It is thought that ancestors of the Australian Aborigines, who reached the continent from Indonesia or Papua New Guinea, first populated Australia. That probably happened over 50,000 years ago. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Dutch, French and Portuguese traders and explorers discovered and mapped parts of the continent. Over thousands of years the local Aboriginal inhabitants had mapped the land in their own way, but to the European world the east coast was still unknown and uncharted.
On 22 August 1770 the British arrived in Botany Bay, under the command of Captain JAMES COOK (1728–1779), unravelling the mystery of Terra Australis Incognita for the European world. Between the 1780s and the 1860s British explorers started great expeditions along the coast and to the interior to discover and colonize unknown territories.
In 1779 Sir JOSEPH BANKS (1743–1820), a naturalist on COOK's voyage suggested that Britain could solve overcrowding problems in its prisons by transporting convicts to New South Wales. In 1787 the First Fleet set sail for Botany Bay under the command of Captain ARTHUR PHILIP (1778–1814), who was to become the colony's first governor. The people of the First Fleet established Australia's first settlement on 26 January 1788.
The fleet comprised 11 ships, 750 male and female convicts, four marine companies and two years' worth of supplies. For the new arrivals New South Wales was a harsh and inhospitable place, and the threat of starvation hung over the colony for at least 16 years.
The British settled six colonies, each one with its own laws and customs. These differences were a significant problem to Australia's economic development. However the discovery of gold in the 1850s was to change the face of the colony. The huge influx of immigrants boosted the economy and changed the colonial social structures. Aborigines were forced off their tribal lands as new settlers took up land for farming or mining. This can be categorized as genocide, since the Aboriginal population was murdered en masse by poisoning of their food and water supply and by the removal of their food resources. Even up to the early seventies the Australian government was still systematically removing Aboriginal children from their families, in an attempt to replace their own cultural identity with so-called Christian values.
Today one speaks of the 'Stolen Generation'.
Entire generations being separated from their roots greatly impaired the survival of some tribes and others came close to being wiped out completely. Nowadays, the Australian government is trying hard to rectify the racist measures taken by its predecessors. In 1993 the Native Title Act was passed; the first step in creating a legal regime that respects native title rights and traditions.
After the great economic upturn in the middle of the century, Australia experienced the 'Great Crash' period in the 1890s, which caused high levels of unemployment and the bankruptcy of many businesses. As a result the creation of a federation became more than necessary. It was also a means of preventing other nations from gaining control of land (the Germans and French were still expanding into the region). The six colonies accepted rule by one common jurisdiction. In the late 1900s the British Government created the Commonwealth of Australia. Australia then became a federal nation on 1 January 1901 (although many of the legal and cultural ties with England remained). By being federalist, Australia's system of government divided its power into national and local units. Melbourne, the second largest city, was chosen to be the seat of government while Canberra was still being developed. Nowadays Canberra serves as the capital.
In the following 40 years, Australia remained under British control. Only in 1942 did it become officially autonomous with the passage of the Statute Westminster Adoption Act on October 9. This act meant the demise of the British Empire and the birth of the British Commonwealth, of which Australia was a part. The United Kingdom could still engage in foreign affairs on behalf of Australia and make laws for it when requested, but the nation was independent, having autonomy in foreign affairs and the power to run its own army. But it was only in 1986, with the Australian Act, that the country truly cut its ties to the United Kingdom. Although still sharing a common monarch, the Queen would no longer have any political powers over Australia.
Australian troops did not hesitate to fight alongside the British in the two World Wars. Fearing a Japanese invasion during the Second World War II, Australia forged an alliance with the USA. The United States promptly dispatched the Japanese from New Guinea. Australia subsequently supported the USA in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. In 1951 Australia signed a mutual defence agreement with the US and New Zealand, called the ANZUS Pact of 1951.
The post-war era was a boom time in Australia. There was an urgent demand for raw materials and manpower. After the Second World War Australia introduced an immigration programme, in order to populate the island. Many Jews found their new home there and more than two million Europeans entered the country after the war. In the 1980s Australia accepted a large number of Asian refugees, especially from Vietnam. These immigrants rapidly found work and some level of integration, helping to turn the monocultural and conservative pre-war Australia into a multicultural and forward-looking nation.
The first federal elections took place in March 1901, when the Protectionist Party was elected, supported by the Labor Party. This party created the infamous White Australian policy, a law that aimed to exclude non-Europeans from the Australian continent. After the First World War the Labor Party lost much support compared to the Nationalist Party. In 1923 a new political party developed; the Country Party, which formed a coalition with the Nationalists. In 1929 the Labor Party won the elections again, but soon lost power to a new conservative party, the United Australia Party, in 1932. After that neither a conservative nor liberal party ruled the country. During the 1980s, an economically difficult period, Labor Party leader BOB HAWKE (* 1929) implemented a great number of future orientated social and economic measures to strengthen the country's situation. Many of these reforms helped to promote economic growth that still continues today. JOHN HOWARD (* 1939) the leader of the Liberal Party is the current Prime Minister.
Issues of the day include republicanism, universal acceptance of the Native Title Act of 1993, policies regarding refugees and a push for an official government apology for the injustices suffered by the 'Stolen Generation' of Aborigines.
Australia is an independent Western democracy with a population of more than 17.6 million. It has one of the world's most urbanised populations, with about 70% of the population living in the ten largest cities. Most of the population is concentrated along the eastern seaboard and the south-eastern corner of the continent.
Although Australia's lifestyle reflects its mainly Western origins, it also has a multicultural society, which has been enriched by nearly five million settlers from as many as 200 nations. Four out of ten Australians are migrants or first-generation children of migrants, half of them from non-English speaking backgrounds. 41% of settler arrivals come from East Asia.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people totalled 265,378 at the last census: nearly 1.5% of the population. Two thirds of the indigenous people live in towns and cities. Others live in rural and remote areas, and some still pursue a broadly traditional way of life.
The flag of Australia is the only one to fly over a whole continent. The small Union Jack represents the historical link with Britain, the large seven-pointed star represents the six States and the Territories, and the small stars form the Southern Cross – a prominent feature of the southern hemisphere night sky.
King GEORGE V granted the official emblem of the Australian Government, Australia's coat of arms, in 1912. The arms consist of a shield containing the badges of the six states.
Australia Day, 26 January, marks the day in 1788 when Captain ARTHUR PHILLIP of the British Royal Navy sailed into Port Jackson (Sydney Cove). PHILLIP formally took possession of the eastern part of the continent for England and established a settlement.
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