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500 Words of Australia History

Updated: Jun 2, 2018

A history of Australia. What history? Australia was once a vast uninhabited land. The first people to arrive, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, are believed to have travelled from Indonesia between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago. They were split into several hundred tribal groups, often speaking different languages and having unique customs and traditions. The Aboriginal people maintained a complex series of beliefs called the Dreamtime, which included a creation myth and stories surrounding what they called the Ancestors.



Although Europeans began to explore Australia in the 16th century, it wasn’t until Captain James Cook sailed along the eastern coast of the continent and landed at Botany Bay that the land was claimed for Great Britain. The first settlers may have looked askance at the estimated 300,000 Aboriginal people who by then called Australia home, but the original inhabitants of the continent had a rich culture, and their hunting and gathering way of life was thriving. After contact with the Europeans, however, this changed. Influenza, smallpox, and other diseases spread quickly through the tribes, killing those with no natural immunity. Violent conflicts between some settlers and tribes killed many others.



On 7 February 1788, the Colony of New South Wales was formally established under the jurisdiction of Governor Arthur Philip, who was dedicated to maintaining positive relationships with the indigenous inhabitants. Although Sydney Cove provided plentiful fresh water supplies, the first years in Australia were difficult for the settlers. Food was scarce, and their agricultural efforts were met with little success. As the settlers began to explore for more fertile ground and new settlers arrived from Britain, the colony expanded and finally began to thrive. When gold was discovered in 1851, the population exploded by hundreds of thousands of people.


The Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901, and the first Parliament was created in Melbourne that same year. Some two decades later, Canberra was chosen to be the capital of the newly established country. In 1942, Australia shook off the last vestiges of royal rule and became entirely autonomous through the passage of the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act. The population again more than doubled. Non-European immigration skyrocketed, with nearly six million migrants settling in Australia.

Australian soldiers were quite active in both World Wars, with more than one million serving in some capacity during this time. More than 100,000 were killed, and many more were injured or imprisoned. The Great Ocean Road was built as a memorial to those Australian soldiers who served in World War I and continues to be one of the most spectacular stretches of road in the world.

The curves of the Great Ocean Road as viewed from Teddy's Lookout south of Lorne in Victoria, Australia. "Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0"

After the wars, the country continued to experience dramatic population growth. Today, almost 30 percent of Australians were born overseas, often hailing from Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia. Australia today is largely comprised of cosmopolitan cities along the coastline with rural cities more sparsely located in the bush regions. This major tourist destination is known for its natural beauty, architectural wonders, and cultural diversity.

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