Australia: History And Why It Was Founded As A Penal Colony

By | January 24, 2021

test article image
A kangaroo hops through the outback landscape June 7, 2005 near Marree, Australia. (Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

While it stands today as one of the most diverse nations on Earth, the Australian continent was isolated from the rest of the world for the majority of its history. How did this relatively young country come to be, and just how did people from all over the globe find themselves on a giant island in the middle of the ocean?

Before Australia

Back before Google Maps—specifically, 15th-century Europe—people could only speculate on what may or may not have existed on the far south side of the globe, but they had their suspicions of a "hidden" continent. Some even made hypothetical maps of this mythic "Southland," or as they say in Latin, Terra Australis.

It turned out they were right, except about the part of it being undiscovered. Anthropologists believe the Aboriginal people were some of the first, if not the first, people to leave Africa some 70,000 years ago, making their way into Asia and down what is now Indonesia before exploring the smaller islands by boat. Once they reached New Guinea, they likely crossed a land bridge to Australia, which was later flooded as sea levels began to rise. Ancient cave paintings on the continent even depict giant kangaroos and birds, animals that went extinct around 40,000 years ago, suggesting Aboriginal Australians arrived early enough to witness Pleistocene megafauna. While more or less isolated, they must have had some contact with the outside world, as dingoes weren't introduced to the country until 4,000 years ago.

test article image
Historical image of Aboriginal Australian women and children, Maloga, New South Wales around 1900 (in European dress). (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

England's Prison

Aboriginal Australians made their first known major contact with the outer world when Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon landed and explored the coastline in 1606. Once the continent was known in Europe, many explorers visited but none dared venture too far inland until Lieutenant James Cook of Great Britain decided that Australia seemed like a grand place to set up a few coloniesAt the time, England was having issues with overpopulation, widespread poverty, and the crimes resulting thereof, and while they'd previous shipped a lot of their prisoners to the penal colonies of North America, the newly independent United States was no longer keen on boatloads of English prisoners being dumped on their shores.

Australia (or New South Wales, as it was called at the time) seemed like the perfect solution to Cook, and the first penal colony was established in early 1788. The first fleet landed in Botany Bay with over 700 convicts and a few hundred crew members, but the new colonists found the area inhospitable, so they moved to a different port and began developing around what is today Sydney. On January 26, Captain Arthur Phillips raised the British flag, establishing the empire's claim on the land, and began building the settlement. The first few years were extremely rough, as starvation was ever imminent, but the majority of settlers managed to survive long enough for England to ship over more supplies, thanks to Phillip's strict work schedule.