The Aboriginal people were the first inhabitants of the Australian continent. Most anthropologists believe they migrated to the continent at least 50,000 years ago, and occupied most of the continent by 30,000 years ago. Although Australia was not known to the Western world, it did exist in late medieval European logic and mythology: A great Southland, or Terra Australis, was thought necessary to balance the weight of the northern landmasses of Europe and Asia. In the 15th century, Portugal's navigation around Africa in pursuit of a trade route to India rekindled European interest in the region.
In the 16th and early 17th centuries, Spain, having established its empire in South and Central America, began a series of expeditions from Peru to the South Pacific. The most notable of these was by Luis Vaez de Torres in 1606, as he passed within sight of the Australian continent along the strait that now bears his name, between New Guinea and Australia. But Spanish interests were farther north in the Philippines, and the voyagers did not return.
It wasn’t until the invent of better ships and navigation, that Europeans were able to
overcome the challenges of sailing in the southern Pacific.
The 18th century in Western Europe ushered in the Age of Enlightenment, when philosophers and scientists stressed the value of global exploration. This led British explorers to voyage far and wide in search of new fauna and flora, a mission that well suited Britain's growing power as a maritime empire.
Although its general boundaries were becoming known, Australia appeared to be a remote and unattractive land for European settlement. But Britain's growing commercial and military ambitions in the Pacific, combined with its domestic social and political tensions, helped to draw Australia into the web of British strategic ambitions.
Australian soils and climate, with the recurrent droughts, were better suited for large-scale livestock grazing than for farming. During the 1830’s and 1840’s, the continent was rapidly transformed as squatters established huge sheep runs. Paying only a minimal license fee, squatters could claim virtually as much land as they wanted. From 1830 to 1850, wool exports rose from two million, to 41 million pounds, while the population of the colonies increased from 70,000 to 334,000. With new immigrants, and the growth of cities, the Australian colonies were poised to enter a new phase of development.
World War I (1914-1918), helped to create a sense of national identity in Australia. Responding to the allied call for troops, Australia sent more than 330,000 volunteers, who took part in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Suffering a casualty rate higher than that of many other participants, Australia became increasingly conscious of its contribution to the war effort.
However, the Great Depression that hit in 1929, cut deeply into the health of the Australian economy. Tremendous unemployment and staggering public and private debts produced hard times for the young nation.
Upon assuming responsibility for its own foreign affairs, Australia was guided by its cultural and political ties with Britain. Emphasis was placed on following Britain's leadership in solving the problems of the depression.
The elections of 1941, returned the Labor Party to power for the first time since 1931, and John Curtin became prime minister. British Singapore, long regarded as one of the world's strongest fortresses, fell to Japanese forces in February 1942, and shortly thereafter Britain's Royal Navy suffered defeat in the Pacific. In March, Japanese forces occupied the Dutch East Indies, and landed on New Guinea. Japanese bombers raided Darwin several times, and Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbor. Soon, Britain was no longer able to supply naval protection to Australia. Although Australian casualties were lighter than in World War I, Australians were more psychologically affected by World War II because they feared Japanese invasion.
Australian industry was again transformed by the needs of war. The economy was redirected toward manufacturing, with heavy industries ringed the major cities.
After World War II, Australia remained active in the Western military alliances, contributing troops to the Korean Conflict (1950-1953), and the Vietnam War (1959-1975), as a staunch ally of the United States.
Beginning in the late 1960’s, Australia experienced the waves of cultural change that swept through many of the Western democracies: the coming of political age of the postwar baby boomers, movements for women's liberation, indigenous rights, and a growing awareness of environmental issues.
Among the larger cultural issues with which Australia grappled with in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, was the question of Aboriginal land rights. Like other colonial countries such as Canada, Australia was challenged to address the land claims of the indigenous inhabitants of the country, who had been largely ignored for centuries. In 1992, in the historic Mabo v. Queensland case, the High Court of Australia ruled that the people of the Murray Islands, in the Torres Strait, held title to their land, thereby acknowledging that Australia was occupied at the time of European settlement. In 1993, the government passed an act allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to file land claims.
By the early 1990’s, public opinion polls showed that most Australians favored the establishment of a federal republic, with an Australian president replacing the British monarch as head of state. Prime Minister Keating had placed himself at the head of the republican movement, but by 1996, many electors perceived him as arrogant, and his government as out of touch with the electorate.
Campaigning on a platform of economic reform, and directing its appeal to the ‘battlers,’ - the disenchanted working class electors of the ‘bush’ and outer suburbs - the Liberal-National coalition won solid majorities in both houses of parliament.