The story of why Britain filled Australia with criminals in 1788


On January 26 1788, British settlers arrived on Australian shores for the first time and Captain Arthur Phillip’s raised the Union Jack at Sydney Cove.

Now celebrated each year as Australia Day, the anniversary has become an annual opportunity for the country to show its national pride.

More than half of the country’s 21 million inhabitants celebrate it, either by going to an organised event in their community or by meeting up with family and friends on the holiday. It is also a chance for new citizens to celebrate their Australian citizenship.

But why did the British decide to travel to Australia – and how did the country get its name? Here is everything you need to know about the day, including how to celebrate it in London.

The arrival of the First Fleet

On 13 May 1787, 11 ships set sail from England under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. Until recently, British convicts had been sent to the Thirteen Colonies on the east coast of North America. But following the American War of Independence, the newly created United States of America refused to take criminals from the United Kingdom.

And so, in 1785 plans were put in place for convicts to be sent to the land claimed by British explorer James Cook five years earlier: New South Wales in Australia. Philips was tasked with setting up a the first penal colonies on this new land, with Botany Bay the destination and site in mind.

Seven months later, the fleet arrived between January 18 and 20 1788. Philips decided that Botany Bay was unsuitable for the colony and tasked his officers with finding somewhere else to set up camp.

On January 21 the group landed at 7.5 miles north; Philip names the area Sydney Cover after the Home Secretary, the 1st Viscount Sydney. Two days later the group returned to Botany Bay and attempted to move the fleet to the new site – however, several days of gales made initially made the move impossible.

The ships struggled to leave the bay: the Lady Penrhyn almost ran aground, the Charlotte and the Friendship collided, and the Friendship and the Prince of Wales lost booms and sails after colliding.

The ships finally reached Sydney Cove on January 26 and formally established the Colony of New South Wales on February 7.

By 1808, convicts who had been pardoned – known as emancipated convicts – were celebrating the anniversary of their arrival with dinner, drinking and toasts.

The first official celebration took place in 1818 on the 30th anniversary of their arrival, with Governor Lachlan Macquarie naming the day a national holiday, called Foundation Day. While Australians celebrated the day every year for the following centuries, it wasn’t until 1994 that all territories and states celebrated the public holiday on the same day for the first time.

The backlash against the holiday

In 1938, a Day of Mourning was held by Aboriginal Australians in protest against the holiday, 150 years after the British first landed on Sydney Cove. Fifty years earlier, Aboriginal leaders had boycotted celebrations; however on the sesquicentenary they decided they needed to do more to attract the attention of the media.

Prime Minister Joseph Lyons met with the leaders on January 25, before the protesters marched through Sydney on the anniversary itself. Since then, protests have been held almost every year on Australia Day, with some events going under the name Invasion Day and Survival Day.

In 2016, the City of Yarra council in Melbourne voted to no longer refer to January 26 as Australia Day and announced it would no longer hold citizenship ceremonies on that day; the City of Darebin soon followed suit.

This year, the tension surrounding the national day has heightened, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball insisting opposotition leader Bill Shorten issue a passionate defence of Australia Day.

Labor frontbencher Linda Burney, the first indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives, has even called for celebrations for the Queen’s Birthday to be replaced with a national holiday to celebrate Australia’s indigenous heritage.

How did Australia get its name?

From the 2nd century, Europeans referred to the vast expanse of land in the southern hemisphere as the ‘unknown southern land’ – or, in Latin, ‘terra australis incognita’.

In 1644, the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman used the name ‘New Holland’ to refer to the land. Although the Dutch made expeditions to the land many times over the following centuries, they never claimed any territory there, assuming that the lack of fertile soil would make it impossible to colonise.

When British explorer James Cook claimed Australia’s east coast in 1770, he originally named it New Wales, before renaming it New South Wales.

It was Matthew Flinders, the British navigator who officially identified Australia as a continent, who suggested a return to the Latin name. In 1804, he referred to the land as Australia in a chart he created while held captive by the French in Mauritius.

However the name was met with disapproval back home. On his return to England, he published a book on his travels in 1814; the book was even renamed ‘A Voyage to Terra Australis’ without his consent. In it, he discussed his reasons for the name:

‘There is no probability, that any other detached body of land, of nearly equal extent, will ever be found in a more southern latitude; the name Terra Australis will, therefore, remain descriptive of the geographical importance of this country, and of its situation on the globe.

‘…Had I permitted myself any innovation upon the original term, it would have been to convert it into Australia; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.’

Ten years after Flinders’ death, the name was officially accepted by the British Admiralty in 1824.