year. In January 1988, various indigenous people of Australia made a concerted effort to promote an awareness among other Australians of their presence, their needs and their desire that there should be communication, reconciliation and co-operation over the land rights issues. To this end, during January they set up a highly visible Tent Embassy at a shore side location at a point called Mrs Macquarie’s Chair adjacent to the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens. The embassy, consisting of several large marquees and smaller tents, was manned by a group of Aboriginal people from Eveleigh Street, Redfern, and was organized with the co-operation of the local council’s department of parks and gardens. It became a gathering place for Aboriginal people from all over Sydney. One of the aims of the embassy was to be seen by the many thousands of Sydneysiders whom the organizers claimed did not know, and rarely even saw, any Aboriginal people.


There is no truly Australian cuisine to speak of although there are a few iconic dishes.  The pavlova, named for the prima ballerina Anna Pavlova in honor of a visit in the 1920’s, is perhaps the most well known Australian dish (although New Zealand claims to be the birthplace).  It is a meringue pie shell filled with fresh fruit and topped with cream. Never could get enough of it.


Lamingtons are also more or less universal.  They are cubes of cake coated in chocolate and rolled in coconut. Very popular for picnics and church suppers.


In South Australia the state dish is a pie floater (usually just called a “floater”), which has also found a place in Sydney and a few other spots.  This is a meat pie floating in pea soup and doused with ketchup.  They are commonly bought from pie carts in the streets of Adelaide, although I gather these are rapidly dying out.

That pretty much sums up Australian “cuisine” – and I guarantee you’ll see many pavlovas and lamingtons at Australia Day parties (usually barbecues).  There is, however, a less common tradition which in some ways I think of as being more truly Aussie, and which unites both Euro-Australians and Aborigines: bush tucker.  “Bush” is Australian for “open country,” and “tucker” is “food.” So, bush tucker is food you cook out in the open, possibly made of hunted or foraged ingredients. Obviously this is the way Aborigines cooked for millennia, but the methods have been adopted by Europeans living in the open.  When I was in the Boy Scouts in South Australia one of the chief principles of camping was learning how to cook bush tucker – essentially using an open fire as the sole cooking method, and producing certain standard foods.  Chief of these is the damper – a bread cooked in hot coals.  Europeans use a heavy camp oven of cast iron; Aborigines cook the damper directly in the coals without utensils.




4 cups self-raising flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups milk
butter, for greasing
extra flour


Sift the flour and salt into a bowl and make a well in the middle.

Pour in the milk and mix.

Grease a camp oven and dust with flour.

Place the dough in the camp oven.

Cut a cross in the top surface of dough.

Bake in the hot ashes of a camp fire for about thirty minutes. You can test the damper by pressing on the top.  It should be springy when it is done.


There is a variant known as a twist which I had to produce one summer in Boy Scout camp as part of my test for the cook’s badge (yup, at 12 years old I was an aspiring cook).  You take the damper dough and roll it into a rope which you then wrap around a green stick and slowly grill over hot coals.

For more on bush tucker I strongly recommend this website. http://bushtuckerrecipes.com/bush_food/  It has a good listing and descriptions of indigenous edible plants and animals, such as witchetty grubs, yabbies, bloodwood apples, and honey ants that are staples of bush tucker and have been so for centuries.