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

By Grace Taylor

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.

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.

Portrait of Captain James Cook, the first European to map the eastern coastline of Australia in 1770. (National Maritime Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

Becoming Australia

Over the next few years, England sent over thousands of convicts, and the Aboriginal Australian population suffered great losses from diseases like smallpox, which killed an estimated 70% of them. As resources became strained by the introduction of so many foreigners, violence erupted between the Aboriginal people and the Europeans, leading to Pemulwuy's and the Nepean Wars.

In 1793, the first free settlers arrived on the Bellona and initiated the era of open British colonization, and more than a half-million new immigrants arrived in the 1850s after gold was discovered on the continent. While some did hit pay dirt, most walked away with nothing, but the gold rush completely transformed Australia, whose population swelled by over a million people between 1850 and 1870. A national identity and entire economy, including farming and industry, began to form among this larger, more diverse population.

As the free population settled, they pushed back against the constant influx of prisoners, so England finally abandoned the shipment of convicts in 1868. In 1900, the different regions voted to form a federation called the Australian Commonwealth, and on January 1 of the next year, Australia became totally self-governed. The political and cultural ties to Britain remain strong, and Australia allied with them during both World Wars, but the British declined to return the favor when Australia had to fight its most terrible and loathsome foe: the emu. 

Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae), Tidbinbilla, Australian Capital Territory, Australia. (JJ Harrison/Wikimedia Commons)

The Emu War

In 1932, the emu population of Australia was out of control, and Australian farmers were getting grumpy about the fast-running, five-foot birds constantly destroying their crops and property. They were already hanging on by a string bean, what with the Great Depression and all, so they went to George Pearce, the Minister of Defense, for help. It was an awkward request, asking the government to take down its own national bird, but Pearce approved the somewhat unpatriotic mission.

Armed with light machine guns, a Royal Australian Artillery unit marched upon the Campion countryside to put an end to the bulgy-eyed pests, but they found the task much harder than anticipated. The birds were incredibly fast, and their guns weren't cut out for long ranges. They decided to ambush the birds to get a closer shot, but miraculously, both machine guns jammed after taking down only 12 emu. To make matters worse, the emu seemed to be learning evasion tactics; as one commander noticed, "each pack seems to have its own leader now ... and keeps watch while his mates carry out their work of destruction and warns them of our approach." They then tried to shoot the emu from a truck but still failed to make a dent in their numbers, as the birds could take multiple bullets and still manage to run away before they were fatally harmed.

In the end, the military burned through 10,000 rounds of ammunition before giving up, having killed only about 1,000 emu. That’s right: The emu won the Great Emu War of 1932 (yes, it's really called that), and although farmers begged the military to return in the following years, the government refused to face the fearsome creatures again.

The Orroral Valley Fire viewed from Tuggeranong in southern Canberra. (Nick-D/Wikimedia Commons)

Fiery Future

Today, Australia is the 13th-largest economy in the world and home to over 25 million people, only a small fraction of whom are actually descended from the penal colonies, but it hasn't completely put its struggles behind it. In 2020, the nation faced one of its darkest hours as 20% of its forests burned, killing nearly 500 people and an estimated one billion animals. Amazing, the season now known as Black Summer isn't the worst wildfire in world—or even Australian—history. That honor goes to a 1939 wildfire in Victoria, Australia. Fortunately, Australia takes its wildlife very seriously and has made major strides in rehabilitating animals and their habitats. Even the emu.

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Grace Taylor