The aborigines migrated to this continent from south-east Asia about 55,000 years ago. Their entry point was probably in the north-west and from there they gradually spread across the whole land. They were nomadic, or semi-nomadic, people, which should not be taken to mean that they moved without pattern.
The aborigines have survived, and in some remote places still practise their traditional life styles. Recently, and probably too late, court decisions have recognised some of their rights to occupy the land, and vast tracts in unfrequented places have been set aside for their use. However, the most fertile of the land has already been taken from them and most of the territory which they now occupy is relatively inhospitable.
Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Macassan traders from the port of Macassar (Ujung Pandang) and the island of Celebes (Sulawesi) in what is now Indonesia visited the northern parts of Australia and traded with the aborigines.
The first European known to have sighted Australia was the Spaniard Luis Vaez de Torres. He sailed through what is now named the Torres Strait, separating Australia from Papua New Guinea, in 1606. Immediately afterwards, the Dutch arrived and investigated parts of northern Australia. However, they found the territory unappealing and were much more interested in establishing their influence in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).
In 1616, the first known landing by a European took place. The Dutchman Dirk Hartog landed at Cape Inscription, on the west coast, on an island now known as Dirk Hartog Island, in Shark Bay, near Monkey Mia. He left behind a pewter plate engraved with details of his landing. The plate is now in the Rijksmuseum in Holland, having been recovered by another Dutch explorer, Willem de Vlamingh, in 1697.
In 1628, the Dutch ship, the Batavia, on her maiden voyage to Batavia (Jakarta), was shipwrecked near Geraldton in Western Australia as a result of which two seamen were abandoned to their fates on the mainland of this new continent, the first two reluctant European settlers.
In 1642, Abel Tasman charted much of the coastline of eastern Australia and Tasmania, which is now named after him, without, however, realising that Tasmania was a separate island.
The first Englishman to venture here was the buccaneer William Dampier, in 1688. He landed in north-western Australia, near the current site of the town named in his honour. It was nearly a century later that James Cook came to Australia and thought, in 1770, that it might be useful to His Majesty King George III. Having travelled all the way up the east coast, he therefore hoisted the British flag and claimed possession on the aptly named Possession Island off the north-eastern tip of Australia, near Cape York.
In 1788, eleven ships under Captain Arthur Phillip arrived in Botany Bay, near Sydney, bringing 1,373 new settlers to this land, of whom 732 were convicts. They moved to the present site of Sydney and established a new British colony there on 26th January 1788. 26th January is now Australia Day and a national holiday here. A further penal settlement was established near the present site of Hobart in Tasmania in 1803. The Brisbane River settlement which was to become the new colony of Queensland was established in 1824. In 1826, a settlement was established in Albany, then in 1829 on the Swan River (Perth), both in what is now Western Australia. Portland in Victoria dates from 1834, while Port Phillip (Melbourne) was founded a year later. Adelaide was chosen in 1836 as the capital of South Australia.
Not all settlements were penal, but a total of approximately 100,000 convicts were brought to this country. The last state to accept such prisoners was Western Australia and transportation to there ceased in 1868.
Of all the European influences which have transformed Australia, perhaps none has been greater than the introduction of sheep. Sheep farming has destroyed the traditional lifestyles of the aborigines and it has damaged the land by denudation in places, but it also made Australia prosperous and provided the impetus for further development.
In the nineteenth century, great inland explorations took place, of which the most famous was the Burke and Wills Expedition. In 1851, gold was discovered in Bathurst in New South Wales, then in Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria. Diggers rushed to the scene and tent cities sprang up. Few made individual fortunes, but the cities prospered and Victoria became the most prestigious of the states. The largest nuggets in the history of the world were discovered here. Later Western Australia experienced its own gold rushes and Kalgoorlie became the most famous gold town in the nation. It is still producing gold more than a century later.
The states gradually achieved a major degree of independence, and then took the most important step in their history when they agreed to federation as the Commonwealth of Australia. The Commonwealth came into being on 1st January 1901 with Melbourne as its temporary capital.
The Australian Capital Territory was proclaimed in 1911 and a competition was held for the design of a new capital, being won by Walter Burley Griffin from Chicago. Canberra was named in 1913 and Parliament moved to its new home in 1927.
Australia found that it had no choice but to be involved in both World Wars and, like the rest of the world, endured hard times during the depression of the late 1920s and 1930s, but it recovered.
During the Second World War some bombing raids were made by the Japanese on towns in the north, of which the most serious was the raid on Darwin on 19th February 1942 when 243 people were killed and twelve ships destroyed. The incident which caused most concern, however, was the discovery of a Japanese submarine in Sydney Harbour. Australia was not invaded, though, the Japanese advance being halted in Papua New Guinea.
In the post-war years, Australia portrayed itself as the ‘lucky country’ and invited immigration. There was first a major influx of British, but then the emphasis changed to those from other European countries, especially Italy and Greece. In more recent years, immigrants have been from south Asian countries, as a result of which Australia now offers considerable ethnic diversity.
With fewer and fewer inhabitants of British origin, Australia has felt pressure to cut its remaining links with the U.K. and to replace the monarchy with a presidency. To date this has not occurred, but the general sentiment is that it will happen at some time within the next decade.