Today, 26 January, is “Australia Day”, commemorating the day in 1788 when the British Royal Navy invaded what was wrongly deemed to be a largely uninhabited continent and set up a colony as a dumping ground for Britain’s unwanted convicts. There were thousands of them, and the American Revolutionary War had closed off Britain’s North American colonies as a convict dumping ground. Another possibility was Das Voltas Bay, on the south-west coast of Africa, but the sloop Nautilus which they sent out to check the site’s suitability returned with the news that there was “no bay, river or inlet, but only a step barren rocky shoreline… without… a drop of fresh water or… a tree…” according to Andrew Tink, Lord Sydney’s biographer. It looked as though any convicts sent there would not survive long, and you didn’t want to actually kill your convicts; they were more useful working in the fields. So they tried Australia, the Great South Land.
The first settlement, at Sydney, consisted of about 800 convicts and their Marine guards and officers, led by Governor Arthur Phillip. They arrived at Botany Bay in the “First Fleet” of 9 transport ships accompanied by 2 small warships, in January, 1788, then moved to the more suitable Sydney Cove in Port Jackson (on Sydney Harbour) on January 26. That’s why I am here today, in Sydney, writing this journal entry.
Years ago Margaret Jones, the literary editor of the «Sydney Morning Herald», asked me to write a poem for the front of the paper on a forthcoming Australia Day. “Mention the Harbour,” she said. “A bit of history, a generally positive note, not too long. We can offer a hundred dollars.” How could I refuse? I set to work, and as the day wore on and I revised and revised, my poem “Australia Day” grew uglier and uglier: by dinner time it was full of crooked cops, bent businessmen, tax avoidance schemes, a gangland murder, and lot of cooked prawns. Australians like a good plate of cooked prawns, served chilled, on any public holiday, and Australia Day falls in the middle of Australia’s summer.
“Oh dear,” I thought as I went to bed. “Margaret’s not going to like this.”
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