Aboriginal Day of Mourning
January 26 is the day Australians get together and celebrate their nationhood, being ‘Aussie’, and all that, we call it ‘Australia Day’. I suppose it’s somewhat like America’s 4th of July, with one major difference. Unlike the American holiday, which marks the declaration of that nation’s independence, and despite January 1, 1901 being the day Australia became a Federation - Australia’s ‘national day’ is held each year on the anniversary of the day English convicts and settlers first landed at Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788. As you can probably imagine, the choice of this particular date as the one for our major national celebration doesn’t sit all that well with Australia’s Indigenous peoples, who quite rightly, consider it as, ‘invasion day’.
Now, this whole debate surrounding January 26 and Australia Day has been going on for some time. It seems, however, the majority of Australians (and in particular our elected leaders) couldn’t give a ‘rats ass’ about the appropriateness of this date in relation to its implications and meaning within the Indigenous population (Indigenous Australians after all make up only around 2% of the population – so who gives a stuff right?).
So, Indigenous Australians have for many years gone about marking Australia Day in their own fashion. On Australia Day in 1938, the 150 year anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, Aboriginal Australians held a day of protest in Sydney, calling it ‘The Day of Mourning’.
The protests were organised by the Australian Aborigines League (AAL), based in Victoria and led by William Cooper, and the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), based in New South Wales and led by Jack Patten. In 1888, the centenary of British colonisation, Aboriginal leaders had simply boycotted the Australia Day celebrations. These groups had also sent petitions to the Government of Australia and the Government of the United Kingdom, in the early 1930s, for the recognition of Aboriginal civil rights (including Aboriginal representation in the Parliament of Australia), but they had been ignored or dismissed without serious attention, and each had refused to pass the petitions on to King George V. As a result, a more proactive event was planned for the sesquicentenary, which the media and governments could not ignore.
The Day of Mourning march began at the Sydney Town Hall, and concluded with a political meeting open to Aboriginal people only. It attracted many major Aboriginal leaders, including Pearl Gibbs and Margaret Tucker. The protesters had originally intended to hold the Congress in the Sydney Town Hall, but they were refused access, and instead held it at the nearby Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street. They were not allowed in through the front door and were told they could only enter through the rear door. About 1,000 people attended, making it one of the first mass civil rights gatherings. The APA and AAL distributed a manifesto at the meeting, Aborigines Claim Citizens’ Rights, produced by Patten and APA secretary William Ferguson. The manifesto opened with a declaration that “This festival of 150 years’ so-called ‘progress’ in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed on the original native inhabitants by white invaders of this country.”
At the Congress, the following resolution was passed unanimously:
"WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in Conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th anniversary of the whitemen’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen in the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian Nation to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, and for a new policy which will raise our people to FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY."
Day of Mourning protests have been held on Australia Day ever since.