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The first inhabitants of Australia were the Aborigines. They migrated from Southeast Asia during the Ice Age at least 40,000 years ago, before sea levels rose and isolated Australia from the rest of Asia. Australia’s Aborigines believe that their people have lived here since the dawn of time—the Dreamtime—when their spiritual ancestors brought the land into being with song. Anthropologists believe that Aboriginal culture flourished on its own for tens of thousands of years, basically free from outside influences.
The long isolation of the Aborigines ended with the arrival of the Europeans. In 1642, Dutchman Abel Tasman explored the southern coast—the Tasman Strait and Tasmania were ultimately named after him. The British arrived in 1688, but it was not until Captain James Cook’s voyage in 1770 that Great Britain claimed possession of the vast island, calling it New South Wales.
After the American Revolutionary War, Britain had to find a new destination for its colonists and exiled convicts, so a British penal colony was set up at Port Jackson (now Sydney) in 1788. Before England ended the practice in 1853, more than 150,000 convicts were sent to New South Wales and Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land); 20% of them were women. From the 1820s to the 1880s, increasing numbers of free colonists also settled in Australia. Free settlers established six colonies: New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land, Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, and Queensland.
In 1851 Edward Hargraves struck gold in New South Wales, an event that led to the tripling of Australia’s population during the next 11 years, including the arrival of many Chinese, who settled in the cities, especially Melbourne and Sydney. This led to laws preventing immigration from countries outside of Europe, Canada, and America for the next 100 years under a policy called “White Australia.” It was not until the 1970s that immigration restrictions were relaxed.
Thereafter, about 40% of Australia’s immigrants came from Asia, diversifying a population that was predominantly of English and Irish heritage. Additionally, an Aboriginal movement grew in size and influence, resulting in full citizenship and improved education policies being granted to Australia’s indigenous people, who had become the country’s poorest socioeconomic group.
The six colonies became states and in 1901 federated into the Commonwealth of Australia with a constitution that incorporated British parliamentary and U.S. federal traditions. A true national identity was forged only in the aftermath of World War I. Anzac Day, celebrated on April 25, commemorates the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ landing at Gallipoli in the First World War, a milestone in the growth of national consciousness.
Australia played an important role in both World Wars, with World War II compelling Australians to look beyond their traditional ties to Great Britain, forge the new ANZUS alliance with the U.S., and see themselves anew as a Pacific Rim nation.
Australia celebrated its bicentennial in 1988, and Aussies took great pride in having Sydney selected as the site for the 2000 Summer Olympics.