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History of Australia


• Intruders arrive

• Convict beginnings

• From shackles to freedom

• Two new settlements: Melbourne & Adelaide

• The search for land continues

• Gold & rebellion

• Meanwhile, in the west…

• Growing nationalism

• Nationhood

• Entering the world stage

• War with Japan

• Visionary peace

• Materialism

Intruders arrive

By sunrise the storm had passed. Zachary Hicks was keeping sleepy watch on the British ship Endeavour when suddenly he was wide awake. He summoned his captain, James Cook, who climbed into the brisk morning air to a miraculous sight. Ahead of them lay an uncharted country of wooded hills and gentle valleys. It was 19 April 1770. In the coming days Cook began to draw the first European map of Australia’s eastern coast. He was mapping the end of Aboriginal supremacy.

Two weeks later Cook led a party of men onto a narrow beach. As they waded ashore, two Aboriginal men stepped onto the sand, and challenged the intruders with spears. Cook drove the men off with musket fire. For the rest of that week, the Aborigines and the intruders watched each other warily.

Cook’s ship Endeavour was a floating annexe of London’s leading scientific organisation, the Royal Society. The ship’s gentlemen passengers included technical artists, scientists, an astronomer and a wealthy botanist named Joseph Banks. As Banks and his colleagues strode about the Aborigines’ territory, they were delighted by the mass of new plants they collected. (The showy banksia flowers, which look like red, white or golden bottlebrushes, are named after Banks.)

The local Aborigines called the place Kurnell, but Cook gave it a foreign name: he called it ‘Botany Bay’. The fertile eastern coastline of Australia is now festooned with Cook’s place names – including Point Hicks, Hervey Bay (after an English admiral), Endeavour River and Point Solander (after one of the Endeavour’s scientists).

When the Endeavour reached the northern tip of Cape York, blue ocean opened up to the west. Cook and his men could smell the sea-route home. And on a small, hilly island (‘Possession Island’), Cook raised the Union Jack. Amid volleys of gunfire, he claimed the eastern half of the continent for King George III.

Cook’s intention was not to steal land from the Aborigines. In fact he rather idealised them: ‘They are far more happier than we Europeans’, he wrote. ‘They think themselves provided with all the necessaries of Life and that they have no superfluities.’ At most, his patriotic ceremony was intended to contain the territorial ambitions of the French, and of the Dutch, who had visited and mapped much of the western and southern coast over the previous two centuries. Indeed, Cook knew the western half of Australia as ‘New Holland’.

Convict beginnings

Eighteen years after Cook’s arrival, in 1788, the English were back to stay with a fleet of 11 ships, packed with supplies including weapons, tools, building materials and livestock. The ships also contained 751 ragtag convicts, and around 250 soldiers, officials and their wives. This motley ‘First Fleet’ was under the command of a humane and diligent naval captain, Arthur Phillip. As his orders dictated, Phillip dropped anchor at Botany Bay. But the paradise that had so delighted Joseph Banks filled Phillip with dismay. The country was marshy, there was little healthy water, and the anchorage was exposed to wind and storm. So Phillip left his floating prison and embarked in a small boat to search for a better location. Just a short way up the coast his heart leapt as he sailed into the finest harbour in the world. There, in a small cove, in the idyllic lands of the Eora people, he established a British penal settlement. He renamed the place after the British Home Secretary, Lord Sydney.

The intruders set about clearing the trees and building shelters and were soon trying to grow crops. Phillip’s official instructions urged him to colonise the land without doing violence to the local inhabitants. Among the Aborigines he used as intermediaries was an Eora man named Bennelong, who adopted many of the white man’s customs and manners. For many years Bennelong lived in a hut on the finger of land now known as Bennelong Point, the site of the Sydney Opera House. But his people were shattered by the loss of their lands. Hundreds died of smallpox, and many of the survivors, including Bennelong himself, succumbed to alcoholism and despair.

So what kind of society were the British trying to create? Robert Hughes’ bestseller, The Fatal Shore (1987), depicts convict Australia as a terrifying ‘Gulag’ where the British authorities tormented rebels, vagrants and criminals. But other historians point out that powerful men in London saw transportation as a scheme for giving prisoners a new and useful life. Indeed, under Governor Phillip’s authority, many convicts soon earned their ‘ticket of leave’, a kind of parole which allowed them to live where they wished and to seek work on their own behalf.

But the convict system could also be savage. Women (who were outnumbered five to one) lived under constant threat of sexual exploitation. Female convicts who offended their gaolers languished in the depressing ‘female factories’. Male re-offenders were cruelly flogged and could even be hanged for such crimes as stealing.

In 1803 English officers established a second convict settlement in Van Diemen’s Land (later called Tasmania). Soon, re-offenders filled the grim prison at Port Arthur on the beautiful and wild coast near Hobart. Others endured the senseless agonies of Norfolk Island prison in the remote Pacific.

So miserable were these convict beginnings, that Australians long regarded them as a period of shame. But things have changed: today most white Australians are inclined to brag a little if they find a convict in their family tree. Indeed, Australians annually celebrate the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788, as ‘Australia Day’.

From shackles to freedom
At first, Sydney and the smaller colonies depended on supplies brought in by ship. Anxious to develop productive farms, the government granted land to soldiers, officers and settlers. After 30 years of trial and error, the farms began to flourish. The most irascible and ruthless of these new landholders was John Macarthur. Along with his spirited wife Elizabeth, Macarthur pioneered the breeding of merino sheep on his verdant property near Sydney.

Macarthur was also a leading member of the ‘Rum Corps’, a clique of powerful officers who bullied successive governors (including William Bligh of Bounty fame), and grew rich by controlling much of Sydney’s trade, notably rum. But its racketeering was ended in 1810 by a tough new governor named Lachlan Macquarie. Macquarie laid out the major roads of modern-day Sydney, built some fine public buildings (many of which were designed by talented convict-architect Francis Greenway) and helped to lay the foundations for a more civil society.

Macquarie also championed the rights of freed convicts, granting them land and appointing several to public office. But Macquarie’s tolerance was not shared by the ‘Exclusives’. These landholders, middle-class snobs and senior British officials observed a rigid expatriate class system. They shunned ex-prisoners, and scoffed at the distinctive accent and easy-going manners of these new Australians.

By now, word was reaching England that Australia offered cheap land and plenty of work, and adventurous migrants took to the oceans in search of their fortunes. At the same time the British government continued to transport prisoners.

In 1825 a party of soldiers and convicts established a penal settlement in the territory of the Yuggera people, close to modern-day Brisbane. Before long this warm, fertile region was attracting free settlers, who were soon busy farming, grazing, logging and mining.

Two new settlements: Melbourne & Adelaide

In the cooler grasslands of Tasmania, the sheep farmers were also thriving, and they too were hungry for more land. In 1835 an ambitious young squatter named John Batman sailed to Port Phillip Bay on the mainland. On the banks of the Yarra River, he chose the location for Melbourne, famously announcing ‘This is the place for a village’. Batman then worked a staggering swindle: he persuaded local Aborigines to ‘sell’ him their traditional lands (a whopping 250, 000 hectares) for a crate of blankets, knives and knick-knacks. Back in Sydney, Governor Burke declared the contract void, not because it was unfair, but because the land officially belonged to the British Crown. Burke proved his point by granting Batman some prime acreage near Geelong.

At the same time, a private British company settled Adelaide in South Australia (SA). Proud to have no links with convicts, these God-fearing folks instituted a scheme under which their company sold land to well-heeled settlers, and used the revenue to assist poor British labourers to emigrate. When these worthies earned enough to buy land from the company, that revenue would in turn pay the fare of another shipload of labourers. This charming theory collapsed in a welter of land speculation and bankruptcy, and in 1842 the South Australian company yielded to government administration. By then miners had found rich deposits of silver, lead and copper at Burra, Kapunda and the Mount Lofty Ranges, and the settlement began to pay its way.

 The search for land continues

Each year, settlers pushed deeper into Aboriginal territories in search of pasture and water for their stock. These men became known as squatters (because they ‘squatted’ on Aboriginal lands) and many held this territory with a gun. To bring order and regulation to the frontier, from the 1830s, the governments permitted the squatters to stay on these ‘Crown lands’ for payment of a nominal rent. Aboriginal stories tell of white men poisoning traditional water holes during this time, or slaughtering groups of Aborigines in reprisal for the killing of sheep or settlers. Across the country, people also tell stories of black resistance leaders, including Yagan of Swan River, Pemulwy of Sydney and Jandamarra, the outlaw-hero of the Kimberley.

In time, many of the squatters reached a compromise with local tribes. Aborigines took low-paid jobs on sheep and cattle stations as drovers and domestics. In return they remained on their traditional lands, adapting their cultures to their changing circumstances. This arrangement continued in outback pastoral regions until after WWII.

The newcomers had fantasised about the wonders waiting to be discovered from the moment they arrived. Before explorers crossed the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in 1813, some credulous souls imagined that China lay on the other side! Then explorers, surveyors and scientists began trading theories about inland Australia. Some spoke of an Australian Mississippi. Others predicted desert. An obsessive explorer named Charles Sturt (there’s a fine statue of him looking lost in Adelaide’s Victoria Sq) believed in an almost mystical inland sea.

The explorers’ expeditions inland were mostly journeys into disappointment. But Australians made heroes of explorers who died in the wilderness (Leichhardt, and the duo of Burke and Wills are the most striking examples). It was as though the Victorian era believed that a nation could not be born until its men had shed their blood in battle – even if that battle was with the land itself.

Gold & rebellion

Transportation of convicts to eastern Australia ceased in the 1840s. This was just as well: in 1851 prospectors discovered gold in New South Wales (NSW) and central Victoria. The news hit the colonies with the force of a cyclone. Young men and some adventurous women from every social class headed for the diggings. Soon they were caught up in a great rush of prospectors, entertainers, publicans, sly-groggers (illicit liquor-sellers), prostitutes and quacks from overseas. In Victoria, the British governor was alarmed – both by the way the Victorian class system had been thrown into disarray, and by the need to finance law and order on the goldfields. His solution was to compel all miners to buy an expensive monthly licence, in the hope that the lower orders would return to their duties in town.

But the lure of gold was too great. In the reckless excitement of the goldfields, the miners initially endured the thuggish troopers who enforced the government licence. After three years, however, the easy gold at Ballarat was gone, and miners were toiling in deep, water-sodden shafts. They were now infuriated by a corrupt and brutal system of law which held them in contempt. Under the leadership of a charismatic Irishman named Peter Lalor, they raised their own flag, the Southern Cross, and swore to defend their rights and liberties. They armed themselves and gathered inside a rough stockade at Eureka, where they waited for the government to make its move.

In the predawn of Sunday 3 December 1854, a force of troopers attacked the stockade. In 15 terrifying minutes, they slaughtered 30 miners and lost five soldiers. But democracy was in the air and public opinion sided with the miners. When 13 of the rebels were tried for their lives, Melbourne juries set them free. Many Australians have found a kind of splendour in these events: the story of the Eureka Stockade is often told as a battle for nationhood and democracy – again illustrating the notion that any ‘true’ nation must be born out of blood. But these killings were tragically unnecessary. The eastern colonies were already in the process of establishing democratic parliaments, with the full support of the British authorities. In the 1880s Peter Lalor himself became Speaker of the Victorian parliament.

The gold rush had also attracted boatloads of prospectors from China. These Asians endured serious hostility from whites, and were the victims of ugly race riots on the goldfields at Lambing Flat (now called Young) in NSW in 1860–61. Chinese precincts soon developed in the backstreets of Sydney and Melbourne, and popular literature indulged in tales of Chinese opium dens, dingy gambling parlours and brothels. But many Chinese went on to establish themselves in business and, particularly, in market gardening. Today the busy Chinatowns of the capital cities and the presence of Chinese restaurants in towns across the country are reminders of the vigorous role of the Chinese in Australia since the 1850s.

Gold and wool brought immense investment and gusto to Melbourne and Sydney. By the 1880s they were stylish modern cities, with gaslights in the streets, railways, electricity and that great new invention, the telegraph. In fact, the southern capital became known as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, so opulent were its theatres, hotels, galleries and fashions. But the economy was overheating. Many politicians and speculators were engaged in corrupt land deals, while investors poured money into wild and fanciful ventures. It could not last.

Meanwhile, in the west…

Western Australia (WA) lagged behind the eastern colonies by about 50 years. Though Perth was settled by genteel colonists back in 1829, their material progress was handicapped by isolation, Aboriginal resistance and the arid climate. It was not until the 1880s that the discovery of remote goldfields promised to gild the fortunes of the isolated colony. At the time, the west was just entering its own period of self-government, and its first premier was a forceful, weather-beaten explorer named John Forrest. He saw that the mining industry would die if the government did not provide a first-class harbour, efficient railways and reliable water supplies. Ignoring the threats of private contractors, he appointed the brilliant engineer CY O’Connor to design and build each of these as government projects. O’Connor’s final scheme was a 560km pipeline and a series of mighty pumping stations that would drive water uphill from the coast to the dry goldfields round Kal¬goorlie. As the work neared completion, O’Connor was subjected to merciless slander in the capitalist press. In 1902 the tormented man rode into the surf at South Fremantle and shot himself. A lonely statue in the waves marks the spot. His great pipeline continues to pump water into the thirsty gold cities of central WA.

Growing nationalism

By the end of the 19th century, Australian nationalists tended to idealise ‘the bush’ and its people. The great forum for this ‘bush nationalism’ was the massively popular Bulletin magazine. Its politics were egalitarian, democratic and republican, and its pages were filled with humour and sentiment about daily life, written by a swag of writers, most notably Henry Lawson and ‘Banjo’ Paterson.

Central to the Bulletin’s ethos was the idea of ‘mateship’. At its most attractive, mateship was a sense of brotherhood reinforced by a profound egalitarianism. But there was also a deeply chauvinistic side to mateship. This was represented in the pages of the Bulletin, where cartoons and stories often portrayed women as sexy maidens or nagging wives. It parodied Aborigines as amiable simpletons and it represented the Chinese as goofballs or schemers. A more bruised and knowing account of women and the bush appeared in the short stories of Barbara Baynton.

The 1890s were also a time of great trauma. As the speculative boom came crashing down, unemployment and hunger dealt cruelly with working-class families in the eastern states. However, Australian workers had developed a fierce sense that they were entitled to share in the country’s prosperity. As the depression deepened, trade unions became more militant in their defence of workers’ rights. At the same time, activists intent on winning legal reform established the Australian Labor Party.

Some people feared that the nation was about to descend into revolution. But there was a broad liberal consensus in Australia that took democracy and fairness for granted. So the new century was ushered in, not with bombs, but with fireworks.


On 1 January 1901 Australia became a federation. When the bewhiskered members of the new national parliament met in Melbourne, their first aim was to protect the identity and values of a European Australian from an influx of Asians and Pacific Islanders. Their solution was a law which became known as the White Australia Policy. It became a racial tenet of faith in Australia for the next 70 years.

For those whites who were welcome to live here, this was to be a model society, nestled in the skirts of the British Empire. Just one year later, white women won the right to vote in federal elections. In a series of radical innovations, the government introduced a broad social welfare scheme and it protected Australian wage levels with import tariffs. Its radical mixture of capitalist dynamism and socialist compassion became known as the ‘Australian settlement’.

Meanwhile, most Australians lived on the coastal ‘edge’ of the continent. So forbidding was the arid, desolate inland, that they called the great dry Lake Eyre ‘the Dead Heart’ of the country. It was a grim image – as if the heart muscle, which should pump the water of life through inland Australia, was dead. But one prime minister in particular, the dapper Alfred Deakin, dismissed such talk. He led the ‘boosters’ who were determined to triumph over this tyranny of the climate. Even before Federation, in the 1880s, Deakin championed irrigated farming on the Murray River at Mildura. Soon the district was green with grapevines and orchards. Today, this massively productive region is facing an ecological crisis as the Murray River struggles to meet the great demands made upon its waters.

Entering the world stage

Living on the edge of a dry and forbidding land, and isolated from the rest of the world, most Australians took comfort in the knowledge that they were a dominion of the British Empire. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, thousands of Australian men rallied to the Empire’s call. They had their first taste of death on 25 April 1915, when the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the Anzacs) joined thousands of other British and French troops in an assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. It was eight months before the British commanders acknowledged that the tactic had failed. By then 8141 young Australians were dead. Soon the Australian Imperial Force was fighting in the killing fields of Europe. By the time the war ended, 60, 000 Australian men had been slaughtered. Ever since, on 25 April, Australians have gathered at war memorials around the country for the sad and solemn services of Anzac Day.

In the 1920s Australia embarked on a decade of chaotic change. Cars began to rival horses on the highway. In the new cinemas, young Australians enjoyed American movies. In an atmosphere of sexual freedom not equalled until the 1960s, young people partied and danced to American jazz. At the same time, popular enthusiasm for the British Empire grew more intense – as if Imperial fervour were an antidote to grief. As radicals and ¬reactionaries clashed, Australia careered wildly through the 1920s until it collapsed into the abyss of the Great Depression in 1929. World prices for wheat and wool plunged. Unemployment brought its shame and misery to one in three households. Once again working people experienced the cruelty of a system which treated them as expendable. For those who were wealthy – or who had jobs – the Depression was hardly noticed. In fact, the extreme deflation of the economy actually meant that the purchasing power of their wages was enhanced.

In the midst of the hardship, sport brought escape to a nation in love with games and gambling. A powerful chestnut horse called Phar Lap won race after race, culminating in an effortless and graceful victory in the 1930 Melbourne Cup (which is still known as ‘the race that stops a nation’). In 1932 the great horse travelled to the racetracks of America, where he mysteriously died. In Australia, the gossips insisted that the horse had been poisoned by envious Americans. And the legend grew of a sporting hero cut down in his prime. Phar Lap was stuffed and is a revered exhibit at the Melbourne Museum.

The year 1932 saw accusations of treachery on the cricket field. The English team, under their captain Douglas Jardine, employed a violent new bowling tactic known as ‘body-line’. His aim was to unnerve Australia’s star batsman, the devastatingly efficient Donald Bradman. The bitterness of the tour provoked a diplomatic crisis with Britain, and became part of Australian legend. And Bradman batted on. When he retired in 1949 he had an unsurpassed career average of 99.94 runs.

War with Japan

After 1933 the economy began to recover. The whirl of daily life was hardly dampened when Hitler hurled Europe into a new war in 1939. Though Australians had long feared Japan, they took it for granted that the British navy would keep them safe. In December 1941, Japan bombed the US Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Weeks later the ‘impregnable’ British naval base in Singapore crumbled, and before long thousands of Australians and other Allied troops were enduring the savagery of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.

As the Japanese swept through Southeast Asia and into Papua New Guinea, the British announced that they could not spare any resources to defend Australia. But the legendary US commander General Douglas MacArthur saw that Australia was the perfect base for American operations in the Pacific. In a series of savage battles on sea and land, Allied forces gradually turned back the Japanese advance. Importantly, it was the USA, not the British Empire, who saved Australia. The days of the British alliance were numbered.

Visionary peace

When WWII ended, a new slogan rang through the land: ‘Populate or Perish!’ The Australian government embarked on an ambitious scheme to attract thousands of immigrants. With government assistance, people flocked from Britain and from non-English speaking countries. They included Greeks, Italians, Slavs, Serbs, Croatians, Dutch and Poles, followed by Turks, Lebanese and many others. These ‘new Australians’ were expected to assimilate into a suburban stereotype known as the ‘Australian way of life’.

This was the great era of the ‘nuclear family’, in which Australians basked in the prosperity of a ‘Long Boom’. Many migrants found jobs in the growing manufacturing sector, under which companies like General Motors and Ford operated with generous tariff support. In addition, the government embarked on audacious public works schemes, notably the mighty Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme in the mountains near Canberra. Today, environmentalists point out the devastation caused by this huge network of tunnels, dams and power stations. But the Snowy scheme was a great expression of optimism and testifies to the cooperation among the men of many nations who laboured on the project. At the same time, there was growing world demand for Australia’s primary products: metals, wool, meat and wheat. In time Australia would even become a major exporter of rice to Japan.

This era of growth and prosperity was dominated by Robert Menzies, the founder of the modern Liberal Party and Australia’s longest-serving prime minister. Menzies was steeped in British history and tradition, and liked to play the part of a sentimental monarchist. He was also a vigilant opponent of communism. The chill of the Cold War was extending across Asia, and Australia and New Zealand entered a formal military alliance with the USA – the 1951 Anzus security pact. When the USA hurled its righteous fury into a civil war in Vietnam, Menzies committed Australian forces to the battle, introducing conscription for military service overseas. The following year Menzies retired, leaving his successors a bitter legacy. The antiwar movement split Australia.

There was a feeling too among artists, intellectuals and the young that Menzies’ 1960s Australia had become a rather dull, complacent country, more in love with American and British culture than with its own talents and stories. In an atmosphere of youthful rebellion and new-found nationalism, the Labor Party was elected to power in 1972 under the leadership of a brilliant, idealistic lawyer named Gough Whitlam. In just four short years his government transformed the country. He ended conscription and abolished all university fees. He introduced a free universal health scheme, no-fault divorce, the principle of Aboriginal land rights, and equal pay for women. The White Australia Policy had been gradually falling into disuse; under Whitlam it was finally abandoned altogether. By now, around one million migrants had arrived from non-English speaking countries, and they had filled Australia with new languages, cultures, foods and ideas. Under Whitlam this achievement was embraced as ‘multiculturalism’.

By 1975, the Whitlam government was rocked by a tempest of inflation and scandal. At the end of 1975 his government was controversially dismissed from office by the governor general. But the general thrust of Whitlam’s social reforms was continued by his successors. The principle of Aboriginal land rights was expanded. From the 1970s, Asian immigration increased, and multiculturalism became a new Australian orthodoxy. China and Japan far outstripped Europe as major trading partners – Australia’s economic future lay in Asia.


Today Australia faces new challenges. Since the 1970s the country has been dismantling its protectionist scaffolding. New efficiency has brought new prosperity. At the same time, wages and working conditions, which used to be protected by an independent authority, are now more vulnerable as egalitarianism gives way to competition. And two centuries of development have placed great strains on the environment – on water supplies, forests, soils, air quality and the oceans. The country is closer than ever to the USA, as it demonstrated by its commitment to the war in Iraq (2003–). Some say that this alliance protects Australia’s independence; others insist that it reduces Australia to a fawning ‘client state’.

Though many Australians pride themselves on their tolerance, conservatives have denounced the policy of ‘multiculturalism’ as a left-wing plot to undermine Australian unity. Under popular conservative prime minister John Howard, the majority of Australians have hardened their hearts to asylum seekers. At the same time, Howard’s relations with Aboriginal Australians have been marked by impatience with the slow rate of change. But since his first election in 1996, he has presided over secure economic growth, encouraging an atmosphere in which material self-advancement and self-reliance are the primary measures of what is right.
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