Today, Australia plays a significant part on the world stage and is recognized as an advanced country with a strong economy, high quality of life, and good standards of civil liberties.
But 'Australian society' as we know it only began in the eighteenth century when it was colonized by the British – famously as a prison colony. They weren’t close to being the first people there, though, as Australia’s indigenous population had lived happily on the land for about 50,000 years. This clash of cultures inevitably led to many shocking conflicts and surprising developments over the years that followed.
The story of Australia’s colonization, however, isn’t well known outside of Australia itself, and so here are fifteen surprising facts that will help you understand just how this sizable country came to be, and who suffered along the way...
15 The Dutch Actually Got There First
If the question of who discovered Australia came up in a trivia quiz, a lot of people would go with Captain Cook. But the truth is, more than fifty European ships had made landfall on Australian soil before Cook even set off.
In the early 1600s, European sailors started exploring the Pacific waters around Australia, referring to it as ‘Terra Australia Incognito’ – which means ‘unknown land of the south.’ It was the Dutch who planted their feet on the new land first, as the Dutch East India Company had been trading with the islands that now make up Indonesia and decided to have a nosey around the not-too-far-away Australia.
In 1629, the Dutch ship Duyfken, captained by Willem Janszoon, became the first to chart part of Australia’s coastline – specifically, the west coast of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsular – and to make contact with Aboriginal people. Several other ships had a look at different bits of the coast in the following decades – and it was still a century before Cook would get there!
14 So Why Does Captain Cook Get All The Credit?
He may not have been the first westerner to plant his feet on Australian soil, but James Cook’s voyages directly led to the colonization by the British.
A captain in the Royal Navy, Cook had served in both the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolutionary War, during which he’d taken time out from shooting Americans to map out the entrance to Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River. This brought Cook to the attention of the British Admiralty, who put him in charge of the HMS Endeavour and sent him off on three voyages around the Pacific.
During these voyages, not only did he map out New Zealand and Hawaii, but, in 1770, he set foot on Australia’s eastern coastline – he was the first European to do that, at least. Here he discovered an area he named Botany Bay, which he would recommend to the British colonists as a good place to land.
13 Almost Half The First Fleet Were Convicts
Seventeen years after Cook discovered Botany Bay, on May 13th, 1787, a fleet of eleven ships left England – the First Fleet which would begin the colonization of Australia. Under the command of Commodore Arthur Phillip, these ships carried 1530 people – 736 of whom were convicts.
Before the founding of Australia, ships of convicts had been sent to the Thirteen Colonies in North America. However, after the American War of Independence and the founding of the United States, the Americans were no longer keen on accepting any more convicts, and so a new place to send them had to be found. This was Australia.
But though this was motivated by the overcrowding of the British prison system, the convicts weren't sent there just because it was somewhere to put them – that would be way too expensive. Rather, the convicts, many of them facing seven-year sentences for trivial crimes, were chosen because they were skilled tradesmen or farmers and could help build the infrastructure of the new colony.
12 Mutiny, Rats, Violent Seas – The First Fleet’s Troubled Voyage
The journey of the First Fleet took around 250 days, and it wasn’t all plain sailing. Only one week after they’d set sail, word got out about a planned mutiny on one of the convict ships, and those involved were flogged. Apart from this, however, the convicts were well behaved – but the weather was not.
Hot and humid conditions caused a lot of trouble as the ships sailed through the tropics. The ships became infested by rats, cockroaches, bedbugs and more, but the convicts couldn’t go above deck as their only clothes would be drenched by tropical rainstorms and they had no way to dry them, meaning they had to suffer in the cramped and smelly conditions below deck.
And in the final two months of the voyage, dangerous weather conditions and violent seas antagonized the fleet. At one point, a seaman was blown from a ship’s deck and drowned during the night. Adding to this, supplies were running low. All on board – sailors and convicts alike – must have ben relieved when they finally reached land in January 1788.
11 Botany Bay Wasn’t As Good As Expected
As if not actually being the first guy to go to Australia wasn’t enough to make you disappointed in Captain Cook, it turned out that his precious Botany Bay was a bit rubbish, too.
After the First Fleet arrived, they immediately ran into trouble when the waters were too shallow for the ships to actually get close to the shore. Nevertheless, Commodore Phillip set up his colony here, as Cook had recommended. But he soon came to realize some other ways in which Botany Bay wasn’t such a paradise. The bay was open and unprotected, fresh water was scarce, and the soil was poor. Oh, and the huts built for the officers kept falling down in rainstorms.
Phillip was authorized to pick a better location if he needed to, and so ventured further north. Just twelve miles away, he found Port Jackson, which had shelter, deep water close to the shore, fresh water, and fertile soil. Perfect! The fleet was moved here after spending only a week in Botany Bay.
10 The First Contact With Indigenous Australians
Australia had a large indigenous population at the time (though it wouldn’t stay that large, as we’ll soon find out) and so it didn’t take long for the settlers of the First Fleet to make the first contact with the locals.
Upon landing at Botany Bay, the settlers were witnessed by the Cadigal people of the area, and several members of the fleet had encounters with these people. And when they moved north to Port Jackson, they encountered the Eora people. The official policy of the British Government was to establish friendly relations with these Aboriginals, and Commodore Phillip was set on following this policy, ordering his people to treat them well.
Nevertheless, conflicts soon emerged, as the British didn’t understand the Aboriginals’ relationship with the land and the Aboriginals were understandably annoyed at these new people coming along and claiming ownership of their territory. It would lead to much serious trouble further down the line...
9 The French Found It Less Than A Week After The Brits
Maybe colony fleets are like buses – for ages, it seems like none are coming, and then two show up at once. It certainly proved problematic for the British fleet when, on 24th January 1788, just six days after they’d arrived at Botany Bay, an expedition of two French ships arrived at the same location.
With that typically British blend of politeness and passive aggression, Commodore Phillip didn’t greet the leader of the French expedition, Admiral Jean-François de La Pérouse, himself, but sent one of his men to offer assistance. The French pointed out that they were actually better provisioned and offered assistance back. Both sides refused. It was very awkward.
La Pérouse hung around the area until March and then headed off, never to bother Botany Bay again. Other French expeditions had a look at various bits of Australia over the next few years, but the flag had been planted and Australia was part of the British Empire.
8 Female Convicts Were Forced Into Prostitution
Being sent across the world for a minor crime you committed is a bad deal for anyone, but it was even worse if you happened to be a woman. In order to establish a new society, many of the convicts sent over to Australia were female, but conditions for them were tough.
Whereas the men were either allowed to carry out a trade such as stonemasonry or assigned manual labor jobs such as building roads, the women were either made to act as domestic servants for settlers or to labor in the workhouse-like ‘female factories’. These women had to find their own accommodation and weren’t paid nearly enough, however, leading many of them to pay for their housing with sexual services.
As it happened, however, not every woman classed as a prostitute actually engaged in prostitution... some other women found partners among the male settlers, but those who lived with their men without getting married were officially classed as prostitutes. Back in the 18th century, the British could be quite uptight about those kinds of things...
7 Colonists Spread Smallpox To Aboriginals – Possibly On Purpose
If you’ve ever spent time in a new city, you may have found yourself getting ill because of a local strain of disease your body's not accustomed to. Imagine that problem, but much, much worse, and you can start to understand what happened when the British colonists came into contact with the Aboriginals.
The British settlers brought along with them diseases such as measles, influenza, and, worst of all, smallpox. These were all new to the Aboriginals, and so they had no built-up resistance and were incredibly vulnerable. Indigenous populations were annihilated, to the extent that, within fourteen months of the First Fleet’s arrival, half of the indigenous people of the Sydney region had been killed by smallpox.
Worse – some researchers have speculated that this may have been a deliberate move on the part of the British, either through a conspiracy to clear the territory for colonial expansion or as an act of revenge by a group of settlers who’d been attacked by Aboriginals.
6 Australia’s First City is Still Its Biggest
After the colonists had settled in Port Jackson, Commodore Phillip – soon promoted to Governor Phillip, the first Governor of the state of New South Wales – came up with a new name for the town being built: Sydney Cove.
This was in fact named after the 1st Baron Sydney, the British Home Secretary at the time, who had played a part in planning the establishment of the Australian colony. The town of Sydney soon grew, with roads and bridges being built and more settlers being shipped over. By the time convict transportation ended in 1840, there were 35,000 people living there. Trading in wool allowed it to avoid becoming isolated from other countries.
This, of course, is the same Sydney that is the most populous country in Australia today. The iconic Sydney Harbour, with the world-famous opera house that opened in 1973, is the same harbor – also known as Port Jackson – into which Phillip and his men sailed.
5 The Convict Rebellion Of 1804
There was only one major occasion on which convicts attempted to rebel against the British authorities, but it was one which ended dramatically. On March 4th, 1804, Philip Cunningham, a veteran of an earlier Irish rebellion, led a force of 233 convicts in an escape from a prison camp in the Castle Hill area.
They then broke into government buildings and stole firearms. Their plan after this was to recruit more convicts from nearby areas and march on the towns of Parramatta and Sydney. From Sydney, Cunningham planned to steal ships and sail to his home country of Ireland, where he wanted to revive the rebellion against the British.
It didn’t work out, however. Martial law was declared and troops set off from Sydney to capture the rebels. After the takeover of Parramatta failed, Cunningham and his army found themselves outnumbered by the colonial forces. Supposedly under a flag of truce, Cunningham was arrested. When a battle broke out, the rebels fled, but all were eventually captured, and their leaders executed.
4 Frontier Violence
With the British colonists invading their land and treating them as ‘primitives’ and ‘barbaric’, it’s no wonder the Aboriginals fought back. In the early days of the colonies, settlers would often come under attack by small groups of the indigenous population, who would use guerilla tactics to defend their land.
Predictably, the colonists fought back, and the violence committed against the Aboriginals was often horrific, even massacring them by driving groups off cliffs or through mass shootings. Many colonists also sexually abused indigenous women, adding sexually transmitted infections to the list of killer diseases they’d spread.
Despite their less advanced weaponry and technology, however, the Aboriginals sometimes won out due to their knowledge of the land. When an Aboriginal called Pemulway speared a frontier man as revenge for killing his people, Governor Phillip sent out a force to kill ten Aboriginals and capture two, hoping to scare them into submission. Fifty soldiers headed out, but their poor bush navigation skills gave away their presence, and they came back without having found a single Aboriginal.
3 The Attempt To Make Peace... Through Kidnap
Despite all this violence, Governor Phillip still hoped to find a way for the colonists and the indigenous people to live in harmony. His great plan to do so was to kidnap some of them. Two members of the Eora people, Bennelong and Colbee, were captured and taken to the Sydney Cove settlement in order for Phillip and his men to learn about the indigenous language and culture and to pass on knowledge of their own.
Initially, this didn’t go too well. Colbee escaped, never seen again by the Brits, and then Bennelong made a run for it too. But Bennelong got back in touch with Phillip, wanting to, as a free man, act as an ambassador between the two societies. Bennelong maintained good relations with the colony, learning to speak English, and was even brought on a trip to England, where he allegedly met King George III.
Though he would have been well within his rights to refuse to cooperate with those who’d invaded his land and kidnapped him, Bennelong’s actions paved the way for better understanding of Aboriginal culture.
2 A Military Coup Took Over The Colony
The most successful assault on the colonial authorities came not from rebellious convicts or Aboriginals defending their land, but from a military coup. In 1908, the Governor of New South Wales was a man named William Bligh.
Bligh was not popular among the New South Wales Corps, the military force of the area, having accused them of corruption and incompetence, and had also made enemies by stifling rum traffic. When he arrested former corps officer John Macarthur for violation of port regulations, this was the last straw. Macarthur allied with Major George Johnston, who sent soldiers to Government House to depose Bligh.
The Corps kept control of the colony for two years, at which point the British Government had them replaced by a different military and sent to a new Governor. Bligh was vindicated, but losing the colony was another black mark on his resumé, which already included losing control of the HMS Bounty in a famous mutiny – that guy just couldn’t keep control of anything.
1 90% Of Earth's Oldest Civilization Were Killed
A recent DNA study concluded that Australia's Aboriginals are the oldest civilization on Earth, having populated the land for around 50,000 years. Between 1788 and 1900, however, ninety percent of them were wiped out, due to a combination of conflict with the colonists and the diseases they’d brought along.
In 1856, the journalist Edward Wilson wrote: "In less than twenty years we have nearly swept them off the face of the earth. We have shot them down like dogs. In the guise of friendship, we have issued corrosive sublimate in their damper and consigned whole tribes to the agonies of an excruciating death ... We have made them outcasts on their own land, and are rapidly consigning them to entire annihilation."
Though the worst of the atrocities are consigned to history, they have had a long-lasting effect on the indigenous people, who today number around 670,000 – three percent of Australia’s population. The twentieth century saw the Aboriginals begin to gain more rights as part of Australian society, but it took until 2010 for an Aboriginal to be elected to the Australian Parliament, and discrimination is still a problem.