Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

A History of Australia weaves together a vivid, multi-dimensional history that considers key cultural, social, political and economic events and issues within the wider global context. Comprehensive and accessible, this is essential reading for all those seeking an authoritative overview of Australian history.

This revised second edition has been updated throughout to incorporate the latest research and to bring the story up to the present day. The final chapter has been rewritten and updated to incorporate events up to and including 2017. It offers reflections on emerging trends—such as climate change and the continuing disadvantage of Indigenous Australians—that may shape Australia’s future. It also has an increased focus on social and cultural history, with expanded material on art and feminism.

Table of Contents

1. First People

The question of how and where to begin the nation’s story once seemed relatively straightforward: history commenced when ‘civilisation’ arrived in Australia during the last part of the eighteenth century. It has taken a long time, but few would now question the fact that Australia’s history began a good deal earlier, with its first people. That this has become a fact also suggests something of the distance that many Australians have travelled, especially in the last two generations. During much of the twentieth century, Aboriginal people often remained disappointingly ‘primitive’ to their white interpreters, even to those who struggled to support them and refused to accept, let alone celebrate, their apparent demise. They were treated with pity or contempt, too rarely with respect. But a thoughtful few began to listen to the continent’s original occupiers in a different way. Some archaeologists and anthropologists began to provide evidence for a different story, about a culture almost destroyed by European violence, diseases and ignorance. They began to understand the rich ethnographic record of communities that had preserved oral traditions past the rupture of the Europeans and into the twentieth century. They laid a path that historians could follow.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

2. The Great South Land: 1500–1800

The usually violent possession of other people’s land took Europeans across the Atlantic and into Africa and Asia during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In time, seamen would begin to stumble upon Australia’s northwest coast. While some were victims of weather or miscalculation, others were more deliberate in their search for islands of gold and other riches south of Asia. They could draw upon the uncertain descriptions of Chinese, Arab and Greek cartographers, as well as the suppositions – if not the actual arrival – of Portuguese sailors. The 1494 papal demarcation of the globe, which gave Spain most of the Americas, also granted them possessions in the Spice Islands, so Spanish ships struck out westward from Peru and Panama in search of a ‘continent towards the south’.1 Expecting to find a populous and fertile territory, they first encountered the Moluccas and New Guinea. By 1550, French priest Pierre Desceliers’s world map included a southern land illustrated with strange inhabitants and stranger creatures, and Nicholas Desliens showed it again in 1566, labelling it ‘Java la Grande’ and using its empty heart as the place for the scroll bearing his name. These and other maps were enticements, tailored to increase the thirst for expansion that had come to characterise the competition between Europe’s empires and newly divorced faiths. Yet the actual outlines of the Great South Land remained unclear. When Spanish explorer Luis Váez de Torres travelled along New Guinea’s southern coast in 1606, kidnapping ‘natives’ and claiming territory for his king, he probably sighted Australia, but did not recognise the distant shore as anything more than another island.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

3. Britain’s Prison: Convicts, Settlers and Indigenous People, 1788–1802

In the middle of January 1788, the First Fleet arrived at the place James Cook had labelled Botany Bay. There were eleven ships, and the more than 1,000 people on them had spent nearly eight months on their voyage from Portsmouth. Their leader, Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief was Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy. He carried the literal and figurative seeds of a new colony, including cattle, sheep, goats and hogs, and an ‘Assortment of Tools and Utensils’. He also carried instructions that specified his most immediate objectives: securing his people ‘from any attacks or Interruptions of the Natives’, ‘the preservation and safety of the Public Stores’ and the ‘Cultivation of the Land’. Phillip was directed to use ‘every proper degree of economy’ and to transmit accounts to the Treasury so that ‘the propriety or expediency of granting further supplies’ might be ascertained. He was further enjoined to send a ‘small Establishment’ to Norfolk Island, more than 1,000 kilometres into the Pacific, in order to ‘prevent its being occupied by the subjects of any other European power’.1 The island’s timber and flax resources made this double colonisation all the more attractive. Phillip’s initial explorations of the recommended site, Botany Bay, made clear its limitations. The soil was poor and dry, there was no reliable source of water and the site felt too exposed, no small matter when other European powers were considered a potential threat. Phillip chose to move the colony north, to Port Jackson. On 26 January 1788, the First Fleet unloaded itself on the shore, named Sydney Cove in honour of the British Home Secretary.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

4. Free and Unfree: Reforming New South Wales, 1803–29

In 1803, New South Wales founded a new colony in southern Van Diemen’s Land. With the French still hovering, it seemed sensible to occupy the continent’s southern fringe, and Lieutenant John Bowen led a small party to Risdon on the Derwent River. One month later, David Collins, who was commissioned to form a settlement on Bass Strait, arrived in Port Philip Bay. Unimpressed by his first site, near what is now Sorrento, and finding his second, near today’s Frankston, almost as unwelcoming, Collins reloaded his ship with hundreds of convicts and soldiers and sailed south for Van Diemen’s Land. Selecting a site several miles south of Risdon, Collins founded Hobart Town in February 1804. The Risdon settlement was abandoned six months later, and Lieutenant Bowen left. As at Sydney, Hobart’s first years were difficult; it was another starving time. Whatever Collins’ difficulties, and Bowen’s disappointment, expansion was perhaps the least taxing of the challenges that faced New South Wales as the colony entered its second and then third decades. The work of forming an efficient and effective colony continued, but the meanings of freedom and unfreedom – which were always of major significance in a penal society – were persistent sources of anxiety. A society of gaoled was also a society of gaolers, but with more and more free settlers, some of them men of considerable wealth, it was also a society of those who wished to use the gaoled for profit. In time, it would become a society in which some wished to soften the legacy of forced transportation, and even bring that form of gaoling to an end.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

5. New Australias: 1829–49

In the 1830s and 1840s, New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land – established as a separate colony in 1825 – edged further into the ‘unsettled’ lands. Australia’s geography remained something of an exciting unknown; based upon previous experience, especially in North America, its explorers expected to find great lakes, powerful rivers and alpine mountains. The early impressions of Cook and Banks now seemed too enthusiastic; as the later explorer Charles Sturt put it in 1833, what appeared to ‘those distinguished individuals’ an ‘earthly paradise’ was ‘abandoned by the early settlers as unfit for occupation’.1 But horizons always promise something more. In New South Wales, explorers pressed into the interior, to show the directions in which the colony might expand, and perhaps to find an inland sea or continent-dividing strait to which all those rivers flowing west might lead. They wanted to open up the country, breaking its supposed stillness with gunshot and axe strikes and possessing it with names and markings. Seeking the patronage of governors, but often financing their expeditions from personal funds or the benevolence of friends, young men struck out to the west. In 1824, Hamilton Hume and William Hovell established an overland route southwest from Sydney. In 1828 and 1829, Charles Sturt and Hume tracked the northern rivers of New South Wales; the puzzle of the western-flowing waters was not resolved, so in 1829 and 1830, Sturt travelled down the Murrumbidgee. Excited by the larger river – the Murray – into which it flowed, and by the junction of another large river, the Darling, he tracked it to its ultimately disappointing mouth of sandbars, mud flats and shoals. No fine estuary, just a place of ‘impracticability and inutility’.2
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

6. The Golden Lands: 1850–68

On the first day of July in 1851, the new colony of Victoria was established. Within a few weeks, Victoria would become one of the most important places in the world, and it would remain so for a few years. The discovery of gold in Australia – first in New South Wales and then, more spectacularly, in Victoria – was not accidental. After the great rush began in California in 1848, people who knew the land, or who had identified likely fields by reading the numerous descriptive accounts of colonies, went looking for gold, and governments promised rich rewards to anyone who could discover a viable field. Edward Hargraves, who arrived in Sydney in 1832, sold up and went to California in 1849. He came back in 1851, bringing American techniques to districts he was sure would contain gold. Hargraves, John Lister and William Tom found it, at Ophir near Bathurst. Hargraves announced its location to the newspapers in May, securing for himself the £10,000 reward, and started Australia’s first rush. July brought new and larger discoveries, first at Anderson’s Creek and then at Clunes and Ballarat. Castlemaine surpassed them, and was itself bettered by Bendigo. There were finds at Beechworth in 1852, at Bright in 1853 and then at Walhalla in 1862. The first prospectors picked nuggets from the ground; after the alluvial goal was exhausted, miners sank shafts. Australia had gold fever.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

7. At the Forefront of the Race: 1868–88

Prince Alfred survived the bullet of his would–be assassin. It was fired into his back, but missed his spine. The news could hardly be believed, the Legislative Council of New South Wales doubting its veracity until there was confirmation from detectives. In the crowd at Clontarf, ‘women and men fainted and sobbed’, wrote Elizabeth Rickets Hall, for whom the outrage seemed ‘too deep and grave even for words’. The criminal ‘was nearly torn to pieces on the spot and with difficulty saved from Lynch law’.1 The people of Sydney found immediate comfort in the fact that the villain, Henry O’Farrell, was from Victoria. The people of all the colonies found further comfort in the news that he was Irish and therefore almost certainly one of the Fenian terrorists. Irish rebels there were in Australia, including some recently transported to Western Australia. But it is unlikely that any organisation would have found much use for O’Farrell. He was virulently anti–British, but also most likely insane, by the definitions common in the nineteenth century. It did him little good. Tried and sentenced, he died by hanging within five weeks of the shooting.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

8. A Truly New World: 1888–1901

From the late 1880s until the federation of the colonies into the new Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, debates about the future were particularly intense. These debates expressed different versions of the new nation and its possibilities. While some sort of federation always seemed the most likely outcome, its timing and nature were less clear-cut. Looking back from such a culminating event, people tended to assume that it had to happen. Nationalists preferred their nation to have been there all along, just waiting for the moment of its birth. They smoothed out the rough edges of a process that never looked as certain to those who carried it out. Nor was federation simply a matter of colonial leaders discussing the model they wanted. Their role was undeniable, especially in negotiating the rivalries between and within the colonies. But they were conscious, too, of the different Australias that colonial people had in their heads. These represented a variety of dreams and hopes, as well as anxieties about the future of their country. Federation built upon an emerging sense of nationhood that, in the context of economic and strategic uncertainty, mixed together aspirations and fears. There were questions about the place of the new nation in the empire, the meaning of independence, and future relationships with the United States - clearly the next great global power - or newer rivals such as Japan. For insecure labourers and rural workers, fears of hardship raised hopes of a new and more protective nation. A new generation of native-born women dreamed of a society that might exemplify progress and in which female citizens would take their proper place in the making of the future. And there were serious questions about the kind of civilisation Australians should aim to build. What should the new nation aim to be? What example might it show to the world? For what might it be known? Australians hoped they would succeed, yet remained anxious they might fail.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

9. A Protective Nation: 1901–14

In 1901 one of Australia’s best-known poets, Banjo Paterson, visited the Sussex home of Rudyard Kipling, who had just published one of his most famous novels, Kim. Travelling through the countryside in Kipling’s new car, a pastime still a novelty in the early twentieth century, Kipling ordered their driver to stop outside a village butcher’s shop in order to perform, in Paterson’s words, ‘a little Empire propaganda’. Introducing Paterson, Kipling directed the butcher to henceforth buy all his lamb from Australia in order to ‘keep the money in the Empire’. The butcher, unaware of his customer’s identity, replied: ’The Empire! Ha! My customers don’t bother about the Empire, sir. It’s their guts they think about!’ Empire might not have mattered to the ordinary Englishman or woman the way it did to Rudyard Kipling, the poet famous for describing colonisation as ‘The White Man’s Burden’. It weighed a little more heavily on the minds of Australians, albeit with varying degrees of intensity. The vast majority thought of themselves as part of the wider British world, through ties as diverse as family, sport and a shared cultural tradition of books, reading and writing. The question of Australia’s Britishness received new urgency in the post-federation years, as people began to wonder what it actually meant, for them, to be at once part of the British Empire and a self-governing Commonwealth.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

10. A Nation at War: 1914–18

The decision in August 1914 to support Great Britain wholeheartedly in its struggle with Germany appeared to offer expansive possibilities for the new Australian nation. In an era when it was widely believed that great nations were either born or forged through the crucible of battle, Australia’s peaceful transition to nationhood seemed to lack a certain gravitas. There had been no war of independence, no glorious revolution. Britain had been willing to let the Australian colonies go, even to encourage them on their path to independence. The immediate response to the tense European situation – an offer of 20,000 troops and the Australian Navy placed under the command of the British Admiralty – was a statement of loyalty to Empire. There was a sense too that this was not just an opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain at a time of crisis; Australia might be on the cusp of a new chapter in its history, with the word sacrifice written onto the page.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

11. A Nation Divided: 1919–39

It has been estimated that every second Australian family was bereaved in World War I. The grief could be intensely personal, but it was also experienced at a broader cultural level. Some feared that the extent of loss had fostered a mindless hedonism, others held that service for the nation gave them privileges that others did not deserve. The divisions that the war engendered in Australia lingered into the 1920s and 1930s. Loyalty – to nation, to Empire – once again became a matter for debate, rather than being an assumption that it was something all Australians shared. The success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 unleashed fears of insurrection, menace and contagion in all Western democracies. Australia was no exception. As a country with a strong tradition of labour activism, the anxiety of some observers about Australia’s vulnerability to revolution was particularly acute. By the 1920s, the social experimentation that had made Australia’s name in the pre-war era, particularly its arbitration and basic wage system, came under increasing scrutiny as the economy foundered. Governments turned to universitytrained civil servants and academics for expert advice on how to solve apparently entrenched problems, but politicians could not resist the allure of proposing solutions that assured the country that Australia’s prospects knew no bounds. Economists, scientists and population experts were beginning to beat a different drum and to offer more contained visions of what Australia’s future might be like. In the 1920s, it seemed hard to imagine smallness as greatness. By the 1930s, it was hard to imagine any future at all.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

12. Defending Australia: 1939–49

When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 the leaders of other Dominion nations, such as Canada and South Africa, consulted their Parliaments about what they might do in response. In Australia, the new Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, who had assumed office upon the death of Joseph Lyons, showed his hand within an hour. In a radio broadcast, he declared that it was his ‘melancholy duty’ to inform the country that Britain had declared war, and ‘as a result, Australia is also at war’.1 Probably not, but Australian governments had been in denial about the independence that the Statute of Westminster had granted them for the best part of a decade and had not yet ratified it. The Prime Minister’s declaration of loyalty was soon followed by anxious deliberations about the type of commitment Australia would in fact be prepared to offer. There were several elements in the mix: the parlous state of Australia’s own defences, the military activity of the Japanese in East Asia and the lack of enthusiasm for another war. Apart from declaring Britain’s enemies as Australia’s too, the contrast with the response to World War I could not have been greater. The Prime Minister even went as far as declaring that it would be ‘business as usual’.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

13. Security: 1949–63

On the evening of 13 June 1951, King’s Hall at Parliament House in Canberra was filled with men in dinner suits and women in floor-length ball gowns. The occasion was the Jubilee of Federation Ball, a celebration of fifty years of Australian nationhood. Robert Menzies, then eighteen months into his second term as the country's Prime Minister, called the room to attention just before midnight. There was dramatic news to impart. It was his sorrowful duty to inform the gathering of the death, that evening, of the leader of the Labor Party, Ben Chifley. Never one for dancing, Chifley had decided to spend the evening in his room at a nearby hotel, where he had suffered a massive heart attack. News of his passing brought the Jubilee Ball to a standstill, and the party was over.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

14. Dissent and Social Change: 1964–79

The fifteen years after 1964 were among the most tumultuous Australia had yet witnessed. Introducing conscription in 1964 to assist in the fight against ‘aggressive communism’ certainly generated dissent, but the social upheavals of these years were private as well as public, enabled in part by the prosperity that had typified the post-war period.1 Security had encouraged confidence and an ability to ask questions, in short, to imagine a different kind of future. For those who had experienced first the depression, then war, the relative stability of the 1950s was an important achievement. The contradictions implicit to it, especially the tensions between conformity and individualism, might sometimes have been experienced as frustration. For the next generation, now coming to adulthood and with strength in numbers, the ambiguities were more difficult to contain and emerged as a willingness to criticise and sometimes even abandon the way of life their parents had worked so hard to achieve. Here was a generational shift, from acceptance to expectation, from knowing your place to knowing your rights, from finding a safe place to finding your ‘self’.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey

15. Global Nation: 1980–2017

In September 1980, the heads of government of sixteen Asian and Pacific Commonwealth countries met in New Delhi to discuss international political issues, world economic trends and the potential for regional cooperation. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser represented Australia. Fully expecting to discuss his position on Kampuchea, where Vietnamese forces had recently deposed the Pol Pot regime, and his attitude to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, Fraser instead found himself defending Australia’s highly protected economy. The Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, accused Fraser of being ‘too narrow minded’ on the issue of industry protection, and chided him that Australians would become the ‘loafers of the South Pacific’ unless they opened up to economic competition. The same year, two futurists published a book, Will She Be Right? The Future of Australia, which argued that Australia was in danger of becoming the ‘poor white trash of Asia’.
Mark Peel, Christina Twomey
Additional information