Today is Australia Day, which commemorates the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove on January 26 1788. The date was first celebrated by emancipated convicts and their families, who had grown to love their new land, and identified themselves as Australian rather than British. It was the popular Governor Lachlan Macquarie who first declared it an official holiday in New South Wales.
When you think about it, it’s a funny date to choose for our national public holiday, because the landing of the First Fleet wasn’t the foundation of Australia, or even the foundation of Sydney or New South Wales (which took place on February 7 1788). It would be more logical to celebrate Federation Day, the day in 1901 when all the colonies were united, and we were given the right to self-govern – our Independence Day, in fact.
Unfortunately, the worthy bureaucrats who helped forge us into one nation chose the most bureaucratically sensible day to begin our independence – January 1. Apparently they never thought we might have something else to celebrate on that date: a little thing called New Year’s Day. Despite other days being suggested, in the end we stuck with January 26, and by 1935, it had been called Australia Day, was accepted by all states, and been made a national public holiday. It’s the biggest celebration in Australia, and one which hopefully should bring us all closer together.
There’s lots of ways to celebrate Australia Day. There’s fireworks, concerts, thong throwing, sausage sizzles, sporting events, beach picnics, face painting, flags, and citizenship ceremonies.
Another way to celebrate the day is to name your new baby Australia. Occasionally you do hear of someone naming their child Australia, and it could be a way to honour your nation for a child born on or near Australia Day. From the records, most Australias seem to be female, although not exclusively; as a middle name it’s more evenly divided between the sexes, but still leans toward the feminine.
Even before anyone knew Australia existed, there was Terra Australis Incognita (Latin for “unknown southern land”). The ancients hypothesised that there must be a land mass in the south to balance all the land in the north. This idea persisted into the Renaissance, and it began showing up on maps as Terra Australis or Australia, even though it was fictitious. Travellers’ tales of actually reaching this land, or at least seeing it in the distance or hearing about it down the pub, resulted in the British government ordering Captain James Cook to investigate.
It was discovered that this mammoth land-mass, envisaged as stretching from South America and including Antarctica, just didn’t exist. There were lots of small countries and islands, and there was Australia, which is biggish, but by no means a great super-continent covering most of the southern hemisphere. Being the biggest thing they managed to find, it was decided the place we live now must be Terra Australis, or at least be given the name of that legendary land.
It was explorer Matthew Flinders who pushed for the name Australia as early as 1804, and in his charts, notes that the sound of Australia “is more agreeable to the ear”. The term gradually caught on, and once again the enlightened Lachlan Macquarie stepped in, and recommended that the name be formally adopted, which the British Admiralty agreed to in 1824. (You can see why the name Lachlan has prospered).
Australia is probably the most patriotic name you could choose, and it certainly makes a statement. It’s a part of history – not just our history, but world history and ancient history. It was chosen by Lachlan Macquarie and judged aurally pleasing by Matthew Flinders. It has classical etymology, and it’s a name for a nation that rose out of legend.
We call our children after other countries and regions – why not after our own? You could do worse.