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|A Short History of Australia|
Aborigines believe they have lived in their land since the beginning of time or that their distant relatives came from over the sea. It is clear from scientific evidence that Australian aborigines have inhabited this continent for at least 60,000 years, perhaps 100,000 years. Given that a generation is defined as 25 years, aborigines have been on this continent for between 2400 and 4000 generations. White settlement of Australia is 8 generations.
It is impossible to know how many Aboriginal people inhabited Australia at the coming of the Europeans (1788). Scientific evidence varies between 250,000 and 750,000. Although that may seem small, consider the total number of Aboriginal people this continent has supported over tens of thousands of years of habitation.
Over the many millennia of aboriginal habitation there developed complex cultural relationships with the land which became their religion or spirituality. The land was not merely something they passed over daily. It shaped every aspect of their lives.
Until recently Australians have tended to judge aboriginal Australia through western eyes. We have judged material successes of ancient civilisations by the great monuments people have left behind and not by the lives of the majority, that huge number of people who could not afford to build or live in such vast structures. We must also remember that the aborigines, by the standards of 1800, had a standard of living very favourable with many European people. True, no aborigine was as well off as the wealthiest European but they were better off than the poor and the downtrodden of European society. Aborigines were able to cope with the ravages of drought. Europeans were on the verge of starvation and death when faced with the potato famines experienced by many countries in periods of the early nineteenth century.
If the main ingredients of a good standard of living were food, warmth and shelter then the average Aborigine was as well of as the average European of 1800. True the Australian Aborigine could not read or write and they have left no written historical records of their time. But neither could the average European of 1800 read or write.
We cannot ignore the period of Aboriginal history in the overall history of this continent. To fully understand it and looking at it through aboriginal eyes would help in the reconciliation process that has been underway in this country for the past decade or more.
European Discovery & Settlement
Traditional teaching tells us of the exploits of European explorers such as Hartog, Tasman, Dampier and Cook discovering and mapping parts of the Australian coastline between 1616 and 1770. That ignores the evidence being sort to support the theory the Portuguese were in contact with the east coast of Australia nearly 250 years before Cook, and 100 years before the Dutch on the west coast, and the almost certain contact with the north west coast by Indonesian fisherman and, possibly Chinese, over the hundreds of years before then. The inhospitable nature of the Australian environment and terrain seems to have claimed its first victim - decisions not to establish permanent settlement before British settlement in 1788
Australia was settled by the British on 26 January 1788. Three quarters of the 1000 on the First Fleet of 11 ships were convicts and for its early years transported convicts made up the bulk of the population. After fifty years of white settlement the convict population of New South Wales was still in excess of twenty per cent whilst in Tasmania the proportion was even higher.
The total number of convicts sent to NSW and Tasmania was 122,620 males and 24,960 females. Compare the male numbers with the crowd at Stadium Australia at the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics or a Melbourne Cup crowd (about 108 000 for each of those events) and the female numbers with the Olympic crowd at the International Aquatic Centre for a race involving Ian Thorpe (about 24,000). Most convicts came after 1815. Half of them were sent for seven years, a quarter for life. The average age was 26 and 75% of them were single. Nearly eight out of ten were transported for some form of theft. Two thirds were repeat offenders. Consider the conditions in which those people found themselves both before being transported, during the voyage and upon arrival. Who was better off - the convicts or the aboriginal population?
Transportation was a brutal punishment. With most convicts repeat offenders and many convicted of serious crime, those subjected to the punishment were being removed from their environment and family and isolated half way around the world with other similar felons.
This is hardly great stock on which to build a new nation. But here we are in the twenty-first century, the envy of many.
Following the crossing of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, the opportunity opened up for many other explorers to go where no white man had gone before. The first to explore the Port Phillip District (what Victoria was then called) were Hume and Hovell who followed a path from near Yass in New South Wales to Albury and then roughly where the Hume Freeway now runs from Albury to near Melbourne (they went to the western side of Port Phillip Bay, near Geelong).That was in 1824. Once the interior was opened up by exploring parties it was very difficult to control the spread of settlement and parties of squatters (illegal occupiers of land) followed in the path of the explorers and illegally squatted on the land. So began the creation of large squatting runs and the commencement of Australia's reliance of agriculture for its economic growth.
But in 1851 came a discovery that was to make a dramatic impact on the growth and development of Australia - gold. Melbourne was then only a small dusty town but by the end of the decade, by 1860:
But gold digging was hard work. Many diggers found nothing. Others struck upon gold quickly or when they were about to give up. Four Irish ex-brewery workers sunk 29 pits without finding a trace. On the 30th they found nearly 1800 ounces of gold at nearly $6 an ounce or nearly $11000 - and with an average wage being $2 a week before the rush began, they literally had 'struck gold.'
The 'Golden Decade' dramatically changed the face of Australia. The impact cannot be overemphasised. Australia, and in particular Victoria, began to develop the base from which it became the modern nation of the twentieth century. There was a vastly increased population. Factories began to develop as there was a ready made workforce and a sizeable population. Australia quickly became an urbanised nation - the population lived mainly in urban cities and the inland ones developed as the railways were built out to them.
The 'Golden Decade' was also the decade in which many of the democratic principles we live by were established and the Eureka Stockade, the rebellion by miners against the authority of the Victorian Governor, was in part a demand by miners for greater democratic rights and freedoms.
Australia was a very different place in 1861 to what it was just ten years before.
Becoming a Nation
It took a long time for us to become the nation of Australia as distinct from the separate colonies which had been developing since 1788. In fact, at this stage of our history  Australia's history as a single, united nation is shorter than the separate historical development of the colonies from the late eighteenth century. Australia, though, existed as a single entity on maps and as national sporting teams but we did not exist as a nation until 1901. The first AUSTRALIAN test cricket team played England in 1877 but Australia didn't exist as a nation.
So, what were the forces at work for and against federation?
Some of the forces at work for federation were:
Some of the forces at work against federation:
Australia formally became a nation, in the political sense, on 1 January 1901. That is why we celebrated the Centenary of Federation in 2001. Federation was a remarkable political achievement. In the end, the people decided by vote at referendum to became one political entity. Most recognised that there would be winners and losers but the voters, on the whole, accepted that the benefits of federation outweighed the costs. Unlike many modern nations which emerged in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ours did not come about as a result of war, rebellion or revolution.
Ours was a political event. It was led by elected politicians from the colonies who met in major conventions in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide but they understood the wishes of the people who had given impetus to the federation movement in a number of 'peoples' conventions. In the end, it all came down to a vote at two referenda in 1898 and 1899 even though the people of Western Australia did not vote until 31 July 1900 - 26 days AFTER the British parliament had approved the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia.
Though there were some leftover powers remaining with the British, for all intents and purposes we became an independent nation on that day in January 1901. Those limits on the full exercise of our independent status were repealed at various times throughout the twentieth century.
An Australian Journey Through the Last Century
Several Australian colonial armed forces were at war at the time of federation - assisting the British fight the Boers in South Africa (Boer War, 1899-1902). They began their campaigns as armed forces of a colony and ended as soldiers of a new nation, Australia.
And to many, despite the emergence of a new nation on 1 July 1901, we had to wait until 25 April 1915, for our real emergence on the world stage. Like their mates in the Boer War, the new nations' sons had left for the Gallipoli peninsula as Victorians or New South Welshmen or Queenslanders but came off the peninsula nine months later as Australians - a young, brave, isolated and perhaps, naive, nation making a statement to the rest of the world. It was to be what the Sydney Morning Herald called our 'baptism by fire'.
The heroic actions of the members of the Australian force to Gallipoli were to be repeated later in the war on the Western Front, in France, a confirmation of the status we had won as brave soldiers from Australia. Australian forces penetrated the German line where no other force had done before. They annoyed British officers for their supposed ill discipline and lack of respect for authority.
But it was really the larrikin spirit of the Australian - a healthy but not abusive disrespect for British authority (based on class) for we respected our own officers and none more so than General Sir John Monash whose modern approach to war in 1918 helped break the stalemate. We were not British, we were not Americans and we had played a decisive role in the war. In The Victoria School in Villers Bretonnuex in northern France are signs reminding the children of successive generations: "N'oublions Jamais L'Australie": "Never Forget Australia". The school was built in 1927 as a gift of the school children of Victoria after the original school had been destroyed in the fighting of 1918
Perhaps during the next twenty years we lost our way. We came out of the First World War a young, brash, confident nation. But twenty years later we faced another crisis for which we were unprepared. In between we suffered from the Great Depression - unemployment exceeding 40 percent and the British bondholders insisting our loans be repaid. Through it all we tried to hold up our chin. We sought relief in the successes of Phar Lap on the racetrack (and blamed the Americans for poisoning him after he had won his first race there) and Don Bradman on the cricket field (and blamed the English for nobbling him with their bodyline tactics). Yet we still looked to the Mother Country as a more insecure world threatened. Our confidence from World War One seemed to be ebbing away.
With the menacing Japanese militarist threat to the north, our faith lay in the British base at Singapore. It was unthinkable that Singapore could fall. And should it fall our defences would begin to look very insecure. And fall it did - on 15 February 1942 (just two and a half months after Pearl Harbour) and within four days of the fall, bombs were falling on Darwin. Were we on our own? The British were preoccupied with Hitler in Europe and once Singapore fell, they looked towards saving the Indian empire from falling. The Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, felt no guilt in unashamedly looking towards the United States for our defence and since then, the cornerstone of our defence has been the United States.
As New Guinea fell to the Japanese, the Imperial Army was on the door step but in tough conditions in the Owen Stanley Ranges, Australian troops prevented the Japanese from further advancing along the Kokoda Trail and later turned them back. Prisoners of War on the Thai-Burma Railway toiled under extraordinarily difficult circumstances and men like Edward 'Weary' Dunlop (from Benalla) became an inspiration for courage and humanity.
So much has happened in Australia in the 44 years between 1956 and 2000, the two years in which Australia has hosted the Olympic Games. In 1956 our population was about 8.5 million mostly of British, Irish and European background, mainly of the latter having arrived in the previous ten years. Now we number in excess of 20 million and we are a multicultural, diverse nation. Our large cities and population centres cling to the coastline and we have an extraordinary range of communications.
But when the Games of the 16th Olympiad were held in Melbourne in 1956 only about 5000 Melburnians could see them on black-and-white television sets in their homes whilst thousands of others watched on demonstration sets in the windows of electrical stores. Interstate broadcasts did not occur so the rest of Australia and the rest of the world had to wait for the Melbourne Olympics to arrive on film. The Melbourne Games were also held at the height of the Cold War and the Soviet Union had just invaded Hungary. The 'Friendly Games' as they were dubbed became not so friendly when the water polo match between Russia and Hungary took place and blood flowed in the water of the Melbourne Olympic pool.
Within a decade of the Melbourne Olympics we were also tied up in the Cold war, this time in Asia as we supported the United States in their war in Vietnam. It was a war in which our view of the world and our place in it was to change dramatically.
The Commonwealth of Nations exists as the largest international body outside the United Nations. Our formal ties with Great Britain have all gone except one. The Queen is still, formally, Head of State though the Governor General has effectively been Head of State for many years. But we still look to the United States as our most powerful ally, an alliance known as the ANZUS [Australia, New Zealand, United States] alliance. For the past fifteen years or so, the New Zealand part of the alliance hasn't been as strong as a result of their stance on nuclear-powered ships visiting their ports. We, though, have grown closer to the United States.
The Sydney Olympics of 2000 showed the world all that was good about Australia. We were now on show to the world as the games happened - unlike Melbourne in 1956 - and it showed that we love our sport and will support the very best performances with pride, passion and intensity.
We are a young nation, small in population, but large in area - the world's sixth largest in area. But we can justifiably be seen as contributing much on the world stage and so much of it was commemorated in 2001, the Centenary of our Federation.
All of them achievements of which we can rightly be proud - and there are many others.
So who are our heroes, those Australians from the past and present who have left and continue to leave an indelible mark on the world?
That's your choice.
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