p. 11. The making of Australia
- Kenneth Morgan
‘The making of Australia’ looks at the country's unique environment, its millennia-long Aboriginal history, and white settler history. Australia's geography, climate, flora, fauna, and indigenous wildlife have contributed to Australia's present-day socioeconomic environment. The discovery of Australia by Europeans is covered but the foundation of Australia as a British colony is the central focus. What place do convict myths and realities have in Australia? What effect did settler society have on the landscape and on the indigenous population of the continent? How did Federation (in 1901) effect Australian nationalism? The origins of the White Australia Policy are put into context and Aboriginal responses to modern-day Australia's policy of multiculturalism are discussed.
Time was when an introduction to the making of Australia was unproblematic: the modern story of Australia began with James Cook claiming New South Wales for Britain in 1770 and the British convict settlement at Sydney Cove in 1788. Aborigines were omitted from the story. Thus, Walter Murdoch's school text Making of Australia: An Introductory History (1917) argued that ‘when people talk about “the history of Australia” they mean the history of the white people who have lived in Australia’, for the Aborigines ‘have nothing that can be called history’. W. K. Hancock's Australia (1930) began with the Younger Pitt's government selecting New South Wales as a convict settlement and the emergence of the pastoral industry down under. When the book was reprinted in 1961, Hancock admitted that inattention to Aborigines showed that it had fallen behind the times. Remnants of an older attitude lingered on into the 1970s as, for example, in F. K. Crowley's remark about why a book he edited on Australia's history minimized Aboriginal affairs:
People complain I’ve not put enough in about Aborigines: that's not a complaint, to me that's a simple observation. It means they’ve got the message. Our message is that the Aborigines were not important in the early history of white settlement.
p. 2Such a viewpoint is now marginal because of greater awareness of the Indigenous past and its contribution to Australia's history. On the other hand, modern Australia's institutions, economy, and political and social life are indelibly interwoven with the process of colonization and conquest that began in 1788. Aboriginal and European contributions to the development of Australia must therefore be considered in tandem.
This short introductory account of Australia pays attention to the longevity of settlement on the world's largest island continent, stretching back for millennia before Europeans set foot in the Antipodes, while providing a balanced account of major forces that have shaped Australian development since the Europeans arrived. This entails considering Aboriginal life, the impact of British and Irish settlement, and the more recent efflorescence of Continental European, Asian, and American influences upon Australia. The aim here is to summarize contentious topics judiciously. Positive achievements in the establishment of a relatively peaceful middling-size democracy need to be weighed against unresolved social and political matters for all Australians. But any understanding of Australia first requires some basic knowledge about its geography, climate, and people.
Natural and human resources
Australia's natural and human resources have shaped its socioeconomic environment in distinctive ways. During the last Ice Age, Australia was a larger land mass than today, known as Sahul, which incorporated Papua New Guinea and Tasmania. The land bridge across Torres Strait between southern New Guinea and the Cape York peninsula – the northernmost point in Australia – was submerged by rising sea levels more than 8,000 years ago, leading to the creation of a new continent. Modern Australia is the world's smallest, flattest, and driest continent. One of the seven largest countries in the world, it covers an area of 3 million square miles. It extends 2,500 miles from east to west and p. 3↵1,800 miles from north to south. Though plains dominate Australia's landscape, mountains are found in the Southern Alps in New South Wales (notably Mount Koscziusko, 7,328 feet above sea level, one-quarter of the height of Mount Everest) and in Tasmania, which, although generally low-lying, has 50 mountains over 3,936 feet.
Australia's predominantly dry climate, especially in the vast interior open spaces, stems from limited rainfall and many days of persistent hot temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius. The last ten years, in fact, have been Australia's warmest decade on record. Half of Australia is arid, about one-fifth is desert, and one-third of its land mass receives less than 10 inches of annual rainfall. Much of Australia's soil is of poor quality for agricultural development. Desert is common in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The Kimberley Tableland in the Western Plateau, for example, comprises 150,000 square miles of thin soils, rocky outcrops, desert and semi-desert land unsuitable for human habitation. Droughts are common in Australia, and can last for years. They mainly stem from the El Niño effect, whereby changes in ocean and atmospheric circulation lead to a negative southern oscillation that causes drought. The worst drought lasted between 1895 and 1902 and caused acute problems at a time of economic depression. Between 1997 and 2010, the Melbourne area experienced its longest drought on record. Parts of Western Australia are currently suffering higher than normal aridity from very low levels of rainfall. Bushfires are an ever-present hazard for Australians in rural communities. Water shortage will remain an acute problem in the future. Tropical North Queensland and the coastal areas of the Northern Territory are exceptions to the norm: they have a humid, monsoonal climate in summer months. Unexpected heavy rainfall can occur, such as the extensive floods that devastated much of southern Queensland in 2011, caused by a combination of the El Niño effect and the annual monsoonal low pressure trough that brings wet weather to the region.
p. 4Australia's isolation as a continent has led to a distinctive flora, fauna, and wildlife, but these have changed a great deal over many centuries. Australia once had far more forest and woodland than it has today. The Aboriginal custom of firestick foraging burned spinifex, cleared bushland for walking, eliminated less desirable plants and helped to produce habitats for animals and insects and the spread of bush tucker; but it also burned plentiful timber resources. Overstocking of animals by settlers and rabbit plagues left bare, sandy landscapes in the outback. Giant emus and large kangaroos, as fossil remains indicate, once inhabited Australia; and many species of flora and fauna have become extinct. Bush areas are common, such as the densely wooded Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney, the tropical Daintree rainforest in northern Queensland, and tracts of cool temperate rainforest in Tasmania. Nevertheless, large tranches of inland Australia comprise mile after mile of uninhabited flat land. A modern traveller exploring the outback might well imagine that Australia is an empty continent. The most common flora found in Australia are the many species of wattle and eucalypt. In the desert, small wooded clumps of spinifex are often the only visible signs of plant life. Australia's animals include types of venomous snakes, dingoes, kangaroos and wallabies, wombats, koala bears, cassowaries, Tasmanian devils, and duckbill platypuses which are only found in Australia.
Australia's population and economy reflects these geographical and climatic facts as well as the process of Aboriginal and settler use of the land. Archaeological evidence indicates that Aborigines have lived in Australia for at least 60,000–70,000 years, and possibly for over 100,000 years. Only China, Java, East Africa, and parts of the Middle East have revealed traces of human life before that time. Aborigines were once plentiful in Australia: in 1788, it is claimed, their numbers were between 600,000 and 1 million. This ancient group of people lived semi-nomadically, moving from one fertile area to another along river valleys and near coastal plains throughout Australia. Aborigines had no sense of individual p. 5↵ownership of land. They believed the land was sacred and that the rocks, gullies, trees, and shrubs contained ancestral spirits. One such site is Uluru (formerly Ayer's Rock) in the Northern Territory – the most familiar Aboriginal landscape symbol throughout the world.
Aborigines survived by gathering food on a daily basis. Men generally hunted for meat, while women combined their roles as mothers with gathering insects, fruits, seeds, nuts, berries, and small game. Collective practices, such as sharing food resources, were common. Aborigines controlled their population in relation to sustainable resources by infanticide when mothers already had one suckling baby. They eschewed settled agriculture partly because of the uncertainty of rainfall in Australia. Though connections existed between different groups, there was no Aboriginal nation. Indigenous people spoke a variety of languages, with different dialects, but neighbouring language users could communicate with each other. In the late 18th century, there were at least 350 distinct Aboriginal languages. Aborigines had an oral culture. They also had a sign language counterpart of their spoken language. This was used particularly at times when speech taboos were observed between kin or during mourning rites and male initiation ceremonies. Aborigines have left paintings and have passed down memories from generation to generation, but they had no written culture.
The contrast with Australia's white settlers could hardly be greater. Europeans first came to Australia many centuries after Aborigines had already lived there. Transplanted Europeans had deeply held notions of private property, of settled agriculture, of domination of the land, of expansion into new territory, of possessing land as part of an empire, and of national rivalry. Settlers had an extensive print culture to write down laws, orders, and treaties. They had a strong strain of individual acquisitiveness and, unlike the Aborigines, no spiritual connections with the land. Most settlers clustered near the coastline, especially in the p. 6↵southeastern part of the continent. Nearly half of Australia's modern population (9 million out of 22 million) lives in Sydney and Melbourne, which are the focal points of the most populous states – New South Wales and Victoria. In Western Australia, South Australia, and Queensland, urban centres are more scattered from one another and quite isolated. Perth, for example, is 1,672 miles by road from the nearest large city, Adelaide, making the West Australian capital one of the world's most isolated cities. Australia, then, is a land of varied geography and climate; but its natural barriers to human habitation caution against any simplistic notion that it could support a much larger population.
Discovering and possessing Australia
Aborigines had an intimate knowledge of Australia's landscapefor centuries before white settlement, but their dispersion, fragmentation, and non-expansionist nature meant their cartographic knowledge did not extend throughout the continent. Aborigines had no collective impetus to possess the continent or to disseminate their local knowledge to the wider world. Europeans, on the contrary, had a long-standing curiosity about the possible vast land that lay somewhere in the southern hemisphere, and eventually this involved the thrust towards imperial possession. Terra Australis Incognita – the unknown southern land – formed part of the imaginative world of philosophers and geographers from ancient times onwards. Greek and Roman philosophers thought that, in theory, such a land must exist. In AD 150–160, Ptolemy had named a large expanse of land on the map Terra Australis. The 5th-century Roman philosopher Macrobius thought the Earth was divided into three climatic zones, with a large continent covering most of its southern hemisphere.
Some mapmakers later included a land mass in southern oceans without knowing its shape or extent. The 16th-century Flemish p. 7↵cartographers Mercator and Ortelius included such a land on their maps. The accounts of explorers complemented theoretical geography. In the 13th century, Marco Polo gathered tales from China about a great land of riches in the southern hemisphere. During the Middle Ages, the Indians, Greeks, Chinese, and Arabs all wrote about a realm somewhere to the south of Java, embellishing their accounts with stories of palaces of gold and fabulous birds of prey. But none of these speculations were verified.
Locating Terra Australis in practice resulted from the activities of Western European trading powers in the era between Columbus's discovery of America in 1492 and the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of 1793–1815. During that long period, Australia was found piecemeal by European voyagers. It was the last of the world's habitable continents to be explored by Europeans. That it took so long to encompass Australia stemmed from incomplete knowledge of the vast Pacific Ocean and of Australia's geography. Covering one-third of the total area of the globe and equal to all the land masses of the world put together, large expanses of the Pacific were uncharted or unmapped by Europeans until the late 18th century. Many navigators before the 17th century did not have the resources or national backing to explore the Pacific. In addition, geographical knowledge about Australia was often fragmentary and speculative before c. 1800.
Portuguese navigators may have undertaken a secret voyage of discovery to Australia between 1521 and 1524, but this is not confirmed. French charts known as the ‘Dieppe maps’ concerning the voyage depict a continent in the southern hemisphere named Java la Grande; but the iconography on the maps is based on Sumatran animals and ethnography, not on Australian reality, and the maps are composites of mariners’ charts. Spanish interest in Australia yielded few results. Alvaro de Mendana set out from Spanish Peru in 1567 on a voyage to the southwest Pacific and reached the Solomon Islands. He made a second voyage in 1595, p. 8↵on which he discovered the Marquesas Islands. In 1605–6, the Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernandez de Quiros sailed across the Pacific from Peru to reach the New Hebrides. But though these voyagers hoped to find a mainland in the South Pacific, they did not sail far enough in a southwesterly direction to sight Australia. In 1606, Luis Vaez de Torres sailed through the strait that now bears his name, to the north of Australia, but his course lay near to the New Guinea coast: he did not locate the Australian mainland. These were scattered and isolated voyages because neither of the Iberian powers had a major incentive to discover Australia.
The Dutch played a more important role in the European discovery of Australia. The founding of the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) in 1602 led to voyages to the Indonesian archipelago in search of gold and spices, and from Java it was possible to proceed southwards in search of further riches. Sailing from the Netherlands to the East Indies on a 20-metre-long vessel, the Duyken, Willem Janszoon touched at New Guinea and the Cape York peninsula in 1606. This is the first indisputable evidence that a European had landed in Australia. Abel Janszoon Tasman made two voyages, in 1642 and 1644, to determine whether Australia (which he named New Holland) was part of a larger southern land. On the first voyage, he discovered and named Van Diemen's Land – modern Tasmania – but his attempts to land there were thwarted by rough seas and by his crew fearing they might encounter giants. Tasman sailed around the south and east parts of Van Diemen's Land, but he did not circumnavigate it and did not realize it was an island. The second voyage was devoted to mapping and charting the northwest Australian coast. Tasman's voyages failed to discover a promising new area for trade or a suitable shipping route for VOC vessels to follow in the Pacific. The regular route for the VOC took ships east across the Indian Ocean. Landfalls by these vessels on Australia's western coast became quite common by the later 17th century. The last major Dutch voyage to Terra Australis, led by Willem Hesselsz de Vlamingh in 1696, yielded disappointing results: he touched near p. 9↵modern Fremantle, in southwest Australia, sailed northwards to the North West Cape, and then abandoned further exploration.
Changing European attitudes towards the human and natural world gave a higher priority to Pacific exploration during the 18th century. Educated observers became more interested in mankind in its uncivilized state. Scientific curiosity gave impetus to botanical and zoological discoveries. Enlightenment thinking emphasized human progress via greater discovery of the globe. Western European nations sought improvement through trade and overseas settlement. Britain was at the forefront of these developments through the work of the Royal Society in London, the patronage of Sir Joseph Banks for collectors of new knowledge, and the Admiralty and Board of Longitude's interest in oceanic exploration. Practical knowledge and imaginative writing also stimulated the search for the great southern land. The buccaneer adventurer William Dampier's widely circulated account of landing in Western Australia in 1688 warned against settlement there owing to arid conditions. Dampier also made unfavourable comments about Aboriginal habits. Jonathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels (1726) about ‘a person of quality in Terra Australis Incognita’ depicted an exotic fictional society on an island off Australia's coast. In the 1740s, the travel writer John Campbell (copying Tasman) claimed that whoever discovered and settled Terra Australis ‘will become infallibly possessed of territories as rich, as fruitful, & as capable of improvement as any that have been hitherto found, either in the East Indies, or the West’.
After the Seven Years’ War, fascination spread in Europe about the location of the great southern land. The voyages of Captains Samuel Wallis and Philip Carteret (1766–9) had instructions to search for a land or lands of great extent in the southern hemisphere between Cape Horn and New Zealand. Wallis landed at Tahiti and Carteret discovered the Pitcairn Islands, but neither explorer found Australia. French naval explorers were active in Pacific waters in the later 18th century on voyages with scientific p. 10↵objectives. The Comte de Lapérouse led an expedition into Oceania which arrived at Botany Bay in January 1788 shortly after the First Fleet of convicts anchored there. With no orders to claim Australia for France, Lapérouse sailed away and his expedition was wrecked on reefs in the Solomon Islands. In September 1791, Rear Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux sailed from France in search of Lapérouse. In the following year, he explored parts of Van Diemen's Land and southwestern Australia, but his voyage failed to find his lost compatriot and he himself died at sea of scurvy. The fate of Lapérouse's expedition remained unknown for 40 years until artefacts from the wreck of his ship were discovered on the coral atoll of Vanikoro.
James Cook had greater ambitions than these other explorers. In his own words, he wanted to sail ‘farther than any other man has been before me’ and ‘as far as I think it is possible for man to go’. Cook intended to extend the geographical boundaries of existing knowledge. His three famous Pacific voyages (1768–80) led to a great increase in geographical and navigational information about the Pacific from Alaska to Tahiti and from New Zealand to Australia's east coast. In June 1770, on his first Pacific voyage, Cook's Endeavour anchored at Botany Bay, just south of modern Sydney, for eight days and eight nights. Within two months, Cook had charted part of Australia's eastern coastline and annexed Australia from latitude 38° south in the name of George III, calling it New South Wales. This occurred on Possession Island in Torres Strait (which, like Botany Bay, he named) on 22 August 1770. Cook had a more positive view of the Aborigines he encountered than Dampier, considering them ‘far happier than we Europeans’ in their natural state, but he had no qualms about claiming possession of Australia for Britain.
Aboriginal memory has a different view of Cook's dominant, imperialist view of the British acquisition of Australia. This is best captured by the Aboriginal philosopher Hobbles Danaiyarri, based p. 11↵
in northern Australia. In a narrative, transcribed in 1982, using Cook as a collective term, he wrote:
You, Captain Cook, you the one bringing in new lotta man. Why didn’t you give me fair go for my people?…what we call Australia, that's for Aboriginal people. But him been take it away. You been take that land, you been take the mineral, take the gold, everything. Take it up to this Big England.
Cook and later explorers acted as expansionist Europeans were accustomed, without taking into account Aboriginal views.
Cook's mapping and charting of Australia's east coast was extended by other explorers. Matthew Flinders discovered Bass Strait with his friend George Bass in 1798–9, thereby proving that Van p. 12↵Diemen's Land was an island off mainland Australia. Then, in H.M.S. Investigator, Flinders led a British-backed circumnavigation of the Australian coast between December 1801 and June 1803, being the first naval explorer to do so. Flinders charted much of Australia's coast and named innumerable capes, coves, and peninsulas. He was particularly fascinated by the Indigenous people and landscape of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Some parts of the Victorian and South Australian coasts were also charted by a rival French expedition led by Nicolas Baudin that overlapped with Flinders’ voyage. Unlike the British, however, the French did not settle in Australia. Just before his death in 1814, Flinders published A Voyage to Terra Australis, in which his maps and charts of the continent he called Australia appeared. Between 1818 and 1822, Philip Parker King, on four voyages, completed the charting of the northwestern Australian coast that Flinders had foregone owing to the leaky condition of his ship on its circumnavigatory voyage.
By the 1820s, the main contours and features of the Australian coastline were known and recorded. The interior of Australia, however, remained relatively unknown: the Blue Mountains were first crossed in 1813, but exploring the outback proved daunting. Charles Sturt led three expeditions into the interior to search for an inland sea. In 1828–9, he traced streams that carried their waters south to a greater river, the Darling, which he discovered. This demonstrated that western flowing waters in New South Wales were not an inland sea. Their ultimate destination remained unknown until Sturt's second expedition of 1829–30 established the course of the Murray River, finding, with disappointment, that its mouth comprised sandbars and lagoons through which shipping could not pass. Sturt's third expedition in 1844 ranged through New South Wales and South Australia in search of Australia's centre, but Sturt contracted scurvy and his exploring party had to be rescued. Other inland explorations also took their human toll. In 1848, the Prussian explorer and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt disappeared while trying to cross the continent from east to west in an overland expedition funded p. 13↵by private subscription. In 1860–1, Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, supported by donations, led an expedition of 19 men from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, a journey of 2,000 miles from south to north. But after completing this successfully, 7 men died on the return journey at Cooper's Creek, partly because of beriberi. Only one of their party arrived back in Melbourne. Despite its loss of life, the expedition proved finally that Australia had no inland sea.
The convict legacy
White settlement in Australia began in an unusual way. It comprised a fleet of 11 vessels carrying convicts exiled from Britain for crimes, accompanied by naval officers, surgeons, marines, wives, transport seamen, and a few civilians. Captain Arthur Phillip was the commander. The vessels left Portsmouth on 13 May 1787 and reached Sydney harbour on 26 January 1788 (now celebrated as Australia Day). This was probably the only founding of a colony in modern history based primarily on a population of convicts. The British government set up such a settlement primarily because it needed a far-flung place of exile for felons. Transportation had been an important secondary punishment for decades. A parliamentary act of 1718 had sanctioned such traffic to North America: over 50,000 British and Irish convicts were sent to the tobacco colonies of Virginia and Maryland before 1776. Britain's loss of her North American colonies halted the trade. Convicts were then confined in England on old prison warships known as hulks, but the end of the American revolutionary war led to a search for a new outlet for their dispatch. Various possible destinations were found wanting, including Das Voltas Bay in West Africa. In August 1786, the Younger Pitt's government decided to exile convicts to New South Wales.
Historians have long debated whether commercial, naval, or strategic motives accompanied the plan to dump convicts. Certainly, Pitt's government was aware of commercial p. 14↵possibilities for the East India Company through a settlement at Sydney. It knew about the availability of flax supplies on Norfolk Island to aid the British Navy, and had considered Sydney's strategic significance as a port to counteract Spanish or French ventures in the South Pacific. But whether these additional motives were of major significance has not been proven. It is clear, however, that between the initial order for the First Fleet to sail and its arrival in Sydney, the government had developed plans for settling New South Wales within an imperial context. Subsequent fleets of British and Irish convicts were sent to New South Wales. Felons were dispatched additionally to Van Diemen's Land from 1812 and to Western Australia from 1850. Between 1788 and 1868, over 160,000 convicts reached Australian shores, the peak period being the quarter-century after 1815. Transportation came to an end in New South Wales in 1840, in Van Diemen's Land in 1853, and in Western Australia in 1868, as views changed on the efficacy of transportation as a criminal punishment.
Popular representations of convicts, from Dickens's Magwitch in Great Expectations (1860–1) to Robert Hughes's bestselling The Fatal Shore (1987), have emphasized the colourful, grim aspects of felonry. The opening pages of Dickens's novel evoke a shady netherworld of crime. Hughes depicts convict New South Wales as a vast gaol, a gulag in the southern hemisphere. Earlier writers also dwelt upon the grand guignol aspects of convict life. James Mudie, for instance, who lived in New South Wales between 1822 and 1838 as a landowner with a convict workforce, explained that the convicts consisted of
branches lopped for their rottenness from the tree of British freedom…whom the outraged soil of England, shuddering at their crimes, has expelled, and whom she has with just abhorrence cast forth from her shores to expiate…those offences which placed the very lives of the majority of them at her mercy.
p. 15Marcus Clarke's novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) popularized the stark, inhumane treatment of convicts. Remnants of the convict presence in Australia, such as Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney or the Port Arthur penal settlement in Tasmania, remind us of the discipline, suffering, and terror experienced by transportees.
Despite this evidence, it is important to emphasize the normative aspects of convictism in Australia. Most felons served seven-year terms for convictions based on theft, usually petty or grand larceny; a minority had terms of fourteen years or life. They were invariably lower-class people who for the most part had stolen in hard times rather than people who habitually resorted to crime. Notions of convicts as a criminal class are inaccurate. Few transportees were guilty of rape, murder, or manslaughter. A minority were political dissidents. They included exiles from Ireland after the 1798 Irish rebellion and sympathizers with political radicalism in the 1830s, such as the Tolpuddle martyrs, who were sentenced to transportation after falling foul of an obscure law on swearing oaths. Most convicts were male – the ratio being four male felons to each female convict in Van Diemen's Land. Popular accounts still recirculate the myth that many female felons were depraved and prostitutes, but these attitudes were more reflective of moral condemnation of transported criminals common in the 19th century than reality.
Convicts provided much-needed labour for building colonial settlements in Australia. They were employed, initially by their military guards, in construction work, urban trades, and agricultural tasks such as ploughing, harrowing, or tending livestock. Skilled convicts were highly prized workers. Convicts appear to have formed a productive, efficient labour force. After a period of good conduct, they could apply to the governor for a ticket-of-leave in order to work for a wage. Convicts did not live in a gaol, nor were they separate from free subjects. Indeed, even in the early days of settlement at Sydney, convicts worked as dealers p. 16↵
and tradesmen and had relatively little contact with gaolers. Men and women were not separated. They were encouraged to marry and have families. Their children were born into freedom. They retained legal rights. In New South Wales, they had the right to present evidence in criminal courts. Former convicts became employers of felons still under sentence. Many convicts raised themselves up from an unpromising start in Australia to become respectable members of society. They were able to effect, in the main, a seamless transition into civilian life.
There were, to be sure, less savoury aspects of convictism. By the 1820s and 1830s, recalcitrant re-offenders were relocated to stark penal stations such as Macquarie Harbour, a lonely outpost in western Van Diemen's Land, or Norfolk Island, a tiny settlement situated 870 miles off Australia's east coast. At these places, convicts were sometimes subject to solitary confinement and their hair shaved. Convicts experienced fines, cautions, and flogging. Physical punishments and legal constraints appeared to set them apart from free society. Moral condemnation of transported felons p. 17↵persisted in Britain, Ireland, and Australia into the Victorian period. In Australia by the 1820s, free settlers referred to themselves as ‘exclusives’ to distinguish themselves from the ‘emancipists’ (ex-convicts) and their children, the currency lads and lasses – so called because the currency or paper money then issued was considered inferior to sterling. Social barriers sometimes existed between these groups. But these gradually eroded as people intermingled and intermarried, and as settlers could see that ex-convicts made as significant an economic contribution to colonial growth as free migrants.
The early champion of the emancipists was William Charles Wentworth in his newspaper the Australian, first issued in October 1824. Wentworth argued that all settlers in Australia deserved a ‘fair go’, an attitude that has persisted into modern Australian life. Nevertheless, the social stain associated with convicts faded slowly. English readers were told in 1864 that ‘no one who has not lived in Australia can appreciate the profound hatred of convictism that obtains there’. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that Australians willingly admitted that they had convict ancestors, such was the shame attached to the nation's origins. Nowadays, however, to claim a convict as an ancestor carries little stigma. Today's visitors to Sydney's Rocks can see the physical place, and perhaps grasp something of the atmosphere, of the location where convicts first formed a community in New South Wales.
Settler society in colonial Australia
White settlement in Australia was relatively small in the first three decades after the arrival of the First Fleet because the demands of the Napoleonic Wars retarded transportation. By 1810, the white population of New South Wales amounted to 12,000 convicts, military and naval personnel, and a sprinkling of free settlers such as lawyers, clergymen, and doctors. Over the next seven decades, Australia's non-Indigenous population increased substantially to p. 18↵reach 406,000 in 1850, on the eve of the gold rush; it then rose to 1,648,000 in 1870. The next three decades witnessed further demographic growth. Natural increase was marked throughout the century, while migration surged in the 1850s and 1880s. At the time of Federation in 1901, when Australia became a nation, the population totalled 3,770,000. Some 78% had been born in Australia; 18% in the British Isles; 2% in another European country; and less than 2% in Asian or Pacific countries.
Between 1831 and 1900, half of the 1.47 million migrants to the Australian colonies had passages subsidized by the British government. In many cases, they were recruited under the systematic colonization policies of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, whereby revenues from Australian land sales were used to subsidize passages on government-sponsored ships. But other schemes also existed whereby immigrants were selected and recruited. The great majority of settlers in Australia came from British or Irish backgrounds. For shorthand purposes, it is helpful to refer to them as Anglo-Celtic because Britain and Ireland were politically joined as part of the United Kingdom. Yet there were notable differences between the British and Irish immigrants in their religious allegiances. Most Irish immigrants were Catholic, many English settlers were Anglican, and many Scots were Presbyterian, with widely divergent views about education, culture, and politics. So 19th-century Australia was multicultural but within an Anglo-Celtic context.
Colonists came partly from middle-class professional backgrounds, but predominantly from lower-class skilled and semi-skilled occupations. Few aristocrats emigrated to Australia as they had no need to seek out opportunities in such a faraway destination. The social structure of colonial Australia was therefore heavily biased towards the bottom part of a vertical pyramid denoting social class. Apart from the predominant British and Irish contingent, other, smaller groups were found. German Lutherans helped to settle parts of South Australia in the p. 19↵1830s and 1840s. Chinese migrants were found in the gold rush settlements. Polynesians and Melanesians, and a sprinkling of Italians, found work and homes in the sugar-producing, tropical zone of north Queensland. These migrants retained their ethnic identities while adapting to life in Australia. Before the 1880s, the colonists thought of themselves as Queenslanders, Victorians, South Australians, and so on; but thereafter, the white population began to view itself more self-consciously as Australians.
The growth of white settlement in Australia stemmed from various factors. Children of pioneers and ex-convicts spread beyond the Blue Mountains overland. They made homes in fertile bush areas, suitable for sheep grazing, in the interior of New South Wales and the Port Phillip District (including Australia Felix, the name supplied by Thomas Mitchell for lush pastures in western Victoria). By 1803, settlers from New South Wales also migrated to Van Diemen's Land, which became a colony in 1824. New colonies were established in Western Australia, originally known as the Swan River colony (1829), South Australia (1836), Victoria (1850), and Queensland (1859). Victoria comprised the post-1843 boundaries of the Port Phillip District. South Australia, Victoria, and Queensland were carved out of a ‘greater’ New South Wales. Van Diemen's Land was renamed Tasmania in 1856. Each colony established a capital city and port – Sydney in New South Wales, Hobart in Van Diemen's Land, Perth (the capital city) and Fremantle (the port) in Western Australia, Adelaide and Port Adelaide in South Australia, Melbourne in Victoria, and Brisbane in Queensland. These colonial capitals absorbed most settlers; they were connected to productive hinterlands, though less so in the case of Perth than the others. Population growth and the spread of settlement were also stimulated by economic opportunities in urban trades, pastoral occupations, and mineral excavation.
Settlers competed with Aborigines for control over land and resources. These completely different cultural groups often p. 20↵cooperated, but there are many examples of friction and violence. Clashes occurred between Aborigines and settlers in the Hawkesbury River area of New South Wales in the 1790s. Settlers fired upon Indigenous people, claiming they damaged their crops, and Aborigines retaliated by forming raiding parties. Between 1824 and 1836, Governor George Arthur in Van Diemen's Land was persuaded by settlers that Aborigines were a treacherous race, and so he pursued a draconian policy of driving Indigenous people away from settled areas to western fringes of the island. In 1838, the Liverpool plains area of what is now northern New South Wales experienced a series of massacres of Indigenous people, notably at Myall Creek station where, on 10 June, settlers killed 30 unarmed Aborigines as revenge for attacks on their livestock.
Contentious debate has characterized recent attempts to evaluate these frontier clashes. Evidence has surfaced about exaggerated numbers of Aboriginal deaths in resisting settlers. Determining accurate numbers of those killed is difficult, sometimes impossible, to establish, but there is little doubt of serious violence by both Aborigines and settlers. Suggestions that British and Irish settlers pursued genocidal policies are unproven, yet the savagery and loss of life in frontier areas was common. Whatever the actual numbers killed, the fact remains that Aborigines were subjugated to European settler hegemony. Aboriginal numbers suffered dramatically through violence and the spread of disease from contact with Europeans. Smallpox, for example, killed half of the Indigenous people in the Sydney Cove area in the 1790s. Settler actions and disease reduced the number of Aborigines in Van Diemen's Land from 4,000–6,000 in 1788 to 300 by the 1830s.
While Aborigines suffered from colonial expansion, settlers generally flourished. By the second half of the 19th century, Australia had acquired a reputation as a working man's paradise. Most people had better living standards than those in an p. 21↵equivalent position on the social scale in Britain. Australians had greater meat consumption than Britons; they earned higher wages on average; they often had better housing stock as the major cities suburbanized; they needed less winter fuel than Europeans; and workplace arrangements were protected by stronger trade unions than in Britain. By the 1880s, Manly, on Sydney's north shore, epitomized the working person's arcadia in the southern hemisphere – as the slogan put it, it was ‘seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care’.
This rosy picture, however, is not the whole story. Colonial Australia was more of a working man's paradise for skilled people than for the unskilled. Economic booms and busts affected employment opportunities, especially in the agricultural downturn of the early 1840s and general economic depression in the early 1890s. The highly seasonal nature of the Australian colonial workforce had important implications for working life, such as uneven earnings across one year for many workers. Moreover, there were always Australians who were out of luck and dependent on charity. Poor sanitary conditions in late 19th-century slums in Sydney and Melbourne also militated against the image of Australia as a destination for the working class to flourish.
A white bastion in the Pacific
When the Commonwealth of Australia was inaugurated in 1901, the new nation was a white bastion in the Pacific. In the debates preceding Federation, Edmund Barton, who became Australia's first prime minister, spoke about the need to preserve Australia's white Anglo-Celtic heritage and to exclude Asians from the nation: ‘The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.’ Alfred Deakin, Australia's first attorney-general and thrice prime minister, echoed this sentiment. ‘Australia proposes to tolerate nothing within its dominion that is not British in character and p. 22↵constitution or capable of becoming Anglicized without delay’, he wrote. For those who could not meet these criteria because of their race, ‘the policy is that of the closed door’. Two of the first acts of the Commonwealth Parliament followed through this ‘White Australia Policy’ – as it was unofficially known – quickly and comprehensively. The Immigration Restriction Act (1901) effectively excluded non-Europeans as migrants to Australia. The Pacific Island Labourers’ Act (1902) stipulated that Polynesians, Melanesians and other islander groups should be repatriated to their home countries, and excluded emigration to Australia by such people after 1904. The formal method of exclusion was a 50-word dictation test first used in the British South African colony of Natal in 1897. A language could be selected for Asian and other non-English-speaking immigrants in such a way that it was virtually impossible for the person to pass the test.
White Australians had already discriminated against Aborigines on racial grounds since the beginning of European settlement in New South Wales. Asian immigrants posed another type of racial and cultural threat. The presence of Oriental diggers at the gold rushes had induced colonies worried by the spread of alien habits and work competition (‘the yellow peril’) to enact laws against the Chinese – seen as the major Asian threat to Australia – in the 1850s and early 1860s. After the gold rush era, the legislation was repealed. Friction with Chinese immigrants revived in the 1880s when they again began to arrive. By that time, cheap labour supplied by ‘Kanaka’ Pacific islanders in the Queensland sugar industry also stirred up racial feeling. Dissemination of Social Darwinist ideas, discriminating against Asians on racial grounds, added to the dislike of non-white settlers in Australia. Racism lay at the heart of the ‘White Australia Policy’ as it did in a number of other countries – South Africa and the United States among them – which aimed to restrict immigrants according to a ‘global colour line’ in the early 20th century.
p. 23The ‘long, slow death’ of white Australia meant, however, that Australia stayed largely connected to its British and Irish roots until the middle of the 20th century.
In 1958, a Migration Act abolished the dictation test and avoided reference to immigration restriction on racial grounds, but the ‘White Australia Policy’ continued. By that time, Australia had become a more welcoming country for immigrants from diverse cultural and geographical backgrounds, and the more positive disposition by the government towards such immigrants influenced policies towards Indigenous people. In 1966, the Australian government eased restrictions on non-European immigrants. The ‘White Australia Policy’ was finally dismantled in 1973: race was removed as a factor in Australia's immigration policies and immigrants could obtain citizenship after three years’ residence.
The Aborigines and their struggle
Relations between white Australians and Aborigines were fraught with tension as two antithetical cultures clashed over land resources, social organization, and racial norms. Settlers considered they had the right to acquire land resources from the Indigenous owners of the soil – a practice that occurred in many other settler societies in the 19th century such as the United States, South Africa, and New Zealand. This land grabbing inevitably led to frontier violence. Punitive expeditions and violent clashes between Aborigines and settlers occurred in South Australia at Coorong lagoon in 1840, at Rufus River in 1841, and elsewhere. Other confrontations between Aborigines and settlers have already been noted. Native police forces were formed to protect frontier areas, and these sometimes resulted in Indigenous people recruited by the police force using physical force against fellow Aboriginal protesters. This was a frequent occurrence on the Queensland frontier in the 1870s. Aborigines offered stiff resistance, but settlers always held the whip hand in terms of p. 24↵enforcing law and order. In 1859, some Aboriginal groups in Victoria's Goulburn Valley petitioned for the return of their land and the Victorian government reserved some land for them. Similar attempts to reclaim land by Indigenous people occurred elsewhere in Australia, but rarely with positive results.
The social organization and behaviour of Aboriginal groups cut little ice with many colonial and state administrators. Officials assumed that Aborigines had little part to play in Australia's expansive development, and that they should either be cordoned off into reservations or assimilated into the white population. This reflected notions about the superiority of the white race over Indigenous people, and of the higher place accorded to grafting European civilization in the Antipodes over the customs of a backward, static race. ‘The barbarous races will melt from the path of the Caucasian’, the Deniliquin Chronicle noted on 17 February 1866, ‘not by a bloody or brutal series of massacres and poisonings but by a gradual and beneficial mingling and absorption’. Separation, however, was more common than racial mixture. One notorious feature of separating the races was to take away Aboriginal children from their families. From 1883 to 1969, the New South Wales government had the right to seize such children under child welfare legislation. In the Northern Territory in the 1920s, police separated people of mixed Aboriginal and European descent from their parents. In various states, reserves were set up for darker-skinned Indigenous people, on the basis that their skin colour destined them to live apart from the rest of the Australian population. Thus, during the first half of the 20th century, Queensland Aborigines were rounded up and herded into large-scale, state-controlled reserves. The view was frequently held that the Aboriginal problem would eventually disappear as Indigenous people died rapidly from illnesses introduced by Europeans to Australia, such as gastric complaints and influenza.
Aborigines generally resisted assimilation into white Australian ways of life. Governor Lachlan Macquarie's attempts to train them p. 25↵as yeomen farmers in the 1810s failed because of the indifferent attitudes of Indigenous people to agricultural cultivation. Christian missionary attempts to civilize Aborigines and to acquaint them with white standards of dress, deportment, religion, and imperial loyalty were similarly unsuccessful. Greater success with intermingling Indigenous and white people was achieved in the Northern Territory and Queensland's cattle country in the early 20th century where Aborigines adjusted to settler ways of herding cattle and learned stock-work skills, which they could then adapt to their own needs. But adaptation was less frequent than either complete separation on reserves or attempts at assimilation. In the 1950s, the Commonwealth government embarked on a more thoroughgoing assimilation policy to incorporate Aborigines into Western-style education, training, and health, but this continued the separation of families. Of course, personal liaisons between white men and Aboriginal women – more common than connections between Indigenous men and white women – could be found throughout Australia by the mid-20th century, but such households often carried a social stigma.
Since the Second World War, Australia has become a more multicultural society, both in terms of the composition of its population and its partial absorption of Indigenous people into the broader polity. The great white walls of an immigration policy largely restricted to Anglo-Celts began to be dismantled shortly after the ending of hostilities in 1945. Australia had plenty of employment opportunities for post-war economic reconstruction but experienced internal labour shortages. There was also a general view that the racial horrors of the Second World War should lead to a greater connection between ethnic, linguistic, and racial groups in the post-war world. Believing that a substantial population was needed for Australia's future, the Commonwealth government allowed thousands of Germans, p. 26↵Italians, Greeks, and other Europeans to live in Australia under a massive immigration programme. By 1950, 200,000 migrants had arrived in Australia as part of this boom, many of them with government-assisted passages.
Some European migrants were refugees and displaced persons; many wished to escape poverty and unemployment; all were looking for better opportunities and more secure living standards. By the 1950s, Melbourne had inner-city areas with Greek and Italian communities, a pattern replicated in other Australian cities. British emigrants continued to settle in the thousands in Australia, many of them aided by the British government as ‘ten-pound Poms’ (that is, with a cheap assisted fare to emigrate). There was also considerable migration across the Tasman Sea from New Zealand. But the most recent waves of Australian immigrants have been dominated by Asians coming from China, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Levels of migration from parts of the Middle East to Australia have also increased. This multicultural influx has altered the composition of the Australian population. The census of 2006 reported that almost one-quarter of people living in Australia had been born elsewhere: 1.15 million were born in the United Kingdom, 477,000 in New Zealand, 220,000 in Italy, 203,000 in the People's Republic of China, 180,000 in Vietnam, 154,000 in India, 136,000 in the Philippines, and 126,000 in Greece.
Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, living on hundreds of small islands in Torres Strait, which are mostly part of Queensland, now comprise 550,000 people (2.7% of the Australian population). A 1967 referendum resulted in the Commonwealth government being allowed to make laws for Aboriginal people. Power over Aboriginal affairs is shared today by the state/territory and federal governments. The first Aboriginal representative to sit in the Commonwealth of Australia's Parliament was Neville Bonner in 1971. Indigenous Australians have continued to press their claims for the p. 27↵restoration of land. The Mabo decision in the High Court of Australia in 1992 overturned the doctrine of terra nullius (i.e. no man's land) and gave Indigenous people greater rights in negotiations over land titles. In February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a public apology by the Australian government for the ‘stolen generations’.
Multiculturalism is not a painless process. Asian immigration to Australia has been contentious since the 1980s. More recently, Islamic Australians have been involved in controversy. Riots occurred between mainly white Australians and Lebanese Muslims – many of them Australian-born or Australian citizens – on Sydney's Cronulla beach in December 2005. In addition, Australia's decision to detain asylum-seekers – mainly from Asia – in offshore detention centres has attracted criticism from human rights supporters. Amnesty International, for instance, has attacked the detention of asylum-seekers in tents and the treatment of lone children at Christmas Island, an Australian immigrant depot in the Indian Ocean.
Multiculturalism is also problematic for Indigenous Australians. Aborigines are still often typecast as social misfits easily lured by alcohol, drifting into crime, sanctioning sexual abuse in their communities, and refusing to cooperate with white Australians. In June 2007, the federal government intervened in over 60 Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory to investigate child abuse in those communities. Yet it failed to deal in depth effectively with poor Indigenous mental health issues and the prevalence of ear, nose, and throat complaints. Dealing with the problems posed by an increasingly multicultural society is a continuing quest in Australia. Multiculturalism needs to be more fully accepted and embedded throughout Australian society, however, before it can provide a firm basis for Australia's future destiny. Many Aboriginal people resist the notion of multiculturalism because they resent being considered just one ethnic group among many in Australian society.