Australia History

Aboriginal Settlement

Australian Aboriginal (which literally means 'indigenous') society has the longest continuous cultural history in the world, with origins dating to the last Ice age. Although mystery shrouds many aspects of Australian prehistory, it seems almost certain that the first humans came here across the sea from South-East Asia. Heavy-boned people whom archaeologists call 'Robust' are believed to have arrived around 70,000 years ago, and more slender 'Gracile' people around 50,000 years ago. Gracile people are the ancestors of Australian Aboriginal people.

European 'Discovery' and Exploration of Australia

Captain James Cook is popularly credited with Australia's discovery, but a Portuguese was probably the first European to sight the country, while credit for its earliest coastal exploration must go to a Dutchman.


Prime Minister William Pitt (the younger) announced in August 1786 that Botany Bay would be founded as a convict settlement. King George III, during the opening of Parliament on 23 January 1787, stated that transportation of convicts to Australia was necessary in order to remove the inconvenience which arose from the crowded state of gaols.

Convicts and Settlement

Following the American Revolution, Britain was no longer able to transport convicts to North America. With jails and prison hulks already overcrowded, it was essential that an alternative be found quickly. In 1779 Joseph Banks suggested New South Wales as a fine site for a colony of thieves and in 1786 Lord Sydney announced that the king had decided upon Botany Bay as a place for convicts under sentence of transportation. That the continent was already inhabited was not considered significant.

Colonial Exploration and Expansion

Australia never experienced the systematic push westward that characterized the European settlement of America. Exploration and expansion basically took place for one of three reasons: to find suitable places of secondary punishment, like the barbaric penal settlements at Port Arthur in Van Diemen's Land; to occupy land before anyone else arrived; or in later years because of the quest for gold.

Devastation of the Aborigines

When Sydney Cove was first settled by the British, it is believed there were about 300,000 Aboriginal people in Australia and around 250 different languages, many as distinct from each other as English is from Chinese. Tasmania alone had eight languages, and tribes living on opposite sides of present-day Sydney Harbour spoke mutually unintelligible languages.

Gold, Stability and Growth

The discovery of gold in the 1850s brought about the most significant changes in the social and economic structure of Australia, particularly in Victoria, where most of the gold was found.

Australia Federation and WWI

During the 1890s calls for the separate colonies to federate became increasingly strident. Supporters argued that it would improve the economy and the position of workers by enabling the abolition of intercolonial tariffs and protection against competition from foreign labor.

'Protection' of Aboriginal People

By the early 1900s, legislation designed to segregate and 'protect' Aboriginal people was passed in all states. The legislation imposed restrictions on the Aboriginal people's rights to own property and seek employment, and the Aboriginals Ordinance of 1918 even allowed the state to remove children from Aboriginal mothers if it was suspected that the father was not an Aboriginal.

WW II and Postwar Australia

In the years before WW II Australia became increasingly fearful of Japan. When war did break out, Australian troops fought beside the British in Europe but after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Australia's own national security finally began to take priority.

'Assimilation' of Aboriginal People

The process of social change for Aboriginal people was accelerated by WW II. After the war 'assimilation' of Aboriginal people became the stated aim of the government. To this end, the rights of Aboriginal people were subjugated even further - the government had control over everything, from where they could live to whom they could marry. Many people were forcibly moved from their homes to townships, the idea being that they would adapt to European culture, which would in turn aid their economic development. This policy was a dismal failure.

The 1970s and Beyond

The civil unrest aroused by conscription was one factor that contributed to the rise to power, in 1972, of the Australian Labor Party, under the leadership of Gough Whitlam, for the first time in more than 25 years. The Whitlam government withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam, abolished national service and higher-education fees, instituted a system of free and universally available health care, and supported land rights for Aboriginal people.

Important Dates of Early History

1605 - 1606 - First Dutch sightings of the coast
1616 - Arrival of Dutch ship Ecndracht at western coast
1642 - Abel Tasman's discovery of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania)
1688 - William Dampier's landing on north-west coast
1770 - Captain Cook's discovery of New South Wales