Australia’s younger history – from the arrival of Europeans to World War II

Australien hat sehr alte und sehr junge Geschichte

Australia as we know it today is an enchanting, beautiful, and extremely diverse country with a rich history which is both – very old and very young. Acknowledging the Traditional Owners & Custodians of the land on which DiM is situated and paying respects to their Elders past, present and emerging, in this article we focus on Australia’s younger history starting with the arrival of Europeans. While doing that we respect the First Nation People’s continuing relationship to the land upon which wie live and have and will never question their sovereignity.

The birth of a penal colony

The first European to land at Australia was Dutch explorer Captain Willem Janszoon in 1606. However, Australia was not systematically explored at least until 1770. That year, English Captain James Cooks reached South Bay on board his ship, the HMS Endeavor. From there, he started mapping the rest of the eastern coast, naming the area South Wales and claiming it as a property of the British government.

In 1783, soon after the end of the American War of Independence, America started refusing convicts coming from England. At that point, the British government needed to find a quick alternative solution to Britain’s skyrocketing crime rates and prison overcrowding.

New South Wales wurde zur Penal Colony

The decision was made to send prisoners to the recently conquered New South Wales. A colonisation party consisting of eleven ships transporting convicts, members of the crew, and marines was formed. In 1788, under the command of Admiral Arthur Phillip, the group reached the designated area. It was in that year that New South Wales was officially transformed into a penal colony.

From no farming, no food to gold in abundance

Der Gold Rush brachte viele Siedler nach Australien

Governor Arthur Phillip soon realized that a series of environmental factors made the region unsuitable for colonisation. Additionally, he had to rely mostly on people, which had revealed incapable of doing proper farming in the colonised territories. As a result, most members of that first expedition died from starvation or poor health conditions during the voyage or as soon as they ran out of food supplies.

In the following years, new colonies were formed and numerous attempts to improve the situation were made. Nevertheless, the travel conditions of the deported as well as the living conditions on the island remained largely unchanged.

In New South Wales and in many other areas of Australia things started to change for the better in 1851, when the discovery of gold was officially announced. A decade earlier, in 1841, Reverend William Branwhite Clarke had already discovered gold particles near Hartley in the Blue Mountains. Three years later, when he reported his findings to Governor Gipps, he was asked to keep them secret. Gipps feared that the discovery of gold being made public could cause uprisings among the colony’s convicts.

The attitude of public authorities towards gold discoveries changed in 1848, with the news of the California gold rush. From that year, local governments started adopting policies that granted considerable financial compensation to anyone who would find a commercially viable amount of gold. The news spread across continents, causing unprecedented migration flows of eager gold seekers from all over the world towards New South Wales and Victoria.

Chinese Migration Act in 1861

The Chinese miners were one of the largest and most discriminated immigrant communities of that period. At the beginning, it counted approximately 7,000 members, most of which worked at the Araluen gold fields in southern New South Wales. Workers were normally organized in relatively small groups of 30 to 100 people, which worked under the strict supervision of a leader. That strategy proved extremely successful over time. The unrivalled successes of the Chinese caused extreme jealousy among the Europeans. Conflict between the two groups got to the point that, in 1861, the New South Wales government passed the “Chinese Migration Act”. It introduced a migration tariff for Chinese people only. In 1899, the same government passed the Immigration Restriction Act. It required prospective citizens to be able to write out a passage in any European language, which had to be chosen by the immigration officer. This obviously excluded most Chinese people from the process.

Der Chinese Migration Act benachteiligte chinesische Einwanderer in Australien

Despite episodes of discrimination and intolerance, the so-called Gold Rushes were both a sociocultural and an economic revolution. As a matter of fact, they contributed to promoting a sense of national identity and to reversing the economic downturn that had been affecting the colonies’ growth for decades.

Six colonies coming together

Finally coming together: six Australian colonies

With the radical socio-economic revolution brought about by the Gold Rushes, matters of defence, foreign policy, immigration, trade, transport and national pride began acquiring growing importance among the six independently-governed British colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. Each colony usually had its own laws, railway gauge, postage stamps. As a result, communication and coordination across the continent could really be tricky at times.

Those differences and the issues that they caused led to political discussions about a possible federation that would transfer power from single territories to a national government adopting a federal system of governance. The foundation of the Council of Australasia in 1885 marked the beginning of an era of negotiations and political confrontation between federationists and their opposers.

Discussions ended in January 1889, when most delegates of South Wales accepted the amendments that had been approved in the final version of the Constitution Bill upon their request. On 17 September 1900, a proclamation was signed by the Queen of England declaring that the six colonies would be united under the Commonwealth of Australia starting from 1 January 1901.

Parliament met in Melbourne before Canberra

It was agreed that the capital would be in New South Wales, but the decision was made that it had to be located at least 100 kilometers far from Sydney. This led to the creation of the city of Canberra, while a temporary parliament was set up in Melbourne for 27 years.

World War I and II

Australia’s engagement in First World War began in August 1914, when Britain declared war against Germany. At first, the outbreak of war was welcomed by many Australians with great enthusiasm. Thousands of citizens rushed to volunteer and most of them were accepted into the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

In Melbourne the newly formed parliament met for 27 years before moving to Canberra

On 25 April 1915, the AIF landed on Gallipoli, in Turkey, with troops from New Zealand, England, and France. During the early days of the campaign, allied troops tried to penetrate through Turkish lines, while the Turks tried to push the allies outside of the Turkish Peninsula. Neither side managed to prevail and, in December 1915, allied troops decided to withdraw from the battlefield after suffering only a few casualties inflicted by their adversaries.

The nation delivered its best fighting performance on the Western Front on 4 July 1918, during the battle of Hamel. From 8 August, Australian soldiers successfully took part in a series of offensive actions against Germany. At the end of the conflict, however, the death toll was estimated in the thousands, with more than 60,000 soldiers killed, and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoners.

Australians serve in World War I and II

Australians served in World War I and II

During Second World War, the number of deaths was even higher. Of the almost 1 million soldiers, both men and women, who served in the conflict between 1939 and 1945, 39,000 gave their lives and over 30,000 were taken prisoners.

The beginning of the nation’s involvement in Second World War was announced by then Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies on 3 September 1939. Throughout the war period, soldiers fought in campaigns against Germany and Italy in Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and south-east Asia. From 1942 onwards, the Australian Army directed most of its efforts at fighting Japan. The Japanese advance southward had led to Australia to include Japan on the list of the country’s possible invaders.

It was only on 14 August 1945, when Japan finally accepted the Allied demand for unconditional surrender, that the war was over for Australia.

An overview of Australia’s history before the arrival of Europeans will be published shortly.

Copyright by Deutsche in Melbourne 2020

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