Australia may be a young Western democracy, but its history dates back thousands of years.
Here are some facts to help inform your next visit to the land “Down Under”.
Early settlement – 40,000-70,000 years ago
Australia’s earliest human settlement dates to around 65,000 years ago, in the Northern Territory, with Aboriginal Australians believed to have arrived by boat from Southeast Asia.
By around 30,000 years ago, Aboriginal Australians had occupied all of Australia, including Tasmania. The traditions they established, including art, language and music, are among the longest surviving and it is still possible to explore Aboriginal culture.
European explorers arrive – 17th – 18th centuries
Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon is believed to be the first European to land in Australia, in 1606. Later the same year, Spaniard Luis Vaz de Torres navigated the Torres Straits between Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Following in Janszoon’s footsteps, some 29 other Dutch navigators explored Australia’s western and southern coasts in the 17th century, dubbing the continent “New Holland”.
Other Europeans followed, until in 1770, Britain’s Lieutenant James Cook chartered the east coast of Australia and returned home promoting the colonisation of Botany Bay (now Sydney).
British colony – 1788
Cook’s promotion was received favourably in London and in January 1788, the “First Fleet” of 11 British ships carrying 1,500 people arrived to establish a penal colony. Britain’s jails were overflowing and Australia was seen as an ideal location for criminals from Britain and Ireland, many of which were transported for minor crimes or political activism.
The establishment of a penal colony was followed by the arrival of free settlers. In 1825, a group of British soldiers and convicts settled near modern-day Brisbane, while Perth was settled by English settlers in 1829. In 1835, a “squatter” chose the location for Melbourne and at the same time, a private British company settled Adelaide.
Gold Rush – 1851
The discovery of gold in New South Wales and Victoria in 1851 sparked a “gold rush” to these regions, transforming the Australian colonies. Gold-seekers from around the world, including China, arrived to chase their dreams, helping to expand the population and establish a national identity.
Between 1851 and 1860, Victoria’s population grew seven-fold as new migrants chased the precious metal. At one stage the state was responsible for more than a third of global output.
However, restrictions imposed on goldfield workers in Victoria led to the Eureka Stockade rebellion of 1854, where miners at Ballarat fought against police. The miners lost the battle, but it led to improved conditions for workers and paved the way for greater democracy.
Federation – 1901
Originally founded separately, Australia’s six British colonies comprising New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania all had their own separate armies, tariffs and even separate railway gauges.
Recognising the weaknesses of this system, the colonies agreed to unite. On 1 January 1901, modern Australia was born as the colonies united as a federation under a single constitution.
While both Sydney and Melbourne wanted to become the new nation’s capital, a compromise was reached and it was decided to build a new capital city at Canberra, with its foundation stone laid in 1913.
Australia at war
Australians embraced World War I with a strong sense of patriotism towards the British Empire. From a population of less than 5 million, more than 400,000 enlisted, of which more than 60,000 were killed.
The failed landing at Gallipoli in Turkey in 1915 helped develop a sense of nationhood, in what became known as the “Anzac legend.”
Japan was allied with Britain in the war, with Japanese battleship Ibuki one of the ships that escorted the Anzacs across the Indian Ocean.
The war was followed by the ‘Roaring Twenties’ with its new music, movies and prosperity, however this came to a halt with the Great Depression of 1929.
Despite World War I being called the “war to end all wars,” the world was embroiled in war again by 1939 and this time Australia was directly threatened, with enemy bombing raids on Darwin and a submarine attack in Sydney harbour. Almost a million Australians served in the war, fighting in Europe, Africa and Asia, until the end of hostilities in August 1945.
Australian soldiers were soon in action again in Asia, participating in the Korean War (1950-53) and then the Vietnam War (1955-75).
Believing that the nation must “populate or perish,” Australia opened up to mass immigration in the 1950s and 1960s, principally from Europe and the Middle East. Major nation-building projects such as the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme and the Sydney Opera House employed many of the new migrants.
In the 1970s, Australia embraced multiculturalism, with people from more than 200 countries now calling Australia home.
Trade with Asia flourished as Australia pursued new export markets. A 1957 commerce agreement helped build economic ties with Japan, which became a major investor and Australia’s largest trading partner, until it was overtaken by China in 2007.
In 1988, Australia marked the bicentenary of British settlement with the opening of a new Parliament House in Canberra. In 2000, Sydney hosted the Olympic Games as the ‘Lucky Country’ celebrated its sporting and economic fortune and looked ahead to the new century.
Did you know?
- Australia commemorates its war dead on April 25 (Anzac Day), the date of the first landings at Gallipoli
- The first Japanese consulate was established in Townsville, Queensland in 1896 following a growing pearl diving industry with Japanese divers
- Australia was the second country in the world to give women the vote, in 1894
- France’s La Perouse expedition arrived at Botany Bay in January 1788, just days after the landing of Britain’s First Fleet
- The Gold Rush helped Melbourne to become the world’s richest city in the 1880s.