Before the arrival of Europeans most areas of the Australian continent were inhabited by the Aborigines and the Torres Strait Islanders. Indigenous Australians, speaking several different languages and practising a variety of religions, had complex social systems reflecting a profound connection with the land. Asian and Oceanic peoples had contact with the indigenous tribes for thousands of years before European expansion into the region.

Dutch explorers charted the north and west coasts of Australia and reached Tasmania , an island 240 km south of the continent. British explorer William Dampier landed on the northwest coast in 1688, but it wasn't until 1770 that a fellow Englishman, Capt. James Cook , claimed the southeast for the British Crown, naming it New South Wales .

The American war of independence meant Britain had to find a new place to send its convicts, and Australia fit the purpose. On 26th January, 1788, (now celebrated as Australia Day), the First Fleet under Capt. Arthur Phillip landed at Sydney, and formal establishment of the Colony of New South Wales followed on Feb. 7. Most of the first 1,500 settlers were convicts, condemned for minor offences. About 160,000 convicts were sent to the continent over the next 80 years.

The discovery of gold in 1851 boosted the population and wealth of the region, leading to more trade. Eventually, the Commonwealth of Australia was formed in 1901 with a federation of six states: New South Wales , Tasmania , Western Australia , South Australia , Victoria and Queensland . Eventually, the Australian Capital Territory Canberra and the Northern Territory would be added .

The founders of the federation professed egalitarian ideals, and had progressive ideas about democracy and the value of the secret ballot. However, their openness stopped on matters of race. One of the first acts the new Parliament passed was the Immigration Restriction Act, which ensured immigrants would be of European origin. The "White Australia " policy was finally abolished in the mid-1970s.

The European population grew in the first 15 years of the 20th century to almost five million. This had the effect of displacing the 300,000 aboriginals on the continent.

Throughout the century, children would be taken from aboriginal families to be assimilated into European culture and Aborigines would become increasingly isolated from their traditional lands and hunting practices, eking out a living on the margins of society. The aboriginal population would dwindle to about 60,000 by the late 1960s.


The effects of war
Almost 400,000 men volunteered to fight in the First World War. Historians estimate 60,000 never made it back and tens of thousands were seriously injured. The nationhood of Australia was forged on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey on 25th April,1915. The Allies wanted to stem the tide of Turkish soldiers entering Russia so they sent the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). ANZAC troops landed on a beach with the impossible task of taking over a region of rugged hills, gullies and ridges.

Thousands died over two days and the campaign was a failure. Despite that,
Australians celebrate ANZAC Day on 25th April every year, to commemorate their countrymen who died in all wars. For them, the fight in Gallipoli stood for "valour in a good cause" and for "comradeship and endurance that will never admit defeat," said First World War historian Charles Bean.

The period between the wars was one of instability as many financial institutions collapsed during the Depression. But the country entered the Second World War with as much resolve as it had joined the first. Australian forces made huge contributions to the Allied victories in Europe, Asia and the Pacific.

Post-war Australia was on a high. Residents had a newfound sense of their country and the economy was undergoing an economic boom. The wheat and wool industries continued to grow. During the 1950s, mining resources helped the country prosper. By 1960, private home ownership topped 70 per cent, up from 40 per cent in 1947.

Melbourne hosted the 1956 summer Olympics, putting the spotlight on Australia . Australia cemented its bond to the United States by participating in the Korean War in the early 1950s and the Vietnam War a decade later.

Modern Australia

Since the 1960s, the country has seen great changes. People from 200 countries in the world have migrated to Australia , including an influx of Asian immigrants.

Through much of the post-war years, the country was ruled by a conservative coalition of the Liberal and Country (now National) parties. Their reign ended in 1972 when the
Labor party took power, introducing reforms in health, education, social security and foreign affairs. The new Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, ordered the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam , abolished the White Australia policy and pushed through legislation providing free hospital care for all Australians.

The country was thrown into a constitutional crisis in 1975 when its governor general dismissed Whitlam from office over a technicality. In the general election, the Liberal-National Coalition defeated Labor and stayed in office until 1983, when Labor won again. A coalition led by the Liberal party's John Howard took over from Labor in 1996 and was re-elected in 1998, 2001 and 2004.

Howard forged closer ties with the U.S. in March 2003 when he sent troops and naval units in support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq . Howard has been steadfast in championing the war on terror. The move deeply divided the country but Howard remained a popular leader.

The 1975 constitutional crisis helped bolster the country's republican movement, which hoped to cut Australia 's umbilical cord to its colonizer. In 1999, Australia held a referendum to decide whether it should become a republic. Howard had already expressed his opposition to the plan.

The debate was emotional. In the end, Australians rejected the proposal by 54 per cent to 46. Australia remains a constitutional monarchy with the British Queen as its head of state.

SOURCES: The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation,


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