Human habitation of the Australian continent is estimated to have begun between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago, possibly with the migration of people by land bridges and short sea-crossings from what is now South-East Asia. These first inhabitants may have been ancestors of modern Indigenous Australians.
At the time of European settlement in the late 18th century, most Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers, with a complex oral culture and spiritual values based on reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. The Torres Strait Islanders, ethnically Melanesian, were originally horticulturalists and hunter-gatherers.
Following sporadic visits by fishermen from the Malay Archipelago, the first recorded European sighting of the Australian mainland and the first recorded European landfall on the Australian continent were attributed to the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon. He sighted the coast of Cape York Peninsula on an unknown date in early 1606, and made landfall on 26 February at the Pennefather River on the western shore of Cape York, near the modern town of Weipa. The Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines of “New Holland” during the 17th century, but made no attempt at settlement.
William Dampier, an English explorer and privateer landed on the north-west coast of Australia in 1688 and again in 1699 on a return trip. In 1770, James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast of Australia, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Great Britain. Cook’s discoveries prepared the way for establishment of a new penal colony.
The British Crown Colony of New South Wales was formed on 26 January 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip led the First Fleet to Port Jackson. This date became Australia’s national day, Australia Day. Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania, was settled in 1803 and became a separate colony in 1825. The United Kingdom formally claimed the western part of Australia in 1828.
Separate colonies were carved from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory was founded in 1911 when it was excised from South Australia. South Australia was founded as a “free province” it was never a penal colony. Victoria and Western Australia were also founded “free”, but later accepted transported convicts. A campaign by the settlers of New South Wales led to the end of convict transportation to that colony; the last convict ship arrived in 1848.
Port Arthur, Tasmania was Australia’s largest gaol for transported convicts.
The indigenous population, estimated at 750,000 to 1,000,000 at the time of European settlement, declined steeply for 150 years following settlement, mainly due to infectious disease. The “Stolen Generations” (removal of Aboriginal children from their families), which historians such as Henry Reynolds have argued could be considered genocide, may have contributed to the decline in the Indigenous population.
Such interpretations of Aboriginal history are disputed by conservative commentators such as former Prime Minister John Howard as exaggerated or fabricated for political or ideological reasons. This debate is known within Australia as the History wars. The Federal government gained the power to make laws with respect to Aborigines following the 1967 referendum. Traditional ownership of land—aboriginal title—was not recognised until 1992, when the High Court case Mabo v Queensland (No 2) overturned the notion of Australia as terra nullius (“land belonging to no one”) before European occupation.
A gold rush began in Australia in the early 1850s, and the Eureka Rebellion against mining licence fees in 1854 was an early expression of civil disobedience. Between 1855 and 1890, the six colonies individually gained responsible government, managing most of their own affairs while remaining part of the British Empire. The Colonial Office in London retained control of some matters, notably foreign affairs, defence,and international shipping.
The Last Post is played at an ANZAC Day ceremony in Port Melbourne, Victoria. Similar ceremonies are held in most suburbs and towns. On 1 January 1901 federation of the colonies was achieved after a decade of planning, consultation, and voting. The Commonwealth of Australia was established and it became a dominion of the British Empire in 1907.
The Federal Capital Territory (later renamed the Australian Capital Territory) was formed in 1911 as the location for the future federal capital of Canberra. Melbourne was the temporary seat of government from 1901 to 1927 while Canberra was constructed.
The Northern Territory was transferred from the control of the South Australian government to the federal parliament in 1911. In 1914, Australia joined Britain in fighting World War I, with support from both the outgoing Liberal Party and the incoming Labor Party.
Australians took part in many of the major battles fought on the Western Front. Of about 416,000 who served, about 60,000 were killed and another 152,000 were wounded. Many Australians regard the defeat of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) at Gallipoli as the birth of the nation—its first major military action. The Kokoda Track campaign is regarded by many as an analogous nation-defining event during World War II.
Britain’s Statute of Westminster 1931 formally ended most of the constitutional links between Australia and the UK. Australia adopted it in 1942, but it was backdated to 1939 to confirm the validity of legislation passed by the Australian Parliament during World War II. The shock of the UK’s defeat in Asia in 1942 and the threat of Japanese invasion caused Australia to turn to the United States as a new ally and protector. Since 1951, Australia has been a formal military ally of the US, under the ANZUS treaty. After World War II Australia encouraged immigration from Europe. Since the 1970s and following the abolition of the White Australia policy, immigration from Asia and elsewhere was also promoted. As a result, Australia’s demography, culture, and self-image were transformed.
The final constitutional ties between Australia and the UK were severed with the passing of the Australia Act 1986, ending any British role in the government of the Australian States, and closing the option of judicial appeals to the Privy Council in London. In a 1999 referendum, 55 per cent of Australian voters and a majority in every Australian state rejected a proposal to become a republic with a president appointed by a two-thirds vote in both Houses of the Australian Parliament.
Since the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972, there has been an increasing focus in foreign policy on ties with other Pacific Rim nations, while maintaining close ties with Australia’s traditional allies and trading partners.
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