It is widely believed that the Aboriginal People migrated from some unknown point in Asia to Australia between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago, and quickly covered the entire continent.
European exploration of Australia began in 1606, when the Spanish navigator Luis Vaez de Torres sailed through the Torres Strait, now named after him, which separates Australia and Papua New Guinea. Before that, seagoing Macassan traders, originating from what is now Indonesia, would visit the north of Australia to trade with the aborigines and harvest sea cucumber.
A couple of months after the Vaez de Torres voyage, Dutch explorers began to chart the new continent. First was Willem Janszoon, who sailed into the Gulf of Carpentaria, and then 17 years later, Jan Carstensz mapped and named the main features of the western coast. By that time, other Dutch navigators had reached parts of the northern and western coasts of Australia. Most importantly, Dirck Hartog examined the west coast near what is now known as Shark Bay, and Abel Tasman charted roughly the coast from Cape York to the Ashburton. The Dutch called the continent New Holland.
The first English explorer was an adventurer named William Dampier, who landed near King Sound, on the northwest coast in 1688. Dampier was followed by Captain James Cook in 1770. After circumnavigating New Zealand, Cook headed west to Australia. Sighting land near Cape Everard, in the southeast corner of Australia, he turned north charting the coastline as he went. After nine days he landed at an inlet that he named Botany Bay after the rich variety of plant life he found. The area is now part of the bustling modern city of Sydney.
European settlement of Australia began in 1788 when a British penal colony was established on the east coast. From this starting point Australia grew rapidly and continually, expanding across the entire continent.
A number of reasons contributed to Britain's decision to colonise Australia. The most important factor was Britain's need to relieve its overcrowded prisons. Several violent incidents at overcrowded prisons convinced the British government of the need to separate unruly elements from the rest of the prison populace.
Additionally, Australia was of strategic importance to Britain, and it provided a base for the Royal Navy in the eastern sea. Also, Australia could be used as an entry point to the economic opportunities of the surrounding region. All these points figured in the decision by Lord Sydney, secretary of state of home affairs, to authorise the colonisation.
To this affect, on May 13, 1787, Captain Arthur Phillip, commanding eleven ships full of convicts, left Britain for Australia. He successfully landed a full fleet at Botany Bay on January 18, 1788. However, they left the bay eight days later because of its openness and poor soil, and settled instead at Port Jackson, a few kilometres north. The ships landed 1,373 people, including 732 convicts, and the settlement became Sydney. Australia Day is now celebrated on 26 January each year, to commemorate this first fleet landing.
Development of settlement
After the establishment of the colony at Port Jackson, further settlements were begun at Hobart (Tasmania) in 1803; on the Brisbane River (Queensland) in 1824; and on the Swan River (Western Australia) in 1829. Melbourne was established at Port Phillip Bay (Victoria) in 1835 and Adelaide at the Gulf of St.Vincent (South Australia) in 1836.
Explorations into and along the coast helped the growing settlements expand and survive. In 1802-3, Captain Matthew Flinders circumnavigated the continent; in 1813 Gregory Blaxland, William Wentworth, and William Lawson found a way over the Blue Mountains, part of a range of mountains that extended almost unbroken down the east coast and prevented the expansion of settlements; and in 1827, Captain Charles Sturt, traced the Lachlan River, reaching the Darling Downs.
Perhaps the most important innovation to happen to colonial Australia was the introduction of sheep. In the Late 1700s Captain John Macarthur began experiments in breeding fine-wool sheep using Spanish merinos from Cape Province, South Africa, and others from the royal flock at Kew, England. These experiments laid the foundations of the country's economic development. The merino was gradually transformed into a superior wool growing animal. The wool industry flourished and the sheep population grew from 34,000 in 1820 to 405,000 in 1850.
Transportation of convicts from Britain to most of Australia ended in 1840 and to Tasmania in 1853. Western Australia continued receiving convicts until 1868. In total, more than 100,000 convicts had arrived in Australia since the settlement began.