The Aborigine era
The first human beings probably arrived in Australia around 40,000 years ago. They crossed in migrant waves over the shallow seas which then divided Australia from Indonesia and mainland Asia. Not until around 12,000 years ago did the sea levels rise, stabilizing the present geographical formation of the region.
The Aborigines were a Stone Age people of hunter-gatherers, who developed a unique way of life in the isolation of the Australian subcontinent. Only recently has the full richness of this apparently primitive culture been realized. Over thousands of years, the Aborigines spread across this vast inhospitable territory, following the river systems of the interior. They tended to move in extended families and clans, which gradually developed their own separate identities and languages. Isolation meant that these languages often changed much from their original forms as the population multiplied and spread. By the time Australia was ‘discovered’ by the Europeans, it is estimated that there were more than 300,000 Aborigines spread out over the entire continent, speaking as many as 300 different languages. These languages could be as disparate as Arabic is from English: the tribes who lived on either side of what is now Sydney Harbour were unable to understand each other.
Yet ties joining the different tribes reached way back into the earliest migrant past. A complex pattern of trading links had long been established – for the exchange of shells and stones of ritual significance, as well as commodities such as ochre and boomerangs. And underlying this network of trading links across the vast distances of the unmapped continent was a more mysterious verbal map of songlines. These traditional memories, passed from generation to generation within families and tribes, provided an intricate map and mythology of the entire continent. The songlines linked natural landmarks, as well as recounting their legendary significance. This was an information superhighway before even the invention of writing – one which was complete and relevant to the physical and spiritual needs of an entire people. It could never be destroyed until the people themselves were destroyed and all memory of it vanished (something which many believe is now well on the way to happening).
Arrival of first human beings in Australia: about 38,000 BC
Australia first ‘discovered’ by the Portuguese: early 16thC
Spanish explorer Torres sails through Torres Strait: 1606
Dampier reaches Australia: 1680s
Captain Cook maps eastern coast: 1770
First convict shipment arrives under Captain Arthur Phillip: 1787
First voluntary immigrants arrive from Britain: 1820s
Eyre expedition leaves Adelaide to explore interior: 1840
Transportation of criminals from Britain ceases: 1853
Burke and Wills expedition attempts north-south crossing: 1860
Australians win the Ashes: 1882
Commonwealth of Australia formed: January 1, 1901
Immigration Act lays down ‘White Australia’ policy: 1901
Anzac landings at Gallipoli: 1915
‘Bodyline’cricket series: 1932
20,000 Australians taken prisoner by Japanese in Singapore: 1942
Australian troops fight in Korea: 1950s
Menzies commits Australian troops to Vietnam: 1965
Aborigines given vote: 1967
Whitlam deposed by Governor-General: 1975
Mabo Decision on Aborigine land claims: 1992
Such was the Australia which the Europeans first sighted around 500 years ago. To them, this vast subcontinent was terra nullis – an empty land. It apparently had no maps, no staked out properties, no borders, and no written laws. But all these existed nonetheless. They were just invisible.
Early European exploration
The first Europeans to set eyes on Terra Australis (The Southern Land) were almost certainly the Portuguese, sometime in the early 16thC. Just short of a century later, in 1606, the Spanish explorer Torres sailed through the strait between New Guinea and Cape York, which is now named after him. Around the same time, the first Dutch navigators also began exploring these waters, putting ashore on the barren coast of northern Queensland. More extensive exploration was soon carried out by their fellow countryman Tasman, who discovered a territory which he called Van Diemen’s Land (now named after its European discoverer). Tasman mapped vast stretches of the huge island to the north (which he called New Holland) and two large remote islands far to the east, which he also gave a Dutch name (New Zealand). Then in the 1680s the first Pom arrived, in the form of the explorer and part-time pirate William Dampier. Like many Poms to follow, Dampier was not Impressed with what he saw and returned to civilization whingeing that Australia was ‘an awful place’. The Dutch had come to much the same conclusion, and for 70 years or so everyone did their best to forget about Australia.
In 1770 the British explorer Captain Cook arrived in search of the rumoured ‘Great southern land’ (in the forlorn hope that this wasn’t the awful place the others had come across). On April 19, 1770 Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, reached the south-eastern tip of Australia, which he named point Point Hicks. Nine days later, he put ashore further north at Botany Bay. Here the Poms quickly discovered that the locals just weren’t interested in these new arrivals (thus establishing what was to become a long-standing tradition).
Cook continued up the coast, where his ship ran on to a reef off Queensland. For six weeks the crew carried out repairs to the Endeavour, establishing a small settlement ashore at what is now Cooktown. Here Cook made further contact with the Aborigines. To him, they appeared to be ‘the most wretched people upon the earth’, yet he couldn’t help noticing that ‘they are far more happier than we Europeans’. Cook continued with his explorations, but before he left the subcontinent he raised the Union Jack, claiming it for Britain and naming it ‘New South Wales’.
The convicts arrive
The discovery of Botany Bay was a great boon for the British. Here at last was somewhere they could get rid of all their social undesirables. (Previously they’d often been shipped to America, but America had now become independent – forcing British criminals to get there under their own steam before they were caught.) In 1787, the First Fleet under Captain Arthur Phillip set sail for Australia with 821 convicts on board. Strictly speaking, these were to be the very first Poms: this name originating as an acronym for ‘Prisoner Of Mother England’.
On arrival, the British quickly set about establishing hell on earth. Diminishing supplies and Aboriginal attacks, to say nothing of the inhospitable climate and terrain, were bad news for all concerned. The disgruntled guards soon began taking it out on their charges in vicious fashion. And the inmates of the colony – largely muggers, prostitutes, tavern brawlers and other relatively innocent victims of the courts – found it difficult to adapt to their subtropical holiday paradise. But the British were not to be put off by such trifles, and in 1790 the Second Fleet, with 1,000 prisoners clapped in irons, was dispatched to Australia. Of these 267 died en route. Many of the prisoners had been convicted for minor offences, and were officially sentenced to serve seven years ‘beyond the seas’. Effectively, however, this meant a life sentence in the most distant exile imaginable at the time – as there was no way back from ‘beyond the seas’.
The officers of the New South Wales Corps soon became the leading force in the colony, taking over tracts of land which they began farming. For cheap labour there were always the convicts, who were illegally paid in rum. Succesive governors found there was very little they could do to oppose this powerful clique, whose driving force emerged as Lt. Col. John MacArthur. This man was to change the face of Australia for ever. He quickly saw that the territory was ideal for grazing, and imported some merino sheep from South Africa. In 1805, William Bligh was sent out from England as governor. Bligh’s highhanded behaviour had already provoked one mutiny, during his period as master of the Bounty, and he was soon to repeat this feat as governor of New South Wales. In 1808 Bligh was ousted by the Rum Rebellion, which was largely fomented by MacArthur.
Having only recently succeeded in losing their American colonies, the British had no wish to lose any more of their empire. Colonel Lachlan Macquarie and the 73rd Regiment were sent out to replace Bligh and the New South Wales Corps. MacArthur fled, and the new governor set about bringing some order into the life of the colony.
Macquarie was an astute governor, and not for nothing is he sometimes known as the Father of Australia. He established a more humane regime for the prisoners; also, prisoners who had served their term and been released (known as Emancipists) were integrated into society and even given public office. By the end of Macquarie’s term as governor in 1821, Australia was even attracting a considerable number of voluntary emigrants from Britain.
Macquarie’s successor, Sir Thomas Brisbane, reversed this policy, using convicts to do the dirty work of expanding new settlements in recently explored virgin territory. By the 1830s, the British colonization of Australia had spread as far afield as Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland.
These were all coastal settlements, and inevitably interest soon began to focus on the interior. What lay at the centre of this huge unexplored continent? As is usually the case when nobody has the slightest idea, there were soon several utterly convinced and utterly irreconcilable schools of thought. The geographical experts maintained that the centre of Australia contained a large sea. Others with less geographical knowledge argued that it must be a swamp, a jungle, a vast territory of volcanoes, and so forth. The Aborigines’ suggestion that it was largely barren desert was dismissed as primitive imagining.
In 1840, Edward Eyre set off from Adelaide, determined to reach the heart of the continent. His expedition even carried raft-making equipment. After all kinds of troubles, the Eyre expedition finally abandoned its trek north at a large barren rock, which he named Mount Hopeless. (Perhaps more apt would have been to call it Mount Eyre, and save the other name for the expedition itself.)
In 1844 the Prussian explorer Doktor Ludwig Leichhardt made it from the Darling Downs in Queensland all the way up to the coast near Darwin. This 2,000-km journey took more than 14 months. Four years later he set off on an even more ambitious expedition to cross the continent from east to west, but was never heard of again. (This expedition was the basis of Patrick White’s sublime novel Voss). The Aborigines looked upon these expeditions across their mythic lands with curiosity and disdain – often charitably relieving the bedraggled explorers of their lives to prevent further unnecessary suffering.
Yet there were some successes. In 1860 the Burke and Wills expedition set off with a string of camels and made the crossing from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. But on the way back it was business as usual: the expedition succeeded in losing its two leaders, and most of the camels escaped. (The camels thrived, and their ancestors can still be seen roaming the desert.)
Meanwhile, also racing across Australia in the hope of picking up the £2,000 prize for the first crossing, John MacDouall Stuart made it as far as the barren lump of rock marking the geographical centre of the continent, which he modestly named Mount Stuart. To the astonishment of all concerned, it looked as if the Aborigines had been right. The heart of Australia was nothing but a vast wilderness of mirage and nebulous myth.
While all this serious Victorian exploration was going on, more frivolous types were attracted to specific parts of the interior. In 1851, gold was discovered at Bathhurst in New South Wales. Here was an amber solid which could quench all thirst for years to come: soon everyone who could move was headed for the goldfields. In next-door Victoria, the population became so depleted that a reward was offered for anyone discovering gold in the state. Within a year, one of the largest gold finds ever was made at Ballarat in Victoria, followed by others. Word quickly spread all over Australia, and even overseas. Prospectors were soon flooding in from California and all over Europe at the rate of over 2,000 a week.
In Britain there was a clamour to emigrate to Australia. The government decided in its wisdom that there was no point in sending expert gold-hunters to a land which appeared to be filled with gold, so in 1853 the transportation of criminals to the penal colonies of eastern Australia was officially terminated. (It was 15 years later before the last convicts arrived on the west coast.) By this time, almost 170,000 convicts had been shipped out to Australia.
The continent now began to attract a new type of immigrant. The Chinese were latecomers to the goldfields, many of which were already running out. Much to the consternation of the remaining dogged prospectors, the Chinese soon proved adept at winkling out elusive veins of gold in abandoned claims. The international brotherhood of prospectors quickly united in their hatred of these miserable foreign immigrants, and there were frequent race riots.
As white unemployment began to spread, so racial hatred spread beyond the goldfields. The government soon sensed the drift of public opinion, and imposed punitive taxes on the Chinese, in effect forcing them to leave. Then the government decided to make its intentions plain, and the 1901 Immigration Act instigated the White Australia Policy.
Yet there were still many people in Australia who definitely weren’t white – but were undeniably Australian. There was no possibility of getting the Aborigines to move out to another country, so the authorities decided to try a different tack. In Tasmania the lieutenant-governor ordered his men to round up the entire Aborigine population, who were then herded into a suitably barren patch of land which was designated as a ‘reserve’. The cleared land was now fit for civilization. This policy was soon being adopted throughout the continent.
The early 20thC
At the turn of the 19thC, the separate states of Australia finally joined to become a single nation. However, within this federation each of the states insisted upon retaining equal powers, regardless of population. (To this day, Tasmania has as many seats in the Upper House as New South Wales.) On Upper House as New South Wales.) On January 1, 1901 the Commonwealth of Australia came into being, with a Governor-General appointed by Queen Victoria (which meant it was still part of the British Empire). One of the first pieces of legislation passed by the new government was the 1901 Immigration Act. This legalized racial discrimination and de facto defined Australia as a white country, and in practice limited citizenship still further mainly to those of British or Irish stock. Without such measures, Australia might have ended up as Chinese as Hong Kong, or have become a largely multi-European country like America. Obviously, this would have been a great loss to world cricket. (The Australians had already set out and beaten the English at their own game – returning in 1882 with the ‘Ashes’ of English cricket in an urn.)
Yet during the succeeding decade, the Australian parliament was to introduce some of the most liberal legislation anywhere. In 1902 women received the vote, and five years later a minimum wage was established. This was set at a rate sufficient for a man to support a wife and three children.
Australia remained a colony of the British Empire, and as such was dragged into the largely European con-flict of the First World War when it broke out in 1914. In the end almost a third of a million Australians were shipped to the other side of the world to fight for the Allies.
This proportionately massive contribution was squandered in tragic fashion. The Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) took part in the Gallipoli landings, intended by Churchill to ‘knock out Turkey’. The Aussies fought with exceptional bravery but, owing to military planning of extraordinary ineptitude even for British generals, the result was a fiasco. By the end of the war 60,000 Aussies had lost their lives, and almost three times as many had been wounded. To commemorate these sacrifices, and those in ensuing wars, Australians have a public holiday on Anzac Day, the anniversary of the first Gallipoli landings on April 25, 1915.
Post-war Australia continued its rapid development. The famous Flying Doctor Service was introduced to bring medicine to the outback; the Queensland and Northern Territory Air Service was established (now known as Qantas); Sydney Harbour Bridge was started, and Canberra was built as the capital. At the same time, sport was establishing itself as a national obsession, with Australia and individual Australians becoming worldclass competitors in many events.
However, relations between Britain and Australia soured over the notorious ‘Bodyline’ cricket series, which took place in 1932. England bowled for the man, rather than the wicket; they may have won the series, but they lost countless Australian friends.
The Thirties and Forties
The worldwide Depression of the 1930s hit Australia hard, with unemployment rising to over 30 per cent of the workforce. Poverty forced many on to the road to look for work, and the swagman became a feature of Australian life.
The Second World War exposed Australia’s global vulnerability, and once again the Aussies got a raw deal. Australians fought alongside the Allies in the North Africa Campaign, which turned the course of the war against the Germans; but closer to home it was a different story. When the Japanese overran Singapore in 1942, 20,000 Australians were taken prisoner (many of them subsequently died in horrific circumstances building the Burma Railway for the Japanese). As the Japanese rapidly advanced through South-East Asia, it looked as if Australia was doomed to fall. Darwin was bombed, and Sydney attacked by submarines. But the Australians managed to defeat the Japanese at Port Moresby in New Guinea, thus stemming the tide. From then on it was the Americans who came to Australia’s rescue, and the Australians began to understand the reality of their remote bond with Britain.
Despite Britain’s lack of help during the Second World War, Australia still retained ties of culture and blood with the Old Country – which politicians, world wars, and even the Bodyline cricket series had not entirely destroyed. It was the wide open spaces of Australia that had attracted the landhungry Japanese during the Second World War, and Australia quickly drew the appropriate conclusion. Australia was the world’s sixth largest country, yet it had a population smaller than that of London. ‘Populate or perish’ became the policy of the day.
Australia turned to Britain for immigrants, launching a programme allowing British immigrants to sail to Australia for just £10. Disillusioned postwar Brits responded in their tens of thousands. A few whinged, but the rest quickly took to the Aussie way of life. This programme also encouraged many non-British Europeans to try their luck in Australia. The presence of Jews, Greeks and Yugoslavs soon brought a welcome continental spice to the rather bland Aussie social scene.
Post Second World War Australia
The country was now determined to defend itself in the event of renewed expansion by any of its neighbours, and assumed a full role in the politics of the Far East. In the 1950s troops were sent to support the British fighting the communists in Malaya, and Aussies fought alongside the Americans and the British in the war against the communists in Korea. Britain now used the Australian outback was as a nuclear testing ground. Its attitude towards the Australian interior hadn’t changed in almost 200 years. To them, it was still terra nullis. The presence of the Aborigines, and their entitlement to the land, were largely ignored. Admittedly, the white Australians were little better. (Staggeringly, for such a democratic country, it wasn’t until 1967 that Aborigines were even included in the national census or allowed to vote.) As a result, the mushroom clouds were soon sprouting in the outback, and large tracts of land alive with invisible songlines now took on a new invisible life: radioactivity.
In 1965 the ageing Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies committed Australian troops to support the Americans in Vietnam. This decision split the country. In 1972 Labor took over under Gough Whitlam, who brought the troops back from Vietnam. He also set about introducing sweeping health and educational reforms, as well as backing a programme of land rights for the Aborigines. This was far too much for the opposition, who did their best to bring the Senate to a standstill. Until this time the Governor-General had been a largely ornamental head of state, much like the Queen of England who appointed him. But in 1975 the Governor-General decided things had gone too far, and removed Whitlam from office. The unelected head of state, appointed by the unelected head of a foreign state, had simply reversed the democratically expressed wishes of the Australian people. Many around the world were astonished that Australia didn’t declare itself a republic overnight. In fact, Australians were more interested in the affairs of the moment, and voted in a Liberal-National coalition – which for the next few years restored an element of stability to the political scene.
But 1975 also saw an Australian achievement on the international scene which for once did not involve military bravery or sporting prowess. Australian writer Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Australia already had several artists of world-class stature – for example the painter Sidney Nolan and the operatic soprano Joan Sutherland – but White’s Nobel Prize set the seal on the country’s often maligned cultural status. This also coincided with another social transformation. White openly insisted upon his homosexuality, and this did much to encourage gay Australians to liberate themselves from the crampingly machismo self-image with which the nation had saddled itself. The times they were a-changing, and it wasn’t long before even the prime minister was crying on TV. The man responsible for this act of bathos was the ebullient Labor leader Bob Hawke, who took over as prime minister in 1983.
By 1991 the Labor Party decided it had had enough of Bob Hawke’s personal confessions, and Paul Keating took over as prime minister. By now Australia was beginning to feel the effects of the worldwide recession, and suffering from the worst unemployment since the 1930s.
Added to this were various homegrown disasters. A long-term drought was affecting large tracts of eastern Australian farmland, corruption was rampant in the state of Queensland, and Sydney’s victorious bid for the 2000 Olympics looked set to bankrupt the entire state of Victoria.
More recently, the government has been forced to come to terms with the difficulties posed by Aborigine land claims. The historic Mabo Decision of 1992 appears to accept these rights, but this will be no easy matter to resolve. At least partly in an effort to distract attention from all these problems, Keating launched his scheme to turn Australia into a republic.
Despite its seemingly inevitable outcome, this topic continues to provoke much heated debate. Australia is these days a major player in the Asian sphere, carefully watching China’s every move. Yet, understandably, Australians have difficulty seeing themselves as Asians. The eventual breaking of the British tie may well prove crucial in how this far-flung outpost of essentially European civilization comes to see itself.