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. It wasn’t until 1994 that it was accepted by all state and been made a national public holiday.
It’s the biggest celebration in Australia, but is also a controversial one, as it is a celebration of European arrival in Australia – a narrative which ignores our Indigenous history and culture. Let’s hope we can find a way to make Australia Day a holiday to bring us all together and include all Australians.
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 has been occasionally used as a personal name since the 19th century, and has been nearly always given to girls – as a middle name it is more gender-flexible. It is very rarely given to babies today, even in the middle.
In Australia the name would have been bestowed for patriotic reasons, while in other nations it is not possible to be certain that the name had anything to do with the country at all. In Latin America, for example, the name could have been given simply from the Spanish or Portuguese for “southern”, while in the US it could have at least sometimes been from the Latin for “south”.
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.