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A history of Australia

Capt James CookCaptn. James Cook, F.R.S by Francesco Bartolozzi 1727-1815
From the IMAGES1 collection of the
National Library of Australia.
Note: This image is provided for research purposes only and cannot be reproduced without the prior consent of the National Library of Australia.

In 1770 Captain James Cook finally ended the mystery of Terra Australis Incognita for the European world. Although partly discovered and mapped to the west and north by Dutch and Portuguese traders and explorers and by English pirate, William Dampier, until Cook's four-month cruise on the Endeavour up the east coast of what he called New South Wales in 1770, the maps of the time showed a blank - the east coast was unknown to, and uncharted by, the European world.

Of course the local Aboriginal inhabitants had, over tens of thousands of years, mapped the land their way - through their Dreaming, a complex intertwining of land, culture, language, family relations and spiritual selves. This was to be put under pressure from the first moment of Cook's landing at Botany Bay in 1770.

On 22 August 1770 on Possession Island, off what is now northern Queensland, Cook claimed all eastern Australia for King George III.


The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27, 1788The First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 27, 1788 by John Allcot 1888-1973.
From the IMAGES1 collection of the National Library of Australia.
Note: This image is provided for research purposes only and cannot be reproduced without the prior consent of the National Library of Australia.

The First Fleet, comprising 11 ships and around 1,350 people, was dispatched to the unknown continent - the only information about New South Wales was that from Cook's voyage of 1770. From these records it was decided the first settlement would be at Botany Bay, and a second settlement would be established at Norfolk Island to provide wood for ships and masts.

However, on arrival at Botany Bay on 18 January 1788, Captain Phillip decided the site was not suitable and resolved to look for another. He decided upon Port Jackson, the site of modern day Sydney, and the people of the First Fleet established Australia's first settlement on 26 January 1788.

Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet landed at Port Jackson in the new colony of New South Wales on 26 January 1788. Until the American War of Independence, Britain had sent convicts to America. American independence ended the practice and the British prisons and prison hulks were full to overflowing. The island continent at the end of the world seemed a perfect place to send them.

The settlers

The First Fleet was frighteningly underprepared for the task which faced it. Little was known about the climate, animal or plant life of the land mass, and many of Cook's encounters with the Aborigines had been hostile, at least in part. As Cook said in his diaries,"All they seem'd to want for us was to be gone".A government jail gang

A government jail gang, Sydney, N.S. Wales by Augustus Earle, 1793-1838
From the IMAGES1 collection of the
National Library of Australia.
Note: This image is provided for research purposes only and cannot be reproduced without the prior consent of the National Library of Australia.

The Fleet consisted mainly of convicts with officers to guard them. There were many more men than women - around four men for every woman - and this caused problems in the settlement for many years.

Few people in the Fleet had any experience of cultivating the land and this, combined with poor soil in the area, lead to the development of farms around Parramatta, but, more seriously, to near starvation in the first years of settlement. Food shortages were severe and the fledgling colony eagerly awaited on the arrival of the Second Fleet in 1790.

The Second Fleet did provide badly needed food and supplies, but created other problems for the new colony. 48 people had died on the voyage of the First Fleet, this had risen to 278 on the Second Fleet voyage. Sickness and disease were so rife, most of those who survived were barely able to walk, the Fleet has come to be known as the 'Death Fleet'.

In spite of the problems, however, the settlement grew, and is now the site of Australia's largest city - Sydney.

Australia Day

Australia's Flag26 January is the Day on which Australians commemorate the founding of the modern Australian nation. Flag-raising ceremonies, citizenship ceremonies, barbecues, fireworks and regattas are just a few of the events which take place.

For many Indigenous Australians, however, 26 January is not a day of celebration but one of mourning and protest. For indigenous Australians, the founding of the modern Australian nation led to the disruption of their traditional way of life, to death, disease and dispossession.

In 1988, the year of the bicentenary of European settlement, Aboriginals marked the year with a massive march for 'Freedom, Justice and Hope', named it a Year of Mourning, but also celebrated their survival.

In 1999 the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, an Aboriginal sacred site, and now part of the National Estate, was the focus of indigenous activity on Australia Day with a Corroboree for Aboriginal Sovereignty.

Today, Australia has come a long way, we now have an advanced Reconciliation movement, in an attempt to heal some of the pain of Australia's past. This has included events such as the People's Walk for Reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 28 May 2000.

Australia Day has a long history. According to the Australia Day Council formal dinners and informal celebrations began to mark the day soon after European settlement. The first official celebrations were held in 1818 for the 30th anniversary of European settlement and during this early period 26 January was called Foundation Day. It wasn't until 1994 that all states and territories celebrated Australia Day on the actual day for the first time.

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