The initial inhabitants of Australia traveled here from far-southeast Asia, and from the Torres Strait islands. From their initial settlements in the north some 70,000 years ago, their individual lifestyles and cultural traditions eventually spread across this vast uncharted land.
The first European exposure to Australia occurred in 1606, when the Dutch explorer, Willem Janszoon, sighted, then landed on the Cape York Peninsula. He found the area inhospitable and moved on. Regardless, adventurers and traders, aggressively searching for riches in the southern hemisphere, continued to sail through the northern coastal areas bordering a land the Dutch named New Holland.
In 1688, on one of his three circumnavigations of the globe, William Dampier became the first British explorer to set foot on Australian land, coming ashore in Shark Bay.
In the mid 18th century, Britain had an overcrowded prison population, and they required a new penal colony. In 1770, the legendary British explorer, James Cook, arrived in Australia and found the eastern coastline a most desirable location. He subsequently named this land New South Wales, and claimed it for Great Britain.
Eighteen years later (one of the world’s greatest sea voyages), a grueling 252 day, 15,000 mile journey brought eleven ships carrying about 1400 people (mostly convicts) from England all the way to Australia.
They anchored at Port Jackson (Sydney Harbor) on January 26, 1788. There, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, in his capacity as the colony’s first Governor, the British Crown Colony of New South Wales was established. That day (Australia Day), is an official public holiday celebrated in all states and territories of Australia.
For the next 80 years – in a somewhat provocative move – over 150,000 additional men and women (convicted criminals) were shipped to Australia, often enduring difficult and deplorable conditions during their lengthy ocean journeys.
As a result, until the Australian Gold Rush of the 1850’s brought thousands of (free) immigrants to Australia in search of riches, the settler population was dominated by convicts and their descendants.
In this land of incredible opportunity (for some), the indigenous Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders were suffering. Their population decreased dramatically in the 19th century as imported diseases killed thousands, and forced displacement and blatant land grabs disrupted their traditional lifestyles.
During the 19th century, separate and somewhat independent colonies were formed from parts of New South Wales, which loosely occupied the eastern half of the country; they included Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria.
On January 1, 1901, a federation of colonies took shape after years of discussions and planning. The Commonwealth of Australia was created as a Dominion of the British Empire, and a new nation was born. Western Australia, granted self-government in 1889 by the British, was the most reluctant participant in this new Commonwealth of Australia, but joined nevertheless.
Immediately thereafter, the Australian Capital Territory was formed from a part of New South Wales, in an effort toprovide a location for the new federal capital of Canberra. The Northern Territory joined the Commonwealth that same year, and at that time, the population of Australia was nearly 4 million, which included approximately 95,000 indigenous peoples