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History of Australia
___ History of Australia
Australian Prehistory: Humans are thought to have arrived in Australia about 30,000 years ago. The original inhabitants, who have descendants to this day, are known as aborigines. In the eighteenth century, the aboriginal population was about 300,000. The aborigines, who have been described alternately as nomadic hunter-gatherers and fire-stick farmers (known for using fire to clear the brush and attract grass-eating animals instead of cultivating the land), settled primarily in the well-watered coastal areas. Some observers believe that poor treatment of the environment by aborigines over many centuries may have led to the barren nature of much of the Australian interior. Higher forms of mammals never reached Australia because the land bridge from Asia ceased to exist about 50 million years ago.
European Discovery and Settlement to 1850: The period of European discovery and settlement began on August 23, 1770, when Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy took possession of the eastern coast of Australia in the name of George III. His party had spent four months in exploration along eastern Australia, from south to north. Unlike 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. The colony of New South Wales was formally proclaimed on February 7, 1788.
Transportation of convicts eventually brought a total of about 160,000 prisoners to Australia. The initial character of a penal colony lasted for about 60 years in the areas of major original settlement. It ended in 1840 in New South Wales and in 1852 in Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania), which became a colony in 1825. Western Australia, which was founded in 1830 by free immigrants, added convicts to its population by its own choice from 1850 to 1868. Convicts were not sent to South Australia, which became a colony in 1836.
The major continuing problems of the colonies arose from efforts to carry out 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 crown land and, like their counterparts in the United States who occupied land without title or permit, they became known as squatters. Unlike squatters in the United States, however, those in Australia were for the most part men of substance from the middle and upper classes of 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.
Photo: © Thomas Schoch
Self-Government and Economic Expansion, 1850–1900: The Australian colonies of New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania (renamed officially from Van Diemen’s Land in its constitution), and Victoria achieved self-government during 1855 and 1856. Queensland received a constitution similar to that of New South Wales when it was separated from the latter and established as a new colony in 1859. Western Australia remained under the old system owing to its small population and limited economic growth. Democratic political practices developed rapidly after the new constitutions came into force.
The Australian colonies became 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 beginning 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 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 1880s were 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.
Federation to 1945: The Commonwealth of Australia was established on January 1, 1901. After approval of a draft constitution by Australian voters, the British Parliament had passed legislation in 1900 to enable the commonwealth to come into existence. The constitution gave the commonwealth, or federal government, certain defined powers; all residual powers were given to the governments of the six colonies, which were renamed states. In this respect and in its separate and independent judiciary, the political system resembled that of the United States. Executive authority was established on the British model, with a cabinet headed by a prime minister responsible to the lower house of the bicameral legislature.
Expansion of the Australian economy in the first decade of the twentieth century was followed by an increase in immigration, which totaled 200,000 from 1911 to 1913 (population growth at that time was slowest in Victoria and fastest in Western Australia). Wool production reached a new high level, although the numbers of sheep had not quite regained the peak of 1891 after the serious damage of drought years to the pastoral industry. Tariff protection on a national basis encouraged an increase in the number of factories, in manufacturing production, and in industrial employment. Most industry was small scale, much of it concerned with processing agricultural commodities. The Australian steel industry started in 1905 when a blast furnace was built in New South Wales.
As part of the British Empire, Australia joined forces with Britain in World War I. Australian forces during World War I—all volunteers—totaled 416,809, drawn from a population that did not reach 5 million until 1918. Nearly 330,000 served overseas in army, navy, and flying corps units. They incurred 226,000 casualties, including 60,000 killed. Australian forces took part in the naval and landing actions that eliminated the German presence in the South Pacific early in the war. Australian troops also participated in the campaigns in the Middle East that ended with Turkey’s surrender. Australia’s economy and politics were profoundly affected by the scope of the measures that the government took to support the country’s war effort. The pattern of industry and employment changed, in part to provide substitutes for products unobtainable from Britain during the war. Despite the growth of manufacturing and industrial employment, unemployment was high—greater than 6 percent—and the Australian economy was not prosperous during the war years.
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 in 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.
Australia Since 1945: In the post-World War II-era, Australia’s foreign policy became more closely aligned with the United States than with Britain. Another foreign policy theme has been collective security. Australian forces participated in the Korean War (1950–53) in support of the United Nations (UN)-sponsored campaign. In 1951 Australia signed the Australia-New Zealand-United States (ANZUS) Security Treaty, which committed the three nations to mutual defense. In 1954 Australia helped found the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), which was the regional equivalent of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). From 1965 to 1971, Australia sent troops to Vietnam in support of the United States-led intervention there. In 1990 Australia deployed three ships to support the United States-led naval blockade of Iraq following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States, Australia invoked the ANZUS treaty and dispatched troops to Afghanistan. In 2003 Australia also sent troops to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Australia was rewarded for its unwavering friendship with the United States when the two nations began to observe a bilateral free-trade agreement in January 2005. At the same time, Australia is developing an increasingly close relationship with China, and the two nations are pursuing a free-trade agreement.
From 1945 to 1965, Australia maintained a restrictive immigration policy, which favored immigrants from the British Isles and Eastern Europe over Asians. This policy, known as the White Australia Policy, was designed to preserve the country’s racial and cultural homogeneity and full employment. Although Australia abandoned the White Australia Policy in 1965, opening the door to skilled Asian immigrants, current immigration policy continues to block the uncontrolled influx of poor refugees and asylum seekers from such countries as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Overall, however, Australia’s population is considered to be highly multicultural, with nearly one in four Australians having been born overseas.
Photo: JJ Harrison
Australia’s relations with some of its Asian neighbors have suffered from time to time because of Australia’s firm positions on immigration, terrorism, and regional security. For example, during the 1980s Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad tried to prevent Australia from joining the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which ultimately admitted Australia in 1989. Mahathir was able to prevent Australia from joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but Australia has become a dialogue partner of that organization. In 1999 Australia entered into a period of strained relations with Indonesia when Australia joined the UN-sponsored intervention in East Timor, which declared its independence after it was annexed by Indonesia in 1975. However, Australian-Indonesian relations took a notable turn for the better following Australia’s generous aid after the tsunami disaster in December 2004.
Source: Library of Congress
|More about Australia:
Annotated map/satellite view of Ayers Rock
Annotated map/satellite view of Sydney Opera House
Cities, searchable map and satellite view of :
Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Darwin, Hobart,
Melbourne, Perth, Sydney
Administrative map of Australia
Political Map of Australia
Large Australia Map
Topographic Map of Australia
Searchable map and satellite view of Australia
Australia Country Profile
External Australia HistoryLinks:
Ancient heritage, modern society
Australian History on the Internet
A useful guide by the National Library of Australia.
Documenting a Democracy - Australia's story
The (hi)story of Australia's Democracy.
The National Archives of Australia
We care for valuable Commonwealth government records and make them available for present and future generations to use.
Royal Australian Historical Society
Founded in 1901 to encourage Australians to understand more about their history.
Society of Australian Genealogists
Website of the Society of Australian Genealogists, Australia's first family history society.
Wikipedia: History of Australia
Wikipedia article about the History of Australia.
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