History of Australia before 1901

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Prehistory and aboriginal legends

Humans first arrived in Australia through Indonesia and New Guinea, either by paddling canoes across the Timor Sea or by crossing a land bridge across what is now Torres Strait, between New Guinea and Australia. Estimates of the date vary considerably: the best current estimate is about 53,000 years ago, but much room for debate remains.

The sharing of animal and plant species between Australia-New Guinea and nearby Indonesian islands is another consequence of the early land bridges, which closed when sea levels rose. The traditional movement of people between these places in sailing craft for trade and fishing indicates the possibility of Arab and Chinese traders to the northern islands learning of and then visiting the shores of the southern continent from as early as the 9th century. Maps compiled in Europe from the late 1400s show parts of the coastline.

In the tradition of the Australian Aborigines, the history of the continent begins with what is called the Dreamtime, the creation myth that tells of the forming of the region's creatures as well as its geography. Dreamtime traditions were — and continue to be — recorded in songlines and stories throughout Australia. Therefore, the arrival of Matthew Flinders in Albany in 1801 and the air attack by the Japanese on Darwin in 1942 have been incorporated into dance and ceremony and could be said to be part of this dreaming.

The land that the first Australians colonised was very different to the Australia the first Europeans would see in the 18th century: more timbered, greener, and with a wider variety of species. The long, slow desertification of the continent had been underway for millions of years, but with the arrival of humans it accelerated greatly. Fire, already a growing part of the Australian landscape, became much more frequent as hunter-gatherers used it as a tool to drive game, to produce a green flush of new growth to attract animals, and to open up impenetrable forest. Densely grown areas became more open sclerophyll forest, open forest became grassland. Fire-tolerant species became predominant: in particular, eucalypts, acacia scrub, and grasses. Long-lived and fire-intolerant species declined, as did woody shrubs and understory plants.

The changes to the fauna were even more dramatic, and much more rapid: the megafauna, species significantly larger than humans, disappeared, and many of the smaller species were wiped out too. All told, about 60 different vertebrates were exterminated, including the Diprotodon family (very large marsupial herbivores that looked rather like hippos), several large flightless birds, carnivorous kangaroos, a five metre lizard and a tortoise the size of a small car. The direct cause of the mass extinctions is uncertain: it may have been fire, hunting, or a combination of both, but most are of the view that it was human intervention of one kind or another. (The once popular climate change explanation is no longer favoured. See Genyornis.) With no large herbivores to keep the understory vegetation down and rapidly recycle soil nutrients with their dung, fuel build-up became more rapid and fires burned hotter, further changing the landscape.

The eons-old trend to aridification of the continent reached a peak with the last ice age. The period from 18,000 to 15,000 years ago saw most of the continent become desert for a time. A number of mammal species, mostly rodents, arrived over the Indonesian landbridge. Roughly 13,000 years ago, the Torres Strait connection, the Bassian Plain between modern-day Victoria and Tasmania, and the link from Kangaroo Island disappeared under the rising sea. The end of the ice age was quite abrupt according to Aboriginal legends which talk of fish falling from the sky and tsunamis.

From that time on, the Tasmanian Aborigines were isolated. Populations on small islands in Bass Strait, as well as Kangaroo Island, died out completely. It is unknown if there were additional migrations by people from the north over the Indonesian land bridge during the last ice age. Linguistic and genetic evidence shows that there has been long-term contact between Australians in the far north and the Austronesian peoples of modern-day New Guinea and the islands, but that this appears to have been mostly trade with a little intermarriage, as opposed to colonisation.

The last 5000 years were characterized by an increasing drying out of the continent and the development of a sophisticated tribal culture. The main items of trade were songs and dances, along with flint, precious stones, seeds, spears, food items, etc. The Pama-Nyungan language phylum which extends from Cape York to the south west covered all of Australia except for the south east and Arnhem Land. There was a continuity of religious ideas and stories throughout the country. The initiation of young boys and girls into adult knowledge was marked by ceremony and feasting. Behaviour was governed by strict rules regarding responsibilities to and from uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters as well as in-laws. Political power rested with community elders rather than hereditary chiefs and disputes were settled communally in accordance with an elaborate system of tribal law. Vendettas and feuds were not uncommon but organised warfare was limited. This has generally been attributed to the multiple alliances that bound people together through marriage or blood.

There was considerable innovation occurring within Aborginal technology in the last 3000 years prior to colonization. Quartz was used as a substitute for chert and was being worked by indigenous craftsmen. The dingo was brought from southern Asia. Fish farming and small scale agricultural developments occurred with fish farming in western Victoria and yam planting e.g. in Geraldton.

At the time of European arrival in 1788, there were approximately half a million Australian Aboriginal people, forming hundreds of distinct cultural and language groups. Most were hunter-gatherers with rich oral histories and advanced land-management practices (the ecological destruction of the initial colonisation phase was thousands of years past). In the most fertile and populous areas, they lived in semi-permanent settlements. In the fertile Murray Basin, the gathering and hunting economies to be found elsewhere on the continent had in large part given way to fish farming. Little is known of the bulk of the Aboriginal peoples: European colonists, intent on carving a living from their harsh new land, paid little attention to their cultural practices, and by the time anthropological investigation had become both fashionable and practicable, the only intact Aboriginal societies were those in very remote (and usually extremely arid) areas. When Capt. James Cook claimed Australia for Great Britain in 1770, the native population may have numbered 300,000 in as many as 500 tribes speaking many different languages.


The people of Arnhem Land were exposed to continuous interaction with various visitors from Asia. Early Indian visitors from around the time of Christ are said to be the motivation for what is known as the Bradshaw figurines in Kimberly art. It is possible, though not proved, that the Chinese had some knowledge of Australia in the 13th century or before. In about 1300, Marco Polo made reference to the reputed existence of a vast southern continent. Aboriginal communities from the north coast of Australia have also been in contact with Melanesian cultures from the Torres Strait and New Guinea for thousands of years.

Missing image
Bark painting of a Macassan 'prau', by Wonggo, East Arnhem Land

Indonesian fishermen from the Spice Islands (e.g. Banda) have fished off the coast of Australia for hundreds of years. Macassan traders from Sulawesi (formerly Celebes) regularly visited the coast of northern Australia to fish for trepang (an edible sea cucumber) to trade with the Chinese since at least the early 1700s (See main article Macassan contact with Australia).

There was a high degree of cultural exhange, evidenced in Aboriginal rock and bark paintings, the introduction of technologies such as dug-out canoes and items such as tobacco and tobacco pipes, Macassan words in Aboriginal languages (eg. Balanda for white person), and descendants of Malay peoples in Australian Aboriginal communities and vice versa, as a result of intermarriage and migration.

Some Australians believe that Australia was sighted by a Portuguese expedition led by Cristovao de Mendonça in about 1522. A number of relics and remains have been interpreted as evidence that the Portuguese reached Australia in the early to mid 1500s, 200 years before Cook. These clues include the Mahogany Ship, an alleged Portuguese caravel that was shipwrecked six miles west of Warrnambool, Victoria (although its remains have never been found); a stone house at Bittangabee Bay; the so-called Dieppe map, a secret map drawn by the Portuguese; a cannon and five keys found near Geelong. Professional historians do not accept these relics as proof that the Portuguese discovered Australia.

The French navigator Binot Paulmyer claimed to have landed at Australia in 1503, after being blown off course. However later investigators concluded it was more likely he was in Madagascar. French authorities again made such a claim in 1531.

A Portuguese expedition commanded by Luis Vaez de Torres and piloted by Pedro Fernandez de Quiros set out for Australia in 1605. They sailed from east to west along the southern coast of Papua, and sighted the islands of Torres Strait. De Quiros was a Counter-Reformation Catholic. When he landed on the New Hebrides, he christened the island group "Austrialia del Espiritu Santo", translated as "South Land of the Holy Spirit". This voyage occurred a couple of weeks after the discoveries made by the Duyfken. Despite their vigorous efforts elsewhere, the Dutch navigators never saw the east coast of Australia.

The first undisputed sighting was made in 1606. The Dutch vessel Duyfken, captained by Willem Jansz, explored perhaps 200 miles of western side of Cape York, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. They made one landing, but were promptly attacked by Aboriginals and hence did not attempt to explore further.

In 1616 Dirk Hartog landed on what is now called Dirk Hartog Island, off the coast of Western Australia, and left behind an inscription on a pewter plate. (This plate may now be seen in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.) The Dutch named the western half of the continent New Holland, but made no attempt to colonise it. Further voyages by Dutch ships explored the north coast of Australia between 1623 and 1636, giving Arnhem Land its present-day name.

Missing image
1659 map prepared by Joan Blaeu based on voyages by Abel Tasman and Willem Jansz

In 1642, Abel Tasman sailed on a famous voyage from Batavia (now Jakarta), to Papua New Guinea, Fiji, New Zealand and, on November 24, sighted Tasmania. He named it Van Diemen's Land, after Anthony van Diemen, the Dutch East India Company's Governor General at Batavia, who had commissioned his voyage. Tasman claimed Van Diemen's Land for the Netherlands.

The discovery that sailing east from the Cape of Good Hope until land was sighted, and then sailing north along the west coast of Australia was a much quicker route than around the coast of the Indian Ocean made Dutch landfalls on the west coast inevitable. Most of these landfalls were unplanned. The most famous and bloodiest result was the mutiny and murder that followed the wreck of the Batavia.

William Dampier first explored the north-west coast of Australia in 1688, in the Cygnet, a small trading vessel. He made another voyage in 1699, before returning to England. The first Englishman to see Australia, he was able to describe some of the flora and fauna of Australia, being the first to report Australia's peculiar large hopping animals.

James Cook is widely regarded as the most important naval explorer of Australia. Cook had been sent to chart the eclipse of Venus from Tahiti, but he also charted a lot of the Australian and New Zealand coastline. He reached New Zealand in October 1769, and mapped its coast. He then sailed across to south-east Australia, and all the way up the east coast. He claimed the east coast, which he named New South Wales, for Great Britain on August 22, 1770. Cook's expedition identified Botany Bay as an appropriate place for settlement.

The last great naval explorer was Matthew Flinders, who was responsible for filling in the gaps in the map left by other explorers. In 1796 (after settlement), with George Bass, he took a 2.5 metre long open boat and explored some of the coastline south of Sydney. He suspected from this voyage that Tasmania was an island, and in 1798 he led an expedition to circumnavigate it and hence prove his theory. He returned to his homeland of England, but was soon sent back to Sydney with a much more ambitious task—to circumnavigate Australia. He did this in 1802-03, sailing first along the south coast to Sydney, then completing the circumnavigation back to Sydney.


After the loss of the United States, Britain felt a need to find an alternative destination to take the population of its overcrowded prisons (full mainly due to the unemployment created by the Industrial Revolution) and needed somewhere to send their overflow. Sir Joseph Banks, the eminent scientist who had accompanied Cook on his 1770 voyage, recommended Botany Bay as a suitable site. In 1787 the First Fleet of 11 ships and about 1350 people under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip set sail for Botany Bay. On arrival, Botany Bay was considered unsuitable and on January 26, 1788—a date now both celebrated and mourned as Australia Day—a landing was made at the nearby Sydney Cove. Phillip named the settlement after Thomas Townshend, 1st Baron Sydney (Viscount Sydney from 1789), the Home Secretary. The new colony was formally proclaimed as the Colony of New South Wales on February 7.

January 26, 1788 was also the date that the French expedition of two ships led by Admiral Jean-François de La Pérouse arrived off Botany Bay and Sydney Cove. Though amicably received, the other expedition was a troublesome matter for the English, as it showed the interest of France in the new land. The French expedition could not be given food from the meagre English fleet, but took on water and wood and departed, not to be seen again. (A fuller explanation of the loss of the French expedition is at Jean-François de La Pérouse.) La Perouse is remembered in a Sydney suburb of that name. Various other French geographical names along the Australian coast also date from this expedition.

In 1792 two French ships, La Recherche and L'Espérance anchored in a harbour near Tasmania's southernmost point they called Recherche Bay. This was at a time when Britain and France were vying to be the first to discover and colonise Australia. The expedition carried scientists and cartographers, gardeners, artists and hydrographers - who, variously, planted, identified, mapped, marked, recording and documenting the environment and the people of the new lands that they encountered at the behest of the fledging Société D'Histoire Naturelle.

European settlement began with a troupe of convicts, guarded by second-rate soldiers. One in three convicts was Irish, about a fifth of whom were transported in connection with the political and agrarian disturbances common in Ireland at the time. While the settlers were reasonably well-equipped, little consideration had been given to the skills required to make the colony self-supporting - few of the convicts had farming or trade experience (nor did the soldiers, for that matter), and the lack of understanding of Australia's seasonal patterns saw initial attempts at farming fail, leaving only what animals and birds the soldiers were able to shoot. The colony nearly starved, and Phillip was forced to send a ship to Batavia for supplies. Some relief arrived with the Second Fleet in 1790, but life was extremely hard for the first few years of the colony.

Convict discipline was harsh, but the outdoor life and (once agriculture began) the diet were healthier than many of the convicts had been used to in the slums of London. Convicts were assigned to work gangs to build roads, buildings, and the like. Female convicts, who made up 20% of the convict population, were usually assigned as domestic help to soldiers.

By 1790 a convict, James Ruse, had begun to successfully farm near Parramatta, the first successful farming enterprise, and he was soon joined by others. The colony began to grow enough food to support itself, and the standard of living for the residents gradually improved.

Land exploration

For many years, plans of westward expansion from Sydney were thwarted by the Great Dividing Range, a large range of mountains which shadows the east coast from the Queensland-New South Wales border to the south coast. The part of the range near Sydney is called the Blue Mountains. Governor Philip Gidley King declared that they were impassable, but despite this, Gregory Blaxland successfully led an expedition to cross them in 1813. He was accompanied by William Lawson, William Wentworth and four servants. This trip paved the way for numerous small expeditions which were undertaken in the following few years.

In 1824, Governor Thomas Brisbane asked Hamilton Hume and William Hovell to travel from Hume's station near modern-day Canberra, to Spencer Gulf (west of modern-day Adelaide). However, they were required to pay their own costs. Hume and Hovell decided that Western Port was a more realistic goal, and they left with a party of six men. After discovering and crossing the Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers, they eventually reached a site near modern-day Geelong, somewhat west of their intended destination.

In 1829-30, Charles Sturt performed an expedition similar to the one which Hume and Hovell had refused: a trip to the mouth of the Murray River. They followed the Murrumbidgee until it met the Murray, and then found the junction of the Murray and the Darling before continuing on to the mouth of the Murray. The discovery that the Darling, Macquarie, Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers all flowed west had led many to believe that the interior of Australia contained an inland sea. Charles Sturt's expedition explained the mystery. It also led to the opening of South Australia to settlement.

Thomas Mitchell, the Surveyor-General of New South Wales, made a significant discovery in 1836. He led an expedition along the Lachlan River, down to the Murray River. He then set off for the southern coast, mapping what is now western Victoria. There he discovered the richest grazing land ever seen in Australia. He was knighted for this discovery in 1837. When he reached the coast at Portland Bay, he was surprised to find a small settlement. It had been established by the Henty family, who had sailed across Bass Strait from Van Diemen's Land in 1834, without the authorities being informed.

Perhaps the most famous Australian explorers were Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills who in 1860-61 led a well equipped expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Due to an unfortunate run of bad luck, oversight and poor leadership, Burke and Wills both died on the return trip. See Burke and Wills expedition for a full account.

Growth of free settlement

The Second Fleet in 1790 brought to Sydney two men who were to play important roles in the colony's future. One was William Wentworth, who as well as being an explorer founded Australia's first newspaper and became a leader of the movement to abolish convict transportation and establish representative government. The other was John Macarthur, a Scottish officer (and a distant relative of General Douglas MacArthur), one of the founders of the Australian wool industry, which laid the foundations of Australia's future prosperity. Macarthur was a turbulent element: in 1808 he was one of the leaders of the Rum Rebellion against the governor, William Bligh.

From about 1815 the colony, under the wise governorship of Lachlan Macquarie, began to grow rapidly as free settlers arrived and new lands were opened up for farming. Despite the long and arduous sea voyage, settlers were attracted by the prospect of making a new life on virtually free Crown land. Many settlers occupied land without authority: they were known as squatters and became the basis of a powerful landowning class. As a result of opposition from the labouring and artisan classes, transportation of convicts to Sydney ended in 1840, although it continued in the smaller colonies of Van Diemen's Land (first settled in 1803) and Moreton Bay (founded 1824, and later renamed Queensland) for a few years more. The Swan River Settlement (as Western Australia was originally known), centred on Perth, was founded in 1829. The colony suffered from a long term shortage of labour, and by 1850 local capitalists had succeeded in persuading London to send convicts. (Transportation did not end until 1868.)

The discovery of gold, beginning in 1851 first at Bathurst in New South Wales and then in the Port Phillip District (now Victoria), transformed Australia economically, politically and demographically. The goldrushes occurred hard on the heels of a major worldwide economic depression. As a result, about two per cent of the population of Britain and Ireland emigrated to NSW and Victoria during the 1850s. There were also large numbers of continental Europeans, North Americans and Chinese. Gold produced sudden wealth for a few, and some of Australia's oldest wealthy families date their fortunes from this period, but also employment and modest prosperity for many more. Within a few years these new settlers outnumbered the convicts and ex-convicts, and they began to demand trial by jury, representative government, a free press and the other symbols of liberty and democracy.

Contrary to popular myth, there was little opposition to these demands from the colonial governors or the Colonial Office in London, although there was some from the squatters. New South Wales had already had a partly elected Legislative Council since 1825. The Eureka Stockade, an armed protest by miners on the Victorian goldfields, and the debate that followed, served as a significant impetus for democratising reforms. In 1855 New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania (as Van Diemen's Land was renamed) were granted full responsible government, with bicameral parliaments in which the lower houses were fully elected. The upper houses (Legislative Councils) remained dominated by government appointees and representatives of the squatters, worried that the radical democrats might try to seize their vast sheep-runs. Their fears were partly justified, with the Selection Acts of the 1860s beginning the slow breakup of the squattocracy in Australia's more settled areas.

The gold rushes and the rapid expansion in settlement which followed were a catastrophe for the indigenous Australians. Between first European contact and the early years of the 20th century, the Aboriginal population dropped from an estimated 500,000 to about one tenth of that number. Many were killed outright with gun or poison, a great many more were starved to death by European conquest of their lands, but by far the most significant killer was European disease. Smallpox, measles, and influenza were major killers, many others added their toll - for a people without the thousands of years of genetically evolved resistance to diseases that Europeans had, even chickenpox was deadly. Of the 90% of the Aboriginal population that died out as a result of European contact, it is estimated that around 80 or 90% of the deaths were the result of disease, and reasonable to suppose that the worst-hit peoples were the ones that lived in the most fertile areas, where population densities were highest.

Booms, depressions and trade unions

Missing image
Eight-hour day march circa 1900, outside Parliament House in Spring Street, Melbourne.

The rapid economic expansion which followed the gold rushes produced a period of prosperity which lasted forty years, culminating in the great Land Boom of the 1880s. Melbourne in particular grew rapidly, becoming Australia's largest city and for a while the second-largest city in the British Empire: its grand Victorian buildings are a lasting reminder of the period. The traditional craft of Stonemasons in Melbourne were the first organised workers in the Australian labour movement and in the world to win an eight-hour day in 1856. Melbourne Trades Hall was opened in 1859 with Trades and Labour Councils and Trades Halls opening in all cities and most regional towns in the following forty years. During the 1880s Trade unions developed among shearers, miners, and stevedores (wharf workers), but soon spread to cover almost all blue-collar jobs. Shortages of labour led to high wages for a prosperous skilled working class, whose unions demanded and got an eight-hour day and other benefits unheard of in Europe. Australia gained a reputation as "the working man's paradise." Some employers tried to undercut the unions by importing Chinese labour. This produced a reaction which led to all the colonies restricting Chinese and other Asian immigration. This was the foundation of the White Australia Policy. The "Australian compact", based around centralised industrial arbitration, a degree of government assistance particularly for primary industries, and White Australia, was to continue for many years before gradually dissolving in the second half of the 20th century.

The Great Boom could not last forever, and in 1891 it gave way to the Great Crash, a decade-long depression which created high unemployment, and ruined many businesses, and the employers responded by driving down wages. The unions responded with a series of strikes, particularly the bitter and prolonged 1890 Australian Maritime Dispute and the 1891 and 1894 shearers strikes. The colonial ministries, made up for the most part of liberals whom the unions had long seen as allies, turned sharply against the workers and there were a series of bloody confrontations, particularly in the pastoral areas of Queensland. The unions reacted to these defeats and what they saw as betrayals by liberal politicians by forming their own political parties within their respective colonies, the forerunners of the Australian Labor Party. These parties achieved rapid success: in 1899 Queensland saw the world's first Labour party parliamentary government, the Dawson Government, which held office for six days.

The industrial struggles of the 1890s produced a new strain of Australian radicalism and nationalism, exemplified in the Sydney-based magazine The Bulletin, under its legendary editor J F Archibald. Writers such as A B "Banjo" Paterson, Henry Lawson and (a little later) Vance and Nettie Palmer and Mary Gilmour promoted socialism, republicanism and Australian independence. This newfound Australian consciousness also gave birth to a profound racism, against Chinese, Japanese and Indian immigrants. Attitudes towards indigenous Australians during the period varied from the outright armed hostility seen in earlier times to a paternalistic "smoothing the pillow" policy, designed to "civilise" the last remnants of what was seen as a dying race (see White Man's Burden).

See also


  • Lepailleur, François-Maurice. 1980. Land of a Thousand Sorrows. The Australian Prison Journal 1840-1842, of the Exiled Canadien Patriote, François-Maurice Lepailleur. Trans. and edited by F. Murray Greenwood. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver. ISBN 0-7748-0123-9.
  • Duyker, Edward & Maryse. 2001. Voyage to Australia and the Pacific 1791 - 1793. Melbourne University Press.
  • Duyker, Edward & Maryse. 2003. Citizen Labillardiére - A Naturalist's Life in Revolution and Exploration. The Miegunyah Press.
  • Horner, Frank. 1995. Looking for La Perouse. Melbourne University Press.

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