The history of Australia began when people first migrated to the Australian continent from the north, at least 40,000-45,000 years ago. The written history of Australia began when Dutch explorers first sighted the country in the 17th century.


The prehistory of Australia is a term which may be used to describe the period of approximately 41,000-46,000 years (or up to 68,000 years, as is contended by some studies) between the first human habitation of the Australian continent and the first known sighting of Australia by Europeans in 1606, which may be taken as the beginning of the recent history of Australia. This era is referred to as prehistory rather than history because there are no written records of human events in Australia which pre-date this contact.

The first human habitation of Australia is estimated to have occurred between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago. The first Australians were the ancestors of the current Indigenous Australians; they arrived via land bridges and short sea-crossings from present-day Southeast Asia. Most of these people were hunter-gatherers, with a complex oral culture and spiritual values based on reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. The Torres Strait Islanders, ethnically Melanesian, inhabited the Torres Strait Islands and parts of far-north Queensland; their cultural practices are distinct from those of the Aborigines.

1606-1787: European Exploration

Records of the discovery of the Australian continent by European expeditions date back to the early 17th century. The first known sighting was in 1606 by the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon, who navigated the Gulf of Carpentaria in his ship Duyfken, sighting and making landfall on the western coast of Cape York Peninsula. In 1616, another Dutchman Dirk Hartog left a pewter plate commemorating his landfall at Shark Bay in Western Australia. Some writers have argued that Portuguese navigators may have discovered Australia in the 16th century, but there is no firm evidence to support this theory. Other 17th century European voyagers (predominantly Dutch, but also French and English) were to follow suit, and by the start of the 18th century the western and northern coastlines of what had become known as 'New Holland' had been charted. No attempts to establish settlements were made, however.

In 1770, the expedition of the Endeavour under command of British Royal Navy Lieutenant James Cook navigated and charted the east coast of Australia, making first landfall at Botany Bay on April 29, 1770. Cook continued northwards, and before leaving put ashore on Possession Island in the Torres Strait off Cape York on August 22, 1770. Here he formally claimed the eastern coastline he had discovered for the Crown, naming it New South Wales. Given that Cook's discoveries would lead to the first European settlement of Australia, he is often popularly considered its European discoverer, although he had been preceded by Janszoon by more than 160 years.

The favourable reports of these lands relayed by Cook's expedition upon their return to England generated interest in its offered solution to the problem of penal overcrowding in Britain, which had been exacerbated by the loss of its American colonies. Accordingly, on May 13, 1787 the 11 ships of the First Fleet set sail from Portsmouth, England, bound for Botany Bay.

1788-1850: Settlement and Colonisation

The British Crown Colony of New South Wales started with the establishment of a settlement and penal colony at Port Jackson by Captain Arthur Phillip on 26 January 1788. This date was later to become Australia's national day, Australia Day. Van Diemen's Land, now known as Tasmania, was settled in 1803 and became a separate colony in 1825. Britain formally claimed the western part of Australia in 1829. Separate colonies were created from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851 and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory (NT) was founded in 1863 as part of the Province of South Australia. Victoria and South Australia were founded as 'free colonies' - that is, they were never penal colonies, although the former did receive some convicts from Tasmania. Western Australia was also founded 'free', but later accepted transported convicts due to an acute labour shortage. New Zealand was part of New South Wales until 1840 when it became a colony. The transportation of convicts to Australia was phased out between 1840 and 1868.

Important Dates of the Period

  • 1788 - New South Wales, according to Arthur Phillip's amended Commission dated 25 April 1787, as including 'all the islands adjacent in the Pacific Ocean' and running westward to the 135th meridian. These islands included the current islands of New Zealand, which was administered as part of New South Wales.
  • 1825 - New South Wales western border is extended to 129°E. In the same year Van Diemen's Land proclaimed.
  • 1829 - Swan River Colony is declared by Charles Fremantle for Britain.
  • 1832 - Swan River Colony has its name changed to Western Australia.
  • 1836 - South Australia is proclaimed with its western border at 132°E.
  • 1840 - New Zealand is proclaimed.
  • 1846 - The colony of North Australia was proclaimed by Letters Patent on 17 February. This was all of New South Wales north of 26° S. Although revoked in December 1846, the colony did formally exist.

1851-1900: Colonial Self-Government

A gold rush began in Australia in the early 1850s, and the Eureka Stockade rebellion in 1854 was an early expression of nationalist sentiment; the flag that was used to represent it has been seriously considered by some as an alternative to the Australian flag. The gold rushes brought many immigrants from Great Britain, Ireland, Europe, North America and China.

Between 1855 and 1890, the six colonies individually gained responsible government, managing most of their own affairs while remaining part of the British Empire. The Colonial Office in London retained control of some matters, notably foreign affairs, defence and international shipping.

The gold led to a period of great prosperity, but eventually, the economic expansion came to an end, and the 1890s were a period of economic depression.

Important Dates of the Period

  • 1851 - Victoria is proclaimed.
  • 1856 - Van Diemen's Land name changed to Tasmania.
  • 1859 - Queensland is proclaimed with its western border at 141°E.
  • 1860 - South Australia border changed from 132° E to 129°E.
  • 1862 - Queensland's western border is moved to 139°E.
  • 1863 - Northern Territory annexed to South Australia by Letters Patent.

1901-1945: Federation and the World Wars

On 1 January 1901, federation of the colonies was achieved after a decade of planning, consultation and voting, and the Commonwealth of Australia was born, as a Dominion of the British Empire.

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) was formed from New South Wales in 1911 to provide a location for the proposed new federal capital of Canberra (Melbourne was the capital from 1901 to 1927). The Northern Territory was transferred from the control of the South Australian government to the Commonwealth in 1911. Australian troops took part in both world wars.

The Statute of Westminster 1931 formally ended most of the constitutional links between Australia and Britain, but Australia did not adopt the Statute until 1942. The shock of Britain's defeat in Asia in 1942 and the threat of Japanese invasion caused Australia to turn to the United States as a new ally and protector.

From 1 February 1927 until 12 June 1931 the Northern Territory was divided up as North Australia and Central Australia at latitude 20°S. New South Wales has had one further territory surrendered, namely Jervis Bay Territory comprising 6,677 hectares, in 1915. The external Territories were added - 1914 - Norfolk Island; 1933 - Territory of Ashmore Island and Cartier Islands - transferred from Britain; 1933 - Australian Antarctic Territory transferred from Britain; 1947 - Heard Island and McDonald Islands, and Macquarie Island transferred to Australia from Britain.

Important Dates of the Period

  • 1911 - Federal Capital Territory proclaimed; and Northern Territory transferred to the Commonwealth.
  • 1938 - Federal Capital Territory name changed to the Australian Capital Territory.

Australia since 1945

Following World War II, the Australian government instigated a massive program of European immigration. After narrowly preventing a Japanese invasion, and suffering attacks on Australian soil for the first time, it was seen that the country must 'populate or perish'. Immigration brought traditional migrants from the United Kingdom along with, for the first time, large numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans. A booming Australian economy stood in sharp contrast to war-ravaged Europe and newly-arrived migrants found employment in government assisted programs such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Two million were to arrive between 1948 and 1975. Robert Menzies' newly-founded Liberal Party of Australia dominated much of the immediate post war era, defeating the Australian Labor Party government of Ben Chifley in 1949. Menzies oversaw the post-war expansion and was to become the country's longest-serving leader. Manufacturing industry, previously playing a minor part in an economy dominated by primary production, greatly expanded. Since World War II Australia has been transformed by a massive immigration programme, and since the 1970s and the abolition of the White Australia policy from Asia and other parts of the world; radically transforming Australia's demography, culture and image of itself. Although the policy has been abolished, instances of racism continue.

The ANZUS defence treaty was signed in 1951 with the United States and New Zealand, and Australia committed troops to the Korean War and the Malayan Emergency. Melbourne hosted the 1956 Summer Olympics and joint British-Australia nuclear tests and rocket launches began near Woomera, South Australia. The population reached 10 million in 1959.

Since 1951, Australia has been a formal military ally of the US under the auspices of the ANZUS treaty. The final constitutional ties between Australia and Britain ended in 1986 with the passing of the Australia Act 1986, ending any British role in the Australian States, and ending judicial appeals to the UK Privy Council. Australia remains a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II the Queen of Australia; the 1999 referendum to establish a republic was marginally rejected. Australia's links to its British past are increasingly tenuous. Since the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972, there has been an increasing focus on the nation's future as a part of the Asia-Pacific region.

Territories transferred in this period were:

  • 1958 - Christmas Island
  • 1955 - Cocos (Keeling) Islands
  • 1969 - The Coral Sea Islands Territory was established as a Territory of the Commonwealth under the Coral Sea Islands Act 1969.

In 1989 when the Australian Capital Territory achieved self government, Jervis Bay became a separate territory administered by the Ministry of Territories.

Indigenous Australians

Indigenous Australians are the first human inhabitants of the Australian continent and its nearby islands. They make up 2.4% of Australia's population. The combination of disease, loss of land and direct violence reduced the Aboriginal population by an estimated 90% between 1788 and 1900. A wave of massacres and resistance followed the frontier of European settlement. In 1838, twenty eight indigenous people were killed at the Myall Creek massacre. The convict settlers responsible for the massacres were hanged. The Kalkadoon of Queensland resisted the settlers, and there was a massacre of over 200 people on their land at Battle Mountain in 1884. There was a massacre at Coniston in the Northern Territory in 1928. Poisoning of food and water had been recorded as early as the 1830s.

The removal of children, that some historians and Indigenous Australians have argued could be considered to constitute genocide by some definitions, may have had a major impact on the indigenous population. Such interpretations of Aboriginal history are disputed by some as being exaggerated or fabricated for political or ideological reasons. This debate is part of what is known within Australia as the History Wars.

Indigenous Australians were given the right to vote in Commonwealth elections in Australia in November 1963, and in state elections shortly after, with the last state to do this being Queensland in 1965. The 1967 referendum passed in Australia with a 90.2% majority which allowed the Commonwealth to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people, and for Aboriginal people to be included when the country does a count to determine electoral representation. This has been the largest affirmative vote in the history of Australia's referenda.