Australia Day… Invasion Day… Survival Day…What is it and what does it mean?

As an international student studying in Australia, you might wonder what Australia Day is and what it means for Indigenous Australians as well as Australian migrants. We’re here to give you an overview you’ll understand.

Aboriginal Man Protesting Aboriginal Rights On Australia Day
Instagram | @bl_snaps

Whether you’ve studied the subject at University or you’re doing your own research, it’s important to find out the history behind Australia Day.

January 26 every year is the official ‘Australia Day’ – a national holiday in honour of the arrival of the First Fleet from Great Britain in 1788 and the beginning of the convict colony in ‘New South Wales’. But many Indigenous Australians, and some non-Indigenous Australians, call January 26 ‘Invasion Day’ as they consider it to be the date of the beginning  of the British invasion and occupation of their land, and it marks the beginning of the destruction of their culture, and other bad effects of British settlement and control. It is also called ‘Survival Day’ or ‘Day of Mourning and sorrow’ or ‘Aboriginal Sovereignty Day’ by Indigenous people.

What happened on ‘Australia Day’?

On January 26, 1788, ships carrying convicts arrived from Britain into a cove where Sydney is now built, and the British flag was raised to mark the beginning of the convict colony in New South Wales.

This date became known as ‘First Landing Day’ or ‘Foundation Day’ by many white settlers to the continent, which had been home to Aborigines for about 60,000 years.  

In 1901 the colonies (States) on the continent joined together to officially form a nation – the Commonwealth of Australia. By 1935 January 26 was being celebrated nationally as Australia Day – but always on a Monday, making a long (3-day) holiday weekend. 

There were major 200-year anniversary celebrations on January 26, 1988, and in 1994 it became official that Australia Day’ is now held every year, exactly on January 26.

Nowadays, many people choose Australia Day as the day they officially get their Australian citizenship. But some local councils now choose to have citizenship ceremonies on other dates, because they feel that to do this on January 26 is offensive and disrespectful to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders – the First Australians. 

The National Australia Day Council, which coordinates events on January 26, says January 26 has long been a “difficult symbol “for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who see it as a day of “sorrow and mourning” or use it to mark the survival of their “ongoing traditions and cultures”. The Council says it is important these views are respected.  

Uluru in Northern Territory Aboriginal Land

Why do some people call January 26 Invasion Day?

Indigenous Australians – Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders – call January 26 ‘Invasion Day’ because it is the date the first British colony was formed – the day their lands were invaded, they began to be dispossessed of the land and it became occupied by the British settlers. 

‘Invasion Day’ concerts and other events on January 26 began to happen in 1988, the 200-year anniversary of the start of the colony. Nowadays, Invasion Day events are held around Australia and include protests rejecting the celebration of Australia Day on this date. 

Many Aborigines feel offended, saddened and angry that Australia’s national day is the day that the land they owned was “invaded”. 

So what is Survival Day?

Many Indigenous Australians also call January 26 ‘Survival Day’. They recognise and celebrate their survival and the survival of their culture, despite the white settlement of Australia, the invading of their lands, and the bad treatment and discrimination they have suffered. They hold events on January 26 to celebrate their culture and Indigenous achievements, and hold concerts with Indigenous musicians. 

On Survival Day, Indigenous people show pride in their culture, which is 60,000 years old. The world’s oldest surviving culture.  

For some, January 26 is a day of mourning

Many Aborigines also consider January 26 to be a day of mourning because to them the day marks the beginning of:

  • Dispossession – many of their people losing or being taken from the land they had owned for thousands of years. As well as their families and culture
  • the exploitation, abuse and other mistreatment by white people and the suffering caused by government policies and discrimination 
  • the destruction of Aboriginal communities, including by disease and epidemics 
  • disappearance of Aboriginal languages
  • the ‘Frontier Wars’ – fighting between white settlers and Aborigines – which happened over a period of about 150 years, up until 1928. It included massacres of Indigenous people and rape and murder by white people.  

In 1888 – the centenary of the beginning of the colony in NSW – Henry Parkes, the then-Premier of NSW – was asked if anything was being planned for Aboriginal people on the January 26 celebrations. He said: “And remind them that we have robbed them?” 

One Aboriginal actor who refuses to celebrate on January 26 says: “We mourn the declaration of Australia as terra nullius (land that belongs to no one) as well as those who have died in massacres, those who were dispossessed of their land and homes, those were denied their humanity, those who were shackled, beaten, sent to prison camps, and made to live in reserves.”

“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”.

Always Was Always Will Be Aboriginal Graffiti

Aboriginal Sovereignty Day 

Aboriginal Sovereignty Day is a name given by some people to January 26, because it is a day on which Aborigines call for social justice for Indigenous Australians, including the right for recognition of sovereign ‘Aboriginal nations’ and also proper recognition as the First Australians.

Nowadays, the campaign for sovereignty includes a campaign for:

  • A formal treaty between Indigenous Australians and governments 
  • Formal recognition in the Australian Constitution  
  • A governmental Indigenous representation body in government. in government

Should we change the date of Australia Day? 

The National Australia Day Council says the marking of January 26 has changed over time is now “a celebration of Australia that reflects the nation’s diverse people”. Many Australians believe it is fine to have Australia Day on January 26. 

But many others want the date of Australia Day changed to when all Australians can celebrate a National Day on a day which does not offend, sadden or anger Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. They see January 26 as the date which marks the start of a long series of events (over 230 years) which were cruel and disastrous for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. 

In a survey held in 2017 

  • 49 per cent of said Australia Day should not be on a day that is offensive to Aboriginal people. 
  • Only 38% knew the historical event that occurred on 26 January 1788.
  • 56% of people surveyed said that they don’t mind when Australia Day is held, as long as Australians have a day to celebrate being a nation.

For many Australians there is now a racial element to the celebration of Australia Day, particularly on January 26. To some it is a symbol of dominance and power of white culture over other cultures, including Indigenous culture. One Aboriginal leader believes Australia celebrates “the coming of one race at the expense of another” on January 26, and says Australia is the only country that believes the arrival of Europeans on its shores is so significant that it should be the official national day. 

Some Australians believe a more appropriate day to celebrate Australia Day would be 1 January. The reason? Because on that date in 1901, Australia officially became a nation. The six Australian colonies were officially joined together (by a British Act of Parliament) to form the Commonwealth of Australia.

There are many conversations to be had around the subject of Australia Day and what it truly represents. The journey is one that is an important topic for many Australians. It’s important that whilst living here, you make the effort to learn more about Australia’s history and culture.