Settled in turn by Aboriginals, convicts, paupers, prospectors, and bushrangers, the land “down under” was first occupied by people around 45 thousand years ago when some managed to migrate through the Indonesian islands and reach the northern shore of the continent. There these hunter-gatherers prospered in isolation, with a rich oral and spiritual culture, until 1770 AD when James Cook sailed along the coast and claimed the whole place for Great Britain. Captain Cook wasn’t the first to bump into Australia—the Dutchman Willem Janszoon and Englishman William Dampier had done so far earlier—but he was the first to see opportunity in a remote and dangerous land.
When the newly formed nation of America refused to accept boatloads of English prisoners originally slated for a penal colony, English authorities reconsidered their plans. As was the prevailing thinking at the time, "what better place to dump our unwanted riff-raff than the opposite end of the world?" And so Commodore Arthur Phillip departed England on the First Fleet, comprising 11 ships (two naval escorts, six convict transports and three cargo ships) bound for New South Wales. Arriving in Botany Bay in January 1788, Phillip soon decided the surrounding swampland was too unhealthy for a colony and relocated the settlement north to the fine natural harbor of Port Jackson—better known today as Sydney Harbour.
The first years were tough for the tiny frontier town of Sydney. Late 18th century professional (and petty) criminals did not make competent farmers, and supply ships were few. Between 1788 and 1792 another 3,546 male and 766 female convicts arrived—most too sick or unfit for hard labor. When the Second Fleet arrived in 1790, more than a quarter of its passengers had died en route, and the conditions of the new arrivals with the Third Fleet appalled even the first arrivals. But Phillip proved to be fair dinkum in his concerns for the success of the colony, and the well-being of the colonists … no matter that most were convicts. He dispatched exploration parties to search for better farmland, welcomed trading ships, promoted public health initiatives, established several small satellite settlements to ease overcrowding, and ignored many of the irrelevant and outdated orders from England. When Governor Phillip returned to England at the end of 1792, the colony was finally stable enough to welcome settlers who arrived of their own free will.
The colonials initially paid little attention to the indigenous Aboriginals, who lived in a timeless, magical realm of the Dreamtime. In the late 18th Century there were roughly a million natives, scattered about in 300 clans and speaking 250 languages with about 700 dialects. Each clan had a spiritual connection with a specific piece of land—bits of desert or tropical rainforest or mountain. According to the Aboriginals, totemic spirit ancestors had forged all aspects of life during the Dreamtime of the world’s creation and wove the past, present, and future together.
Although the Dutch laid claim to the western portion of the continent, the British founded settlements along the coasts of Australia in the form of passive-aggressive disagreement practiced by nation states. Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania) was settled in 1803, one Captain Bremer founded the short-lived colony Fort Dundas in 1824, a new penal colony was established on the mouth of the Brisbane River in 1824, and Major Lockyer planted a settlement on King George Sound in 1826. Thus, that same year Great Britain claimed the whole of the continent for its very own.
Colonial populations boomed as an influx of people arrived, looking for either a new life or easy pickings. Ex-soldiers and convicts displaced the Yuggera clan and claimed their land near present-day Brisbane. Perth was settled by English gentlefolk in 1829. Squatters sailed into Port Phillip Bay and arguably founded Melbourne in 1835. Meanwhile, the South Australian Company, licensed by the British Crown, established Adelaide.
According to historian Lloyd Robson’s figures, in eighty years (1788-1868) some 161,700 convicts were shipped to the various Australian colonies. Roughly two-thirds of those were thieves from the booming, overcrowded industrial cities (particularly from the Midlands and the north). Beyond this, ever-more-frequent ships brought tradesmen and educated sorts with skills (medical, religious, legal, engineering) needed for a growing bit of Jolly Ol’ Antipodean England.
From the early 1820s, increasing numbers of squatters ventured out and occupied land beyond the fringes of the established settlements. There they built extensive stations on which to raise sheep and crops of wheat and oat. With little overhead, they could make considerable profits, thus encouraging others to follow their lead. Wool production became Australia’s largest—and most profitable—export, most bound for English mills. By 1850 some 200 squatters claimed more than 115,830 square miles (300,000 square kilometers), forming a powerful and "respectable" segment of society on the continent.
Meanwhile, the British Colonial Office's Proclamation of Governor Burke declared the Australian continent to be 'terra nullius' (or "no man's land"). By stating that no nation or people owned Australian land but the Crown, the British quashed any chance of treaties with Aboriginal clans. The diseases imported by the Europeans made this more a legal nicety, for smallpox, influenza, measles, whooping cough, and tuberculosis ravaged the natives. Indeed, shortly after the colony in Sydney was established, a smallpox plague killed off half the Aboriginals in the area. Which is not to say that the colonists themselves weren’t taking an active hand in killing the first inhabitants as well—the Hawkesbury War (1795-1816), Pemulwuy’s War (1795-1802), Tedbury’s War (1808-1809), and Nepean War (1814-1816) further cemented the tone of European/Aboriginal relations.
The 1851 discovery of gold in New South Wales and central Victoria brought a massive influx of people, ultimately surpassing the population explosion of California's 1848 gold rush. Boatloads of young men (and a few adventurous young women) arrived from China, the goldfields of California, Ireland, Britain, and India—a chaotic carnival of entertainers, grifters, drifters, quacks, gamblers, and publicans mixed in with actual prospectors. The colony of Victoria grew at an unbelievable rate, from a trifling 76,000 in 1850 to over 530,000 in 1859. The government tried to impose order through licenses and heavy-handed troopers, but this quickly led to violence, culminating in the fight at Ballarat in late 1854 that left at least 30 “diggers” dead and many other wounded. But a few months later, a royal commission made sweeping reforms to the administration of the expanding gold fields, including the abolition of licenses, reorganization of the police, and voting rights to miners.
Despite the bloodshed in the goldfields and the Outback, the wealth from gold and wool brought investment and civilization to the likes of Melbourne, Victoria and Sydney. By the 1880s these were modern, cultured frontier cities where people being gunned down in the streets was an uncommon occurrence. At this point in time the majority of people living on the continent were born in Australia, and began to think of themselves in such a way. Distinctly Australian styles were fastening on the national literary and art movements. With all this progress and culture, it was inevitable that Australian colonists would start thinking about greater autonomy from a distant England.
In 1890, representatives of six colonies (and initially a few New Zealanders) met in Melbourne. They called for the various colonies to unify and elect representatives to a constitutional convention. The very next year the “National Australian Convention” was called to order in Sydney and, with much debate, a draft constitutional bill was hammered out. Despite much dithering, in March 1900 Aussie delegates headed for London with a bill. Parliament approved it in July, and Queen Victoria signed it shortly thereafter. A British lord was dispatched to Australia to create an interim cabinet, oversee the creation of a commonwealth, and hold the first elections. Thus, the Commonwealth of Australia came into being on 1 January 1901.
Even with devastating droughts and a plague of rabbits that permanently ravaged a good deal of Australian farmland, the new country prospered and led a quiet existence. The Australian Parliament passed laws (some of dubious distinction, such as the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901), the nation cobbled together a national army and navy from the remnants of the colonial armed forces, and Australia itself dipped its antipodal toe into the colonial business when British New Guinea became the Australian-administered Territory of Papua in 1906. All seemed relatively calm—until the new nation was dragged into a world war.
Almost a tenth of the population of 4.9 million Aussies volunteered for military service during the First World War, during which more than 60,000 would die at Gallipoli, on the Western Front, and in the Middle East. In return for all this blood, Australian representatives sat at the Versailles peace conference and signed the resultant international treaty, a first for Australia. The nation also took a seat in the League of Nations, and for its trouble received a few German colonies—German New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, and the tiny Nauru.
The 1920s brought labor troubles, rampant modernization, the Great Depression, and various political crises. Adding to this in the 1930s were growing international tensions, especially with increased Japanese expansion into the South Pacific enough so that both Liberal and Labour parties made raising defense spending a campaign issue in the 1937 elections. The government's emphasized cooperation with Great Britain in “a policy of imperial defense” inevitably pulled Australia into another world war in September 1939. Although Australian units distinguished themselves fighting in the Mediterranean and at sea, within two years they were facing a more immediate threat as Imperial Japan attacked across the vast expanse of the Pacific, in Southeast Asia, and through Indonesia and the Philippines. In February 1942, the port at Darwin suffered a devastating air raid—the first of over 100 on the Australian mainland.
Inspired by Prime Minister Curtin, Australia found itself engaged on numerous fronts … notably in the jungles of New Guinea to the north, stepping stone for any Japanese invasion. On the home front, the Curtin government put the nation on total war footing, instituting rationing, taking in refugees, building manufacturing plants and shipyards, and encouraging everyone to “stay the course.” By the time the struggle ended, Australia lost 27,000 soldiers, airmen, and sailors.
Australia enjoyed a post-war boom, marked by a thriving export economy, a massive government-sponsored program of European immigration, a suburban explosion, a "new nationalism" in the arts, the institution of civil rights for Aboriginals, and avoiding most of the Cold War's paranoid brinksmanship. The 21st Century promises even better things for the Aussies.