The first human habitation of Australia is estimated to have occurred between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago. The first Australians were the ancestors of the current Indigenous Australians; they arrived via land bridges and short sea-crossings from present-day Southeast Asia. Most of these people were hunter-gatherers, with a complex oral culture and spiritual values based on reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. The Torres Strait Islanders, ethnically Melanesian, inhabited the Torres Strait Islands and parts of far-north Queensland; they possess distinct cultural practices from the Aborigines.
The first undisputed recorded European sighting of the Australian continent was made by the Dutch navigator Willem Jansz, who sighted the coast of Cape York Peninsula in 1606. During the 17th century, the Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines of what they called New Holland, but made no attempt at settlement. In 1770, James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast of Australia, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Britain. The expedition’s discoveries provided impetus for the establishment of a penal colony there following the loss of the American colonies that had previously filled that role.
The British Crown Colony of New South Wales started with the establishment of a settlement at Port Jackson by Captain Arthur Phillip on 26 January 1788. This date was later to become Australia’s national day, Australia Day. Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania, was settled in 1803 and became a separate colony in 1825.
Britain formally claimed the western part of Australia in 1829. Separate colonies were created from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory (NT) was founded in 1863 as part of the Province of South Australia. Victoria and South Australia were founded as “free colonies” â€” that is, they were never penal colonies, although the former did receive some convicts from Tasmania. Western Australia was also founded “free”, but later accepted transported convicts due to an acute labour shortage. The transportation of convicts to Australia was phased out between 1840 and 1868.
The Indigenous Australian population, estimated at about 350,000 at the time of European settlement, declined steeply for 150 years following settlement, mainly because of infectious disease, and forced migration, the removal of children and other colonial government policies, that some historians and Indigenous Australians have argued could be considered to constitute genocide by today’s understanding. Such interpretations of Aboriginal history are disputed by some as being exaggerated or fabricated for political or ideological reasons.
This debate is known within Australia as the History Wars. Following the 1967 referendum, the Federal government gained the power to implement policies and make laws with respect to Aborigines. Traditional ownership of land â€” native title â€” was not recognised until the High Court case Mabo v Queensland (No 2) overturned the notion of Australia as terra nullius at the time of European occupation.