January 26 is unremarkable for most of us here in Portsmouth, but on the other side of the globe in Australia it marks the arrival of the First Fleet into Port Jackson in 1788 and the raising of the British flag at Sydney Cove.
The day is acknowledged every year in ’Straya (trust me, that’s how you say it) with a public holiday, celebrations, Australian of the Year awards – and high rates of next-day workplace sick leave, or ‘sickies’, due to having consumed one too many.
It is also a day shrouded in controversy, known as Invasion Day to many Aboriginal Australians, and there are increasing calls to change the date of the celebrations to one that is inclusive for Australians of all backgrounds.
But it is not just a day that is significant to Australia, as after all the first fleet set sail from Britain – here in Portsmouth, in fact.
Having spent many of my 28 years in Australia, I know only too well how the story of the arrival of 11 British ships loaded with convicts is drummed into the heads of Australian schoolchildren.
I doubt, however, that many could say where in Britain the ships set sail from and I’m sure many in Portsmouth are unaware of the significant role the city played in changing the history of a far-off land on the other side of the world.
But it has not gone completely unnoticed; a ‘Bonds of Friendship’ memorial in Old Portsmouth stands on a block of granite quarried in New South Wales. Its twin can be found in Sydney, resting on a granite slab donated by Portsmouth.
Each memorial represents chain links, symbolically linking the two across the route that the First Fleet took.
While the surface of the Portsmouth memorial is dull to represent the ‘old country’, in Sydney it is polished to represent the new.
So while our friends Down Under are celebrating what it is to be Australian with a cold beer, take a moment to reflect on Portsmouth’s role.
Whatever your view, take time to marvel at the bravery and vision of our ancestors and the terrified petty criminals who took their reluctant final steps in their homeland on Portsmouth’s shores, on their way to help lay new foundations in a hot, harsh and wonderful country called Australia.