Walk along Circular Quay in Sydney, off Alfred Street, into little Luftus Street beside historic Customs House, and you’ll be standing among the spirits of the founders of modern Australia. Commuters park their cars beside a hugely significant site without raising an eyebrow. It’s the place where Captain Arthur Phillip first raised the British flag and toasted King George III on that original Australia Day on the 26th of January 1788. He’d just landed to establish a colony on Mars, or at least that’s the current equivalent.
You may recognise the scene as recorded in the 1938 painting by Algernon Talmage, commissioned to commemorate the colony’s 150th anniversary. Phillip, a selection of his officers and men, toasting the raising of the flag. The work has been reproduced many times, including on postage stamps, publications, and film. Back when the painting was unveiled, Australia’s Indigenous leaders gathered to demand full citizenship and not to be forgotten in Australia’s march to progress. Citizenship was granted overwhelmingly in the momentous referendum thirty years later. This year is the 50th anniversary of that overdue recognition of Australia’s first peoples, the oldest continuous culture on earth.
However, the world was different back in Phillip’s day, and you can sense that at the flag raising site incongruously set in an anonymous Sydney street. From there the indigenous Eora people witnessed the landing of his First Fleet, and shortly thereafter the small clearing was chosen for the flag raising. A convict was hanged there two years later, and it’s said that his ghost haunts the adjacent Customs House to this day. In a nod to the notorious days of the rum corps, he offers passers-by the intoxicating liquor.
Yes, life was harsh back then, and the indigenous population had laws thrust upon them to their detriment. However, Phillip was a man ahead of his time, and he arrived with peaceful intentions. He was under instructions from the king to establish good relations with the locals. As Phillip’s party rowed ashore, watched by the Eora people, a heavy air of anxiety descended over them. And yet there was to be no shooting, because Phillip had prohibited it. Phillip ordered that the Aboriginals must be well-treated, and for anyone killing Aboriginal people, as with all people, hanging would result. Two years later when he was speared after a misunderstanding, and was expected to die, Phillip still forbade retaliation. His first law was to outlaw slavery, putting Australia twenty years ahead of Britain.
As modern indigenous leader Warren Mundine says, Phillip was a man who genuinely wanted to reach out to the Aboriginal people. However, he was also a man of his times. Neither he, nor the culture he was encountering, understood each other, despite the best of intentions.
So the flag mast in Loftus Street in Sydney marks the spot where Phillip, a great mariner and visionary, raised his glass and commenced the world’s greatest social experiment of granting land to convicts. We’ve had bumps in the journey from that first day of coming together, but the result is a remarkable country. The site, the man, and the modern nation in which we all now live, deserves to be toasted on this the 230th Australia Day.