The Aborigines first arrived in Australia from somewhere in Asia at least 40,000 years ago, and probably up to 60,000 years ago. They had occupied most of the continent by 30,000 years ago, including the south-western and south-eastern corners. Tasmania at this point was still part of the mainland; it was only separated by rising sea levels some 16,500 to 22,000 years later.

A Early European Exploration

Although Australia was not known to the Western world, it did exist in late medieval European logic and mythology: a “Great Southern Land”, or Terra Australia, was thought necessary to balance the weight of the northern land masses of Europe and Asia. Terra Australia often appeared on early European maps as a large, globe-shaped mass in about its correct location, although no actual discoveries were recorded by Europeans until much later. Indeed, the European exploration of Australia took more than three centuries to complete; thus, what is often considered the oldest continent, geologically, was the last to be discovered and colonized by Europeans.

A1 Portuguese and Spanish Sailings

In the 15th century Portugal’s systematic drive southwards along the west coast of Africa, seeking a trade route to India, rekindled European interest in finding Terra Australia. Portugal itself, however, soon successful in Indian and also East African trading, lost interest in moving any farther to the east and south. Australia remained undiscovered by Europeans for other reasons as well. One was that it was located off the Oceanic-island trading corridor of the Indian and South Pacific oceans.

A2 Dutch Interest

Portugal’s involvement in India, and Spain’s discouragement, allowed the rising power of the Netherlands to establish a string of trading centres from the Cape of Good Hope to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) in the 17th century. The Dutch, stationed chiefly in the Indonesian ports of Bantam and Batavia (Jakarta), quickly made Europe’s discovery of Australia a reality. Helped by better sailing ships, they were able to overcome the challenges in the southern Pacific.

A3 British Expeditions and Claims

At first England’s involvement in Australia appeared likely to go the way of the Spanish and Dutch. In 1688 the English buccaneer William Dampier landed in the north-west. When he returned to England, he published a book, Voyages, and persuaded the naval authorities to back a return trip, to search for the continent’s supposed wealth.

B Penal Settlements

Australia was usually portrayed as a remote and unattractive land for European settlement, but for Great Britain it had strategic and, after the loss of the American colonies (1783), socio-economic value. Control of the continent would provide a base for British naval and merchant power in the eastern seas, supporting Great Britain’s growing commercial interests in the Pacific and east Asia. It also offered a solution to the problem of overcrowded domestic prisons.

B1 Sydney Founded

On May 13, 1787, Phillip set sail from Portsmouth, England, with the First Fleet. The 11 ships carried 759 convicts (568 men and 191 women); 13 children belonging to the convicts; 211 marines and officers to guard the convicts; 46 wives and children of naval personnel; and Phillip’s administrative staff of 9.

B2 The New South Wales Corps

In 1792 the Royal Marines were replaced with the New South Wales Corps, which had been specifically recruited in Great Britain. Given grants of land, members of the corps became the colony’s best and largest farmers, but they also posed a threat to the authority of the governor by their dominance of the economy.

B3 Macquarie’s Government

Bligh’s replacement, Lachlan Macquarie, served as Governor from 1809 until 1821. The most talented governor since Phillip, he also became the most powerful. The recall of the New South Wales Corps, combined with improvements in the economy, gave the government greater stability.

B4 Constitutional Reform

Macquarie’s government was expensive, and most of the burden had to be carried by the British Treasury. Overseas punishment, however, did not appear to have reduced the number of convicts, and many wondered if New South Wales was the proper solution to Britain’s crime problems. There was also concern within the British government about Macquarie’s pro-emancipate policies.

B5 Early Australian Society

The convicts—and reactions to them—became the major theme of early Australian history. By the time the British government abolished the transportation of convicts to eastern Australia in the 1850, more than 150,000 had been sent to New South Wales and Tasmania (see Transportation).

C Expanding Colonization

Between the late 1820 and the 1880, Australia underwent rapid changes that laid the foundation for its present society. These included the formation, between 1829 and 1859, of four of the six colonies that eventually became the states of Australia, the expansion of sheep- and cattle-raising into the interior, and the discovery of gold and other minerals.

C1 Land Exploration

The first European explorers of the interior played an important role in Australia’s early economic history, and an even more important one in the formation of the national psyche. It was their exploits, rather than those of the sailors who had mapped the continent’s coasts and first made it known to the wider world, that caught the Australian imagination.

C2 New Settlements

In 1827 Captain, later Sir, James Frazier Stirling explored the Swan River on the western coast; two years later, with a group of British investors, he returned as the governor of the colony of Western Australia. Under-financed, Stirling’s settlement of free colonists at Perth stagnated.

C3 Growth of Sheep-Grazing

Australia’s soils, low rainfall, and recurrent droughts were better suited, however, for large-scale grazing than for arable farming, and the most successful and dramatic transformation of the Australian continent occurred in the 1830 and 1840, as squatters established huge sheep runs. Paying only £10 a year for a licence, squatters could claim virtually as much land as they wanted.

C4 Development of Political Institutions

The transfer of more authority to the Australian colonies was helped by Britain’s adoption of free trade in the late 1840. Free trade, which meant that Britain would buy from the lowest-priced supplier and sell in the most profitable market, eliminated—at least in principle—the need for colonies.

C5 Gold Rush and Consequences

The gold rush of the 1850s sped up the development of these young social and political systems. In April 1851 Edward Hargraves found gold at Summer Hill Creek in east-central New South Wales. With the recent experience of the California gold rush in mind, others joined in the rush, which quickly became centred in Victoria at Mount Alexander, Ballarat, and Bendigo. Gold was later found elsewhere in New South Wales and Queensland.

C6 Economic Controversy

In the 1860s the gold fields began to decline. Although wool exports kept the colonies fairly prosperous, colonial debate soon centred on the role of government in the economy. In particular, railway construction, due to the high cost and the absence of internal market centres, became a government activity; between 1875 and 1891 the length of railways rose from 2,575 km (1,600 mi) to more than 16,000 km (10,000 mi).

C7 Treatment of the Aborigines

Phillip’s 1788 settlement marked the start of regular contact between Europeans and the Aborigines. Although many Aborigines used the land around Sydney as their campsites and hunting domains, only a few major confrontations took place between the colonists and the indigenous population in the first decade of white settlement. With the settling of Van Diemen’s Land, however, Aboriginal communities began to be destroyed on a large scale.

C8 Society and Culture in the 19th Century

The rapid increase in Australia’s population between 1830 and 1860 contributed to the growth of the six capital cities. Unable to support dense settlement of their interiors, the colonies became increasingly urbanized around the initial points of colonization on the coastal plain.

C9 Movement Towards Federation

Federation of the Australian colonies came late and without the display of nationalism that characterized similar movements elsewhere. The idea of unification appeared as early as 1847 in proposals by Earl Grey, then the United Kingdom’s Colonial Secretary.

D The Commonwealth

Central to the history of Australia in the 20th century has been the development of both a national government and a national culture. Commonwealth governments, led by such architects of federation as Alfred Deakin, quickly established a protective tariff on imports to foster internal development, designed procedures for setting minimum wages in industry, and preserved the white immigration policy.

D1 Identity Forged by War

World War I, much more than federation itself, began the transformation of Australia from six federated former colonies to a united state aware of its new identity. Responding to the allied call for troops, Australia sent more than 330,000 volunteers, who took part in some of the bloodiest battles.

D2 Inter-War Years

An internal backlash within the Nationalist Party, which had been formed by Hughes, forced his retirement in 1923. Stanley Melbourne Bruce, leader of the conservative business wing, which had led the revolt, became prime minister.

D3 World War II

When war came again to Europe in 1939, Australia dispatched its armed forces to assist in Britain’s defense. After the Pacific war between Japan and the United States broke out in 1941 and Britain was unable to provide sufficient support for Australia’s defense, the new Labor government of John Joseph Curtin sought alliance with the United States. Until the liberation of the Philippines, US General Douglas MacArthur and his staff used Australia as their base of operations.

D4 Contemporary Australian Culture

Australia’s cultural life in the 20th century can be divided into two distinct periods. From 1901 to World War II, Australians continued to reflect the basic tenets of their British origins. Cultural activities were dominated by the city populations within the framework of the old colonial divisions. The siting of the federal government in Melbourne until Canberra was built may have contributed to the preservation of the older orientation. Certainly, few writers and commentators addressed Australia-wide themes or problems.

D5 The Menzies Era

In 1949 Robert Menzies became prime minister, ushering in a long era of political stability. During the war, the old United Australian Party had disintegrated. In its stead rose the Liberal Party, which attracted those who opposed Labor’s internal policies? Menzies, prime minister until 1966, gave Australia centralized and personal leadership.

D6 Time of Uncertainties

From 1966 until 1972, the Liberal Party, with the assistance of the Country Party, provided several prime ministers who sought to extend the Menzies era. However, in 1972, uniting after years of internal disputes, the Labor Party under Gough Whitlam again came to power. Whitlam’s plans for increased social services, however, were in conflict with both the traditional rights of the states and declining economic prosperity. The Liberal-Country coalition was returned to power under Malcolm Fraser in 1975 following the controversial dismissal of the Whitlam government by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr.

D7 Indigenous Issues

Keating’s government rapidly became identified with the robust and sometimes controversial personality of its leader. His style undercut the influence of continuing economic growth and falling unemployment on the government’s popularity, while the upset in Australia’s relations with Malaysia in late 1993, following his remarks about the Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir bin Muhammad, typified his occasional disturbance of Australia’s diplomacy with its Pacific Rim neighbors. Asian crime syndicates were implicated in the murder of the local Labor Party politician John Newman in Sydney in September 1994; the only assassination of a serving Australian politician.

D8 ‘Regret’ and Referendum

In an attempt to pave the way for reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians a motion was passed by parliament in August expressing ‘deep and
sincere regret’ for the injustices suffered by indigenous Australians and acknowledging their mistreatment. The statement stopped short of apologizing and, for that
reason, was criticized by many.

D9 The Olympic Games and Federation Centenary Celebrations

The Olympic Games were held in Sydney in September/October 2000 and at their close were honoured with the accolade from International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch as being the best Games ever. These games were followed weeks later by the equally successful Paralympics.

D10 Howard’s Third and Fourth Terms

Throughout 2001 the ruling coalition lost ground to the opposition, ostensibly due to the unpopularity of the 10 per cent Goods and Services Tax (GST) imposed the previous year. However, the coalition’s fortunes turned on the issue of asylum seekers. In August the Australian government refused to allow over 400 Afghan refugees into the country. They had been rescued from a sinking Indonesian ferry bound for Australia by the Norwegian cargo ship the MV Tampa, but Australia refused to take them, insisting they should return to Indonesia.