The Beginning

In the beginning, there was the Dreamtime. Australia’s indigenous people have lived on this land for up to 40,000 years or more. Their “Dreamtime” stories explain how they see the creation story and what followed. In scientific terms, a supercontinent split in two, and over millions of years continental drift carried the great landmasses apart. Australia was part of what we call Gondwanaland, which also divided into South America, Africa, India, Papua New Guinea, and Antarctica. Giant marsupials evolved to roam the continent of Australia. The last of these creatures are believed to have died out around 20,000 years ago, possibly helped toward extinction by drought, or by Aboriginal hunters, who lived alongside them for thousands of years.

Early European Explorers

The existence of a great southern land had been on the minds of Europeans since the Greek astronomer Ptolemy drew a map of the world in A.D. 150 showing a large landmass in the south, which he believed existed to balance out the land in the Northern Hemisphere. He called it Terra Australia Incognita—the “Unknown Southland.”

Portuguese ships reached Australia as early as 1536 and charted part of its coastline. In 1606, William Jansz was sent by the Dutch East India Company to open up a new route to the Spice Islands, and to find New Guinea. He landed on the north coast of Queensland instead and fought with local Aborigines. Between 1616 and 1640, many more Dutch ships made contact with Australia as they hugged the west coast of what they called “New Holland,” after sailing with the westerly winds from the Cape of Good Hope.

In 1642, the Dutch East India Company, through the governor general of the Indies, Anthony Van Diemen, sent Abel Tasman to search for and map the great Southland. During two voyages, he charted the northern Australian coastline and discovered Tasmania, which he named Van Diemen’s Land.

The Arrival of the British

In 1766, the Royal Society hired James Cook to travel to the Pacific Ocean to observe and record the transit of Venus across the sun. In 1770 Cook charted the east coast of Australia in his ship the HMS Endeavour. He claimed the land for Britain and named it New South Wales. On April 29, Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay, which he named after the discovery of scores of plants hitherto unknown to science. Turning northward, he passed an entrance to a possible harbor that appeared to offer safe anchorage and named it Port Jackson, after the secretary to the admiralty, George Jackson. Back in Britain, King George III viewed Australia as a potential colony and repository of Britain’s overflowing prison population, which could no longer be transported to the United States of America following the War of Independence.

The First Fleet left England in May 1787, made up of 11 store and transport ships led by Arthur Phillip (none of them bigger than the passenger ferries that ply modern-day Sydney Harbour from Circular Quay to Manly). Aboard were 1,480 people, including 759 convicts. Phillip’s flagship, the Supply, reached Botany Bay in January 1788, but Phillip decided the soil was poor and the surroundings too swampy. On January 26, now celebrated as Australia Day, he settled for Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) instead.

The convicts were immediately put to work clearing land, planting crops, and constructing buildings. Phillip decided to give some convicts pardons for good behavior and service, and even granted small land parcels to those who were especially industrious.

When gold was discovered in Victoria in 1852 and in Western Australia 12 years later, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Europe, America, and China flooded the country in search of fortune. By 1860, more than a million non-Aboriginal people were living in Australia.

The last 10,000 convicts were transported to Western Australia between 1850 and 1868, bringing the total shipped to Australia to 168,000. Some early colonial architecture, built and designed by those convicts, still remains in Sydney. Be on the lookout for buildings designed by the colonial architect Francis Greenway. Between 1816 and 1818, while still a prisoner, Greenway was responsible for the Macquarie Lighthouse on South Head, at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, and also Hyde Park Barracks and St. James Church in the city center.

Federation & the Great Wars

On January 1, 1901, the six states that made up Australia proclaimed themselves to be part of one nation, and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed. In the same ceremony, the first governor general was sworn in as the representative of the Queen, who remained head of state.

In 1914, Australia joined Britain in World War I. In April of the following year, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) formed a beachhead on the peninsula of Gallipoli in Turkey. The Turkish troops had been warned, and 8 months of fighting ended with 8,587 Australian dead and more than 19,000 wounded. That day, April 25, is commemorated each year as Anzac Day.

Australians fought in World War II in North Africa, Greece, and the Middle East. In March 1942, Japanese aircraft bombed Broome in Western Australia and Darwin in the Northern Territory. In May 1942, Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour and torpedoed a ferry before ultimately being destroyed. Later that year, Australian volunteers fought an incredibly brave retreat through the jungles of Papua New Guinea on the Kokoda Track against superior Japanese forces.

Recent Times

Following World War II, mass immigration to Australia, primarily from Europe, boosted the non-Aboriginal population. “White” Australia was always used to distinguish the Anglo-Saxon population from that of the indigenous people of Australia, and until 1974 there existed a “White Australia Policy”—a result of conflict between European settlers and Chinese immigrants in the gold fields in the 1850s. In 1974, the left-of-center Whitlam Labor government put an end to the White Australia policy that had severely restricted black and Asian immigration, anyone who lacked European ancestry, since 1901.

In 1986, an act of both British and Australian Parliament once and for all severed any remaining ties to the United Kingdom. Australia had begun the march to complete independence.

Waves of immigration have brought in millions of people since the end of World War II. Results from the last census, conducted in 2006, show that 25 percent of the population was born overseas. Of those, 7% were born in Northern Europe (including the U.K.), 7% were born in Asia, and 4% were born in Southern Europe. In 2009 the number of immigrants from China topped those from the U.K. for the first time. New waves of immigration have recently come from countries such as Iraq and Somalia. So what’s the typical Australian like? Well, he’s hardly Crocodile Dundee.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.