Australia’s Aboriginal people were thought to have arrived here by boat from South East Asia during the last Ice Age, at least 50,000 years ago. At the time of the European discovery and settlement, up to one million Aboriginal people lived across the continent as hunters and gatherers. They were scattered in 300 clans and spoke 250 languages and 700 dialects. Each clan had a spiritual connection with a specific piece of land. However, they also travelled widely to trade, find water and seasonal produce and for ritual and totemic gatherings.
Despite the diversity of their homelands - from outback deserts and tropical rainforests to snow-capped mountains – all Aboriginal people share a belief in the timeless, magical realm of the Dreamtime. According to the Aboriginal myth, totemic spirit ancestors forged all aspects of life during the Dreamtime of the world’s creation. These spirit ancestors continue to connect natural phenomena, as well as past, present and future through every aspect of Aboriginal culture.
Asian and Oceanic mariners and traders were in contact with the Indigenous Australians for many centuries before the European expansion into the Eastern Hemisphere. Some formed substantial relationships with communities in northern Australia.
The first recorded European contact with Australia was in March 1606, when the Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon (1570 – 1630) charted the west coast of Cape York Peninsula, Queensland. Later that year, the Spanish explorer Luis Vaez de Torres sailed through the strait separating Australia and Papua New Guinea. Over the next two centuries, the European explorers and traders continued to chart the coastline of Australia, then known as New Holland. In 1688, William Dampier became the first British explorer to land on the Australian coast.
It was not until 1770 that another Englishman, Captain James Cook, aboard the Endeavour, extended a scientific voyage to the South Pacific in order to further chart the east coast of Australia and claim it for the British Crown. His party had spent four months in exploration along eastern Australia, from south to north. Unlike the Dutch explorers, who deemed the land of doubtful value and preferred to focus on the rich Indies to the north, Cook and Joseph Banks of the Royal Society, who accompanied Cook for scientific observations, reported that the land was more fertile. Cook’s fame in Britain helped to fix the attention of the British government on the area, which had some strategic significance in the European wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
In 1779 Joseph Banks recommended Botany Bay, named after the profusion of new plants found there, as a site for a penal settlement. A new outlet was needed for convicts to be transported overseas in continuance of British penal policy after the loss of the 13 North American colonies. In 1786 the British government decided to adopt Bank’s recommendation. Considerations other than the pressing need to reduce the convict population may have influenced Lord Sydney, the Home minister, in his action. There was, for example, some expression of interest in supplies for the Royal Navy and in the prospects for trade in the future. The first fleet in the series that transported convicts arrived in January 1788, bringing 1,500 people, nearly half of them convicts. On January 26, Captain Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy raised the British flag at Sydney Cove, which he decided was preferable to Botany Bay, slightly to the south, as a settlement site, and it is on this day every year that Australia Day is celebrated. The colony of New South Wales was formally proclaimed on February 7, 1788.
In all, about 160 000 men and women were brought to Australia as convicts from 1788 until penal transportation ended in 1868. The convicts were joined by free immigrants from the early 1790s. The wool industry and the gold rushes of the 1850s provided an impetus for free settlers to come to Australia.
Scarcity of labour, vastness of the land and new wealth based on farming, mining and trade made Australia a land of opportunity. Yet during this period, the Indigenous Australians suffered enormously. Death, illness, displacement and dispossession disrupted traditional lifestyles and practices.
The major continuing problems of the colonies arose from the efforts to carry out the British policy designed for a penitentiary when other interests—fishing, sealing, farming, and trade—were developing. The economic development begun in the convict phase of settlement included the expansion of agriculture where conditions were favorable, as in Van Diemen’s Land, which started in 1815 to export grain to New South Wales. Roads, bridges, and other transportation facilities necessary for commerce were built by convict labor, as were government buildings. In the early nineteenth century, enterprising colonists successfully introduced merino sheep as a source of the fine wool increasingly demanded by the expanding British textile industry.
Individual immigrants to Australia increased in number in the 1820s. They were mostly people of some means with which to acquire land, which was in general granted only to those of substance. This land policy, favoring the so-called exclusives, or individuals of established position, over the freed convicts, or emancipists, who sought to advance themselves, facilitated the pastoral expansion of the 1820s. The colonies already established—New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land—got most of the early immigrants, but some immigrants went to the newer colonies, Western Australia and South Australia. In the 1830s, the southern part of New South Wales, which later became the colony of Victoria (1851), was occupied by sheepmen from farther north and from Van Diemen’s Land. Thus, this portion of Australia was originally settled by migration within Australia. In 1829, 19 counties around Sydney in the southeast, comprising 8.9 million hectares, were officially designated as the only area of settlement in New South Wales. But sheepmen had already established stations (ranches) and sheep runs beyond the official boundaries before they were so designated. Such individuals were legally trespassers on the crown land and, like their counterparts in the United States who occupied land without a title or permit, they became known as squatters. Unlike the squatters in the United States, however, those in Australia were for the most part men of substance from the middle and upper classes of the British society. The term squatter did not carry any invidious meaning. In fact, squatters became the landed gentry of Australia—the so-called squattrocracy—and their wealth made them the most powerful economic segment of the population. Sheep were the basis of their wealth, and by 1850 there were more than 15 million head in Australia. Squatting was legitimized in 1836, after the British government recognized the impossibility of enforcing the original settlement restrictions. The expansion of the pastoral industry did not result in new urban centers; the hundreds of sheep stations in New South Wales had an average of only 10 to 12 people each. The established seaport cities continued to be the main centers of population, making relative urbanization a feature of the Australian settlement pattern in the colonial period.
The Australian coloniesbecame self-governing while undergoing great changes caused by the discovery of gold in 1851. Gold was, in fact, a cause for the change in attitude of the British government, which considered that the increasing wealth as well as the growing population of the colonies justified their assumption of political responsibility. The discovery of gold, first in New South Wales and soon afterward in the new colony of Victoria, led to an influx of newcomers, including professional and skilled people. In the 1850s, Victoria produced more than one-third of the world’s gold. Between 1852 and 1870, gold’s export value was greater than that of wool. Most Australian gold was exported to Britain, which used it to maintain a gold standard for the pound.
Agriculture, transportation, and industry developed from the 1850s to meet the demands of the increasing population. South Australia, largely through its own capital resources, increased wheat output sharply, started the manufacture of agricultural machinery, and pioneered river transport to ship grain to Victoria. The colonial governments of New South Wales and Victoria undertook to build railroads, but the selection of different gauges was the origin of an eventual major problem in transportation. Industries of all sorts—processing, manufacturing, and engineering, including foundries and shipyards—were established in Sydney and Melbourne. Western Australia and Tasmania, however, did not experience similar development. The pastoral industry adapted in part to changing conditions by greatly increasing cattle breeding for both beef and dairy products, which required less labor than sheep, and by slaughtering sheep for mutton. Where capital was available—chiefly in Victoria—station owners started to fence their sheep runs as a means of reducing their need for shepherds. Wool shippers benefited greatly from improved ocean shipping, which increased the frequency and decreased the cost and elapsed time of voyages to and from Britain.
The suddenly increased pressure on the land resources of New South Wales and Victoria that began in the 1850s resulted in a popular movement against squatting and squatters; the slogan was “Unlock the Lands” to permit the formation of new wheat and dairy farms. The colonial governments were powerless to resolve the conflict until 1856, when their newly acquired constitutions gave them certain control of the disposition of public lands. Land reform laws were finally enacted in the 1860s after bitter political struggles. The elaborate provisions of the laws proved in many cases to be of more benefit to squatters than to would-be settlers. The 1870s and 1880swere decades of great economic development in the Australian colonies. Farming expanded as railroads penetrated the coastal ranges of the southeast and more land became accessible. Irrigation works were extended and improved, specialized machinery was invented (for example, the so-called jump-stump plow), and improved seeds and farming methods contributed to higher yields. By the late 1880s, the volume of investment had led to spiraling speculation, especially in Victoria, where the boom reached its greatest height and where the subsequent collapse was eventually the greatest. Low wool prices and a severe drought brought about a depression in the 1890s.
The Commonwealth of Australia was formed in 1901 through the federation of six states under a single constitution. The number of the non-Indigenous population at the time of Federation was 3.8 million. Half of these lived in cities, three-quarters were born in Australia, and the majority were of English, Scottish or Irish descent.
The founders of the new nation believed they were creating something new and were concerned to avoid the pitfalls of the old world. They wanted Australia to be harmonious, united and egalitarian, and had progressive ideas about the human rights, the observance of democratic procedures and the value of a secret ballot.
While one of the first acts of the new Commonwealth Parliament was to pass the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which restricted migration to people of primarily European origin, this was dismantled after the Second World War. Today Australia has a global, non-discriminatory policy and is home to people from more than 200 countries.
From 1900 to 1914 great progress was made in developing Australia’s agricultural and manufacturing capacities, and in setting up institutions for government and social services.
The Impact of War
The First World War had a devastating impact on Australia. In 1914 the male population of Australia was less than 3 million, yet almost 400 000 of them volunteered to fight in the war. As many as 60 000 died and tens of thousands were wounded.
Out of this experience was born one of Australia’s most enduring values: the ‘Anzac’ ethos of courage and spirit. Every year on 25 April, Australia commemorates the brave but devastating battle fought by the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps—Anzacs—at Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915. The day also commemorates all Australian soldiers who have fought in wars since then.
‘In the end ANZAC stood and still stands for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never admit defeat.’- Charles Bean, a historian of the First World War wrote.
In reaction to the grief, the 1920s was a whirlwind of new cars and cinemas, American jazz and movies and fervour for the British Empire. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, social and economic divisions widened and many Australian financial institutions failed. Sport was the national distraction and sporting heroes such as the racehorse Phar Lap and cricketer Donald Bradman gained near-mythical status.
The period between the two World Wars was marked by instability. Social and economic divisions widened during the Depression years when many Australian financial institutions failed.
In World War II, the reaction was the same as that of 1914; Australia was automatically at war without further formality when Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Again forces were sent to the Middle East. The Royal Australian Air Force was rapidly expanded, and some of its units took part in the Battle of Britain in 1940. In the difficult military campaigns that finally succeeded in eliminating or neutralizing Japanese military forces on the islands to the north and northeast of Australia, Australian army, navy, and air force units played a major role. Australia proper was not invaded but was subjected to 96 attacks by air, which included severe damage to Darwin. Some 691,400 men and women served in Australia’s armed forces during six years of war. Casualties numbered about 71,000, of whom more than 29,000 were killed and almost 2,500 were missing; 30,000 were taken prisoner, of whom 8,000 died in captivity.
During the Second World War Australian forces made a significant contribution to the Allied victory in Europe, in Asia and in the Pacific. The generation that fought in the war and survived came out of the war with a sense of pride in Australia’s capabilities.