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From Convict Colony to Proud Nation

As I pondered what Australia Day means to me, I went back to basics and read the speech of Arthur Phillip, when he was officially named as Governor of New South Wales on 7th February 1788. As the Commander of the First Fleet he had spent nine and a half months at sea and finally landed in Sydney Cove on 26th January 1788.

After a few days of basic organisation, he got down to clarifying the real reason of why they were there. They were a motley bunch, about a thousand people all up, half of them convicts and the rest government officials, soldiers and sailors, (some of the latter being allowed to bring wives) though you get the impression that NONE of them wanted to be there!

Pamela Robson in writing about this speech describes the scene:

“Uncertain and rather forlorn, they sat or stood in a small arena cleared from the scrub for the occasion, precariously clinging to the edge of the known world. They were penned in by the menacing and mysterious wilderness behind them and the vast expanse of blue ocean that stretched to the horizon in front.” (Great Australian Speeches p5).

Yet, for all that, it was a gala affair, with the colours flying and a band playing, a ceremony in recognition of the fact that they were creating history! The language of the speech is fairly stilted and the spelling odd, but the sense of his message for me was encapsulated in just one sentence – a personal commitment from Arthur Phillip that he

“…should ever be ready to show approbation and encouragement [to] people of the most abandoned principles.”

Seems to me that he recognised how difficult it was going to be to grow a nation out of a penal colony, with both prisoners and conscripts feeling beaten and despondent. Yet, their very survival depended on their ability to overcome their differences and work together. They did, and so formed the foundation of what we celebrate on Australia Day. Many of them lacked the right principles (both convicts and supervisors) as our checkered early history records, but it evolved under God’s grace, and I think we turned out OK!

The challenge of the future is to continue to show “approbation and encouragement” which loosely means “approval and active support” in short, offering a fair go to all, who, like those in the First Fleet, had been cast off from their mother country. There are plenty today who feel the same, who want a better life for their children, who see Australia as their only hope for the future. May we, with Arthur Phillip, recognise the need to work together, overcoming our origins, our past mistakes, our ethical and cultural backgrounds and celebrate being Australians!

Chaplain Ian S Whitley

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