Today, Monday 10th June 2013, is the 225th Queen’s (or King’s) Birthday holiday in eastern Australia (Western Australia has the holiday in September or October, during the wildflower season). It is Australia’s first and oldest public holiday, having been celebrated and recorded every year since 1788.
Captain Watkin Tench of the Marine Corps wrote the following description of the King’s Birthday in Sydney Cove on the 4th June 1788:
“Hours of festivity, which under happier skies pass unregarded and are soon consigned to oblivion, acquire in this forlorn and distant circle a superior degree of acceptable importance.
On the anniversary of the King’s birthday all the officers not on duty, both of the garrison and His Majesty’s ships, dined with the governor. On so joyful an occasion, the first too ever [be] celebrated in our new settlement, it were needless to say that loyal conviviality dictated every sentiment and inspired every guest. Among other public toasts drunk was prosperity to Sydney Cove, in Cumberland county, now named so by authority. At daylight in the morning the ships of war had fired twenty-one guns each, which was repeated at noon and answered by three volleys from the battalion of marines.
Nor were the officers alone partakers of the general relaxation. The four unhappy wretches labouring under the sentence of banishment were freed from their fetters to rejoin their former society; and three days given as holidays to every convict in the colony. Hospitality, too, which ever aquires a double relish by being extended, was not forgotten on the 4th of June, when each prisoner, male and female, received an allowance of grog; and every non-commissioned officer and private soldier had the honour of drinking prosperity to his royal master, in a pint of porter served out at the flagstaff, in addition to the customary allowance of spirits. Bonfires concluded the evening and I am happy to say that excepting a single instance which shall be taken notice of hereafter [the convict Samuel Payton’s attempt to rob an officer’s tent], no bad consequence or unpleasant remembrance flowed from an indulgence so amply bestowed.”
In one of the more formal rituals on the day Governor Phillip described the boundaries and named the plain around Sydney Cove as the County of Cumberland, in honour of the King’s brother Prince Henry, Duke of Cumberland. This was the first significant regionym (royal or vice-regal placename) bestowed in New South Wales, and the first and oldest sub-division of the colony. He had also planned to unveil the name of the intended town in Sydney Cove but decided otherwise, although that name was rumoured to be Albion.
The King’s Birthday was also celebrated in the colony’s other settlement of Sydney Bay, on Norfolk Island, where Lt Governor King recorded the following in his journal:
“Wednesday 4th June 1788, Winds NW, no surf at landing place, fresh gales and cloudy, began breaking up part of the ground on the NE side of the hill [Mt George, now Flagstaff] to sow wheat. At sunrise hoisted up the colours in observance of the Anniversary of His Majesties Birth Day and gave each of the people some liquor to drink His Majesties health and at their request excused them from any work in the afternoon.”
Back in London, on the other side of the globe, there were official ceremonies that were reported in newspapers across the kingdom, of which this is a typical example:
“Yesterday being the anniversary of His Majesty’s birth-day, who entered into the fifty-first year of his age, the drawing-room at St. James’s was one of the most numerous and brilliant perhaps ever seen at the British Court. Their Majesties, the Princess Royal, Augusta, Elizabeth and Mary, Prince of Wales, Dukes of York, Gloucester and Cumberland, with all the foreign Ambassadors, Envoys, Secretaries, and Consuls, Duke of Orleans, Mons. de Calonne, and other foreigners of the first distinction; the Lord Chancellor, most of the Bishops, all the great officers of State, a number of the Nobility of both sexes, &c, &c, were precient. Their Majesties, and the Princesses … came to the ball-room … at nine-o’clock, and the Princes and Duke of York a few minutes before them.
The King was dressed in a dark coloured suit, exceedingly plain, not even a diamond.
The Queen was superbly dressed in a blue silver tissue buoy, train and petticoat; the latter entirely covered, in waves, with deep fine blond lace; in front, finer stripes of blue satin ribbon, edged with diamonds; in the middle of the ribbon were roses of diamonds at proper distances, and pendant from each a tassel of diamonds; round the bottom a deep silver fringe; on each extremity on the top of the hoop was a large bow of diamonds; the stomacher one blaze of diamonds, and a large bouquet of diamonds placed on the left-side sleeve knots of diamonds; necklace and ear-rings equally superb.
The Duke of Cumberland appeared in his naval uniform.
The King was surrounded by all his Ministers during the evening, but conversed mostly with Mr Pitt, Lord Sydney and Lord Howe.
Some of the illuminations, particularly at the west end of town, were splendid as were all the places of public amusement.”
Many of the newspapers also printed the ‘Ode for His Majesty’s Birthday 1788’, that included lines such as “What native Genius taught the Britons bold/To guard their sea-girt cliffs of old?/’Twas Liberty …/ The King’s, the people’s balanc’d claims to found/ On one eternal base, indissolubly bound/ … For lo, revering Britain’s cause/ A King new lustre lends to native laws/ The sacred sovereign on this festal day/ On Albion’s old renown reflects a kindred ray/”
But what does it all mean?
Historian McKenna argued in 2004 that the Sir Robert Menzies’ understanding of allegiance to the crown was a means of connecting contemporary Australians with enlightened and noble historical traditions, with a mystical past. The constitution itself, in the mystical, shakespeareanesque language of its covering clauses and preamble, connected Australians to an ancient and mythological past. Republicans see this as anachronistic, but overlook its profound appeal, its mythological language of belonging, what might be called a Dreaming. For Menzies the crown was ‘an element of the spirit, a spiritual and emotional conception’. Political scientist Judith Brett has written that the crown still fulfils the need to symbolise the foundations of the nation-state by something beyond itself, something broadly accepted and emotionally rich in symbols. The foundations of this civic creed, as described by McKenna and Brett, flows through the readings of the King’s Birthday celebrations in 1788 in Sydney Cove and Sydney Bay and London.
The colonists, by the act of place naming, imagined into existence new places such as New South Wales, Botany Bay, Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, Norfolk Island, Sydney Bay, and Cumberland County. This is how they imaginatively and intellectually occupied, historicised and inhabited the native spaces of the continent. The first king’s birthday celebrations added further historical depth to these new/old places. It was part of the revolutionary transformation of locally indigenous spaces into globally connected places.
Part of the history evoked in these new/old place names, and the serial royal birthday celebrations (as Tench indicated, this was the first of many to come), is a history of a direct mystical connection between peoples and their king, regardless of place or social status. The king’s ethereality is enhanced by distance and absence, by being in a faraway place, present only in the symbolic representations of royal heraldry and royal portraiture. For most colonists, his presence can only be imagined, rather than physically encountered as it was by the denizens of St James’ Palace (although even they encountered but a representation, a king ‘in a dark suit without even a diamond’ amidst the silken blue finery of his official birthday party).
The annual Queen’s Birthday holiday reveals, year after year, the enduring founding mythos of a sacred covenant between subjects and their sovereign that extends across time and space, ‘indissolubly bound’ as the Ode declaimed, and which remains at the heart of the society that has evolved in Australia.
Indeed, this mythos is contained in the preamble to the Australian constitution which states the people have agreed (through the Federation referenda of 1898, 1899 and 1900) to “unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown”. A deep desire to retain this immemorial entanglement was again expressed by the people through the republic referendum in 1999.
Is it possible for a new civic mythos to be imagined, a fusion of indigenous and settler ancientness, another Dreaming that explains peoples and places across the continent and its isles? Could it be argued that the Queen’s Birthday holiday, pregnant with possible futures, is the real Australia Day?
Watkin Tench A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, 1793; edited by Tim Flannery and published as 1788, Text Publishing, Melbourne 1996: pages 66-68
Philip Gidley King Remarks & Journal kept on the Expedition to form a Colony in His Majestys Territory of New South Wales …His Majesty’s Ship Sirius …, 24 October 1786 – 12 January 1789, pages 150-151
Historical records of New South Wales, Vol. I, Part II, 1783-1789, Government Printer, Sydney 1889
Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 5th June 1788
Chelmsford Chronicle, 6th June 1788
Mark McKenna This Country: A Reconciled Republic, UNSW Press, UNSW 2004, pages 98-101
The dedicated reader will find it useful to have a look at Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme & Power of a Common-Wealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill, first published in London 1651, particularly Part II: ‘Of Common-Wealth’; and (regarding the power of place naming) Paul Carter’s The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History, Faber and Faber, London and Boston 1987.