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To the 18th century AD
18th century
19th century
     Exploration and settlement
     Western Australia
     South Australia and Northern Territ....
     The plight of the Aborigines
     Gold rushes

To be completed

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Exploration and settlement: 1796-1835

Local exploration of the coasts of Australia begins in 1796 when George Bass and Matthew Flinders undertake a series of journeys in open whaleboats. In 1798 Bass sails round Tasmania, proving it to be an island (separated from the mainland by the strait which now bears his name).

In 1802 Flinders charts the entire south coast of the continent from Cape Leeuwin to Bass Strait. In the following year he continues his exploration up the east coast and round the northeast tip of the continent into the Gulf of Carpentaria.


Along the coast in both directions from Sydney the colonists eventually select suitable places for free settlers to be allotted tracts of land, with convicts as their labour force. Hobart is established on the southern coast of Tasmania in 1804. Brisbane is settled on the same basis from 1824. Both remain part of New South Wales, under the control of the governor in Sydney.

The city of Melbourne also begins as part of New South Wales, but its origins are different. In 1835 settlers from Tasmania cross the Bass Strait with their sheep in search of better grazing. They find it here in abundance.


Melbourne grows rapidly as the centre of a sheep-rearing community. The first census, in 1836, describes a village of 136 people. Soon the community is joined by other farmers, crossing with their livestock from Tasmania or driving flocks overland from the older regions of New South Wales. By 1850 Melbourne is a market town catering for 76,000 people and some six million sheep.

Of these three subsidiary regions, Tasmania (or Van Diemen's Land as it is known until 1856) is the first to win independence from New South Wales. It does so in 1825, when it is declared a colony in its own right under the control of a lieutenant governor.


Melbourne and Brisbane achieve their own separate political identities in 1851 and 1859, when they become the capitals respectively of Victoria and Queensland (though Brisbane at the time has a population of only about 5000).

By this time the transportation of convicts to New South Wales has ended (from 1840). From the earliest years many of the convicts, completing their sentences (and known as emancipists), make a good living as traders in Australia's cities. From very mixed beginnings, the community of New South Wales has made its way in the world. Meanwhile yet more British colonies, in the western two thirds of the continent, are starting on a different basis.


Western Australia: 1829-1868

The development of New South Wales suggests to many that British settlements in Australia may flourish equally well, and probably better, without the added complication of convicts. And the success of the colony convinces the government in London that the whole of Australia should be British, not just its eastern regions. These attitudes shape the next two colonies to be attempted.

From the 1820s there is a suspicion that the French may be interested in western Australia. The suspicion is enough to prompt a British response. In 1829 a naval ship is sent from the Cape of Good Hope to claim for Britain the whole of the Australian continent west of 129° E (the rest is already considered to be part of New South Wales).


The captain of the ship, Charles Fremantle, reaches the Swan river early in May. He has been told to ask the local Aborigines whether they agree to his proposed act of possession. Convincing himself that they do so, he declares that the whole of Australia is now British.

A month later a party of settlers arrives at the same spot with James Stirling as their lieutenant governor. His survey of this region two years earlier has convinced him that western Australia is not the barren wasteland previously assumed. It is he who has organized support in London, persuaded the government to act, and found the first group of settlers to join him as investors in the project.


Stirling begins the building of a port (Fremantle) at the mouth of the Swan river. He then moves upstream to choose a site for his main settlement. It is selected in August and is named Perth.

Early optimism is soon dashed. There is good land only along the river banks. These settlers are mainly middle-class families, with pretensions to gentility, ill-equipped to fend for themselves in these conditions without free labour. The colony survives with difficulty until finally, in 1849, the government agrees to send out convicts. They continue to arrive until 1868, contributing greatly to the succeses of the colony. Meanwhile another has been founded on more high-minded principles.


South Australia and the Northern Territory: 1836-1869

South Australia differs from the other colonies of the continent in being based upon a coherent theory of colonization. A book of 1829 by Edward Gibbon Wakefield (A Letter from Sydney) proposes that poverty in Britain can be relieved if land in a new colony is sold at a controlled price, with the money raised being used to help selected families to travel out to Australia.

In 1834 parliament passes a South Australian Act along these lines (the transportation of convicts to the new colony is specifically banned). In 1836 the site for Adelaide is selected and immigration begins.


In the event the early years in the new colony are as difficult as in all the others, with economic problems and much violence between settlers and Aborigines. But like the others it survives. It receives a considerable boost from the earliest of the Australian mining booms. Rich veins of copper are discovered in 1845.

Owners of flocks of sheep and cattle, pressing north from South Australia, find their way blocked by arid regions and great salt lakes. During the 1860s explorers make heroic efforts to find a way through to the north, raising great interest in this remote region. In 1863 parliament grants South Australia administrative control of the continent's northern territory.


The result is the founding in 1869 of a regional centre on the north coast. Originally called Palmerston, its name is changed to Darwin in 1911. The linking of Adelaide to Darwin by the Overland Telegraph Line, laid in two years from 1870, is one of the great achievements in the world-wide spread of telegraphy.

The founding of Darwin completes the British encirclement of Australia; it is the only great land mass to be appropriated by a single colonial power. Full exploration of the continent's bleak interior will take more time, but as yet only eighty years have passed since the arrival of the first British settlers in 1788. The losers are those who have been here for 50,000 years or more - the Aborigines.


The plight of the Aborigines: 18th - 19th century

The clash between British settlers and the native inhabitants of Australia is the most brutal and unequal of the many such encounters which feature in the early colonial era.

The Aborigines, perhaps some 300,000 in number at the time when the Europeans arrive, are the most vulnerable of the indigenous populations encountered by colonists. The other newly discovered continent, America, contains several advanced civilizations (in the south and central regions) and in the north a tribal society living by a combination of settled agriculture and hunting. In Australia, with no mammals suitable for herding or for use as pack animals, the Aborigines live exclusively as hunter-gatherers.


If the Aborigines are unusually vulnerable, the settlers in Australia - a large proportion of them convicts or ex-convicts - are exceptionally violent. Australia is the only colonial region where there are reports of settlers sometimes shooting natives in a mood of sport.

Inevitably there are clashes between the two groups in all parts of the continent. The Aborigines, threatened by European encroachment on their territory, resort to acts of terrorism. On the other side there are occasional outbursts of extreme violence - in particular the roping together, shooting and burning of a party of captured Aborigines at Myall Creek in 1838.


But the most shameful mistreatment of the Aborigines is in Tasmania. The natives here are particularly defenceless. Long isolated from the mainland (for as much as 10,000 years), they number fewer than 2000 when the British arrive in 1804. The settlers herd sheep on the Aborigines' hunting grounds and kill the kangaroos which are their main prey. When the native Tasmanians relatiate with acts of violence, the settlers attempt (in 1830) to round them all up by moving through the bush in a thin extended line.

This is the climax of the hostilities known as the Black War. It is a failure (only a woman and a boy are caught in the dragnet). But the number of the Tasmanians has already declined by this time to around 200.


From 1831 these few are persuaded to opt for a safe haven of their own. They are moved to Flinders Island in Bass Strait. It is the end of violence, but such a community is too small to survive. Before the end of the century the Tasmanians have died out.

Tasmania (perhaps the only large area in which an incoming human group has entirely wiped out its predecessors) is the extreme example of the plight of the Aborigines at British hands. On the mainland the native population is greatly reduced during the 19th century - by poverty and disease, in addition to some 20,000 killed in clashes with the settlers. But an Aboriginal presence does survive today as a significant and politically sensitive element in modern Australia.


Gold rushes: 1851-1885

From the middle of the 19th century the nature of Australia's colonies is transformed by gold. The first mining boom has been in South Australia with the discovery of copper in 1845. But the real rush begins in 1851, just two years after the California gold rush has turned men's thoughts to instant fortunes. Gold is found at several sites in New South Wales and in Victoria. The richest finds are at Ballarat and Bendigo.

These are fields rather than mines of gold. The nuggets and gold dust, washed down the rivers, are deposited in the alluvial soil of creeks. Anyone with a shovel, and a pan for washing and sifting the earth, can hope to become rich.


Thousands rush to each new area where a find is reported, as shiploads of new immigrants arrive. The population of Victoria goes up from 75,000 in 1851 to nearly 300,000 in 1854.

In all the excitement a new strand of unruly beheaviour is added to the lawlessness associated with the ex-convicts. The government tries to control the situation, and to profit from it, by insisting on diggers purchasing expensive licences. The resulting resentment spills over in an uprising at Ballarat in 1854. Angry men burn their licences and build a stockade against government troops at a place called Eureka (the digger's cry of joy on striking lucky).


Five soldiers and some twenty-five diggers die in the ensuing battle at the Eureka stockade, but the issue of licences soon becomes irrelevant in Victoria. The surface gold has nearly all been found. From about 1855 digging is increasingly replaced by mining, an activity available only to those who can afford expensive machinery. But soon there are other gold rushes for ordinary diggers in other parts of the continent - in Queensland from 1858 and in Western Australia from 1885.

One early effect of this economic frenzy is to bring into Australia the first group of non-British immigrants. Chinese arrive in large numbers to take their chance in the gold fields - particularly in the early years in Victoria.


By 1854, three years after the first finds, there are some 4000 Chinese in the Australian goldfields. Another three years later, in 1857, the number is closer to 24,000. Their presence prompts immense racial hostility among the British diggers, leading to violent attacks on the Chinese and their property in riots at Lambing Flat in 1861.

This experience lies behind a much criticized policy which has prevailed throughout most of the 20th century - that of White Australia. Until the 1960s all Australian political parties agree that only Europeans shall be accepted as immigrants. The descendants of the original Chinese gold-diggers remain, until very recent times, the only Asian community within Australia.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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