History of Australia

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Australia in brief


Ancient heritage, modern society

Before the arrival of European settlers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples inhabited most areas of the Australian continent. They spoke one or more of hundreds of separate languages and dialects, and their lifestyles and cultural traditions differed from region to region. Their complex social systems and highly developed traditions reflect a deep connection with the land.

Asian and Oceanic mariners and traders were in contact with Indigenous Australians for many centuries before the era of European expansion. Some formed substantial relationships with communities in northern Australia.

European settlement

The first recorded European contact with Australia was in March 1606, when Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon (1571-1638) charted the west coast of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland. Later that year, the Spanish explorer Luis Vaez de Torres sailed through the strait separating Australia and Papua New Guinea. Over the next two centuries, European explorers and traders continued to chart the coastline of Australia, then known as New Holland. In 1688, William Dampier became the first British explorer to land on the Australian north west coast. It was not until 1770 that another Englishman, Captain James Cook, aboard the Endeavour, extended a scientific voyage to the South Pacific in order to further chart the east coast of Australia and claim it for the British Crown.

Britain decided to use its new outpost as a penal colony. The First Fleet of 11 ships carried about 1500 people - half of them convicts. The fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour on 26 January 1788, and it is on this day every year that Australia Day is celebrated.

About 160,000 men and women were brought to Australia as convicts from 1788 until penal transportation ended in 1868. The convicts were joined by free immigrants beginning in the early 1790s. The wool industry and the gold rushes of the 1850s provided an impetus for increasing numbers of free settlers to come to Australia.

Scarcity of labour, the vastness of the land and new wealth based on farming, mining and trade made Australia a land of opportunity. Yet during this period Indigenous Australians suffered enormously. Death, illness, displacement and dispossession disrupted traditional lifestyles and practices.

A nation is born

The Commonwealth of Australia was formed in 1901 through the federation of six states under a single constitution. The non-Indigenous population at the time of Federation was 3.8 million, while the estimated Indigenous population was around 93,000. Half of the people lived in cities, three-quarters were born in Australia, and the majority were of English, Scottish or Irish descent.

The founders of the new nation believed they were creating something new and were concerned to avoid the pitfalls of the old world. They wanted Australia to be harmonious, united and egalitarian, and had progressive ideas about human rights, the observance of democratic procedures and the value of a secret ballot.

One of the first acts of the new Commonwealth Parliament was to pass the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which limited migration to people of primarily European origin. This was dismantled progressively after the Second World War. Today Australia has a global, non-discriminatory policy and is home to people from more than 200 countries.

From 1900 to 1914 great progress was made in developing Australia's agricultural and manufacturing capacities, and in setting up institutions for government and social services.

The impact of war

In the end ANZAC [Australian and New Zealand Army Corps] stood and still stands for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never admit defeat.

Charles Bean, official historian of the First World War

The First World War had a devastating effect on Australia. In 1914 the male population of Australia was less than 3 million, yet almost 400 000 of them volunteered to fight in the war. An estimated 60 000 died and tens of thousands were wounded.

The period between the two world wars was marked by instability. Social and economic divisions widened during the Depression years when many Australian financial institutions failed.

During the Second World War, Australian forces made a significant contribution to the Allied victory in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. The generation that fought in the war and survived came out of it with a sense of pride in Australia's capabilities.

ANZAC DAY by Michael McKernan

'Excuse him, sir', an Australian soldier said of his drunken companion to an officer in northern France in 1917, the war's second last year, 'he's been keeping up Anzac'. Soldiers in France had special reason to remember 25 April 1915. At dawn on that day they, or mates with whom they were now serving, landed at Gallipoli in Turkey, and within days had won a reputation for courage and endurance that all Australia celebrated.

From the outset remembrance of that special Australian day involved the quiet of church and personal reflection, and a coming together of former comrades to recall the horror of war, the memory of lost mates, and a joyful celebration that some were still alive. They remembered with pride all that the Australians had achieved.

The rituals of the day emerged through the 1920s and were reinterpreted and reinvigorated in the 1990s. The Anzacs had landed at dawn and it seemed appropriate that they be commemorated at exactly that time of day. Originally restricted to returned soldiers only, the religious service held at dawn on 25 April each year was short but moving, recalling particularly the first morning on Gallipoli above other Australian actions in war. But, by extension and over time, all Australians who have lost or risked their lives in war are now remembered.

By the late 1920s men who had served together in war came together in reunions after the dawn service, to live again the most adventurous and most terrible times of their lives, and to march together in unity and fellowship in the major cities and smaller towns - to march, as war historian Charles Bean had written, 'down the long lane of [their] country's history'. The Anzac Day march peaked in numbers in the 1950s when the men and women of the Second World War joined the original Anzacs. In Melbourne and Sydney several city blocks would be filled with marchers, in their original battle groupings but in civilian clothing, applauded with delight by tens of thousands of spectators, family and friends.

Yet there was some ambivalence about 'the Day' - too much drink, too much maudlin sentimentality, too much exclusion of those who had not fought. As the men of both wars aged, particularly the men who had fought in the First World War, the ambivalence dissipated and Anzac Day took on a new and deeper meaning. The marchers seemed so frail that the remembrance ceremonies began to take on a different character. They evoked great pride, family memories, deep respect. There were possibly more tears at the march in the 1990s than there had been in the earlier times.

Or was it that the tears had been hidden by more stoical generations? Jack Fothergill, a young man of 25 years from rural Victoria, landed at Anzac within a couple of hours of the attack. By breakfast time he was dead on Pine Ridge. For the next 30 years his parents remembered each Anzac Day with poems for the 'In Memoriam' newspaper notices that were different each year and deeply moving. 'If only I could see your grave, I would die happy', Jack's mother had written in 1923, her grief a permanent presence in her life. Australians now seem to understand that central fact of Anzac Day in the quiet reflection that the day still provokes.

Michael McKernan is a historian with a particular interest in Australia at war.

Post-war prosperity

After 1945 Australia entered a boom period. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants arrived in Australia in the immediate post-war period, many of them young people eager to embrace their new lives with energy and vigour. The number of Australians employed in the manufacturing industry had grown steadily since the beginning of the century. Many women who had taken over factory work while men were away at war were able to continue working in peacetime.

The economy developed strongly in the 1950s with major nation-building projects such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme, a hydro-electric power scheme located in Australia's south-east mountain region. Suburban Australia also prospered. The rate of home ownership rose dramatically from barely 40 per cent in 1947 to more than 70 per cent by the 1960s.

Other developments included the expansion of government social security programs and the arrival of television. Melbourne hosted the Olympic Games of 1956, shining the international spotlight on Australia. (In 2000, the Olympic Games came to Australia a second time, hosted by Sydney.)

A changing society

The 1960s was a period of change for Australia. The ethnic diversity produced by post-war immigration, the United Kingdom's increasing focus on Europe, and the Vietnam War (to which Australia sent troops) all contributed to an atmosphere of political, economic and social change.

In 1967 the Australian people voted overwhelmingly in a national referendum to give the federal government the power to pass legislation on behalf of Indigenous Australians and to include Indigenous Australians in future censuses. The referendum result was the culmination of a strong campaign by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It was widely seen as a strong affirmation of the Australian people's wish to see their government take direct action to improve the living conditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The long post-war domination of national politics by the coalition of the Liberal and Country (now National) parties ended in 1972, when the Australian Labor Party was elected. The next three years saw major changes in Australia's social and economic policy agenda and extensive reforms in health, education, foreign affairs, social security and industrial relations. In 1975, however, the Governor-General dismissed the Labor Government, sparking a constitutional crisis. In the subsequent general election, the Labor Party suffered a major defeat and the Liberal-National Coalition ruled until 1983.

The Hawke-Keating Labor governments were in office from 1983 till 1996. They introduced a number of economic reforms, such as deregulating the banking system and floating the Australian dollar. In 1996 a Coalition Government led by John Howard won the general election and was re-elected in 1998, 2001 and 2004. The Liberal-National Coalition Government enacted several reforms, including changes in the taxation and industrial relations systems. In 2007 Mr Kevin Rudd led the Australian Labor Party to government with policies designed to build a modern Australia equipped to meet the challenges of the future - including tackling climate change, reforming Australia's health and hospital system, investing in education and skills training and reforming Australia's workplace laws. Our current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard has continued to apply some of these reforms.

More information

If you are interested in learning more about Australia's land and its people and its society and culture, visit the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website.

© Commonwealth of Australia 2011, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade