European Exploration & Colonization of Australia

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the European exploration and colonization of Australia. We will highlight the central themes and developments associated with European involvement in the island continent of Australia.

Australia as a Tourist Destination

Maybe you've known people who have visited Australia. The island continent is a popular tourist destination. With its gorgeous beaches and reefs, it is a prime destination for surfers and divers. With popular attractions like the Sydney Opera House, and a host of unique natural land-forms, the continent is highly appealing. To many it is a sort of paradise. In this lesson, we will examine the early history of Australia. Specifically we will look at European exploration and colonization. Let's dig in and learn about European activity in the 'land down under'!

Early Exploration of Australia

Before Europeans came to Australia, indigenous peoples lived in various locations across the continent. These native groups have come to be called Aboriginals, or 'Aborigines.' Aboriginals were a dark-skinned people group who practiced a hunter-gather lifestyle.

An aboriginal from Tasmania.

It is believed the Dutch were the first Europeans to 'discover' Australia. In 1606 Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon landed in the Northeastern section of the continent (what is now Queensland). Further explorations were conducted in the coming years. In 1644 explorer Abel Tasman (for whom Tasmania is named) named the land 'New Holland'. Ironically the Dutch had little interest in colonizing the continent as they deemed it unsuitable land. In 1770 British Captain James Cook claimed the Eastern portion of Australia for Britain. He landed his HMS Endeavor near what is now Sydney, at a location that has come to be known as Botany Bay. Before long Botany Bay became the center for British colonization of the region.

Captain James Cook.

Penal Colony and 'Free' South Australia

Let's test your knowledge. What was happening to Great Britain throughout the 1770s? Yep, the American Revolution! When the British lost their North American colonies in 1783, Australia was initially seen as a sort of replacement. The land was deemed suitable for growing a variety of crops including sugar, cotton and tobacco. However, reformers began to call for the land to be a penal colony, or a colony designed to settle and reform convicts. In 1788, New South Wales was established as a colony for convicts. From 1788 to 1868, more than 150,000 convicts were transported to New South Wales.

This map from 1786 depicts New Holland and New South Wales.

As interest in the continent spread, the British and Dutch solidified their claims. In time, New South Wales came to be synonymous with the Eastern half of the continent, while the Western half was called New Holland, controlled by the Dutch. Periodic skirmishes broke out between the Europeans and Aboriginal groups, but in many cases the European tried to maintain friendly relations. However, in other cases, massacres took place. More deadly than warfare, however, were the white man's diseases. Smallpox, in particular, wreaked havoc upon native populations.

In 1831, a group of entrepreneurs formed a company and set out to establish a colony in Australia based on free, commercial settlement (as opposed to the settlement of convicts). They envisioned a colony characterized by political and religious freedom. In 1836 the colony of 'free' South Australia was established. As time passed, colonies found themselves gaining increased autonomy in the form of local, legislative bodies. This would help pave the way for Australian independence.

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