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Australians protest against British colonisation on national holiday

Indigenous Australians protest in Sydney (Rick Rycroft/AP)
Indigenous Australians protest in Sydney (Rick Rycroft/AP)

Thousands of Australians protested on the anniversary of British colonisation of their country on Friday, with large crowds calling for Australia Day to be moved and for a day of mourning on the holiday some call “Invasion Day”.

The holiday marks the arrival of 11 British ships carrying convicts at Port Jackson in present-day Sydney on January 26, 1788.

For many activists, the day marked the beginning of a sustained period of discrimination and expulsion of indigenous people from their land without a treaty.

Thousands of people, many of whom waved indigenous flags, demonstrated in front of the Victoria state parliament in Melbourne, calling for an official day of mourning to be declared across Australia.

Roads and tram lines were shut down for more than four hours.

Large crowds in Sydney chanted for the Australia Day date to be moved, thousands of protesters rallied in Brisbane, and the second day of Australia’s cricket match against the West Indies was briefly disrupted.

Major sports have stopped calling the holiday Australia Day, and the Australian Football League Players Association, several clubs and hockey teams have called for the date to change.

On Thursday, two monuments symbolising Australia’s colonial past were damaged in Melbourne.

Australia Day
A protester carrying an Aboriginal flag is apprehended by security on the second day of the cricket test match between Australia and the West Indies in Brisbane (Darren England/AAP/AP)

A statue of British naval officer James Cook, who in 1770 charted Sydney’s coast, was sawn off at the ankles, and a Queen Victoria monument was doused in red paint.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represented 3.8% of Australia’s population of 26 million, according to a Bureau of Statistics census in 2021. Indigenous people are the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic minority.

Tensions are high after Australian voters in October resoundingly rejected a referendum to create an advocacy committee to offer advice to parliament on policies that affect indigenous people.

The government had proposed the first constitutional change since 1977 as a step forward in indigenous rights.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Friday that the national day was an opportunity for Australians to “pause and reflect on everything that we have achieved as a nation”.