January 25, 2017 When did people start protesting on January 26?

Tomorrow is January 26 and millions will be partying at official Australia Day celebrations, listening to triple j’s Hottest 100 or simply having the day off.

Meanwhile, thousands of Indigenous and increasing numbers of non-Indigenous Australians will be protesting against it in some shape or form.

But when did that all start? The official holiday was created in 1818 to mark the 30th anniversary of the unfurling of the British flag. It’s hard to see how any Indigenous people could celebrate the day that symbolised their demise.


The first known Sydney “protest” however happened in 1888 at Centennial Park near the Sydney Cricket Ground. Opened on 100 years to the day from the establishment of the British colony, the park was given “to the people of New South Wales forever”. While the public flocked in their thousands, Aboriginal people boycotted in silent protest.


In 1938, Sydney’s Aboriginal community refused to “volunteer” for a forced re-enactment of the first landings in Sydney Harbour.

Twenty-six Wiradjuri and Barkendjii men from Menindee in western NSW, were made to play the role of fleeing Sydney natives at Sydney Cove.

The cheering public were never told that behind-the-scenes the men were to be locked up and guarded with dogs at the Redfern Police Barracks until the re-enactment to ensure they performed.

Day Of Mourning

On the same day – a group of 100 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island men and women from around the country had come to Sydney to declare January 26 a “Day of Mourning”.

After being denied entry to Sydney Town Hall, they stood outside to grieve the collective loss of freedom and self-determination of Aboriginal communities as well as those killed by the expansion of European settlement. Today this is recognised as the birth of the Indigenous civil rights movement in Australia.


The bicentenary of the first landings in 1988 is when the modern Australia/Invasion Day began. Touted as the “Celebration of the Nation” the day was seen as Australia’s coming of age with Sydney Harbour taking centre-stage as the country threw a giant party to congratulate itself.

A few streets away however, the largest protest since the Vietnam War was taking place. A massive 40,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people marched to Hyde Park in direct response to the Harbour spectacular.

This is where the term “Invasion Day” came into use.

At Hyde Park, Aboriginal activist and now elder Gary Foley told the crowd, “It’s so magnificent to see black and white Australians together in harmony… This is what Australia could and should be like.”

It’s now almost 30 years later and January 26 has continued to be a day of protest in celebration and support of the world’s oldest culture.

In the face of 229 years of repression, many now see the marches and Indigenous-led festivals (like Yabun Festival in Victoria Park next to the University of Sydney) as a more honest and inclusive meaning of the day than official festivities, fireworks and the Hottest 100.

If you’re going to a protest, especially if it’s the first time you’re questioning if Australia Day is all it’s cracked up to be – congratulations.

Have a great day and if anyone calls what you’re doing un-Australian, take heart. You’ll be following in the path of protests that stretch back almost to the day in 1788 that it marks.

Mike Butler
is a 4th year law student at The University of Sydney and a Jagalingu nation man