On January 26, 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip (now buried in Bath Abbey) was rowed ashore on a longboat to claim the continent of Australia for England. It became the first settlement by Europeans of Australia, the aborigines having a record of over 40,000 years of continuous settlement before this time.
Though it has caused arguments over the years, it is generally accepted that Able Seaman Owen Cavanough was the first permanent white settler to set foot in Australia. Cavanough stood at the bow of the rowboat that took Phillip and his crew ashore from HMS Sirius, jumping onto land to secure the boat to allow the officers easy passage.
Every year on January 26, Australians celebrate their national day (Australia Day), recalling the First Fleet, a group of eleven ships and around 1400 people (over half being convicts) who took a treacherous eight month journey from England to settle a new land. The day continues to have a tinge of controversy with Aboriginals not holding the commemorated day in the same positive light, sometimes calling it Invasion Day.
After his time in the navy and a journey to Norfolk Island, Cavanough was granted 100 acres a little north of Sydney on the Hawkesbury River to farm vegetables for the infant colony. He had married a convict First Fleeter (seven years and transportation for stealing a dozen knives and forks) a few years after settling in Australia. They had six children and a long peaceful life, Cavanough passing away from drowning at the ripe old age of 79.
Cavanough donated a small piece of his land to build a small sandstone church and school on a river bend in the tiny Hawkesbury village of Ebenezer that holds the distinguished title as Australia’s Oldest Church. He is buried here in an undistinguished grave, being the first white Australian in a nation that now boasts a population of over 21 million, built on the back of convict settlement. Up to six generations of the same family (and several First Fleeters) are buried in the historic cemetery of Ebenezer church.
Today, many Australians actively seek their heritage looking for links to early English arrivals, especially First Fleeters. For many this makes a link to a convict past, once kept as a dark and uncomfortable family secret but now paraded with pride as being the greatest number of generations Australians - some kind of "ultimate" Australian.
Happy Australia Day to all!