To the 18th century AD

A place apart: from 50 million years ago

Although Australia is close to a chain of southeast Asian islands, it is believed to have been a separate land mass since about 50 million years ago. In that time much can happen in evolution, and the many species unique to Australia demonstrate the point. The best-known examples are the kangaroo and the koala among the marsupials and the emu in the ostrich family. But there are countless smaller creatures which have similarly developed in isolation on the Australian continent.

Many other species, now indigenous in Australia, evolved elsewhere within the last 50 million years and hopped over from southeast Asia. Among these species is man.

Temporary bridges: 60000 – 10000 years ago

The ice ages play an essential part in mankind's advance from Asia into both Australia and America. The effect of an ice age is to lower the sea level by 100 metres and more. This narrows the gaps between many islands and sometimes even exposes a complete land ridge.

One such sunken ridge is the Sahul Shelf, under the largest stretch of sea between the Indonesian islands and Australia. Another lies between Siberia and Alaska.

The first Australians: from 60

The islands of Indonesia are like a string of beads pointing towards Australia. Stone Age hunter-gatherers no doubt find much of their food on the shores and in the shallows, and soon use rafts to reach offshore reefs. Probably the first people to arrive on slightly more distant islands have been carried there by accident rather than intention.

But there is a plentiful supply of food wherever they make landfall. With an ice age reducing the level of the Timor Sea (see Ice Ages), this series of hops for mankind sooner or later reaches Australia. The earliest traces of human habitation in the continent are now tentatively dated between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago.

The aboriginal hunter-gatherers of Australia: till AD 1788

None of the indigenous animals of Australia is suitable for herding, so the tribes of human immigrants live until recent times by their traditional methods of hunting and gathering. One of their favourite hunting weapons is a throwing stick (called boomerang by a tribe in southeast Australia). A curved variety of boomerang, which can be thrown in such a way as to return to the thrower, is used by hunters to make birds fly towards a net.

Fresh water is scarce in the vastness of the Australian continent. The territory belonging to each tribe of hunter-gatherers is defined in relation to a watering place, which becomes associated with the tribal ancestors.

The religious cult of the Australian tribes links living people with an eternal spirit world referred to as the 'dreaming'. This other world was in existence before the creation of our own. The dead return to the 'dreaming', from which they will be reincarnated.

Rituals are enacted in a lively tradition of dance, painting and music. The Australian tribes paint on cave walls (as early as 25,000 years ago, recent research suggests), on wooden implements and on strips of eucalyptus bark. Their style has one very unusual characteristic; in depicting a living creature the artists like to include the unseen bones and organs within. In music, too, the Australians can surprise - for example with one of the world's strangest woodwind instruments, the didgeridoo.

Terra Australis: 16th-18th century

From the early 16th century European merchants are sailing the seas of southeast Asia. Often they make unexpected landfall, raising hopes of unknown territories rich in gold, silver or spice. The discovery of the Solomon Islands by a Spanish vessel in 1568 prompts interest in a so-called Terra Australis Incognita ('unknown southern land'). Part of the brief given to Francis Drake, when he sets off in 1577 to sail across the Pacific, is that he should search for this supposed land of treasure (see Drake's voyage).

Interest is maintained in the early 17th century when Dutch ships, sailing to and from the Moluccas, sight stretches of the western Australian coast. Are these places perhaps connected to the southern land?

The governor general of the Dutch East Indies, Antonio van Diemen, decides to investigate. He chooses for the purpose an experienced navigator, Abel Tasman, who is instructed to sail far south in the Indian Ocean and then to strike east, hoping to discover whether there is an open passage to South America. In the process he may also perhaps discover Terra Australis.

Tasman leaves Batavia in August 1642. He sails to Mauritius before continuing south and then east. He first makes landfall in November. He calls the place Van Diemen's Land, after the governor who has appointed him. Not until 1856 is the island renamed Tasmania, in honour of its discoverer.

Keeping to the southern coast of this large island, Tasman continues eastwards. In December he reaches New Zealand. Sailing northeast along the coast of both South and North Island, he concludes that this must be the northwest corner of Terra Australis. Tasman discovers Tonga in January 1643, and the Fiji islands in February. He then continues northwest, passing north of New Guinea and returning to Batavia in June.

Remarkably, in his ten-month voyage, Tasman has sailed all the way round the real Terra Australis without noticing it. It will be another century before the continent of Australia is properly discovered and charted.

18th century

Three voyages of Captain Cook: AD 1768-1779

The voyages of James Cook are the first examples of exploration undertaken on scientific principles. His first expedition, sailing in the Endeavour from Plymouth in 1768, has a scientific task as its central mission. It is known to the astronomers of the day that in June 1769 the planet Venus will pass directly between the earth and the sun. An international effort is made to time the precise details of this transit, as seen from different parts of the world, in the hope of calculating the earth's distance from the sun.

Cook first mission is to sail to Tahiti, set up a telescope for this purpose and take the necessary readings.

Cook's second purpose is exploration. He is to continue the search for the supposed southern land, Terra australis, and he is to chart the coast of the known territory of New zealand. He has among his passengers scientists of another discipline. The botanists Joseph Banks and his Swedish colleague Daniel Solander are eager to collect specimens of Pacific flora.

Cook observes the transit of Venus in the summer of 1769 and then spends the next eighteen months charting the entire coast of New zealand's two main islands and the east coast of Australia. The Endeavour is back in Britain in July 1771.

The original astronomical purpose proves the least significant part of the voyage (the data proves inadequate for the intended purpose). But Cook's charting of these important coast lines is carried out to a scientific standard previously unattempted. As the first Europeans to visit Australia's congenial eastern coast, the reports of Cook and his distinguished passengers are instrumental in encouraging the notion of forming British settlements. And the botanical specimens of Banks and Solander prove of immense value.

One issue not resolved is whether there is an unknown southern continent south of New zealand. Cook now proposes another voyage to more southerly latitudes.

The original astronomical purpose proves the least significant part of the voyage (the data proves inadequate for the intended purpose). But Cook's charting of these important coast lines is carried out to a scientific standard previously unattempted.

As the first Europeans to visit Australia's congenial eastern coast, the reports of Cook and his distinguished passengers are also instrumental in encouraging the notion of forming British settlements.

Cook sails from England in 1772 (now in the Resolution) and spends the three antarctic summers of 1772, 1773 and 1774 in a complete circumnavigation of the ice mass of the south pole - proving finally that there is no unknown habitable continent in the south (though Cook suspects, rightly, that there may be land under the ice).

Back in England in 1775, Cook reveals another scientific aspect to his explorations. His crew have remained surprisingly healthy in these long voyages, avoiding the sailor's debilitating disease of scurvy. Cook publishes a paper on his method for avoiding this condition. His men are given a regular ration of lemon juice.

Cook has discovered the importance of vitamin C, long before the substance itself is identified. The navy adopts his method, later substituting lime juice for lemon (causing British sailors in foreign ports to be known as 'limeys').

Cook's aim on his third voyage (again in the Resolution, from 1776) is to explore the Pacific coast of north America. He sails through the British settlements as far as the pack ice of the north pole. On his outward journey he discovers the Hawaiian group of islands, and here - wintering in Bering strait itself - he is killed in a skirmish with natives. He has spent all but two of the past ten years at sea, making an unprecedented contribution to knowledge of the Antarctic seas and the Pacific.

The prospect of visitors: 18th century AD

By the mid-18th century the inhabitants of Australia probably number about 300,000, spread thinly across the entire continent in an interconnecting pattern of tribal territories.

In 1770 newcomers from Europe begin visiting the most temperate and habitable region of the continent, the east coast. Captain cook, arriving in that year, is the first. In the early 1770s French explorers land on Tasmania. From 1788 Europeans begin to settle. The original Australians acquire the name by which they have subsequently been known - the Aborigines. Their lives are not about to improve.

Proposals for a penal colony: AD 1779-1786

In 1779 Joseph Banks appears before a committee of the House of Commons in Westminster and suggests that the eastern coast of Australia, which he has visited with Captain cook nine years earlier, would be an excellent destination for convicted felons transported from Britain. The landscape and the climate are such that a penal colony could survive.

Transportation is a political issue of some urgency. In 18th-century England, with a vast divide between rich and poor, the laws protecting property are draconian. Theft on even a quite trivial level is a capital offence.

Yet although such laws remain on the statute book, they are widely recognized as being unjust. More than half those condemned to death have their sentences commuted to imprisonment, and the trend is accelerated after a law of 1768 specifically grants judges this option of leniency. As a result Britain's prisons are bursting at the seams.

The preferred solution is transportation abroad. The American colonies are ideal for the purpose, and many criminals are shipped there to work as indentured servants and labourers. But after the American Revolution in 1776 this outlet is no longer available. Australia, as Banks points out, seems a viable alternative. In 1786 parliament resolves to establish a penal colony.

Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet: AD 1787-1788

Arthur Phillip, a naval captain, is given command of the first fleet transporting convicts to Australia. He is also to be governor of the colony of New South Wales.

The fleet which sails from Portsmouth in May 1787 consists of eleven ships carrying some 750 convicts (nearly 200 of them women), 400 sailors and 200 marines to keep discipline. By October they are at the Cape of good hope, their last contact with civilization. Here they take on board a large number of animals of various kinds for the proposed settlement. On 20 January 1788 they reach their intended destination, Botany Bay. It has been given this enticing name by Cook and banks, but those expected to settle here find it barren and unprepossessing.

On January 21 Phillip sails a few miles north and finds the great natural harbour of Port Jackson. Here he selects an inlet with a good water supply as the site for the new colony. He names the place Sydney Cove in honour of the home secretary, Viscount Sydney.

A prefabricated house of wood and canvas, designed in London for the governor, is erected at the centre of the settlement. Tents are put up for the marines and the convicts, with a separate encampment a little distance away for the women - who are kept on the ships until everything is ready. On February 6 they disembark. After a pep talk from the governor and a religious service there are festivities of celebration.

One of the difficulties of this particular colony immdiately becomes apparent. At the inaugural party some of the convicts are caught stealing food. They are flogged, and one of them is banished to a rock in the harbour on a diet of bread and water.

The harsh reality is that this community, lacking agricultural skills and accustomed to living by theft, is ill equipped to till the virgin soil and produce food to sustain the colony. By the end of the year the situation seems desperate. It is compounded by deteriorating relations with the native Australians, the Aborigines. Friendly at first, their attitude to the newcomers changes once it seems evident that they intend to stay.

This inaugural party is soon followed by inevitable difficulties in the founding of the first British settlements in Australia. But it is the beginning of an extraordinary movement of one clearly defined group of people, from the British isles, to another region on the other side of the globe.

It will be a pattern repeated half a century later in the British colonization of New Zealand. In both cases British culture is transplanted, almost unaltered, to provide the dominant language and pattern of life throughout large self-contained land masses - a phenomenon unique in the story of the movement of peoples.

The Second and Third Fleets: AD 1790-1792

Somehow, under Phillip's leadership, the colony survives the first two desperate years - extending the land under cultivation, building houses and even establishing a second settlement at Parramatta. A turning point comes in June 1790, though it hardly seems so at the time.

Three ships, known now as the Second Fleet, arrive in the cove with their human cargo in an appalling state. More than 1000 convicts began the journey outwards from England; only 750 now reach Australia; 500 of these need nursing back to health before they can play their part. However this second fleet also brings a new contingent of great signficance in the early fortunes of the colony.

A regiment known as the New South Wales Corps has been formed in London to police and guard the colony. Its officers and their families are on board these ships. These men intend to make a prosperous new life for themselves, and they will prove ruthless in pursuit of their interests.

They establish a trading monopoly (with the exclusive right to board visiting ships, buying the cargo for resale on land) and they shamelessly exploit the free labour of the convicts. Their actions bring frequent conflict with successive governors. But sheep farming, bringing New South Wales its early prosperity, is developed entirely by this group, Australia's first gentry.

By the end of 1792, when Phillip sails home after nearly five years as governor, the colony seems well established. It numbers now about 1000 free citizens and twice as many convicts. Families arriving of their own free will are automatically allocated land and convict labour to work it. Comfortable brick houses are being built. The Third Fleet has arrived, bringing out more officers' wives. Social life is developing, with boating parties, picnics and music. The place begins to seem, like the American colonies before it, a convincing outpost of Britain.

Soon exploration is being being undertaken along Australia's coastline to discover what other places may be most suitable for settlement.

19th century

Exploration and settlement: AD 1796-1835

Local exploration of the coasts of Australia begins in 1796 when George Bass and Matthew Flinders undertake a series of journeys in open whaleboats. In 1798 Bass sails round Tasmania, proving it to be an island (separated from the mainland by the strait which now bears his name).

In 1802 Flinders charts the entire south coast of the continent from Cape Leeuwin to Bass Strait. In the following year he continues his exploration up the east coast and round the northeast tip of the continent into the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Along the coast in both directions from Sydney the colonists eventually select suitable places for free settlers to be allotted tracts of land, with convicts as their labour force. Hobart is established on the southern coast of Tasmania in 1804. Brisbane is settled on the same basis from 1824. Both remain part of New South Wales, under the control of the governor in Sydney.

The city of Melbourne also begins as part of New South Wales, but its origins are different. In 1835 settlers from Tasmania cross the Bass Strait with their sheep in search of better grazing. They find it here in abundance.

Melbourne grows rapidly as the centre of a sheep-rearing community. The first census, in 1836, describes a village of 136 people. Soon the community is joined by other farmers, crossing with their livestock from Tasmania or driving flocks overland from the older regions of New South Wales. By 1850 Melbourne is a market town catering for 76,000 people and some six million sheep.

Of these three subsidiary regions, Tasmania (or Van Diemen's Land as it is known until 1856) is the first to win independence from New South Wales. It does so in 1825, when it is declared a colony in its own right under the control of a lieutenant governor.

Melbourne and Brisbane achieve their own separate political identities in 1851 and 1859, when they become the capitals respectively of Victoria and Queensland (though Brisbane at the time has a population of only about 5000).

By this time the transportation of convicts to New South Wales has ended (from 1840). From the earliest years many of the convicts, completing their sentences (and known as emancipists), make a good living as traders in Australia's cities. From very mixed beginnings, the community of New South Wales has made its way in the world. Meanwhile yet more British colonies, in the western two thirds of the continent, are starting on a different basis.

Western Australia: AD 1829-1868

The development of New South Wales suggests to many that British settlements in Australia may flourish equally well, and probably better, without the added complication of convicts. And the success of the colony convinces the government in London that the whole of Australia should be British, not just its eastern regions. These attitudes shape the next two colonies to be attempted.

From the 1820s there is a suspicion that the French may be interested in western Australia. The suspicion is enough to prompt a British response. In 1829 a naval ship is sent from the Cape of Good Hope to claim for Britain the whole of the Australian continent west of 129° E (the rest is already considered to be part of New South Wales).

The captain of the ship, Charles Fremantle, reaches the Swan river early in May. He has been told to ask the local Aborigines whether they agree to his proposed act of possession. Convincing himself that they do so, he declares that the whole of Australia is now British.

A month later a party of settlers arrives at the same spot with James Stirling as their lieutenant governor. His survey of this region two years earlier has convinced him that western Australia is not the barren wasteland previously assumed. It is he who has organized support in London, persuaded the government to act, and found the first group of settlers to join him as investors in the project.

Stirling begins the building of a port (Fremantle) at the mouth of the Swan river. He then moves upstream to choose a site for his main settlement. It is selected in August and is named Perth.

Early optimism is soon dashed. There is good land only along the river banks. These settlers are mainly middle-class families, with pretensions to gentility, ill-equipped to fend for themselves in these conditions without free labour. The colony survives with difficulty until finally, in 1849, the government agrees to send out convicts. They continue to arrive until 1868, contributing greatly to the succeses of the colony. Meanwhile another has been founded on more high-minded principles.

South Australia and the Northern Territory: AD 1836-1869

South Australia differs from the other colonies of the continent in being based upon a coherent theory of colonization. A book of 1829 by Edward Gibbon Wakefield (A Letter from Sydney) proposes that poverty in Britain can be relieved if land in a new colony is sold at a controlled price, with the money raised being used to help selected families to travel out to Australia.

In 1834 parliament passes a South Australian Act along these lines (the transportation of convicts to the new colony is specifically banned). In 1836 the site for Adelaide is selected and immigration begins.

In the event the early years in the new colony are as difficult as in all the others, with economic problems and much violence between settlers and Aborigines. But like the others it survives. It receives a considerable boost from the earliest of the Australian Mining booms. Rich veins of copper are discovered in 1845.

Owners of flocks of sheep and cattle, pressing north from South Australia, find their way blocked by arid regions and great salt lakes. During the 1860s Explorers make heroic efforts to find a way through to the north, raising great interest in this remote region. In 1863 parliament grants South Australia administrative control of the continent's northern territory.

The result is the founding in 1869 of a regional centre on the north coast. Originally called Palmerston, its name is changed to Darwin in 1911. The linking of Adelaide to Darwin by the Overland Telegraph Line, laid in two years from 1870, is one of the great achievements in the world-wide spread of telegraphy.

The founding of Darwin completes the British encirclement of Australia; it is the only great land mass to be appropriated by a single colonial power. Full exploration of the continent's bleak interior will take more time, but as yet only eighty years have passed since the arrival of the First british settlers in 1788. The losers are those who have been here for 50,000 years or more - the Aborigines.

The plight of the Aborigines: 18th - 19th century AD

The clash between British settlers and the native inhabitants of Australia is the most brutal and unequal of the many such encounters which feature in the early colonial era.

The Aborigines, perhaps some 300,000 in number at the time when the Europeans arrive, are the most vulnerable of the indigenous populations encountered by colonists. The other newly discovered continent, America, contains several advanced civilizations (in the south and central regions) and in the north a tribal society living by a combination of settled agriculture and hunting. In Australia, with no mammals suitable for herding or for use as pack animals, the Aborigines live exclusively as hunter-gatherers.

If the Aborigines are unusually vulnerable, the settlers in Australia - a large proportion of them Convicts or ex-Convicts - are exceptionally violent. Australia is the only colonial region where there are reports of settlers sometimes shooting natives in a mood of sport.

Inevitably there are clashes between the two groups in all parts of the continent. The Aborigines, threatened by European encroachment on their territory, resort to acts of terrorism. On the other side there are occasional outbursts of extreme violence - in particular the roping together, shooting and burning of a party of captured Aborigines at Myall Creek in 1838.

But the most shameful mistreatment of the Aborigines is in Tasmania. The natives here are particularly defenceless. Long isolated from the mainland (for as much as 10,000 years), they number fewer than 2000 when the British arrive in 1804. The settlers herd sheep on the Aborigines' hunting grounds and kill the kangaroos which are their main prey. When the native Tasmanians relatiate with acts of violence, the settlers attempt (in 1830) to round them all up by moving through the bush in a thin extended line.

This is the climax of the hostilities known as the Black War. It is a failure (only a woman and a boy are caught in the dragnet). But the number of the Tasmanians has already declined by this time to around 200.

From 1831 these few are persuaded to opt for a safe haven of their own. They are moved to Flinders Island in Bass Strait. It is the end of violence, but such a community is too small to survive. Before the end of the century the Tasmanians have died out.

Tasmania (perhaps the only large area in which an incoming human group has entirely wiped out its predecessors) is the extreme example of the plight of the Aborigines at British hands. On the mainland the native population is greatly reduced during the 19th century - by poverty and disease, in addition to some 20,000 killed in clashes with the settlers. But an Aboriginal presence does survive today as a significant and politically sensitive element in modern Australia.

Gold rushes: AD 1851-1885

From the middle of the 19th century the nature of Australia's colonies is transformed by gold. The first mining boom has been in South Australia with the discovery of Copper in 1845. But the real rush begins in 1851, just two years after the California gold rush has turned men's thoughts to instant fortunes. Gold is found at several sites in New South Wales and in Victoria. The richest finds are at Ballarat and Bendigo.

These are fields rather than mines of gold. The nuggets and gold dust, washed down the rivers, are deposited in the alluvial soil of creeks. Anyone with a shovel, and a pan for washing and sifting the earth, can hope to become rich.

Thousands rush to each new area where a find is reported, as shiploads of new immigrants arrive. The population of Victoria goes up from 75,000 in 1851 to nearly 300,000 in 1854.

In all the excitement a new strand of unruly beheaviour is added to the lawlessness associated with the ex-convicts. The government tries to control the situation, and to profit from it, by insisting on diggers purchasing expensive licences. The resulting resentment spills over in an uprising at Ballarat in 1854. Angry men burn their licences and build a stockade against government troops at a place called Eureka (the digger's cry of joy on striking lucky).

Five soldiers and some twenty-five diggers die in the ensuing battle at the Eureka stockade, but the issue of licences soon becomes irrelevant in Victoria. The surface gold has nearly all been found. From about 1855 digging is increasingly replaced by mining, an activity available only to those who can afford expensive machinery. But soon there are other gold rushes for ordinary diggers in other parts of the continent - in Queensland from 1858 and in Western Australia from 1885.

One early effect of this economic frenzy is to bring into Australia the first group of non-British immigrants. Chinese arrive in large numbers to take their chance in the gold fields - particularly in the early years in Victoria.

By 1854, three years after the first finds, there are some 4000 Chinese in the Australian goldfields. Another three years later, in 1857, the number is closer to 24,000. Their presence prompts immense racial hostility among the British diggers, leading to violent attacks on the Chinese and their property in riots at Lambing Flat in 1861.

This experience lies behind a much criticized policy which has prevailed throughout most of the 20th century - that of White Australia. Until the 1960s all Australian political parties agree that only Europeans shall be accepted as immigrants. The descendants of the original Chinese gold-diggers remain, until very recent times, the only Asian community within Australia.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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