- Originally Terra Australis Incognita, or the unknown southern continent, Australia was first claimed for Britain by Captain James Cook on August 22, 1770. Although the Dutch navigator Tasman had first explored what is now Tasmania in the seventeenth century, and the French were active in eighteenth century Pacific exploration, the British claim to Australia and many adjacent islands was within a short number of decades widely accepted. The lack of competition from other Western powers and weakness of the Australian Aborigines made Australia a land more or less available for the taking: it became the prototypical colony of British settlement, a fact exemplified by the title of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s treatise on the theory of settlement, A Letter from Sydney.Facing overcrowded prisons, a dispossessed American loyalist population, and having lost in the war of American independence the ability to transport convicted felons there, the administration of Pitt the Younger was determined to establish a penal colony in Australia. The first colony of transported felons sailed from Portsmouth under Captain Arthur Phillip, RN, arriving at Botany Bay in New South Wales. Phillip selected the site of what is now Sydney for its qualities as an anchorage, and landed his small fleet there on January 26, 1788, now remembered as Australia Day, naming the place after Lord Sydney, then Home Secretary.Cook named his discovery New South Wales, and Britain claimed the entire coast inland to the 135th meridian, although the geography of that coast was poorly understood at the time. In 1829, Britain also laid claim to Western Australia. In the course of the nineteenth century, as exploration and settlement proceeded, regions were separated from New South Wales, to create the colonies of Van Dieman’s land in 1825, South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland on the northeastern coast in 1859.The first free settlers arrived in 1793. Tensions between free settlers, convicts, and freed convicts who had served out their sentences, and the military and official establishments charged with guarding the convicts shortly became the central feature of New South Wales politics. Popular resentment at the transportation system long characterized Australian attitudes to the mother country, and after much agitation it was abolished in New South Wales in 1854. In Western Australia, however, the local authorities welcomed convict labor, and from 1850 until the British abolished transportation altogether in 1868 that colony was a willing participant in a system decried elsewhere on the continent.Sheep were grazed in Australia from the early years of the nineteenth century, but it was only in the 1820s that significant quantities of high quality Australian wool were imported into Britain. By 1850, Australia had displaced European suppliers from the British wool trade. The economic incentives of the wool trade ensured that Australia soon filled with sheep. Although the colonial authorities were determined to keep settlement within official boundaries, so-called “squatters” moved outside the settled region in search of good grazing land. Although the term originally referred to small holders who simply took possession of unoccupied land, it soon came to refer to well-capitalized who took large numbers of sheep into the interior and established de facto but formally illegal claims to large tracts of grazing land. The state was compelled to recognize the legal status of the colonies’ economic mainstay, and regularize the position of the squatters.Gold was discovered in Victoria in 1851, and the discovery produced a rapid influx of miners and speculators, which led to some disorder, notably the Ballarat riots of 1854, rapidly put down by the authorities. Gold diggings and other mineral exploration contributed to the inflow of settlers, and hence indirectly to the building of railways and to the establishment in 1852 of a regular steamship service to Britain. By the 1870s, Australia attracted large amounts of British capital and a consequent railway boom. Victoria introduced protectionist legislation in the 1860s, and even under the united Commonwealth formed in 1901, protectionist feeling remained strong. Australians were often enthusiastic imperialists. They feared the expansion of other European powers in the Pacific, and attempted to implement an exclusionary Monroe-type doctrine in their region. There was a movement for the annexation of Fiji, and in 1882 the colony of Queensland annexed New Guinea, an act rapidly disallowed by the colonial office on the grounds that questions of international import were to be decided in London. On several occasions during the nineteenth century, Australia offered the mother country military forces to serve in imperial wars, and the several colonies sent a total of 16,000 men to serve in the Boer War of 1899–1902. The idea of an Australian federation had first been mooted by Earl Grey in the 1840s, but ran into many local objections, particularly with respect to fiscal policy, and even a movement for free trade among the various colonies could make little headway. A national convention to design a federal constitution met beginning in 1891 under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Parkes. Extended disputes as to the form and powers of the new federation ensued. A further convention in 1897–1898 completed the task of writing a constitution that provided for a House of Representatives and a Senate, and reserved to the states all powers not explicitly conferred on the federation. Chief among the latter were control of interstate and foreign commerce. The six Australian colonies and the Northern territory were united under a federal government as the Commonwealth of Australia on January 1, 1901, by an act of the Imperial Parliament.See also <
>; < >.FURTHER READING:Bolton, Geoffrey, ed. The Oxford History of Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996;Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. New York: Vintage, 1988;Walker, David. Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia, 1850-1939. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1999.MARK F. PROUDMAN
Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.