Australia: Background

When coming into Sydney's harbor, you will see the famous Sydney Opera House on the waterfront.

Australia is both a country and a continent. It is, at the same time, the world's smallest continent and its sixth largest country in area. Australia's name is derived from the Latin word for "southern" and refers to its location in the Southern Hemisphere. Its location, between the Pacific and Indian oceans and surrounded by extensive seas, served to isolate Australia, historically, from other landmasses. One result of this was the development of forms of animal and plant life that are found nowhere else on earth.

The Commonwealth of Australia, the country's official name, is made up of six states. Five are on the mainland — New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia. The sixth is the island state of Tasmania. There are also two federal territories on the mainland — the large Northern Territory and the small Australian Capital Territory, which includes Canberra, the national capital.

Australia also administers a number of small islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans, as well as the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Discovery and Exploration. As early as the Middle Ages (and possibly earlier), stories were told about the existence of a large continent in the Southern Hemisphere. But Europeans had never seen it, and they referred to it as terra australis incognita, Latin for "the unknown southern land."

The Dutch were the first Europeans to see Australia, sighting it while making journeys between the Netherlands and their colonies in what is now Indonesia. But although they had seen the western coast of the continent, they did not know how far to the east it extended. In 1642, the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman was sent out to discover what lay in the east. Tasman sailed too far south to see the mainland, but he did visit the island that is now called Tasmania in his honor but which he named Van Diemen's Land. Tasman then continued eastward to New Zealand and later explored Australia's northern coast.

No careful explorations of the continent were made until 1770, when James Cook, a British naval officer and explorer, sailed along its eastern coast and named it New South Wales. He visited Botany Bay, near what is now modern Sydney, and reported that the bay and much of New South Wales looked suitable for settlement.

First Settlements. The first settlement came about after Britain had lost its colonies in what is now the United States. Looking for an alternate place that it could use to relieve its overcrowded prisons, the government decided to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay. The first shipload of convicts and a few British soldiers commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip landed on January 22, 1788. Four days later, Phillip moved the settlement a little farther north to a better location at Port Jackson, which he named Sydney. More convicts followed, and new colonies were established in Tasmania and other parts of the continent.

The Early Colonies. Life was very difficult during the early years in Sydney. Attempts at farming failed in the poor soil, and it was not until better land was found along Nepean Bay, to the west, that successful farms were established and food supplies improved. The successful breeding of Merino sheep, which proved well suited to the climate, led to the development of a flourishing wool industry. At the same time, whaling in the south Pacific brought trading ships to Sydney.

Free English settlers began arriving in the 1820s, and the first free colony was established at Swan River, in what is now Western Australia, in 1829. South Australia was settled in 1836, and settlers from Tasmania crossed Bass Strait and occupied the Port Phillip district from 1835 to 1837. This later became the colony of Victoria.

Nationhood. Realizing the merit of acting together on matters of common interest, the colonies decided to seek a basis for federation. A first constitution was drawn up in 1891, and a second in 1898. After it won approval from Australian voters, the British Parliament passed a constitution act, and on January 1, 1901, the six colonies became states in the new Commonwealth of Australia.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Australia joined forces with Britain and its allies. During World War II (1939–45), Australia again fought on the side of Britain, and after the entry of the United States into the war, it became a support base for U.S. forces. Its forces took part in campaigns first in the Middle East and then in the Pacific. In 1942 the city of Darwin was bombed by Japanese planes.

Australia became increasingly active in world affairs after World War II. It was an original member of the United Nations, and in 1950, when the Korean War erupted, Australian troops were sent to Korea as part of the United Nations command. In 1951, Australia signed the ANZUS defense pact with New Zealand and the United States. A significant proportion of Australia's national income each year is allocated to assisting the developing countries.

Recent History. In 1988, Australians marked the 200th anniversary of British settlement. The occasion became one of review and redirection. This was especially so in relations with the Aboriginal people, who had suffered dispossession from their lands during the settlement of the country. Among the government's measures to bring about reconciliation for past injustices were increased welfare spending and other social programs. In 1994 legislation was enacted to give Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders authority to claim land under "native title."

Economically, financial deregulation in the mid-1980s led to a speculative boom, which collapsed in 1990 and was followed by a sharp recession. Many industries declined, causing high levels of unemployment. The government, meanwhile, has been advocating the removal of barriers to international trade. It is also directing its efforts to gaining access to markets in the fast-growing Asia and Pacific area, where Australian trade is now increasingly based.

Proposals to replace the constitutional monarchy with a republican form of government gained ground in the mid-1990s. But in 1999, Australians voted to keep Great Britain's monarch as their head of state.

In 2000, Sydney hosted the Summer Olympic Games, just as Melbourne had 44 years earlier. And in January 2001, Australia celebrated the centennial, or 100th, anniversary of its federation.

Charles M. Davis
University of Michigan

R. M. Younger
Author, Australia and the Australians

a feast
a waterhole
can for boiling water
good, great
forest country
honest, true, genuine
ear basher
a talkative bore
a silly, talkative person
give him the drum
tell the true facts
go crook
get angry
to complain
a hoodlum
back country
useless person
a stupid person
someone not to be taken seriously
extremely angry
spine bashing reclining
squatter owner of a large sheep station
wake-up someone sharp; no fool
whinge complain

Write about it:
Why did the first settlers struggle in Australia?

Learn more about Australia in these selected Web sites:

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Brisbane Stories
Read stories of Brisbane residents and take a virtual tour of this Australian city.

Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore
This PBS site takes you on a tour of Australian history, land, and identity. Meet people, read a virtual timeline, and see a glossary of Aussie slang.

Wet Tropics World Heritage Area
Visit this site on managing and visiting the wet tropics. Learn about the culture and history of Aboriginals of the rainforest.

Visit the official site of the Australian favorite spread. Play games and get recipes.

National Geographic's Creature Feature of koalas teaches you all about the animal and includes video and audio clips. Send a cute postcard to a friend!