Australia is an ancient land with a history of human habitation estimated to be anywhere up to 60,000 years or more. It was only relatively recently "discovered" and colonised by Europeans, and has developed into an industrialised middle power that plays an active role on the world stage.
Precolonial Aboriginal history
According to archaeological evidence, Aborigines were living in Australia at least 40,000 years ago. However, a skeleton found at Lake Mungo, NSW, is believed perhaps to have been buried between 57,000 and 71,000 years ago. While it is unknown exactly how Aborigines first reached Australia, recent DNA evidence strongly suggests that they originated from Africa and then continued to evolve in relative isolation.
The Aborigines, like many other indigenous and ethnic groups, have a rich oral tradition based on the Dreaming (the Aborigines' preferred term for what is often also referred to as the Dreamtime or Dreamtimes), when the ancestral beings moved across the land, creating life and significant geographic landmarks. Translated from the Arrernte language, the Dreaming is known as Tjurkurrpa, meaning also "to see and understand the law". Dreaming stories perform a critical role in Aboriginal culture, passing crucial knowledge, cultural values and belief systems from one generation to the next. These stories, passed on through storytelling, painting, song and dance, provide a link for modern Aborigines between ancient times and now.
Prior to the arrival of European colonists, Aborigines lived as hunters, fishers and gatherers, often nomadic across large areas, in groups of between 25 and 50 people. Estimates of the Aboriginal population at European settlement vary, but there may have been around 750,000 people speaking some 700 languages. These numbers dropped sharply after 1788 because of diseases introduced by Europeans, and the killing of large numbers of Aborigines by settlers.
Precolonial contact and exploration
Although traditional 19th- and 20th-century tellings of Australian history had Captain James Cook "discovering" the Great South Land in 1770, there is a much longer history of Aboriginal contact with people from other nations. It is now well-documented that Macassan traders, from the eastern part of modern Indonesia, were visiting and trading with northern-Australian Aborigines for at least 100 years prior to European settlement in 1788.
Nor was Cook the first European to set eyes on the southern continent. A number of European explorers sailed the coast of Australia in the 17th century. Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, for example, charted the coast of what is now Tasmania in 1642, and of northern Australia during a second voyage in 1644. English explorer and sometime buccaneer William Dampier explored the western and north-western coastline during voyages in 1688 and 1699. Although Tasman claimed Tasmania for the Netherlands (a claim never followed through), it was Cook who first claimed part of mainland Australia for a European nation, when, in 1770, he charted the east coast and claimed it for England.
The British established a penal colony at Port Jackson (now Sydney) on 26 January 1788 (and event now celebrated annually as Australia Day). Another penal colony was established in Tasmania (then called Van Diemen's Land) in 1803.
Free settlers began to arrive in the colony from the 1790s, and wheat and merino sheep were also introduced in the late 18th century. The government initially granted land to settlers, but by 1831 the sale of land had been introduced, with the proceeds helping to finance the passage of more migrants. It is estimated that the land sales paid for the migration of some 50,000 settlers over the next ten years.
As settlement spread and the country opened up, squatters  began to occupy grazing land. The government recognised these squatters in 1836 and introduced a licence fee of £10 a year.
Meanwhile, free settlers had begun to resent competition for their jobs with convicts, and the policy of transporting felons began to fall out of favour in Britain. Transportation to NSW ceased in 1840, and to Tasmania in 1853. It was reintroduced briefly in WA – between 1853 and 1867 – to provide labour in the settlement there. In total, some 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1867.
Growth and self-government
Many of the free settlers arrived with notions of representative government in mind, and demand for self-government grew throughout the 1830s and 1840s. This was granted in 1850, with the British passed the Australian Colonies Government Act, which allowed the colonies a significant degree of independence. Under the Act colonies could, for example, amend their constitutions, determine electoral franchise and fix tariffs.
The discovery of gold in NSW and Victoria in 1851 led to a large influx of migrants. The population of Victoria quadrupled by 1855. The Australian economy was now firmly based on wool and gold.
The large holdings of squatters were now preventing small farmers from purchasing land, so most colonies tried to break them up, although with limited success. Trade unions also began to emerge, particularly among miners and shearers, and the 1880s saw intermittent industrial unrest.
In 1890 wharf labourers went on strike over the issue of employers' rights to engage non-union labour, and miners and farm workers also became involved. The strike was put down by troops and special police, but this did not deter further strike action over the same issue in the 1890s. During this period labour became a political force and the Australian Labor Party emerged; after the 1891 elections it held the balance of power in NSW.
The final decade of the 19th century was difficult for Australia. An extended drought combined with industrial unrest, overexpansion and excessive borrowing to cause bank failures and a financial crisis.
It was becoming apparent that, too, that the independent nature of the various colonies caused problems, such as differing postal systems and railway gauges, and the absence of a unified defence policy. When Victoria (soon followed by all colonies except NSW) introduced a trade protection policy in 1866, it began to become clear that some form of intercolonial cooperation was needed.
In 1883 the first of a series of intercolonial conferences aimed at closer ties was held, but it failed to make any significant headway. The first Australian Federal Convention then met in 1891, and made initial moves towards a unified nation. The convention, comprising members of the colonial parliaments, worked out a draft constitution that later became the basis for federation.
On 1 January 1901 the colonies of NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania federated to become the Commonwealth of Australia. (The Northern Territory, at that time under South Australia governance, was transferred to commonwealth control in 1911.)
From federation to war
Under the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia, the federal government was to control foreign affairs, defence, trade, and so on. The first piece of legislation passed by the new parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act (1901), which put in place what became known as the White Australia policy. This was aimed especially at keeping out Chinese immigrants, who had arrived in large numbers to work the goldfields, but also caused the repatriation of Pacific Islanders, many of whom were working on sugar plantations in Queensland.
A great deal of social legislation was also passed during this period, however. In 1902 women were given the vote in federal elections. An industrial arbitration court, which established the principle of a basic wage, was set up in 1906. Free and compulsory education was introduced, as were old-age and invalid pensions.
The first ship of the Australian navy was ordered in 1909. The Commonwealth Bank was established in 1911, and in the same year the Commonwealth bought land from NSW to form the federal capital, Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory. Parliament first met there in 1927.
World War I: Baptism of fire
Australia's role during World War I, although relatively minor overall, was significant given the size of the nation and the toll of the conflict on its population. In terms of lives shattered or lost, the war was the most costly in Australian history: of the 416,809 men who enlisted (from a population of fewer than 5 million), more than 60,000 died and 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.
Australian troops first took part in the ultimately abortive Allied operations against the Ottoman Empire on the Gallipoli Peninsula. This bloody episode, from 25 April to 20 December 1915, was considered Australia's baptism of fire and, although a defeat, has a special place in the way Australians perceive themselves.
After Gallipoli, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) fought on the Western Front from March 1916 until war's end. The Australians made their name in battles such as Fromelles (July 1916) and, in 1917, Bullecourt, Messines and Passchendaele). In October 1918, after more bloody but now mostly successful fighting that year (Hamel, Mont St Quentin and Péronne), the depleted Australian divisions were withdrawn from the line for rest and refitting. They were preparing to return when the Germans surrendered on 11 November.
In the Middle East, meanwhile, Australian Light Horse troopers were fighting the Ottomans. In 1916 the Australians aided in the defence of the Suez Canal and the Allied reconquest of the Sinai peninsula. In 1917, Australian troops advanced with the Allies into Palestine and took Gaza and Jerusalem. During 1918 they occupied Lebanon and Syria, and on 30 October 1918 Turkey sued for peace.
Australia also provided naval and air forces. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was under the command of the British Royal Navy, and scored an early and significant victory when it destroyed the German raider ''Emden'' in 1914. Around 3,000 airmen served in the Middle East and France with the newly formed Australian Flying Corps (AFC).
At home there was widespread and deep-seated grief at the loss of so many men, and the physical and financial burdens of caring for families fell increasingly onto women. Social division over the war reached its height during 1916 and 1917, when Prime Minister Billy Hughes sought to introduce conscription in two bitterly fought and ultimately unsuccessful referendums. Australia also had to deal with it's first act of terrorism at home in 1915, when two Muslim itinerant workers in Broken Hill ambushed a civilian steam train transporting local residents to an annual picnic, killing five people. After the war new difficulties arose, as thousands of former servicemen, many disabled physically or emotionally or both, tried to reintegrate into a society whose most precious ambition was now to put the war behind it and move on.
Between the wars
After World War I, Australia participated in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, during which the inimitable Billy Hughes ensured that Australia, despite strenuous opposition from US President Woodrow Wilson, gained control of German New Guinea. Hughes also prevented a Japanese racial-equality clause, which threatened the White Australia policy, from being inserted into the League of Nations covenant. Australia went on to become a founder member of the League of Nations in 1920.
During the 1920s, high prices for wool and wheat supported an expansion of the Australian economy. Manufacturing industries received protection from newly introduced tariffs, while primary producers gained subsidies.
The Depression of the 1930s hit hard in Australia. The nation's economy was largely dependent on that of Britain, which demanded loan repayments from Australia regardless of its incapacity to make them. Australians were caught in a situation that led to widespread unemployment and adversity. Australia was, however, quicker to recover from the Depression than many other nations because of the rising price of wool and gold, but also aided by the Ottawa Trade Agreement (1932), which provided for preferential trade terms between Britain and its dominions and colonies.
Australia had, in 1931, become a dominion with the Commonwealth of Nations (sometimes called the British Commonwealth) by virtue of the passage of the Statute of Westminster.
World War II: Defending the nation
Almost a million Australians, men and women, served during World War II. Of those, around 30,000 died. Australians fought Germany and Italy in Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa, and Japan in South-East Asia and elsewhere in the Pacific. For the first time the Australian mainland was directly attacked, and Australia conducted its war accordingly.
The Australian Army first saw combat in early 1941, against the Italians in the Mediterranean and North Africa. After the Germans entered the war, Australian troops conducted a desperate defence of the Libyan port of Tobruk, earning the nickname "the Rats of Tobruk".
Upon being relieved, most returned to Australia to take up the war against Japan, who had swiftly and suddenly entered the war in December 1941. By the end of March 1942 the Japanese occupied most of South-East Asia and large areas of the Pacific. When Singapore fell (February 1942) the entire Australian 8th Division became prisoners of war at Changi, and later on the Thai-Burma Railway. By now, though, Japan's southward advance was slowing.
Australian invasion fears were eased as AIF veterans returned from the Mediterranean, and United States forces under General Douglas Macarthur took over responsibility for Australia's defence. The Allies also began to defeat the Japanese in a series of decisive land and sea battles, and the threat of invasion faded further still.
During 1943 and early 1944 Australian troops were predominantly involved in land battles in New Guinea. They also began, in 1944, a series of campaigns against the Japanese from Bougainville to Borneo. Australians were still fighting in Borneo when the war ended in August 1945.
In the latter years of the war women contributed to the war effort through organisations such as the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) and the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS). The Women's Land Army (WLA) encouraged women to work in rural industries, while women in urban areas were employed in industries such as munitions.
As a result of the war, Australia had a different vision of the world and the nation's place within it. Although Australia maintained strong ties with Britain, for example, it had inevitably moved closer to the United States, economically, politically and strategically.
Australia also realised that it required a sharp increase in population if it was to survive and grow, and that such an increase could only come from migration. Economically, an increased population would mean not only labour for vital infrastructure projects and manufacturing, but also a larger market for goods produced. Australia was also looking northwards with trepidation — it was a vast, sparsely populated nation, and Australians feared that their northern neighbours might wish for a share of their bounty. A greater population would make Australia better able to justify its hold on such a vast territory, and also to defend itself. There were humanitarian reasons, too, for taking in immigrants. In the immediate postwar period Europe was in turmoil, with millions of displaced persons looking for a way to escape to a better life overseas. Australia was among the nations who was able to offer that escape. These ideas were summed up by Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration in the postwar Labor government, in his phrase "populate or perish".
Notes and references
- Unless otherwise specified, background information in this article, including the subsections, comes from SBS. 1995. The SBS World Guide. 4th edn. Melbourne: Reed Reference.
- Thorne, A., et al. 1999. "Australia's oldest human remains: Age of the Lake Mungo 3 skeleton". Journal of Human Evolution 36, 591–612. Retrieved 18 August 2008 from http://medicalsciences.med.unsw.edu.au/somsweb.nsf/resources/citationclassic01/$file/Thorne+et+al.+1999.pdf
- Clarke, H. 2007. "DNA confirms Aboriginal Australian origins." Cosmos Online, 8 May. Retrieved 18 August 2007 from http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/news/1286/dna-confirms-aboriginal-australian-origins
- Australian Government. 2008. "The Dreaming." Culture and Recreation Portal. Retrieved 18 August 2008 from http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au/articles/indigenous/dreamtime/
- Australian Museum. 2004. "Introduction." Indigenous Australia. Retrieved 18 August 2008 from http://www.dreamtime.net.au/indigenous/index.cfm
- See, for example, "Racism. Now Way: Key dates", http://www.racismnoway.com.au/library/history/keydates/index-1800s.html – a search for the term "massacre" in your browser will give an idea, albeit incomplete, of the scale of what is being referred to here.
- Northern Territory Government. 2007. "Monsoon traders (Macassans)." Retrieved 18 August 2008 from http://www.nt.gov.au/nreta/heritage/maritime/monsoon.html
- People who settled on Crown (government-owned) land to run stock, particularly sheep, without government permission at first, but later with a lease or licence.
- Information in this subsection is from Australian War Memorial. n.d. "First World War 1914–18". Retrieved 18 August 2008 from http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/ww1.asp
- Laws, John (2007). “Our First Jihad”, It Doesn't End There: Great Australian Stories with a Twist. Sydney, N.S.W.: Pan Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4050-3753-2. OCLC 181630749.
- Fitzhardinge, L.F. 1983. "Hughes, William Morris (Billy) (1862 - 1952)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 9. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. pp. 393-400. Retrieved 18 August 2008 from http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A090395b.htm
- Fitzharding 1983.
- Unless otherwise specified, information in this subsection is from Australian War Memorial. n.d. "Second World War 1939–45". Retrieved 18 August 2008 from http://www.awm.gov.au/atwar/ww2.asp
- Australia's population was only 7 million in 1939. Australian Bureau of Statistics, "Table 2. Population by sex, states and territories, 30 June, 1901 onwards", 3105.0.65.001 - Australian Historical Population Statistics, 2006 (Microsoft Excel spreadsheet). Retrieved 18 August 2008 from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/ABS@Archive.nsf/log?openagent&3105065001_table2.xls&3105.0.65.001&Data%20Cubes&7BB5E247A5A2F416CA25717600229537&0&2006&23.05.2006&Latest
- Of the more than 30,000 Australian servicemen taken prisoner during World War II, two-thirds were captured by the Japanese during the first weeks of 1942. Those imprisoned by the Germans had a good chance of surviving the war; 36 per cent of Australian prisoners of the Japanese died in captivity.