Living in Australia

A Brief History of Australia

For anyone considering visiting or moving to another country, knowing about its history is interesting and important. Locals love it when visitors and migrants take the time to understand the local flavour and culture and the first step in doing that is looking back over the country’s past.

Allianz Global Assistance Overseas Health - A Brief History of Australia

Here, we give you a brief history of Australia and also outline the migration patterns that have taken place here since discovery by the British. Of course, you should do your own research too. Australia is still a young, but very fascinating country!

Who was here first?

The original inhabitants of Australia were the Aborigines, who still remain today and who can claim more than 50 millennia of history here. In fact, Aborigines are the world’s oldest living cultural civilisation. Before the British colony was established, it is estimated that there were as many as one million Indigenous folks living in Australia.

There were more than 500 regional groups, or tribes, from the Yapa, Yolngu and Bininj people in what is now the Northern Territory to the Palawah people in Tasmania and all across the land. Additionally, the people from the Torres Strait Islands are distinct from Aborigines but are still, today, considered Australians.

See more at our pages on Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal festivals.

Discovery by the British

On 29th April 1770, the British explorer Captain James Cook stepped ashore in what is now Botany Bay in New South Wales. Cook and his crew encountered the local ‘Gweagal’ tribe of Aborigines and assumed that since they inhabited the shores, the interior of the land was uninhabited.

They also assumed that the Aborigines would abandon their land and the British could explore it as the setting for a new British colony. Instead, the natives went about ambushing convicts who were sent to the bush to work. Known as ‘frontier massacres’, the battles began in 1789 and the Aborigines were no match for modern British weaponry.

Hundreds of massacre sites have since been identified, many that occurred post-federation. To the current day, debate rages over whether Australia Day on 26th January – which celebrates the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet – should instead be marked as ‘Invasion Day’.

Claiming ownership of Australia for England

James Cook claimed ownership of Australia’s east coast for the British Crown in 1770 during his first voyage of the Pacific. His recommendation, upon returning to Britain, was that the new land become a penal colony.

British prisons had become severely and unsustainably over-crowded due to poverty-related petty theft and Australia would become somewhat of an annexe for England. Plans were made to start sending convicts to Australia.

Important migration periods in Australia’s history

  • 1770 – James Cook’s ship The Endeavour lands in Botany Bay.
  • 1788 – The First Fleet, commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip lands in Port Jackson. The Sydney Cove first colonial settlement is established.
  • 1788-1868 – Over this period, around 162,000 English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish convicts were transported to Australia.
  • 1801-1859 – Other major centres were discovered and established, including Melbourne, Fremantle/Perth, Adelaide, Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and Queensland.
  • 1850s – Australia experienced a booming economy thanks, in large part, to the discovery of gold. These were the ‘gold rush’ years. Immigrants poured in from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, China, Germany and America.
  • 1901 Federation! The six separate British colonies (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia) agreed to unite to form the Commonwealth of Australia. The country’s first ever Prime Minister, Edmund Barton was elected.
  • 1914-1918 – World War I. Australia became involved to support the mother country and suffered deep losses. Of the 416,809 men enlisted, more than 60,000 were killed.
  • 1927Canberra becomes the country’s new capital, taking the reins from Melbourne.
  • 1930 – The Great Depression sets in and Australia’s economy nosedives.
  • 1939-1945 – World War II. Australia’s involvement included 993,000 personnel from the defence forces. A total of 27,073 were killed in action or died.
  • 1945 – After World War II, Prime Minister Ben Chifley declared: “A powerful enemy looked hungrily toward Australia. We must populate Australia as rapidly as we can before someone else decides to populate it for us.” The Department of Immigration was established to aim for annual population growth of two percent, of which half should come from natural increase and the other half, from migrants. As many as 70,000 immigrants were needed annually to make up these numbers.
  • 1948 – The post-war migrant boom brought the famous ‘Ten Pound Pom’ to Australia for a 25-year period. Australia began to accept migrants from over 30 European nations and the largest numbers aside from the British came from Italy and Greece, until the early 1970s.
  • 1956 – Up until now, the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, aka ‘White Australia’ policy was in play to “keep Australia British”. This was relaxed in 1956, when non-European residents were permitted to apply for Australian citizenship.
  • 1973 – Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby – later known as Australia’s ‘Father of Multiculturalism’ presented an important paper: A Multi-cultural Society for the Future. Government programs and funds were used to shape a new ethnic identity for the country. The Grassby approach has been adopted by other western democracies for decades since.
  • 1975 – Australia’s first ‘boat people’ began arriving, refugees from East Timor, Vietnam, China and, in recent times, the Middle East.
  • 1980s – Australia’s immigration policy became focused on family visas and selecting migrants who matched Australia’s skills criteria.
  • 1981 – The ‘assisted passage scheme’ that helped migrants to settle in to Australia ended and only refugees were then provided with support.
  • Late 1990s – The number of asylum seekers increased as people fleeing the Middle East and Sri Lanka arrived by boat.
  • 2006 – The refugee groups growing most rapidly are Sudanese, Afghans and Iraqis.
  • Today – Since around 2012, Australia has welcomed around 190,000 permanent new arrivals a year. The humanitarian intake has sat at around 11-14,000 per year since the mid-1980s. Approximately 12,000 Syrians were accepted in 2015 in response to the war in Syria, and temporary arrivals such as international students and people entering on 457 work visas have numbered around 400,000.

Did you know that Australia boasts a higher percentage of people born overseas than other nations with high immigrant numbers? The Australian figure is 26 percent, followed by New Zealand at 23, Canada at 22, the US at 14 and the UK at 13 percent.

Only Saudi Arabia has a larger population of people born overseas at 32 percent however foreigners are not allowed permanent residency or citizenship. Today, almost a quarter of Australian residents were not born in Australia.