Let’s yarn about Survival Day, 26 January

by PACFA College of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Healing Practices Convenors (CATSIHP), Prof. Judy Atkinson and Bianca Stawiarski

January 26 has been and continues to be a strongly divisive date for Australia.

As a historical date, January 26, 1788, was the day that the British Empire proclaimed sovereignty over this continent. Despite this, it wasn’t until 1935 that the name ‘Australia Day’ came into being and was only recognised as a national public holiday as recently as 1994.

It is supposed to be a day of coming together and celebrating the diversity of our country, including recognising the history of this continent. Unfortunately, this recognition of history is only from the last 235 years of occupation of this land mass, and rarely recognises the history of the First Peoples who have been here for millennia. For First Nations people, we refer to this day as Survival Day.

The National Museum of Australia (NMA) gives some historical examples of the impact of this invasion, some of which you may know. The prison hulks introduced smallpox. By April 1789, there was a major smallpox epidemic. In the immediate area to the penal colony in NSW, smallpox killed 70% of First Nations people, destroying families, communities, social structures, languages and culture.

This repeated across each new First Nations Country throughout Australia. NMA references a statement from the Judge-Advocate of the Colony in April 1789: “At that time a native was living with us; and on taking him down to the harbour to look for his former companions, those who witnessed his expression and agony can never forget either. He looked anxiously around him in the different coves we visited; not a vestige on the sand was to be found of human foot; …. Not a living person was anywhere to be met with. It seemed as if, flying from the contagion, they had left the dead to bury the dead. He lifted up his hands and eyes in silent agony for some time; at last he exclaimed, ‘All dead! All dead!’ and then hung his head in mournful silence.”

Ambelin Kwaymullina, a Palyku woman, explored this impact in her book, ‘Living on Stolen Land’ (2021):

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Settler arrival was an apocalypse

that repeated

Each time Settlers reached

another Indigenous nation.

The Story of settler-colonisation

is the story of many apocalypses

Storms of cataclysmic violence

erupting across

Indigenous homelands




There is no unity on this date. So, what does the date symbolise? The enormous work that we still have to do to combat the impact of the behaviour that was transported to this land now called Australia.

Australia was established as a penal colony, and continues to be.  We are seeing increasingly high rates of incarceration amongst our mob, which continues to fracture our communities. The British Empire didn’t own the land then, and the Commonwealth still doesn’t own it.  We as First Nations people, across all our diversity, NEVER CEDED SOVEREIGNTY.

What can you do?

Open the discussion, read, and learn; make sure that you hear our voices in that narrative.

Explore the Voice to Parliament and the importance of Constitutional recognition

Participate in Survival Day activities.

Watch/re-watch the 1986 movie, Babakiueria, and reflect on the entrenched racism that still occurs in the wider Australian community, policies, media, institutions, and yes, even in the refusal to take action in changing the date. (Note though, that this is more than changing a date, this is about creating change in systems that don’t value or recognise our contributions, views, structures, ways of being and knowing.) This is about walking together, recognising ALL of the history of this country, hearing the diversity of voices and experiences. Indeed the Voice to Parliament, and as we move into the future, the need for a Treaty.

Further reading/viewing:

Defining Moments: Smallpox Epidemic - National Museum Australia

Living on Stolen Land by Ambelin Kwaymullina

Babakiueria (1986 movie)