The First Australians

Australia is a very new and a very old country. Nobody knows exactly when the first people came to the continent. Scientists think that the first Australians arrived on the continent ca. 40,000 years ago. This is a very long time ago in human history.
For most of this long time, the first Australians (or Aboriginal people) were completely isolated from the rest of the world. We don’t know much about this past because the Aboriginal people didn’t leave written documents. But Aboriginal civilization and the Aboriginal languages may be the oldest in the world. They left great rock paintings. Music, song and oral literature were important too. Have you ever heard of the didgeridoo? It’s a famous Aboriginal musical instrument, a sort of wooden trumpet that can be more than a metre long. When you blow into it, it produces a very deep, hollow sound. The didgeridoo is one of the oldest wind instruments in the world.
The Aboriginal people lived as nomadic hunters, fishermen and gatherers. Their only animals were dogs. They didn’t build houses, streets or cathedrals. They didn’t have a government because they lived in hundreds of tribes and there were hundreds of different languages and dialects. The whole tribe or some older men made the decisions. But they were experts in finding water and food in the dry and hot country.
The Aboriginal people didn’t believe that the land belonged to them; they believed they belonged to the land. The land was their mother, and there were powerful spirits who had created the land and all the animals a long time ago. This period is called Creation Time or the Dreamtime. In some places – like Uluru – the spirits can still be felt. These places are special for the Aboriginal people. They use them for ceremonies and think they’re sacred. And they don’t like it when tourists don’t respect them.

The First Europeans and Captain Cook

The first Europeans came to Australia in the 17th century. They were Portuguese and Dutch sailors, who thought that the country was too hot and too dry and didn’t like it. So they quickly left again – often without even going on land.
The first European who actually wanted to explore the country and stay for some time was Captain James Cook in 1770 – and that’s where most Australian history books start. So a lazy student would certainly choose Australian history as a school subject, because it is a lot shorter than other world histories!

James Cook was a British naval officer. He was sent to the Pacific to find and explore the unknown southern continent. He came from Tahiti and first reached Australia’s East Coast.
For the next four months, his ship (the Endeavour) followed the coast for 3,000 kilometres and nearly crashed into the Great Barrier Reef. Cook found a nice place near Sydney and named it Botany Bay because of the many plants that his men discovered there. On 21st August, 1770, James Cook put up the British flag and claimed the land for Great Britain.

James Cook’s first meetings with Aboriginal people were friendly, but things soon went wrong because of different traditions. The Aboriginal people did not think that land belongs to someone and for them it was not possible to own an animal. So when they started hunting the cattle that the new settlers had brought with them, people said they were stealing and many Aboriginal people were killed.
Animals (like pigs, sheep and cows) were not the only things that the Europeans brought with them. New diseases landed in Australia with the European ships and many Aboriginal people became ill and died because their bodies couldn’t fight these diseases. Many also died of alcohol.


Convicts and settlers

At first there weren’t many settlers. Australia was far away from Europe and for the Europeans there was nothing of great value there. But in January 1788 eleven British ships came to Botany Bay. These ships were carrying 570 male and 191 female prisoners and children – and 2000 soldiers to guard them.
Life in England in the 18th century was very hard. There were lots of poor people and a lot of crime. Punishments were very strict, for example you could be hanged for stealing bread. In Britain the prisons were full, so the government decided to send these convicts to Australia. It was far away and the people would be no more trouble for England. Over the next 80 years, 165,000 prisoners arrived in Australia. After seven years they were free and could find a place to settle and stay. These convicts are the ancestors of millions of Australians today.


Ned Kelly

One of the most famous descendants of these convicts was Ned Kelly. He was born in 1854 in Melbourne as the son of a convict from Ireland. Ned had lots of brothers and sisters and his family was very poor and had a hard life. Young Ned and his brothers got into trouble with the police when they were teenagers. Ned was very angry and thought that the police was unfair. So he decided to rob banks to get money for his family and other poor people. He believed that the poor people of Australia should fight against the English and the police. The Kelly Gang was very famous, but finally Ned and his men were caught by the police in the famous shoot-out at Glenrowan. Ned Kelly was sentenced to death for murder and hanged in Melbourne in 1880. For some people he is a criminal, others think that he was a hero because he fought against injustice and wanted a better life for the poor. There are many films and books about his life.


More immigrants from Europe and Asia

A large number of immigrants came to Australia (double the number of convicts) when gold was discovered in 1851. Most of the people did not find much gold, but they didn’t have enough money to pay for a ticket home, so they had to stay in Australia.
A similar trend happened after the end of World War II 1945. People wanted to start new lives in a country that hadn’t been destroyed by the war. The new immigrants were welcome to the Australian government because the country needed more people. And there was a new trend: people came not only from Britain, but also from Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe – about 5.5 million. After 1973, immigrants from Asia were allowed to move to Australia. The population today is still relatively small for such a large country as Australia – just under 22 million people. The larger part of the population (around 70%) lives in cities.


The Stolen Generations and National Sorry Day

In the 20th century the Australian government wanted to integrate Aboriginal people into white society. They decided to take Aboriginal children away from their parents and try to make them members of Australian society. From about 1910 to 1970 mostly mixed-race Aboriginal children (for example from a white father and an Aboriginal mother) were taken away from their families and brought to special homes or camps. This happened to one fourth of all Aboriginal children. They’re called the Stolen Generations. Often they were told that their parents were dead or didn’t want them. This breaking up of families has led to problems for many Aboriginal people. When these children were adults, lots of them tried to find their families. And they wanted the government to say sorry. Since 1998 there has been an unofficial national holiday on the 26th of May called National Sorry Day. But it was only in 2008 that the Australian government officially said “sorry” to the Stolen Generations.