Australia. For most of the world, it’s a country that’s a million miles from anywhere. It’s land full of strange people who speak an alien language and which is populated by some of the most curious, and the most dangerous creatures in the world: Wallabies, kangaroos, echidnas, koalas, Fairy Penguins, drop-bears, Redbacks, White-tails, kookaburras, the Spotted Quoll, snakes and anklebiters.
But how did Australia come to be? What happened to it? How did it evolve?
Since it was Australia Day yesterday, this article will look at the earliest years of recorded Australian history up to the colonial period of the mid-1800s.
The Myth of Australia
Every people, every culture, every nation on earth, has a place of myth which they believe might exist. Atlantis. Middle Earth. 221B Baker Street. There are those who think these places are real. And who will do anything to find them.
The 1500s was the start of the Early-Modern Period. This was a time of great discovery. It was the start of the Age of Reason, the Age of Discovery and the Age of Colonisation.
By the 1500s, it was fairly well-established that the Earth was round…although in the 21st Century, some people still require some convincing, however, early geographers believed that the Earth posessed a sort of balance. In the northern hemisphere, there were several large countries like Russia, China and Canada, as well as huge landmasses like the North American continent. It was believed by the learned people of the time that somewhere in the South, there was another enormous landmass like the North American continent which balanced out the bottom half of the world and gave the planet a sort of ‘symmetry’.
This mythical and unseen landmass was tentatively called: “Terra Australis Incognitia“. For people who don’t read Latin, it literally means ‘Unknown Southern Land” (Terra = Land, as in ‘terra firma’; Australis = South; Incognitia = Unknown, as in ‘Incognito’).
In Search of Australia
For centuries, rumors persisted that there must be an enormous and, as-yet, uncharted landmass at the bottom of the world. This landmass was what gave the world balance. Like the ballast on a ship, this supposed Unknown Southern Land would prevent the world from tipping over. The only thing was…nobody knew where such an enormous landmass might be.
This map from 1587 shows mankind’s understanding of Terra Australis Incognitia before the continent itself was fully discovered:
The map is pretty hard to read at this size. You can click on it to enlarge it if you wish. But on the map, you can clearly see Ireland, England, Russia, Europe, Italy, the Middle East, China, India, the African Continent and both American continents. The world as we know it is pretty much fully represented in this nearly five-hundred year old document. But one country is notably absent. At least, in its current form. Down the bottom of the map you can see an enormous, shapeless landmass. It is marked on the map (bottom left hand corner) as “TERRA AUSTRALIS”; the Southern Land.
Wanting to find out more about this great unknown land, the European powers sent ships into the Southern hemisphere on treacherous and lengthy voyages to find this great continent, map it, figure out what exactly they’d found, and then report back home. Of course, in the age of sail, this took a long time. When Capt. Cook sailed to Australia in the 1770s it took him very nearly two whole years to get there!
Western Contact with Australia
So. We have an enormous, uncharted land at the bottom of the world. Or we think we do. Now…we need to find it, chart it and do something with it. But before we can do the other two, we have to do the first. We need to find it.
Who found Australia?
This is a question that is almost impossible to answer. Dozens of people sailed for Australia over the centuries and any one of them, provided that they knew exactly what it was that they’d found, could stake a claim as the discoverer of Australia. It might not even have been a Westerner who first discovered Australia; it might have been the famous Chinese sailor, Zheng He, who once commanded one of the biggest blue-water navys in the world, big enough to challenge the might of the British Royal Navy at the time…except that during Zheng He’s day, the Royal Navy didn’t exist.
Maps of the 1500s showed an enormous, shapeless landmass south of the Equator. This, it was believed, was the mythical land of Terra Australis. But that was all it was. A myth. To date, nobody had yet truly confirmed that such a place really existed. Sure, people had sent back sketchy charts and maps from their voyages…but in piecing all these snippets of information together, geographers knew that the Unknown Land of the South remained undiscovered.
…Until one day in the early 1600s.
Although there are those who believe that the Portugese discovered Australia in the 1520s, the first really solid proof that Australia actually existed came as a result of a voyage made by a Dutch sailor in 1606. This sailor’s name was Willem Janszoon (ca. 1570-1630). What Janszoon had unwittingly crashed into during his exploration of the South Pacific was the western coast of Australia. He mapped and charted the area and named the place “Nieu Zeeland“, after the Dutch province of Zeeland where he came from.
Fortunately for Australians, the name didn’t stick and it was trasnferred to a bunch of islands a few thousand miles to east which were discovered by another Dutchman in 1642, islands now called…New Zealand.
So convinced was Janszoon that he’d found the missing puzzle-piece, the ‘Unknown Southern Land’ that ten years later, he set out and tried to find it again. On the 31st of July, 1618, he once again arrived on the western shores of the Australian continent. He declared this new landmass to be an island…although he didn’t actually bother sailing all the way around it to find out!
Fast forward another thirty-odd years, and enter: Abel Tasman. Tasman was the other Dutchman who was looking for Australia. He found it in the 1640s, and he’s the guy that Australians should thank for removing the title of ‘Nieu Zeeland‘ from their continent and tacking it onto the islands located a conveniently lengthy distance to the east. As information seeped in from explorers about this new continent that existed somewhere southeast of Asia, Tasman went exploring. It was Tasman who gave the Unknown (and thusfar, unnamed!) Southern Land its first title, which was rapidly printed on all new maps soon after. It was no longer some lengthy and fancy, scientific-sounding Latin landmass. It was called…
A name that would stick for almost all of the next two centuries.
Abel Tasman’s map of Nova Hollandia (“New Holland”); 1644
But Australia is famous for being found by the English, isn’t it? Well yeah…only they didn’t find it. At least, not until everyone else had. The first English eyes cast their sight upon ‘New Holland’ in 1688. They were the eyes of William Dampier. Dampier was a scallywag, a pirate, an explorer, cartographer (that’s a guy who makes maps) and scientist. He made the first observations, in English, of the Australian continent when he showed up there at the end of the 17th century.
Perhaps realising that everyone else who had found New Holland up to this point wrote down their discoveries in languages that he probably couldn’t understand, Dampier was the first man to write down an account of Australia in English. In fact, he wrote several accounts. Between 1697 and his death in 1715, he wrote six books about his explorations in the South Pacific. His work titled ‘A Voyage to New Holland‘ was so big it had to be published in two volumes six years apart!
Dampier was also something of a wordsmith. How many of these words do you know?
Avacado? Breadfruit? Cashew? Chopsticks? Barbeque?
They’re just five of the hundreds of words that Dampier coined during his voyage around the South Pacific at the turn of the 18th century. He was exploring lands that were so strange and fantastical that he had to create a whole new vocabulary just to document it all!
Well. We have a new landmass. New Holland. It’s completely uninhabited (apart from the natives that have been there for a few tens of thousands of years, but they’re complete savages and don’t count!), it’s in the middle of nowhere, it has absolutely nothing to offer anyone else on earth. What do we do with it?
The Europeans had no idea.
Map of New Holland made by French explorer Jacques-Nicolas Bellin in 1753
The problem was that Australia was so far from everywhere. It took over a year (if the going was rough, then over two years!) to get there! And once you were there, it was hot, dusty, uncomfortable and had nothing whatever to recommend it as a good place to set up shop.
But then, something happened in England that was to change everything.
Fencing off: The Enclosure Acts
The Georgian era was the era of enclosure. The Acts of Enclosure, passed by the British Parliament meant that common land, once open for everyone to use, were now being cordoned off, fenced up and had become part of the vast estates of Britain’s landed gentry and the nobles and aristocrats who owned enormous country manors. This meant that all the land once used by the pesantry to farm, fish, hunt, raise livestock, collect firewood and build their homes on, was all now private property! They couldn’t live there, work there or farm there. And if they did they had to pay rent to the landlord. The enclosure acts meant that farmers and their families had to leave their land and find work in the cities.
But the cities had no work.
So those without work turned to crime. A lot of crime.
The Georgian era was a high time for crime in England. People stole anything to get by. And the penalties were harsh. They ranged from execution, branding, imprisonment or being pressed into service onboard a ship of His Majesty’s Navy. It also meant being sentenced for transportation.
Transportation meant that you were stuffed onto a ship with a few hundred other sorry bastards, and shipped off to one of the colonies that the British were busy establishing during this time. In the Georgian era, the main dumping-ground for British convicts was the American Colonies. But in the 1770s and 1780s, the Americans fought back and kicked the Brits out. And the Brits still had to find somewhere to dump all their prisoners.
The crimewave in England was spiralling out of all control. Prisons were packed, dozens of prisoners to a cell. And then the prisons got full-up, so the authorities had to pack the prisoners into old, leaky, rotten sailing ships that were no-longer seaworthy. These ships, moored along the River Thames and other major waterways, were called hulks, and they were full of filth beyond anything you could imagine. No toilets. No fresh air. Little food. Rats. Lice. Fleas. Cockroaches and stinking, swilling bilgewater that seeped into the ships through the leaking planks. The British were desperate for a solution.
In 1766, the bigwigs at the Royal Society (Long name: The Royal Society of London for Improving of Natural Knowledge) decided that they wanted to track the progress of the planet Venus. It was due to swing past the earth, in front of the sun near the end of the decade. To get the best view of this rare event, it told a young Royal Navy lieutenant, Capt. James Cook (aged 39 at the time), to command a ship that would take a complement of artists, scientists and naturalists on a voyage of discovery to the South Pacific where this amazing celestial event could be observed. For the voyage, the Society purchased an old coal-carrying ship, cleaned it up and refitted it for the voyage. It was renamed the Endeavor.
The voyage to the South Pacific would take twenty two months. They started in 1768 and didn’t arrive until 1770. They had to stop four times along the way. Twice along the east coast of South America, once at New Zealand and once at the Tahitian Islands. Their observations of Venus complete, Capt. Cook broke the seal on a packet of papers given to him by the Admiralty back in England before he sailed. The papers were the instructions given to him that ordered him to find the land of New Holland and claim it for England in the name of His Majesty, King George III.
The voyage was really one of discovery. They were sailing to places that few people had ever seen. Not since Abel Tasman’s charting of New Holland a hundred years before, had anyone sailed to this mythical land. Cook himself wasn’t even sure the place existed! Indeed, the Admiralty that sent him there wasn’t sure, either! The maps they were working with were, more likely than not, over a hundred years old by then! They needed fresh information. But if New Holland did exist, then the Admiralty wanted Cook to snatch it up for Britain.
During his voyage across the Pacific, Cook charted the whole of New Zealand, claimed it for Britain, sailed to Tahiti, made friends with the natives, restocked his ship and then sailed for the great unknown continent…now known as New Holland.
It was a long, lonely and scary voyage, but it paid off. Land was sighted at 6:00am on the morning of the 19th of April, 1770; a Thursday. Cook charted his position and plotted the previously unseen eastern coastline of New Holland. He made landfall in a little cove which was thereafter named “Botany Bay”. Here, the crew and the scientists of the Royal Society explored this new land that they’d found. They recorded such things as the plants, the animals, and even the natives that they found there. They even shot and killed and…ate…a kangaroo. They also shot and killed and…stuffed-and-mounted…three more kangaroos, which they put onto the ship to take back home to England.
The Endeavor sailed up the coast of what is now New South Wales. They parked at a point off the coast which is now Port Jackson, did more mapping and then sailed even further north. When they reached present-day Queensland, they made landfall again; dropping anchor, lowering the boats and rowing ashore. Today, a town exists on this spot where Cook made his second landing on Australian soil. It’s name? ‘1770’.
A new Colony
After the early 1780s, the British lost a grip (literally) on their favourite criminal dumping-ground, the former colonies of what were now the United States of America (a name and concept so alien that George III barely agreed to recognise it’s existence!). The crime-wave in England was gathering momentum and a solution was desperately needed.
That was when it was decided that it would be advantageous to the British to have a trading post in New Holland. After all, nobody really lived there, and that chap, Cook, had already stuck a flag in it and called it for England, didn’t he? So technically, it was theirs!…Kinda. So the British got the idea to set up a penal colony in Australia. Ships were rounded up, crews were gathered, provisions stowed and the most essential ingredient of this new colonial experiment were herded onboard – the convicts that would be Australia’s first permanent white settlers.
So, this collection, this gathering, this hodgepodge of humanity, was drawn together and declared the First Fleet.
Alright. Let’s stop here for a minute. My word-count says that up to here, I have typed roughly 2,500 words of Australian History. But in Australia, the most that kids learn in school of their country’s history is that it started in 1788 when the Poms first landed here and…that was that. Well, sorry, History Teachers of Australia…that wasn’t where it all started. You left out about a century and three-quarters’ worth of history that you haven’t taught the kids. Shame on you.
Okay, back to our irregularly scheduled ramblings.
The First Fleet
Now, back to the Schoolboy History of Australia.
The First Fleet was a collection of 1030 people spread out over eleven ships. They were a collection of sailors, marines, husbands, wives, kids, officers, civillian officials and convicts. Their mission: Sail to New Holland and call it ‘Home’.
They left Portsmouth, England, on the 13th of May, 1787. The fleet weighed anchor at 4:00am and set sail for New Holland five hours later at 9:00 in the morning.
The voyage was going to be epic. Going as fast as they could, the ships took nine months to reach Australia. Twenty-three people died during the journey and seven babies were born on the way.
When the ships made landfall in Botany Bay in January of 1788, leader of the fleet, Capt. Arthur Phillip, was less than impressed. Reports by Cook and his pal, naturalist Joseph Banks, had filled Phillip with optimism. What he found was a swampy, uninhabitable wasteland. Packing up, Phillip and his boys sailed further up the coast to Port Jackson a few miles north. Here, they established a settlement. Today, it is called Sydney. The day that the First Fleeters arrived was the 26th of January, 1788; today called ‘Australia Day’.
The Birth of a Nation
And so, Australia was established and colonised by the White Man!
Only, it still wasn’t called ‘Australia’. Theoretically, Terra Australis Incognitia was still titled ‘New Holland’; the name that Abel Tasman had given it back in 1644. The bit of New Holland that the British had carved out for themselves was called ‘New South Wales’, a colony that eventually spread out to encompass roughly half of the Australian continent, minus Tasmania (then called ‘Van Diemen’s Land’).
This is the world’s first full and complete map of the Australian continent. It was drawn up by Capt. Matthew Flinders in 1804
And life in the new colony was hardly ideal. There were few animals, little food, and while there were muskets and pistols for hunting, there was almost no ammunition! And even if they’d brought grains and plants with them, there wasn’t a single farmer in the entire colony. The governor, former captain Arthur Phillip and a thousand of his fellow Englishmen, women and children, were quite literally stuck on a desert island with no way home.
Within months, things were beginning to deteriorate. While Governor Phillip had brought enough food (if rationed very strictly) to last about two years, once that food ran out, there was nothing to sustain the colonists. They needed a supply-ship and they needed it fast. They also needed a lot of women. And they needed them rather desperately. Men outnumbered women three-to-one in the colony and colonial officials feared that, without lots more women to balance out the population, the men would soon devolve into homosexual maniacs, engaging in sodomy, buggery and generally savage behaviour. Chicks were needed to bring the boys under control.
Enter the Second Fleet.
The need for women was so important that when the ships of the First Fleet sailed for England, a message was sent back with them that the next fleet back to New Holland had better be swarming with girls. So back in England, female convicts were rounded up in an almost exclusively all-girl transport-fleet bound for Australia. To be specific, a transport-fleet of young, vibrant women of marriagable and child-bearing age (this was mentioned specifically in the letter sent to England!).
The second mission to Australia comprised of a fleet of six ships. One ship, the Lady Juliana carried a cargo of 222 women onboard (originally 226, but four died on the way over). The ship gained a reputation for sex, prostitution and loose morals, leading to the nickname the ‘Floating Brothel’.
The Second Fleet dropped anchor off the coast of New South Wales and Port Jackson in 1790, two years after the establishment of the colony. The women who came aboard were horrified to see a town (Sydney) that was on the brink of collapse! The men that were still there were surviving on starvation-rations and despite the pleadings by the colonial officials, for women to be sent to the colony, when the girls finally showed up, the convicts and freemen living around Port Jackson at the time registered disgust and disbelief that the bigwigs back in London had sent them a boatload of girls, when what they really needed at that desperate time was healthy young men who would be able to work and build houses, chop down trees, split firewood and grow crops!
A bit too late to complain about that now.
As Sydney grew more and more crowded, people began spreading out across what was then ‘New South Wales’. The next major settlement was on the banks of the Yarra River in present-day Victoria. This settlement, eventually called ‘Melbourne’, was formally established as a town in 1835. It was the main urban center in what became known as the ‘Port Phillip District’, because it centered around Port Phillip Bay, into which the Yarra River empties. John Batman, the man who was responsible for establishing Melbourne, picked out a likely spot on the north bank of the Yarra River (around where the Central Business District is today), and declared:
“This will be the place for a village!”
And what a place it is. Fresh air. Lots of land. Running water! A hundred and eighty years later, and I reckon he was right. This will the place for a village.
Except that Batman overlooked the fact that he’d established Melbourne on a floodplain. Every time southern Victoria gets heavy rainstorms, the center of town becomes a lake. Nice going, Mr. B…or not.
Another important thing happened around this time. Or rather, it happened about ten years before.
The continent had gone from being Terra Australis Incognitia to ‘New Holland’, and in 1824, it officially received its current name: “Australia”.
The word ‘Australia’ had existed since the early 1600s, and European explorers (including the British) had referred to the continent as such, but probably only because it was easier to write than having to scribble out “Terra Australis Incognitia” over and over and over again. There had been pushes to name the continent ‘Australia’ ever since the early 1800s, when colonists and explorers had finally established a proper and functioning colony there. In 1824, the Admiralty in England finally agreed. New Holland was out. ‘Australia’ was in, taken from the continent’s ‘original’ Latin name, ‘Australis‘, meaning ‘South’.
The Victorian Gold Rush
The gold rush that most Americans know about is the California Gold Rush of 1849, that turned a tiny, sleepy, seaside town like San Francisco into a gigantic, bustling west-coast metropolis. And for a short while, at least, the gold rush in California attracted world attention.
Until in 1851, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, colonists digging around in the newly-formed and separate Australian colony of ‘Victoria’ (named after Her Majesty, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom), struck it rich.
To be fair, there had been gold found in Australia for quite a few years before 1851, but no news of these discoveries were widely circulated. But the 1851 gold-rush was a once-in-a-lifetime event! People charged into Australia from all over the world! America, England, Europe, China! Everyone wanted a piece of the action. Victoria’s population (and the population of Melbourne) skyrocketed upwards! Don’t believe me? Let’s see…
In 1835, when Melbourne was established, the population was negligable. Five years later, it had reached a population of 10,000 people. In 1851, when gold was discovered, the population shot up from 10,000 people to 29,000 people. And by 1854, the population had exploded to 123,000 people! Melbourne was growing so fast that soon, the original town established on the bank of the Yarra River was too small to contain everyone and Melbourne rivaled Sydney as the population center of colonial Australia. The incredible wealth produced by the goldmining operations meant that Melbourne could now boast exsquisite public buildings such as a parliament house, a university, a public library, post-office and a grand town hall. A lot of the old Victorian-era buildings found in central Melbourne today would not be there without the wealth (and the population-boom) triggered by the gold rush.
Australia has not had a good reputation with the natives, much like how America didn’t have a good reputation with the American ‘Indians’, and Australia’s record of handling aboriginal affairs is hardly something to boast about. Indeed, from the very start of European interest in Australia, the Aborigines were largely ignored altogether.
Tahitians, as described by earlier explorers were friendly, helpful, engaging people. They assisted the Europeans and welcomed them to their shores. Capt. Bligh wrote highly of them in his account of the Mutiny on the Bounty. The New Zealand Maori were a savage and warlike people. Europeans learned to respect them if they didn’t all want to be butchered in their beds. This led to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, between representatives of the British Crown and the chieftans of the Maori tribes in New Zealand.
In Australia, however, there was no such friendship and no treaty. The Europeans recognised the Tahitians as owners of their land and they recognised the Maori as the rightful inhabitants of New Zealand, but no such recognition or courtesy was ever extended to the Aborigines of Australia. Mostly due to Terra Nullius.
Terra Nullius is a lovely-sounding Latin phrase. It means “No Man’s Land”, and was originally part of Ancient Roman law. The British revised the notion of Terra Nullius when they went around carving up the world.
They interpreted Terra Nullius to mean that a native people only had a right to sovereignty and rulership of their lands if they altered or changed it in a manner indicative of civilisation. Such indicators included farming, fishing, agriculture, the building of huts, villages, buildings, using tools and so-forth. In the eyes of the British, the Tahitians and the Maori were civilised, intelligent people, capable of construction, farming, fishing, making tools and utensils and generally displayed elements of civilisation. Because of this, the British saw them as being intelligent people who, like the British, had bent the land to their will. They could therefore be seen as having legitimate right to boot off, fight or negotiate with the Europeans who might want to live there. After all, they’d clearly shown that this was their land and they knew how to work it.
By contrast, the Aborigines were perceived, even by the standards of the day, to be backwards and simple-minded people. The Tahitians and the Maori, the two races of dark-skinned people that the British were most familiar with, had concepts of rulership, ownership, cultivation, farming, construction and the use of fire. Apart perhaps from the use of fire, the Aborigines appeared to have none of the other prerequisite characteristics, traits or abilities that would cause them to be seen, in the eyes of the British, at least, as legitimate rulers of their land.
Since Australian land was therefore ‘untouched’ by the Aborigines, who had not cultivated it, established settlements or reared livestock of any kind, it was deemed to be ‘uninhabited’, and therefore, free for the taking. And the British were the ones to take it.
The Aborigines were unlike any other race of people that the British had yet encountered. Tahitians were friendly and welcoming, helpful and curious. Maori were warlike and demanded respect or death. The Aborigines on the other hand, were simply stupified, and the British couldn’t work them out at all. This lack of understanding, as is generally the case in circumstances like this, led to severe and fatal communications breakdowns. Indeed, it was believed by the British that the Aborigines would soon just die out. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Aborigines were allowed to vote in Australian elections or were even considered Australian citizens! And it wasn’t until 1992 that Australian courts officially recognised Aboriginal sovereignty over Australian land (something that the original British explorers and settlers never did) and declared Terra Nullius to be invalid.
This is just a small part of Australia’s history on its slow march to nationhood. I wasn’t able to cover everything that I wanted in this posting, but I will cover more in any future posting made on this blog about the history of Australia.
Some handy documentary films if you want to find out more information:
“Tony Robinson Explores Australia” .
“The Floating Brothel”.