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Aboriginal peoples from Southeast Asia came to Australia at least forty thousand years ago. They (and the continent) remained isolated from the rest of the world until trade developed, first with islanders to the north, then, in the seventeenth century, with Europeans extending their empires. Today Australia is a culturally diversity nation-state with strong ties to the West and ever-more challenging relationships with Asia.
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Australia is a sovereign nation in the Southwest Pacific, occupying a continent of nearly 7.7 million square kilometers; it is the only continent coterminous with a single nation state, and has for the majority of world history been the most isolated continent save for Antarctica. Its flora (predominantly sclerophyll [eucalyptus] forest and acacia and mallee scrubland), and its fauna (predominantly marsupials that carry and suckle their young in pouches but including monotremes, or egg-laying mammals) are distinctive. Apart from Antarctica, it is the world’s most arid continent, with large areas of semi-desert. It is profoundly influenced by the climate cycle known as El Nino / La Nina, with long droughts punctuated by seasons of heavier rainfall in the south and monsoon conditions in the north.
Originally part of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland that encompassed South America and Antarctica, the land mass of Australia existed for many millions of years in total isolation until the arrival of aboriginal people from Southeast Asia at least forty (and perhaps as long as sixty) thousand years ago. Aboriginal Australians evolved a close relationship with their physical environment, but transformed it aided by the introduction of the dingo (a semi-domesticated canine species), about 3,500 to 5,000 years ago. Aboriginal people were overwhelmingly hunter-gathers who altered the composition of the forests through selective burning of vegetation. This “fire stick farming” made large sections of forest more open and suitable for the hunting of marsupials. Before human settlement, megafauna in the form of giant thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), kangaroo, and wombat-like species roamed, but were rendered extinct by a combination of aboriginal impacts and climate change. Aboriginal people gradually occupied the entire continent over thousands of years.
The isolation of this continent and its peoples was further breached in the centuries before European occupation. From at least 1720 and perhaps as much as three hundred years earlier, trade developed between aboriginal Australians and the islanders of present day Indonesia and New Guinea to the north; from these sources may have come rat and cat populations before Europeans arrived. The first European arrivals were the Spanish and then Dutch sailors of the early- to mid-seventeenth century in quest of trade and empire on behalf of their respective monarchs. The Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman “discovered” (in European terms) New Zealand and present day Tasmania (he called the latter Van Diemen’s Land), while the English sailor William Dampier explored the northwest coast of Western Australia in the 1688 and 1699; but it was not until 1770 that Captain James Cook discovered and claimed the eastern half of the Australian continent for Britain while on a trip of naval exploration in the Pacific.
Faced with the ever-growing numbers of prisoners produced by a draconian criminal code, the British government decided in 1786 to establish, on Cook’s recommendation of the suitability of the site, a penal colony near present day Sydney. On 26 January 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip and over one thousand prisoners (whose hefty jail terms were often commuted from death sentences) established the first European settlement in New South Wales. The fledgling colony existed initially on a mixture of subsistence crops, but quickly developed coastal sealing and timber getting. The area was visited by the whalers of several European countries and of the newly formed United States. French explorers engaged in scientific research during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era indicated that the political hold of the British was at first tenuous. But the defeat of the French in the Napoleonic Wars removed that threat by 1815. Thereafter the expansion of Australia was underwritten by British naval supremacy until World War II.
Initially hemmed in by its difficult terrain and dense coastal forest, Europeans expanded settlement into the formidable barrier of the Blue Mountains in 1813. Thereafter the rich grazing and farming lands to the west of the Great Dividing Range were opened up. In 1802 and 1803, additional colonies were established in Van Diemen’s Land, where recalcitrant prisoners were sent, and in 1836, free settlers from that island pioneered a colony on the continent’s southern shores that became Victoria. In 1829, another colony on the Swan River began the white settlement of Western Australia; and in 1836 a free colony in South Australia joined the list.
Entering the World Economy
Australian history was always tied up with foreign markets for primary products, and with the vicissitudes of the evolving world economy of capitalism. By the 1820s New South Wales had developed what was to be the future nation’s first great economic staple, the merino wool industry, using sheep brought from Spain. Merino sheep were well adapted to the arid Australian environment, and their wool withstood the long ocean journey to European woolen goods factories. On the basis of wool, Australia became extremely wealthy on a per capita basis by the mid-nineteenth century. White settlers seized the land for the sheep industry from aboriginal people under the doctrine of terra nullius, or “empty land,” a doctrine that recognized no legal authority on the part of the indigenous. The British government simply claimed sovereignty, but settlers had to establish their tenure against resistant aboriginal people. Disease and the guns of whites, however, gradually reduced this obstacle to European exertion of control.
Though profitable, wool required large landholdings and relatively few laborers as shepherds. Increasingly, pastoralists controlled vast estates. Until the transportation of British prisoners to the eastern Australian colonies ceased in 1850, these large pastoralist landowners, called “squatters,” used convict labor. By the 1840s, bitter battles had broken out between the governors and the pastoralists over the acquisition of and payment for land. Already an agitation on behalf of the growing numbers of free settlers sought the end to convictism, but the social landscape was even further transformed by the discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851. Many tens of thousands of European and American prospectors, and Chinese laborers rushed to the gold fields; Melbourne soon became Australia’s largest city, servicing the fields, and other gold rushes developed in Queensland and Western Australia later in the century. Gold brought intensified calls for democracy and moves toward self-government status, achieved in the middle of the 1850s for New South Wales and Victoria. The other colonies quickly followed suit.
Cities such as Melbourne, Brisbane (in the new colony of Queensland in Northeastern Australia, achieving self-government in 1859), and Sydney became entrepots (intermediate centers of trade) for the export of the land’s products, which now included not only wool but also wheat and minerals. Australia quickly developed by the late nineteenth century as one of the most urbanized societies in the world; yet much of the wealth still derived from the land; painters, poets, and novelists exhibited a fascination for “the bush” as shaping a distinctive, egalitarian, and masculinist national identity.
Australia remained throughout the nineteenth century subject to the demand pressures coming from European industrialization. The improvement of transport with faster sail ships and steamships tied the colonies ever more closely to the world economy and to Europe. Meat exports grew in the 1880s with the development of refrigeration; by 1900, the cattle industry spread across northern Australia, the nation’s last frontier. Cattle, wool, and wheat brought prosperity in the 1860s to 1890; wages were relatively high; free immigrants mainly from Britain (including Ireland) continued to enter, and society developed a racially “white” population that was said, with only a little exaggeration, to be 98 percent British. A strong middle class emerged in the cities committed to social and moral reform, but Australia was badly affected by the severe depression in the European world in the 1890s.
Class and Race, Politics and Governance
Partly as a result of that economic downturn, Australia entered a period of harsh class conflict between capital and labor; bitter strikes ensued, but the nation was not affected to any degree by Europe’s revolutionary socialism. After the labor movement’s defeat in these industrial wars, attention turned to the formation of a social democratic style of political party tied to trade unions, the Labor Party, that produced the first (but short-lived) Labor government in the world—in 1899 in Queensland. The nation was also affected by fears of racial takeover; the Chinese who had come with the gold rushes as laborers and miners posed one threat that colonists had railed against; Asian people became subject to restrictive immigration laws in the major colonies in the 1880s. The rise of Japanese power, particularly after the defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904 was another development raising a threat of a “yellow peril.” This fear of external threats and the desire to overcome tensions within the class-divided society brought impetus to the movement for federation and a rising nationalism.
The political landscape was changed by the federation of the different colonies in 1901 as the Commonwealth of Australia, comprised of six states with a written constitution partly based on the American, but without a Bill of Rights and retaining the Westminster system of parliamentary government and allegiance to the Crown. The federal union was cemented by the incorporation of labor into a social settlement via a system of industrial arbitration to maintain high wages. As part of the implicit compromise non-white labor was to be excluded to placate white workers (South Sea islanders working contract labor under near-slave conditions on northern sugar plantations were sent home as a result); and women were granted federally the right to vote, one of the earliest achievements of this reform in the world. Along with New Zealand, Australia became known as a site of significant social democratic reform. The Labor Party exerted a strong influence and provided several of the early governments of the Commonwealth and states.
These social achievements and economic progress were shattered by external events of world history again—this time in the form of World War I from 1914 to 1918. Though Australia was self-governing in regard to internal affairs, it was part of the British Empire and its leaders took the nation into war against Germany alongside the mother country. Nearly sixty thousand Australian soldiers died in the conflict that followed. The war exacerbated class, religious, and other social tensions as many Australians of Irish-Catholic descent opposed the attempted introduction of military conscription. The ruling Labor Party split over the issue, and the nation entered a period of conservative rule that lasted almost unbroken until 1941.
Meanwhile, the 1920s and 1930s saw Australia in increasingly difficult economic circumstances due to the further impact of external forces of the world economy. Agricultural prices dropped worldwide in the 1920s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s hit Australia as hard as it did Germany and the United States. Australia sought and received imperial preference tariffs that tied the nation even closer to the British. The growing threat of the Japanese did likewise. Australia relied on the British navy to repel this threat. But the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in World War II forced Australia to look to the United States after a call from the new Labor government. Hundreds of thousands of American troops passed through Australia, and the two nations fought to repel the Japanese. After the Allied victory in World War II, Australia formed a close political and strategic alliance with the United States, and sided with the Americans in the emerging Cold War. It also fought alongside the United States in the hot war that erupted in Korea (1950–1953), the Vietnam War of the 1960s, and in subsequent conflicts in Iraq (1991 and 2003–2009), and Afghanistan (beginning in 2001 and still involved as of 2010).
Internally, postwar Australia prospered once more as a result of the Cold War that raised the demand for Australian primary products, particularly wool. The nation’s terms of trade were very favorable and the high standard of living underpinned twenty- three years of continuous conservative political rule under the Liberal Party after 1949. The social composition of the nation was changed dramatically. Postwar refugees were welcomed in Australia from Europe, and to supply the labor needed for the nation’s expanding factories and mines, workers from Italy, Greece, and other European countries entered in large numbers. As a result the nation became ethnically mixed. Gone was the country largely Anglo- Celtic and composed of the earlier British and Irish immigrants and native-born stock. The ties to the motherland were further undermined by Britain’s entry to the European Common Market in 1964, a move that destroyed the old Imperial and Commonwealth trade preference system. Australia now had to find new markets, particularly in Asia, and the old enemy Japan in the 1960s and 1970s became the nation’s greatest trading partner. Later in the 1990s and after, China loomed larger as an importer of Australia’s mineral wealth. The drift towards Asia continued after 2000 and was reinforced by growing Asian migration.
Not until the 1960s had the White Australia policy, in operation since 1901, been challenged. At first came the admission of Asian students, then a cultural and social revolution from 1970 to 2000, as wave after wave of Asian immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and other places entered; refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s, Lebanon in the 1980s, and from Africa and the Middle East after 2000 added to the interracial mixture. By 2001, 22 percent of Australians were foreign born. As a result of changing immigration patterns, Islam and Buddhism joined Catholic and Protestant Christian denominations as part of the multicultural mix. Though multiculturalism was widely accepted in the 1980s, the stream of non-white and Muslim immigrants began to produce an anti-multicultural backlash that conservative politicians exploited. A different though complementary problem arose from the nation’s dependence on China for energy exports vital to the economy. This complicated fractious debates over climate change. Through its massive supply of coal and gas to Asian industrial powerhouses, Australia’s history since 2000 has become increasingly tied to global concerns about carbon dioxide emissions. A third divisive issue was Aboriginal Reconciliation. Aboriginal people received limited but significant legal victories in the early 1990s over lost land rights, and a formal apology for past wrongs committed by earlier generations came from the new Labor government in 2008. Yet the demand for further “reconciliation” and financial compensation for two centuries of discrimination continued to be controversial.
In the year 2010, with a population of about 22 million, Australia stood poised between its European heritage and American alliance on the one hand, and links to Asia on the other. As at every other point, the destiny of Australia was profoundly shaped by the patterns of trade, economic development, migration, and war that comprised world history.
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