A Brief History of Australia

By Tim Lambert

Dedicated to Frederick Wilde

During the 17th century and 18th century, European explorers reached Australia. In 1770 Captain Cook claimed eastern Australia for Britain. He called it New South Wales.

Life was hard for ordinary people in the 18th century and punishments for even minor crimes were severe. In England, you could be hanged for more than 200 different offenses. However, as an alternative to hanging prisoners were sometimes sentenced to transportation. In the 18th century, convicts were transported to Virginia and Maryland in what is now the USA. Transportation was a relatively humane punishment. At any rate, it was better than hanging!

However, after the American War of Independence (1775-1783) this was no longer possible and the government began looking for a new destination for transportees. In 1786 it was decided to send them to Botany Bay.

Getting rid of undesirable members of society may not have been the sole motive for founding a colony in Australia. The British may have hoped to crate a naval base in the Pacific. They also hoped Australia would be a source of timber and flax.

At any rate on 13 May 1787, a fleet of 11 ships set sail from Portsmouth. Onboard were 759 convicts, most of them men with sailors and marines to guard the prisoners. Captain Arthur Phillip commanded them. With them, they took seeds, farm implements, livestock such as cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, horses, and chickens, and 2 years supply of food. The first colonists came ashore at Port Jackson on 26 January 1788.

At first things were difficult for the colonists and food was short although Phillip sent a ship to South Africa for more provisions which returned in May 1789. Food was rationed and the rations were anything but generous. However, things gradually improved. A second fleet arrived in 1790 and a third fleet came in 1791. At first, the settlers lived in simple wooden huts but later convicts made bricks for houses.

Captain Phillip left Australia in December 1792. When he returned to England he took samples of Australian plants and animals. He also took two indigenous people.

At first, convicts worked on government land for provisions but from 1793 those who behaved well were freed and given grants of land. Also, the first free settlers arrived in 1793. Although hopes of growing flax in Australia came to nothing whales were hunted in the Pacific and seals were hunted in the Bass Strait.

Australia In The Early 19th Century

Relatively few new people were sent to Australia during the long wars with France from 1793 to 1815 because the war at sea made that difficult. Nevertheless, the colony continued to grow. The second governor of Australia was John Hunter 1795-1800. He was followed by Philip King 1800-1806. Under King, the first colonists settled in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1803. In 1804 a new settlement was founded at Newcastle for convicts who committed a second offense.

In 1813 Europeans discovered a pass through the Blue Mountains. That enabled them to spread inland. Berrima was founded in 1829. Bathurst and Goulburn followed it in 1833. By 1825 the White population of Australia was about 25,000 while Tasmania had a population of about 4,500. Transportation to New South Wales ended in 1840. Transportation to Australia ended completely in 1868. Meanwhile, the system of granting land to people ended in 1831. From then on land in Australia was sold.

Early Rebellions in Australia

However, all did not go smoothly in Australia at the beginning of the 19th century. In March 1804 some Irish convicts led by Philip Cunningham took part in a rebellion at Castle Hill. On 4 March they captured a convict station at Parramatta. The next day they fought a ‘battle’ with government soldiers. As a result the rebellion quickly collapsed and the ringleaders were hanged.

A second rebellion, the Rum Rebellion occurred in 1808. William Bligh, the famous captain of the Bounty, was made governor in 1806. At that time rum was used as currency in Australia. Bligh forbade this. However, on 26 January 1808, a group of soldiers led by Major George Johnston arrested Bligh. He was held prisoner for over a year until he finally agreed to leave Australia. However soon after he set sail Bligh decided to return. In 1809 the British government decided to replace Bligh and in 1810 he was succeeded by Colonel Macquarie. n Australian Sheep

In 1797 Merino sheep were brought to Australia. The number of sheep in Australia quickly boomed. There was a huge demand for their wool in England. By 1820 there were 100,000 sheep in Australia. By 1830 the figure had reached 1 million. There were 1 million sheep in Tasmania. By 1850 there were 13 million sheep in New South Wales. By 1850 half of all wool woven in Britain came from Australia/Tasmania.

The Growth of Tasmania

In 1798 George Bass and Matthew Flinders sailed through the straits and proved that Van Diemen’s land was separate from mainland Australia. The first settlers arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1803. Launceston was founded in 1805. Hobart was founded in 1804 and Launceston was founded in 1805. In the 19th century, there was a whaling industry in the Bass Strait. There were also seal hunters until the 1830s. An important shipbuilding industry also grew up in Hobart in the mid-19th century. In 1825 Tasmania was separated from Australia for administrative purposes. Transportation to Tasmania ended in 1853.

In the 1870s tin was discovered in Tasmania and a new industry grew up. In the 1890s copper mining in Tasmania boomed. The population of Tasmania grew rapidly. From only about 4,500 in 1820, it grew to 57,000 in 1861 and 115,000 in 1881. The University of Tasmania was founded in 1890.

Indigenous Tasmanians

In 1803 there may have been about 8,000 people in Tasmania. Europeans killed many, especially during the ‘Black War’ of the 1820s. Others died of diseases introduced by Europeans. The ‘warfare’ between Europeans and indigenous people began in 1804 with the ‘battle’ of Risdon Cove. About 300 indigenous people stumbled onto a European camp while hunting kangaroo and soldiers fired at them. Many more indigenous Tasmanians were killed in the ensuing years.

The Governor of Tasmania from 1824 to 1837 was George Arthur. In the years 1828 to 1832, he declared martial law hoping to end the warfare between Europeans and indigenous people. In 1830 he ordered all able-bodied white men to form a line across Tasmania and sweep across it forcing all the remaining indigenous people onto the Tasman Peninsula. However, this move, known as the Black Line, failed.

Eventually, a preacher named George Robinson agreed to try and persuade the remaining indigenous people to go to a reservation on Flinders Island. The surviving people agreed to go there. However, they continued to die of disease and in 1847 the few survivors were allowed back onto Tasmania.

New Colonies In Australia

Meanwhile, European settlement spread to other parts of Australia. Brisbane was founded in 1825. Western Australia was founded in 1829. The city of Perth was founded that year.

In 1834 a man named John Batman decided the site of Melbourne was a good place to found a settlement. In 1835 he made a treaty with the Indigenous Australians in which he gave them trade goods for land. However, the treaty was not recognized by the British government, which disregarded it. Nevertheless, the city of Melbourne was laid out on the land in a grid pattern.

In 1836 another colony was founded at Port Adelaide, which grew into South Australia. The city of Adelaide was planned by Colonel William Light (1786-1839) the first Surveyor-General of Australia.

After 1815 thousands of new settlers arrived in Australia every year fleeing poverty in Britain. By 1840 the white population of Australia was about 160,000. By 1851 it was about 430,000. Meanwhile, explorers such as Charles Sturt 1795-1869 and Thomas Mitchell 1792-1855 explored the interior of Australia.

In 1851 Victoria was made a separate state from New South Wales.

Queensland grew from a settlement at Moreton Bay, which was founded in 1824. Queensland became independent in 1859.

War With The Indigenous Australians

When the first convicts and their guards were sent to Australia they were enjoined to ‘live in amity and kindness’ with the Indigenous Australians. That, of course, did not happen. The Europeans came to drive the indigenous people off their land. Naturally, the Indigenous Australians resented this and fought back. However, there were no pitched battles between Europeans and Indigenous Australians. The indigenous people fought ‘hit and run’ raids and parties of Europeans went out to kill Indigenous Australians.

One of the leaders of indigenous resistance was Pemulwuy who fought the British from 1790 to 1802. However, he was eventually shot. European diseases such as smallpox, influenza, and measles to which they had no resistance also devastated the Indigenous Australians. Intermittent ‘warfare’ between Europeans and indigenous people continued for decades. As the Europeans took more and more of the indigenous people’s hunting land for sheep tension grew and violence flared. Indigenous Australians sometimes attacked settlers and took sheep. In retaliation, Europeans sometimes massacred Indigenous Australians.

One such massacre happened on 9 June 1838 when a group of 12 Europeans massacred a group of 28 indigenous men, women, and children who were peacefully camped near a hut belonging to 2 convicts. Of the 12 men, 11 were brought to justice. At their first trial, all 11 men were acquitted. However, 7 were re-tried, found guilty, and hung. It was rare for settlers to be prosecuted for killing Indigenous Australians. Many (though not all) settlers regarded indigenous people as inferior and not fully human.

By the late 19th century people of European descent vastly outnumbered Indigenous Australians. The number of Indigenous Australians had fallen drastically since the beginning of the century. From the end of the 19th century until the 1960s half-caste children were taken away from their parents and in 1918 a law forbade a man of European descent to live with an Indigenous woman.

Furthermore from the 1850s Chinese people came to work in Australia. In the late 19th century all the Australian colonies restricted their immigration. Meanwhile, in the late 19th century Polynesians came to work in the sugar fields in the North. In 1901 an Immigrant Restriction Act was passed to stop Asian immigrants.

The 1851 Gold Rush

In 1851 there was a gold rush in Victoria. The result was a huge influx of new settlers into Australia. From 430,000 in 1851 the population of Australia rose to 1.2 million in 1861. In 1861 Melbourne was the largest city with a population of about 125,000. Sydney had about 100,000 people.

The Eureka Rebellion

Meanwhile, the 1854 Eureka Rebellion occurred. The government introduced licenses for gold miners. This was much resented especially when the price was raised and the police carried out ‘hunts’ to find license dodgers. The miners claimed the authorities were corrupt and unfair. Resentment grew and on 17 October 1854, the Eureka Hotel was burned. Then on 29 November 1854, miners held a meeting under a new flag, the ‘Eureka Flag’. They were led by an Irishman named Peter Lalor (1827-1889). The men swore an oath to defend their rights and liberties. They demanded not just an end to the licenses but also political reform. On 2 December 1854, they erected a stockade at Eureka Lead.

However, during the early morning of 3 December 1854 soldiers and police attacked the stockade. The exact number of people killed is not known but it was about 30. Following the ‘battle’ 120 men were captured and 13 were sent to trial but all were acquitted. Despite the collapse of the rebellion, all the demands of the rebels were met. Licenses were abolished. The Eureka Rebellion entered Australian folklore as a fight for liberty. In 1998 the Eureka Stockade Centre opened to commemorate the event.

Burke and Wills

In August 1860 18 men led by Robert Burke (1821-1861) and William Wills (1834-1861) set out on an attempt to cross Australia from north to south. They had 23 horses and 25 camels with them. When they reached Menindee in October 1860 Burke split the expedition. An advance party would go to Cooper’s Creek. The rest of the expedition would follow.

Burke reached Cooper’s Creek on 11 November 1860. However, he decided to continue without waiting for the rest of the expedition to arrive with the rest of the supplies. He took 3 men with him, William Wills, Charles Gray, and John King. They had 1 horse and 6 camels. A man named William Brahe was left in charge of the supplies at Cooper’s Creek.

On 9 February 1861 Burke, Wills, Gray, and King reached a salty creek and realised they were near the sea. However, they were unable to reach the sea. Instead, they turned back. They were forced to eat the horses and some of the camels. Charles Gray died on 17 April.

Meanwhile, William Brahe waited at Coopers Creek until 21 April. He then decided to leave, only hours before Burke, Wills, and King returned. Burke and Wills both died of starvation. Only King survived as he was rescued by Indigenous Australians.

Australia in the Late 19th Century

In the late 19th century Northern Australia began to grow. Darwin was founded in 1869. In 1872 an overland telegraph was made from Darwin to Adelaide. Cattle were very important to the northern economy. Because of the hot climate, there were also sugar plantations.

In 1901 the population of Australia was 3,370,000. The largest city was Melbourne with a population of about 420,000. The second was Sydney with about 360,000. Adelaide had about 115,000 and Brisbane 86,000. Hobart was much smaller with just 34,000 people.

Meanwhile, Australia had gained its first universities. Sydney University was founded in 1850. It was followed by Melbourne University in 1853 and Adelaide University in 1874.

There was also a railway boom in Australia in the late 19th century. Although the first railways in Australia were built in the early 1850s there were still only about 1,600 miles of railway in 1875. By 1891 there were over 10,000 miles of railway. n Communications also improved with the invention of the telephone. The first telephone call in Australia was made in Melbourne in 1878. Telephone exchanges opened in Melbourne and Brisbane (1880), Sydney (1881), Adelaide, Hobart and Launceston (1883), and Perth (1887).

However in the 1890s Australia suffered a recession, which was compounded by drought in the late 1890s. Not surprisingly immigration fell dramatically during the decade.

On the other hand, gold was found in Western Australia in 1882. Another find in 1892 led to a gold rush. However, this time the gold was exploited by large companies rather than by lone prospectors. The population of Western Australia boomed as a result of the gold rush.

Australia in the Early 20th Century

By 1901 the population of Australia was over 3.7 million and it was growing rapidly. The population of New South Wales was about 1.4 million.

At the end of the 19th century, the different states agreed to form a federation. So the Commonwealth of Australia was formed on 1 January 1901. After 1913 a new capital city was built at Canberra. Parliament House in Canberra opened in 1927.

After 1900 Australia recovered, to some extent, from the recession of the 1890s but then came World War I. Then in 1907, a court case ended in the Harvester Judgement which said that an unskilled workman should earn at least 7 shillings for an 8-hour day. (In other words just enough for a decent standard of living). This became the basis of Australia’s basic wage.

However, in 1900 bubonic plague struck several Australian cities. In Sydney alone, 103 people died. Sydney also suffered an outbreak of smallpox in 1913 but fortunately, only 4 people died.

Australia in the First World War

War was declared in August 1914. The first Australian soldiers left by a ship in November 1914. They were directed to Egypt. Turkey was Germany’s ally and the British government had a plan to seize the Dardanelles (the narrow straits leading to the Black Sea). That would enable the British and French to open a sea route to their ally Russia. It would also knock Turkey out of the war. First, they needed to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula because Turkish guns there controlled the straits.

In April 1915 the ANZACS (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) were sent to Gallipoli. However, they were unable to dislodge the Turks. The Anzacs were withdrawn in December 1915 having suffered nearly 8,000 casualties. The Anzacs were then sent to the Western Front. Some 60,000 Australian men died in the First World War.

Australia Between the Wars n In the 1920s immigration from Britain continued and Australia continued to grow. Sydney became the first Australian city to have a population of 1 million in 1922. Melbourne followed it in 1928. Sydney Harbour Bridge opened in 1932.

At the end of the 1920s, there was industrial unrest in Australia. The waterside workers went on strike in 1928-29. They were followed by timber workers in 1929 and miners in 1929-1930.

The first commercial flight in Australia was in 1921 between Geraldton and Derby in Western Australia. In 1923 radio broadcasting began in Australia. In 1928 a Queenslander named Bert Hinkler (1892-1933) made the first solo flight from Britain to Australia. The same year, 1928, the flying doctor service began.

However, in 1929, the depression hit Australia. The economy slumped and unemployment rose sharply. By 1932 unemployment in Australia was 29%. However, after that year, things got better, and by the late 1930s unemployment had fallen to about 10%.

Australia in the Second World War

During the Second World War Australia once again joined Britain in fighting Germany. In 1940 Anzacs were sent to North Africa where they played a vital role. However, when Japan entered the war in December 1942 Australia herself was in danger. When Singapore fell in February 1942 16,000 Australians were captured.

Then in February 1942, the Japanese began air raids on Darwin. These continued until November 1943. On May 31, 1942, 3 Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour. One of them managed to sink a store ship, HMAS Kuttabul with the loss of 21 lives. Meanwhile, in September 1942 Australians fought in New Guinea and pushed back the Japanese army. For the rest of World War II Australians fought under the command of Douglas Macarthur. Some 37,000 Australians died in the Second World War.

Australia in the Late 20th Century

After 1945 the Australian economy boomed. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was full employment and affluence. Meanwhile, The Australian National University was founded in 1946.

The School of the Air began in the Alice Springs area in 1951 and television began in Australia in 1956. Sydney Opera House, a symbol of modern Australia, opened in 1973.

In the late 1940s ‘displaced people’ left homeless after the war in Europe were welcome in Australia. However, Asians were not. Those Asians who had fled to Australia during the war were deported. Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration said: ‘Two Wongs do not make a white’. However, in the 1960s immigration policy changed and many Asian immigrants came in the 1970s and 1980s. There were also many immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

There were many immigrants from Britain after 1945. Nevertheless, links with Britain weakened. In 1949 the National Citizenship Act made Australians no longer citizens of the UK and colonies but citizens of Australia. Finally, in 1982 all appeals to the British courts were ended. The High Court Of Australia was made the highest court of appeal.

Meanwhile, in 1957 a trade treaty was made with Japan, and links with Asia became more important.

The treatment of Indigenous Australians improved. From 1959 Indigenous Australians were allowed welfare benefits and after 1962 they were allowed to vote. In 1971 Indigenous Australians were included in the census for the first time.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme

From 1949 to 1974 a great civil engineering scheme was built the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme. The plan was to collect the water from melting snow in the Australian Alps and divert it through tunnels to drive hydroelectric power stations. The water would then flow into rivers for irrigation. Over 25 years 16 dams were built, 12 tunnels, and 7 power stations. Workers from more than 30 nations toiled on the scheme.

On November 11 1975 the governor-general dismissed the Australian government, which caused much controversy.

After 1975 the period of growth and prosperity in Australia came to an end. For one thing, inflation rose. Furthermore in the late 1970s unemployment began to rise. By 1983 it had reached 10%. It fell to about 6% by 1988 but then began to rise again.

In 1977 following a referendum Advance Australia Fair became the national anthem.

The Mabo Judgement

A turning point in Australian history came in 1992 with the Mabo Judgement. Indigenous Australians claimed that the island of Mer belonged to them and not to the crown. A court finally overturned the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’, the idea that Australia did not belong to anybody when the Europeans arrived. In 1993 the government passed the Native Title Bill to clarify rights to ownership of land.

However in 1993 came the Wik judgment, which said that even if the Queensland government leased land to pastoralists the Indigenous Australians still had some right to use the land as long as they did not interfere with the pastoralist activities. In 1998 the government was forced to amend the 1993 Native Title Act. As a symbol of reconciliation between the different peoples of Australia over 250,000 people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge on 28 May 2000.

Australia in the 21st Century

In 2020 the population of Australia was 25 million. In 2006 it was estimated that the indigenous population was about 500,000 – about the same as it was when Europeans first arrived in Australia at the end of the 18th century.

Unemployment was high in the 1990s but at the beginning of the 21st century, the situation improved. Today Australia is a prosperous country.

In 2008 Quentin Bryce became the first woman Governor-General of Australia. In 2010 Julia Gillard became the first woman Prime Minister of Australia. In 2024 the population of Australia was 26 million.

Last Revised 2024