In 2022, the 26th of January falls on a Wednesday. When the First Fleet sailed into Port Jackson 234 years ago, fell on a Saturday. No-one was resting. Charles Darwin visited the colony in 1836 and was struck by its dynamism. Like being home, on the other side of the world.
The mighty task of building the colony was about to begin; much had already been accomplished. The scale of the First Fleet’s achievement dwarfed previous European settlement treks. The Ancient Greeks would row and sail to places around the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts. Epic journeys for sure, given the primitive ships of the time, though the difficulty was reduced by knowledge of the destinations already known through exploration and trading missions. By contrast, the coast near what would become Sydney had been sighted once and charted, by Captain James Cook in 1770.
The voyages of the original Aboriginal settlers, of the Torres Strait Islanders to Queensland, of the Dutch to the African cape, and of the Portuguese and Spanish to the Americas were also dwarfed by the distance covered by the First Fleet, though admittedly aided by more advanced technology.
Australian school children should be taught about this amazing feat – a colony established on the other side of the globe. A future Mars colony will put a comparable strain on the crew, on technology, and on resources.
A unique aspect of British exploration and colonisation of Australia was its scientific origins. The Ancient Greeks predicted the existence of a great southern continent, based on their theory that land masses must be in balance. True or not, the theory was scientific in spirit and fortuitous in outcome. Indeed, Cook was charged with searching for the southern continent, whose future name was prefixed “Austral”, from the Latin “australis”, meaning southern.
Science is a distinguishing feature of the European tradition, as attested by the Canadian sociologist Ricardo Duchesne in his monograph, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (2011). Not only were Australia’s European discoverers spurred in part by a scientific hypothesis, in the case of Cook this was but one of other scientific quests, astronomical and botanical. The globe-spanning voyage of discovery was supported by the nation that had established the first scientific society – the Royal Society.
The extraordinary achievements of Australia’s British and other European explorers and pioneers should be remembered and respected, the more so at a time of cultural revolution, when atavistic mobs inspired by tax-payer funded intellectuals tear down or deface memorials to our British forebears.
School children should also learn that the British were also at that time the most technologically advanced culture in history, in the process of creating the first industrial revolution, one that would transform the world. The leaders of the expedition were self conscious of their prowess. Captain Arthur Phillip’s orders from the Admiralty included the direction to treat the natives gently, a duty he took seriously even when speared through the shoulder. He was aware of the need for restraint, that there was a great asymmetry between the British and the indigenous cultures. The latter had been isolated from the rest of the world for millennia. That asymmetry is illustrated by historian Geoffrey Blainey who explains that the meeting of the British and Aborigines brought together a culture that had just invented the first steam engine and one that did not know how to boil water. British gallantry was born in Medieval jousts. It was imbued with ingrained Christian values, and a political culture that had pioneered constitutional democracy and was soon to invent liberalism.
Australia Day is the most important day on the calendar for Anglos because it marks their arrival on the continent. The many benefits bestowed on all of us by the nation they created mean that Australians of all backgrounds should rejoice on the 26th January.
Frank Salter, BAC President