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Celebrating Australia

Red rocks and oceanm, Western Australia


In his book A Sun-burned Country, visitor Bill Bryson wrote about Australia, "If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. . .”

But that’s a foreign writer for you. Aussies are unperturbed. They love their wild island continent where 80% of the plants and animals are unknown anywhere else on earth. They like to say their country “makes us who we are.” And on Australia Day, January 26, they celebrate what is great about Australia and being Australian.

Map of Australia

Lighter areas show higher elevations; dark brown areas show deserts.

First arrivals

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were the first to arrive, thousands of years ago, followed by the Dutch, who looked but did not stay, followed by Captain Cook, who charted the east coast, and claimed the land for Britain in 1770.

On January 26, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip established the British Crown Colony of New South Wales at Port Jackson. The first political prisoners from Scotland and Ireland, who had rebelled against the Crown, and persons convicted of major and petty crimes in Britain were transported to New South Wales, to work on road construction, buildings, mining, and domestic service. Others came for adventure and enterprise, in search of a new life.

Australia was not empty when they arrived. They found Aboriginal peoples whose culture differed considerably from theirs, who did not possess obvious technical sophistication, and who treated women brutally. Their response to these peoples is still argued in the "History Wars". In the 20th and 21st centuries Australians honestly improved their record on the fundamental rights of Aboriginal peoples.

Mary Reibey on Australian bank note

One of those who came was Mary Reibey who had been a thief in Britain (dressed as a boy, she stole a horse). In Australia in the 19th century she built a business with her husband. When he died shortly after their seventh child was born, she expanded their shipping and farm enterprises, raised the children, became the governor of a free grammar school, and gave generously to charity.

During the 19th century Britain provided defence and international shipping, and the Aussies largely governed themselves. Out of their early pioneer experiences in building a farm, a town, and a country arose the enduring Australian spirit of “mateship” and fairness. On January 1, 1901, the six British colonies became a constitutional democracy with six states, several territories and a federal government, and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed.

First nation to give women the right to vote and to stand as candidates

When the people of the Australian states decided to create one federal nation, women discovered that they could not get female suffrage written into Australia's new Constitution, so they went to work to ensure that men who supported their cause would be elected to Australia's first Parliament.

Their success became clear in Parliamentary debates, when the champions of women affirmed that giving women the vote was not a gift to be conferred but a simple act of justice. Women had been obeying laws and paying taxes, and should have a say about both. Australia became the first nation in the world where women possessed both the right to vote and the right to stand as candidates.

Defending freedom around the world

Aussies came to the aid of free people in both world wars. Along the way they created a legend of sacrifice and “can do”. Women, such as Dr Elsie Dalyell, travelled to Europe to help wounded British soldiers. The first Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed at Gallipoli on the dawn of April 25, 1915. On April 25 Aussies and Kiwis gather at dawn to remember the fallen on ANZAC Day, and to pay tribute to all those who made searing sacrifices to defend liberty.

The Kokoda Trail and the men who saved Australia in World War II

By July 1942, Japan had overrun China, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Burma, Indochina, Malaysia, and Indonesia. On the southeast coast of New Guinea, not far from Australia, lay Port Moresby. It was the last free harbour and air base between Australia and Japan. The Japanese intended to use it to invade or dominate Australia while the Australian Army was far away helping to defeat the Nazis in Europe or fighting in the Far East.

Australia was full of rugged individuals unlikely to take a Japanese invasion quietly. However, disarmament during the 1920s and 1930s and the demands of the war meant that that there were only enough shells in Australia to keep field artillery in action for one day.

At the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the US and Royal Australian navies had stopped the Japanese Navy’s attempt to capture Port Moresby. One month later the Japanese Army decided to land 6,000 of their toughest, most experienced soldiers on the north shore of New Guinea, and seize Port Moresby by land.

They put their fighters in camouflage, and prepared them for the tropical heat and humidity, violent downpours, mud, high elevations and freezing cold they would encounter. They expected them to make fast progress on the Kokoda Trail, cross the Owen Stanley Range, and capture Port Moresby.

Young men in Australia’s militias had been sent to guard the port. They were raw troops with little training and no experience of jungle fighting. A general who inspected them gave them an F. American General Douglas MacArthur dismissed the Japanese threat. He declared the Owen Stanley Range impassable. He had not ordered a reconnaissance when word came that the Japanese had landed, and were heading south on the Kokoda Trail.

The generals in Australia ordered the boys to take the Kokoda Trail north, sit on 'the Gap' in the trail, and stop the Japanese. They told them that one platoon in the Gap would stop an army. It’s a wonder they did not refer them to Thermopylae.

Without maps or surveys, the young men left Port Moresby in their khakis and leather shoes and headed into the jungle to stop the Japanese. The track was wet, slimy, and dark with trees, humid and hot and lashed by torrential rains. The viscous volcanic sludge concealed roots underfoot. Their physical exertions were relentless and precipitous with exhausting climbs and dangerous descents.

At night, in the wet, high-altitude cold, the rain “roared and rustled and sighed on the broad leaves of the jungle top. It soaked through the green pandanus thatches of shelters and spilled clammy cascades upon the bowed backs of exhausted men. It swamped cooking fires” (Oscar White). When they reached the ‘Gap’, they saw they would have to hold not a narrow gorge but a valley that was seven miles wide.

They were gaunt by then, and ill with malaria. Their shoes and their clothes were disintegrating. The Japanese they would face had “mortars, heavy machine guns, infantry support guns, and mountain guns” (What If). They had nothing larger than Bren light machine guns.

However, the Aussies understood what was at stake. Looking around, a twenty-one-year-old said, “If the Japanese get through us, Australia’s gone.”

Vastly outnumbered, the Australians fought for thirty days, attacking, holding, slowly falling back. They were a few hundred young men, but they gave the Japanese the impression they were thousands and almost incredibly courageous. “Their bravery must be admired,” wrote a Japanese lieutenant in his diary. They fought to defend Australia, and to protect each other. One Aussie, not untypically, fought on despite being shot four times in the chest.

Back in Australia, the generals had no idea what was going on. As their young men fought, were wounded, continued to fight, and died on the Kokoda Trail, they called them cowards. It was the reinforcements who finally arrived who looked with shock and awe at the men who had slowed the Japanese advance with their lives.

The Japanese were stopped thirty miles from Port Moresby. A number of wounded Australians survived due to the help of Papuans, the “fuzzy wuzzy angels” who carried them back to safety on the Trail.

Many Australians have informally dedicated 29 August to the young men and Papuans who saved Australia from Japanese assault in 1942.

Australians would land on many other shores over the course of the 20th century. They continue to defend freedom in the 21st century.

Vineyard in Australia at

Vineyard at sunrise
“In 1996 Australia set itself a target: to achieve annual wine sales (both export and domestic) worth A$4.5 billion by 2025. The target was met in 2003” (World Atlas of Wine). Australia is known for technically adept winemakers and provocative wine.

Image: BenGoode@istockphoto

Advance Australia Fair

Australia's historic relationship with Britain is caught in a verse written by Glasgow-born Peter Dodds McCormick for the national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. (Perhaps equally telling, the verse is not usually sung.)

Should foreign foe e'er sight our coast,
Or dare a foot to land,
We'll rouse to arms like sires of yore
To guard our native strand;
Britannia then shall surely know,
Beyond wide oceans roll,
Her sons in fair Australia's land
Still keep a British soul.
In joyful strains then let us sing
'Advance Australia Fair'!

In Britain, there is considerable admiration, and even envy, for Australia. David Abbott summed it up when he said, “We have far more ties with Australia than with any country in Europe. We admire the Aussie spirit.”

Sydney Bridge and Sydney sparkling at night

Sydney at night


Today 21 million Aussies are living in a country only slightly smaller than the United States. They make their homes in the large coastal cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide, in the capital, Canberra, and in the Outback, the bush, and the beach.

The Outback

Australians call "Outback" any lands outside of the main urban areas and in particular those locations that are comparatively more remote than areas deemed "the bush". Arid, austere, and remote, there are thousands of square miles of Outback in Australia's interior.

Miners have been attracted to rich gold, iron, and uranium deposits. Others have personal reasons for travelling there. To travel to the "back of beyond" in a 4-wheel drive, or small plane, or simply to know you can head into the Outback is a fine, free feeling. It makes sense that wide open spaces tend to promote a sense of freedom. And Australia certainly has its wide-open spaces.”

It also has sheep. An enterprising British immigrant to Australia named John Macarthur bought 26 sheep from a colonel’s widow in South Africa (the colonel had received his sheep from the King of Spain) and transported them to Botany Bay. The great Australian wool industry began with his flock. Using scientific breeding practices developed in Australia and Britain, it generates billions a year in exports, and supplies the wool for most of the world's suits and sweaters from 120 million sheep.

The Great Barrier Reef

Off the northeast coast of Australia lies the Great Barrier Reef, which has been growing since at least the Last Glacial Maximum, when the sea level was 393 feet lower than it is today. As sea levels rose, corals colonised the low-lying islands. Now 1,250-miles of brilliantly coloured banks of coral, the Reef attracts fish, whales, dolphins, dugongs (a herbivorous marine mammal), sea turtles, who come to breed, and over 200 species of birds including the White-bellied Sea Eagle. Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority protects the natural wonder, but cannot control increasing acidification, pollution, or warming of waters around the reef which has caused some blight.

To be a citizen

Man and woman walking together on Australian beach

The natural world changes, and so do countries, but some things stay the same. Aussies continue to affirm that their country is built on fundamental rights and responsibilities with freedom of thought and expression, representative government, and respect for and equality under the law.

Today immigrants to Australia come from all over the world, not only from Britain, and recently there have been some strains. Australians are beginning to support the idea that “Australian citizenship is a privilege, not a right” and that it infers “mutual obligation”.

That's only common sense. Or as the Aussies with their inimitable phrasing put it, “No point in exercising the armadillo”. Why come if you’re not already in love with Australia?

Half a dozen Australian flags flying cheerily in breeze; palm trees nearby



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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass