An Early History of Australia
Before the arrival of European settlers, Aboriginal and Tortes Strait Islander peoples inhabited most areas of the Australian continent. Each people spoke one or more of hundreds of separate languages, with lifestyles and religious and cultural traditions that differed according to the region in which they lived.
Adaptable and creative, with simple but highly efficient technology, Indigenous Australians had complex social systems and highly developed traditions reflecting a deep connection with the land and environment.
Asian and Oceanic people had contact with Australia’s Indigenous peoples for thousands of years before the European expansion into the Eastern Hemisphere. Some formed substantial relationships with communities in northern Australia.
In 1606, the Spanish explorer Luis Vaez de Torres sailed through the strait that separates Australia and Papua New Guinea. Dutch explorers charted the north and west coasts and found Tasmania. The first British explorer, William Dampier, landed on the northwest coast in 1688. But it was not until 1770 that his countryman, Captain James Cook, on the Endeavour, extended a scientific voyage to the South Pacific in order to chart the east coast of the continent that had become known as New Holland, and claimed it for the British Crown.
The American war of independence shut off that country as a place to transport convicts, requiring Great Britain to establish a new penal colony. Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, had sailed as a naturalist with Captain Cook, and suggested Australia for this purpose.
The First Fleet of 11 ships arrived at Botany Bay in January 1788. Governor Phillip preferred Sydney Harbor and the date he landed in the Harbor, 26 January, is now commemorated as Australia Day. The First Fleet carded 1,500 people, half of them convicts. Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore (1987) is a classic book on the convict system. Hughes suggests that the penal system had lasting effects on Australian society. About 160,000 convicts were sent to the Australian continent over the next 80 years.
The wool industry and the gold rushes of the mid-19th century provided an impetus to free settlement. Scarcity of labor, the vastness of the bush and new wealth based on farming, mining and trade all contributed to the development of uniquely Australian institutions and sensibilities. At the time of European settlement in 1788 it is estimated there were at least 300,000 Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. European settlement involved the displacement and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. It disrupted traditional land management practices and introduced new plants and animals into fragile Australian ecosystems.