Emanuele Rocca

May 23, 2014

A (very) brief history of Australia

history, colonialism, australia

This post is mostly a sum-up of the Wikipedia page History of Australia, with some content taken from History of the British Empire. Both texts are available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

I do not seem to be able to learn about a new topic without taking notes: in this case I have decided to publish my work, hoping that someone will find it useful. Some very important themes such as the Gold Rush and Australian History during the World Wars have been impudently ignored.

Indigenous Australians

The ancestors of Indigenous Australians are believed to have arrived in Australia 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, and possibly as early as 70,000 years ago.

By 1788, the population of Australia existed as 250 individual nations, many of which were in alliance with one another, and within each nation there existed several clans, from as few as five or six to as many as 30 or 40. Each nation had its own language and a few had multiple, thus over 250 languages existed, around 200 of which are now extinct.

Permanent European settlers arrived at Sydney in 1788 and came to control most of the continent by end of the 19th century. Bastions of largely unaltered Aboriginal societies survived, particularly in Northern and Western Australia into the 20th century, until finally, a group of Pintupi people of the Gibson Desert became the last people to be contacted by outsider ways in 1984.

European explorers

Terra Australis (Latin for South Land) is one of the names given to a hypothetical continent which appeared on European maps between the 15th and 18th centuries. Although the landmass was drawn onto maps, Terra Australis was not based on any actual surveying of such a landmass but rather based on the hypothesis that continents in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the south.

The first documented European landing in Australia was made in 1606 by a Dutch ship led by Willem Janszoon. Hence the ancient name "Nova Hollandia". The same year, a Spanish expedition had landed in the New Hebrides and, believing them to be the fabled southern continent, named the land: "Terra Austral del Espiritu Santo". Hence the current name "Australia".

Although various proposals for colonisation were made, notably by Pierre Purry from 1717 to 1744, none was officially attempted. Indigenous Australians were less able to trade with Europeans than were the peoples of India, the East Indies, China, and Japan. The Dutch East India Company concluded that there was "no good to be done there".

In 1769, Lieutenant James Cook tried to locate the supposed Southern Continent. This continent was not found, and Cook decided to survey the east coast of New Holland, the only major part of that continent that had not been charted by Dutch navigators.

Cook charted and took possession of the east coast of New Holland. He noted the following in his journal:

"I can land no more upon this Eastern coast of New Holland, and
 on the Western side I can make no new discovery the honour of
 which belongs to the Dutch Navigators and as such they may lay
 Claim to it as their property, but the Eastern Coast from the
 Latitude of 38 South down to this place I am confident was never
 seen or viseted by any European before us and therefore by the
 same Rule belongs to great Brittan."


The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) saw Great Britain lose most of its North American colonies and consider establishing replacement territories.

The British colony of New South Wales was established with the arrival of the First Fleet of 11 vessels in January 1788. It consisted of over a thousand settlers, including 778 convicts (192 women and 586 men). A few days after arrival at Botany Bay the fleet moved to the more suitable Port Jackson where a settlement was established at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. This date later became Australia's national day, Australia Day.

Between 1788 and 1868, approximately 161,700 convicts (of whom 25,000 were women) were transported to the Australian colonies of New South Wales, Van Diemen's land and Western Australia. Early colonial administrations were anxious to address the gender imbalance in the population brought about by the importation of large numbers of convict men.

In 1835, the British Colonial Office issued the Proclamation of Governor Bourke, implementing the legal doctrine of terra nullius upon which British settlement was based, reinforcing the notion that the land belonged to no one prior to the British Crown taking possession of it and quashing any likelihood of treaties with Aboriginal peoples, including that signed by John Batman. Its publication meant that from then, all people found occupying land without the authority of the government would be considered illegal trespassers.

A group in Britain led by Edward Gibbon Wakefield sought to start a colony based on free settlement and political and religious freedoms, rather than convict labour. The South Australia Act [1834], passed by the British Government which established the colony reflected these desires and included a promise of representative government when the population reached 50,000 people. Significantly, the Letters Patent enabling the South Australia Act 1834 included a guarantee of the rights of 'any Aboriginal Natives' and their descendants to lands they 'now actually occupied or enjoyed'.

In 1836, two ships of the South Australia Land Company left to establish the first settlement on Kangaroo Island. The foundation of South Australia is now generally commemorated as Governor John Hindmarsh's Proclamation of the new Province at Glenelg, on the mainland, on 28 December 1836. By 1851 the colony was experimenting with a partially elected council.

Development of Australian democracy

Traditional Aboriginal society had been governed by councils of elders and a corporate decision making process, but the first European-style governments established after 1788 were autocratic and run by appointed governors.

The reformist attorney general, John Plunkett, sought to apply Enlightenment principles to governance in the colony, pursuing the establishment of equality before the law.

Plunkett twice charged the colonist perpetrators of the Myall Creek massacre of Aborigines with murder, resulting in a conviction and his landmark Church Act of 1836 disestablished the Church of England and established legal equality between Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians and later Methodists.

In 1840, the Adelaide City Council and the Sydney City Council were established. Men who possessed 1,000 pounds worth of property were able to stand for election and wealthy landowners were permitted up to four votes each in elections. Australia's first parliamentary elections were conducted for the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1843, again with voting rights (for males only) tied to property ownership or financial capacity. Voter rights were extended further in New South Wales in 1850 and elections for legislative councils were held in the colonies of Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.

Women became eligible to vote for the Parliament of South Australia in 1895. This was the first legislation in the world permitting women also to stand for election to political office and, in 1897, Catherine Helen Spence became the first female political candidate for political office, unsuccessfully standing for election as a delegate to the Federal Convention on Australian Federation. Western Australia granted voting rights to women in 1899. Early federal parliamentary reform and judicial interpretation sought to limit Aboriginal voting in practice, a situation which endured until rights activists began campaigning in the 1940s.

Road to independence

Despite suspicion from some sections of the colonial community (especially in smaller colonies) about the value of nationhood, improvements in inter-colonial transport and communication, including the linking of Perth to the south eastern cities by telegraph in 1877, helped break down inter-colonial rivalries.

New South Wales Premier Henry Parkes addressed a rural audience in his 1889 Tenterfield Oration, stating that the time had come to form a national executive government:

"Australia [now has] a population of three and a half millions,
 and the American people numbered only between three and four
 millions when they formed the great commonwealth of the United
 States. The numbers were about the same, and surely what the
 Americans had done by war, the Australians could bring about in
 peace, without breaking the ties that held them to the mother

Though Parkes would not live to see it, his vision would be achieved within a little over a decade, and he is remembered as the "father of federation".

The Commonwealth of Australia came into being when the Federal Constitution was proclaimed by the Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun, on 1 January 1901.

Australia took part in WWI. The contributions of Australian and New Zealand troops during the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign against the Ottoman Empire had a great impact on the national consciousness at home, and marked a watershed in the transition of Australia and New Zealand from colonies to nations in their own right. The countries continue to commemorate this occasion on ANZAC Day.

Australia achieved independent Sovereign Nation status after World War I, under the Statute of Westminster, which defined Dominions of the British empire in the following way:

"They are autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal
 in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of
 their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common
 allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the
 British Commonwealth of Nations."

The parliaments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, the Irish Free State and Newfoundland (currently part of Canada) were now independent of British legislative control, they could nullify British laws and Britain could no longer pass laws for them without their consent.

The Australia Act 1986 removed any remaining links between the British Parliament and the Australian states.