History of Australia
- The Aborigines
- European Settlement
- Captain Cook
- A Colony of Convicts: The First Fleet
- The Gold Rush
- The 20th Century
- The White Australia Policy
- Australia at War: The ANZAC Legend
- The 21st Century and Australia’s Immigration Policy
1. The Aborigines
The native inhabitants of Australia are the Aborigines. Where they came from, and when, remains a debated issue among historians—but they are generally acknowledged to have arrived at least 40,000 years ago, island hopping their way down from Melanesia by boat, at a time when sea levels were lower.
Prior to colonisation, the Indigenous population is thought to have numbered around 750,000. They belonged to over 250 nations that spoke different languages and held different beliefs. The arrival of Europeans proved catastrophic—through disease and conflict, the Aboriginal population decreased by over 80% to a little over 100,000. Today, the community numbers approximately 650,000.
The appalling treatment of Aborigines since European arrival has left deep social and cultural scars in the Aboriginal community. Some have described government policy toward Aborigines in the past as genocidal. Perhaps the most shameful chapter in Australia’s history is that of the Stolen Generations. From 1910-1970, Aboriginal children, often of multi-racial descent, were removed from their families and placed in institutions or adopted by white families. According to authorities at the time, this was done “for the good of the children”—yet many experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
In 2008, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology, on behalf of the Government, to all those who suffered as part of the Stolen Generations. The apology was met with praise from the Indigenous community, but by no means did it heal the wounds caused by over 150 years of mistreatment. There is still a long way to go in terms of reaching equality for Indigenous Australians.
2. European Settlement
1. European Discovery: Captain Cook
The British were not the first Europeans to chart Australian territory—French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese explorers had all sailed the seas of Australia’s vast coastline—Captain James Cook, however, a captain and explorer in the Royal Navy, was the first to map the eastern coastline, claiming it as British territory in 1770.
2. A Colony of Convicts: The First Fleet
After a devastating defeat in the American Revolutionary War, Britain could no longer send convicts to its former colonies in North America. Consequently, a penal colony was to be established in the new territory of New South Wales (NSW). Following Cook’s arrival 18 years earlier, the First Fleet reached the shores of the new colony in 1788, carrying with it just under 800 convicts. These men, women and children, along with thousands of others who followed soon after, went on to form the first European settlement in Australia.
3. The Gold Rush
The Australian Gold Rush began in 1851 in NSW, marking the first of a wave of rushes that eventually fizzled out in the early 20th century. People flocked to the emerging goldfields from all corners of the globe, including Britain, the U.S. and China, desperate to make their fortune. As a result, Australia’s population grew exponentially, and by 1861 Victoria’s population had increased sixfold. The growth in population was accompanied by a corresponding growth in diversity—what had previously been a series of colonies made up of people from almost entirely Anglo-Celtic backgrounds became a diverse melting pot of cultures, laying the foundations for the multicultural society Australia is today.
3. The 20th Century
The 1st of January 1901 saw Australia become an independent nation, ushering in a new era of autonomy for the 6 former British colonies. The new federal system of governance divided power between the national (Commonwealth) government and the new state governments.
2. The White Australia Policy
Beginning as early as the Gold Rush era, when Chinese miners were made to pay a tax their European counterparts were exempt from, the White Australia policy refers to a broad set of laws that sought to prevent non-European immigration to Australia. The inherently racist policies were gradually dismantled following the end of World War II, and were officially put to rest by the early 1970s, following a series of legislative amendments. The end of the White Australia policy was accompanied by an increase in non-European immigration that continues to this day—immigrants from China and India have been on the rise in recent times—however, a significant proportion of immigrants continue to come from Britain.
3. Australia at War: The ANZAC Legend
The onset of WW1 in 1914 saw thousands of young and enthusiastic Australians enlist to serve in what they thought was going to be the adventure of a lifetime—the disastrous Gallipoli campaign was to put this naïve idea of war to rest, along with the lives of over 8000 Australian soldiers, giving rise to the ANZAC legend. The bravery of the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) in the face of adversity gave birth to ANZAC Day, a national day of remembrance for the sacrifice these young men made for their country. Today, ANZAC Day commemorates the service of Australian and New Zealand forces in all conflicts, past and present, such as WW2, the Vietnam War and recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
4. The 21st Century and Australia’s Immigration Policy
In recent years, Australia’s tough immigration policy has been a focal point of national debate. Following a steep rise in the number of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat, which peaked at over 20,000 in 2013, the government has systematically detained these people in offshore detention camps—attracting a great deal of national and international criticism. Incidents of self-harm, suicide and sexual abuse have all been reported, indicating poor conditions at these facilities, and drawing fierce condemnation from the UN.
On a more positive note, Australia’s population continues to climb—a trend due in large part to high rates of foreign immigration. Australia welcomed 240,000 overseas immigrants in 2017, accounting for over 60% of total population growth that year. While some have argued that immigration is bad for Australia’s economy, a 2018 government report reveals the opposite—immigration is a key driver of Australia’s economic growth.
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