An Abbreviated History of Australia

(Shamelessly plagiarized from a number of sources by Don Klingborg)


     The continent went “walkabout” 65 million years ago, separating from the supercontinent Gondwanaland and slowly migrating into the Pacific and Indian oceans.  While the highest point on the continent is just over 7,000 ft. (Mount Kosciuszko), Australia is the flattest of all continents having been worn down by rain over millions of years.  It is one of the world’s most stable landmasses in regard to seismic activity, and is considered “a finished product” by geologists.

     The first Australians are thought to have arrived between 50,000 and 120,000 years ago.  This was during the ice age and the frozen ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere consumed so much water that the world’s sea levels were 400 feet lower than they are currently, making it possible to walk across many areas that are under water today (e.g., you could walk between the Australian mainland and Tasmania and New Guinea, and only a short boat ride to some of the Islands in Indonesia).

     Two types of people were early immigrants to Australia:  a heavy framed group referred to as “Robust” people (who didn’t survive to modern times) and a slender race named “Gracile”.  Today’s Aborigines are descendants of the gracile people. 

     About 8,000 years ago the earth began to warm and sea levels began to rise, isolating Australia.  Little happened to change the landscape during the earliest visits from European explorers predominantly in the 16th century, including the Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and the English.   They found a continent with many strange animals and plants along with a widely dispersed population of Aborigines.  The distribution of water created huge desert areas and resulted in the continent being largely unpeopled.  With the exception of the fertile area along the eastern coast and a small green area in the southwestern corner, the continent is arid with inhospitable scrub and outright desert. 

     Eighteen year’s after Captain James Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770 the English sent eleven ships carrying 778 convicts (men, women and children as young as nine) to Cook’s landing spot, Botany Bay (about 20 km from Sydney) to create a colony.  These ships are called the “First Fleet” and are considered as their equivalent of our “Mayflower”.  The first recorded words spoken by the Aborigines and directed to these “invaders” were “Warra Warra”, meaning, “Go away”.   They didn’t.

     The 1788 shipment of convicts from England to Australia was in part as a consequence of the successful American Revolution, thereby eliminating the ability for England to continue to ship her convicts to Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas (which was a common practice).  A backlog of prisoners in English jails resulted, growing at a rate of about 1,000 per year.  At the same time French ambitions in the Pacific spurred the English to secure a position in the region and they adopted a policy of exporting their backlog of prisoners “down under”. 

      When Cook landed in Botany Bay in 1770 it was the rainy season, however when the First Fleet arrived in 1778 it was the dry season and the fresh water and green grasses Cook described were nowhere to be found. The fleet sailed about 19 km north and discovered a great harbor with fresh water and settled there, naming it after Lord Sydney, and the colonization era began. 

     The first years were very difficult and the success of the colony was in jeopardy until 1791 when a second fleet arrived with supplies and more convict labor.  Most of the convicts were petty criminals charged with minor offenses such as stealing food for their kids.  Some were political prisoners, and about half of all those transported had received a seven-year sentence and could return to England at the end of their term if they could pay their way. Those with skills or wealth might be freed early and were able to establish small businesses around Sydney.  The distance and cost of securing passage back to England meant most who were transported to Australia were there for life.  With the exception of South Australia all other Australian territories were founded with convict labor.  Transportation of convicts to Australia ended in 1868 at which time about 160,000 people had been exiled there from England.

      Captain William Bligh, of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame, became the second governor of the colony in the early 1800’s but was unable to break the power of the “Rum Corps”, a gang of ex-army individuals from the first voyage who controlled all aspects of the colony and used rum as their currency. I think most of us will be surprised to learn that Captain Bligh suffered a second mutiny as governor and lost power to the “Rum Corps” who remained in power until a third governor arrived.  The “third time was a charm” as Mr. Lachlan Macquarie from Scotland was successful in wrestling power from the Rum Corps, organizing and stabilizing the colony and eventually was pivotal in Australia officially being so named. 

      Australia has one large and navigable river, the Murray-Darling that flows for over 1,500 miles from the Victorian mountains west and south to the cost of South Australia.  This river irrigates the majority of the prime farmland.  Many of the ranches today, especially those outside of Victoria or South Australia, encompass hundreds of thousands of acres.  There is abundant water that can be harvested with wells, but most of the land requires about 50 acres to produce enough feed to sustain one cow for one year.  With as many as 160 million sheep in the country a ranch needs to be pretty darn big to feed all those mouths.

      Gold rushes in the 1850’s attracted tens of thousands of miners and are thought by some to be the major force that made Australia into a prosperous colony.  Additional strikes followed in Western Australia and Queensland, attracting about 90K prospectors per year.  Today Australia produces more than 200 tons of gold per year.   Much of this production comes from huge open-pit mines in Western Australia, northern Queensland and the Northern Territory.

      Other minerals found in Australia include silver, lead, zinc, copper, uranium, opals (85% of the world’s known supply), diamonds (>1/3 of the world’s supply), coal and petroleum.

      Australia grew as independent territories reflected in the map below.  They apparently didn’t agree on much (for example every railroad had a unique gauge and it was not possible to take one train across territorial borders). In 1901 the politicians came together and formed a commonwealth.  As part of that agreement the new capital could not be in any existing territory so some land was given by New South Wales to create an independent area (the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra)(sounds like what we did in Washington DC)).

      Following World War II Australia set on a policy of inviting immigrants under the banner of “populate or perish”.  The population grew rapidly with immigrants from all over the world throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. 

      In 1788 when the First Fleet landed it is estimated there were about 300,000 Aborigines on the continent.  These people were scattered among over 400 tribes all with distinct languages and customs.  The history of Australia and their aborigines in many ways paralleled our history with America’s native populations.  

     In the 1960’s Australia experienced civil disobedience associated with Aborigine rights.  In 1967 Aborigines received full citizenship and voting rights.  Subsequently, two major court decisions provided the Aborigines with legal title to their lands (in 1992) and with title allowing for mining and pastoral leases while still retaining ownership (in 1996).  While land issues remain politically contentious and continue to play out in Australian society, the Aborigine population has made inroads to more equitable treatment.

     Aborigines today continue to suffer from three times the rate of infant mortality compared to the rest of the population, have a life expectancy that’s more than 15 years less than average, and suffer higher rates of alcoholism, tuberculosis, heart disease, diabetes, and hepatitis.

     On the animal scene about 17 species of kangaroos have gone extinct since the Frist Fleet’s arrival, but there are more kangaroos today than 200 years ago (now about 50 million, approximately three times the number of humans).  There are 150 marsupial species and more than 750 species of birds.

     Merino sheep were imported in 1795 and currently there are an estimated 120 to 160 million sheep in Australia.  Merino provides the fine wool (very thin) that makes up the best in clothing.  Today Australia produces about 70% of the world’s supply of premium wool.

     If you’ve never sheared a sheep you’re really missing something quite special.  Everyone should do it, but only once, as it’s backbreaking and exhausting work.  Big Jackie Howe holds the world record for hand shearing, having done 321 sheep in the standard shearer’s workday of 7 hours and 40 minutes with a hand shear in 1892.  His record stood until 1950 however the new record was accomplished with mechanical shears rather than hand shears.  The record with electric shears is 805 sheep in a day set by Alan MacDonald in 1990.  We had sheep when the kids were growing up and I regularly sheared them, and then sutured them up as I was not a gifted shearer (but pretty darn good at suturing).

     There are a number of experiences with people importing animals to the continent that have had major impacts.  In 1859 Thomas Austin was missing his foxhunts and brought in a couple of dozen rabbits as an alternative sporting animal.  Six years later they were shooting about 20,000 a year and still losing ground to the rapidly growing population.  By 1930 it was estimated there were 1 billion rabbits there and in 1950 they imported and released a myxomatosis virus that killed most but not all of the rabbits.  By 1990 the population was back up to 350 million and in 1996 they imported another virus, this time a calicivirus that killed about 98% of the population.  That surviving two percent is growing the population again.

     Foxes, trout, the cane toad, domestic cats and domestic dogs (the dingo is native), pigs, horses, sheep, donkeys and camels have all been imported and there are problems with each of these species impacting native species. 

     You’ll find a vibrant and varied restaurant scene.  Their immigration policies resulted in more than 160 different nationalities represented by significant numbers of people.  While Sydney and Cairns are known for their seafood, you’ll find Asian, Indian, Italian, Greek and Lebanese eateries abundantly available.

     You may even want to try a traditional staple, the Aussie BBQ, consisting of burned lamb chops and sausages with potato salad.  Goes great with a Foster’s lager.

     You’ll find Australia to be filled with wonderful and happy people, amazing scenery and quite a mixture of animals.