Country Digest

Australian history timeline

This Australian history timeline covers all of the major events of Australia's 40,000 year history - from the first arrival of aboriginal Australians tens of thousands of years ago, right up to the 21st century.

Click on any of the entries in the timeline below to read a more detailed explanation. 

40,000 BC - First Aborigines arrive in Australia


Thanks to archaeological records, we know that the first people to set foot on the continent of Australia arrived somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago, towards the end of the Pleistocene era

At that time, sea levels were lower than they are today and New Guinea was joined to Australia. The first arrivals are thought to have come initially by sea, hopping from island to island in what is today Indonesia.

Over time, these settlers expanded across the entire Australian landmass, although the population was highest in the Southern and Eastern parts of the continent. They developed a sophisticated stone-age society, based on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

By the time the late eighteenth century, when the first European settlers began to arrive, the indigenous population of Australia was approximately 350,000 - 750,000 people, divided into what is thought to have been at least 250 different nations each with their own language. Within a hundred years, European settlers’ dominance of Australia was complete, although a few isolated tribes did survive with little to no contact well into the twentieth century.

The last tribe to give up it’s nomadic lifestyle - the Pintupi Nine of the Gibson Desert - did so only in 1984.

1606 - First European landfall in Australia


The first European person to set foot on the territory of present day Australia was Willem Janszoon, Dutch captain of the Duyfken. On 26 February 1606 he, and a number of un-named members of his icketew, landed at the mouth of what is today known as the Pennefather River in Queensland.

He had mistakenly thought he was landing on a southerly part of the island of New Guinea and named the territory Nieu Zeland – a name that was later adopted by some islands to the East…

Other European sailors, usually attached to the Dutch East India Company, returned to Australia at intermittent intervals over the following century and a half. No attempts were made to settle during this period, but much of the Australian coastline was mapped and there was some small scale trading with aboriginal people.

However, information about the newly discovered continent was not shared widely and, for most Europeans, Australia remained a mythical ‘Southern Continent.’

1770 - James Cook lands and claims Australia for the British Empire


In 1769, Lieutenant James Cook (not, as is commonly thought, Captain James Cook), took command of HMS Endeavour and set sail for the island of Tahiti.

Officially, his mission was to make astronomical observations, but really Cook had been given a secret mission by the British Admiralty. His role was to find out whether the ‘Southern Continent’ was real and, if it was, to chart it and claim its territory for the British Empire.

Captain Cook's route

Cook and his crew first sighted Australia on 19 April 1770 and, ten days later on 29 April 1770, landed for the first time at Botany Bay. Five months later, on 22 August 1770, Cook formally claimed the territory of Australia for King George III and the British Empire, naming it New South Wales.

Other European powers also laid claim to parts of Australia - for example, the French claimed Western Australia in 1772 and Sweden briefly planned a colony at Swan River - but none of them followed up on their claims with an actual attempt to settle.

The British, however, did…

1788 - First fleet of convicts arrives in Australia


On 13 May 1787 a fleet of eleven ships set sail from Portsmouth. Two Royal Navy escort ships, three supply ships and six transport ships filled with crew, marines and more than eight hundred convicts, all bound for the new British territory of Australia.

Although they first landed at Botany Bay on 18 January 1770, Captain Arthur Phillip quickly deemed the land there unsuitable for habitation and, instead, set up the first colony in Australia at Sydney Cove. 

More ships filled with convicts followed and, by the time the last convict arrived in Australia in 1868, over 130,000 men and 25,000 women had been transported to Australia’s penal colonies.

The first free settlers arrived in 1793, and began building a life alongside the convicts. But, for the first thirty five years of its existence New South Wales remained primarily a penal colony.

1851 - Australian gold rush begins


Although colonists had know for many years that gold existed in Australia, the discovery of five flecks by Edward Hargreaves in 1851 led to a gold rush to rival the earlier California gold rushes.

Within months, hundreds of diggers had flocked to Bathurst, the site of Hargreaves’ discovery. Other gold sites were discovered throughout Victoria and New South Wales, and the first diggers were followed by tens of thousands more miners, plus other settlers to support them.

Within a decade, more than a third of the world’s gold was being mined in Australia, a country that was suddenly becoming very rich.

The gold rush also led to discontent and violence. Heavy handed taxes imposed by the government caused anger and, in December 1854, the diggers simmering anger boiled over into the Eureka Rebellion, a conflict that would shape Australia’s democratic future.

More than a thousand diggers gathered in Eureka, demanding a reduction in the cost of mining licences, an end to government harassment, and calling for an end to taxation without representation.

The government’s response was swift, and violent. The diggers were overrun and more than 30 were killed in what as known as the battle of Eureka Stockade.

Although the battle was lost, the government recognised that changes were needed and a sweeping programme of reforms was implemented the next year, including the introduction of voting rights for miners. Because of this, the Eureka rebellion is celebrated as a key moment in Australian history. Mark Twain, visiting years later, remarked:

It was a revolution—small in size; but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression … It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle.

Mark Twain

An indication of just how important the Gold Rush was to Australia’s development can be seen in Australia's population statistics. In just a decade, the colony’s population almost trebled - growing from 405,000 in 1850 to 1.1 million in 1860.

1877 - Australia and England play the first cricket test match


Australia has the distinction of being host to the first ever test match, contested between Australia and England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground - a ground which, even in 1877, was large enough to warrant a grandstand.

Opening batsman Charles Bannerman led Australia from the front. He scored test cricket’s first ever run and its first century before retiring hurt on a score of 165, helping Australia to a respectable first innings total of 245.

England, led by James Lillywhite, had been favourites to win the match but its batsmen, sadly missing the strength of the legendary W.G. Grace, could not match their hosts. They fell short with a first innings total of 196. Although England out-scored Australia by 108 to 104 in the second innings, it was not enough to prevent the first of many English defeats on Australian soil.

The Ashes were first used as a trophy in matches between the two countries after England’s first defeat on home soil, five years later in August 1882. The Sporting Times posted a mock obituary of English cricket: “The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”

A small urn, containing the ashes of one of the bails, was duly taken to Australia and, since 1883, cricket teams representing Australia and England have fought for the honour of retaining the Ashes.  

1901 - The Commonwealth of Australia is founded


Half a world away from Britain, home of the British Empire, the Australian colonies could only function if they had a great deal of autonomy.

Over time, as the number of people born in Australia gradually became the majority of all people living in Australia and technological advances such as the telegraph allowed speedy communication between the various Australian colonies, calls for increased autonomy and self government became irresistible.

Australia's first constitutional convention was held in 1891, in Sydney. Representatives of each of the six colonies, plus New Zealand, gathered together to develop constitution that could be used by a federation of the Australian states and New Zealand.

Although New Zealand dropped out of the process early on, enough progress had been made by the time of the second (1897-98) convention to produce a draft constitution which, after some further amendments, was ratified by referendums in each of the six colonies.

The next step was to return to London. In July 1900, the House of Parliament debated, and then passed the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act. Several days later, on 9 July 1900, Queen Victoria signed the Act into law.

  Read more about Australia's constitution...

You can read the Australian constitution on the Parliament of Australia website. Or, because it is also technically still a law in Britain as well, you can also read it on the UK Parliament website!

The Commonwealth of Australia came into existence on 1 January 1901. From that point on, although it was still technically a colony of the British Empire, Australia effectively had self-government and full autonomy over its own affairs.

The last formal ties with the United Kingdom were severed in 1986 when the Australian Parliament and the UK Parliament both based the Australia Act. Click here to jump to the section about the Australia Act.

1911 - Canberra, Australia's capital city, is founded


One of the first things any new country needs to have is a capital city.

Although Australia’s first capital city was, because of necessity, Melbourne, this was not a good long term solution.

The problem was that no-one really wanted the capital of Australia to be in either of its two largest cities - Sydney or Melbourne.

Leaving aside the political problem of choosing one of these two rival cities over the other, they were both hot in summer, and too close to the coast for comfort.

The solution? Create a new city entirely from scratch in a location that is both temperate and safe from sea bombardment, and make it the nations capital.

An enclave of land in New South Wales, known as Canberra-Yass was chosen, the Australian Capital Territory was formed, and a competition was launched to design a new model city.

Construction began shortly afterwards and, by 9 May 1927, Canberra was ready for the opening of the Provisional Parliament House (today known as Old Parliament House).

Today, Canberra is home to 380,000 people. It remains the seat of Australia’s Government and Australia’s Capital City.

1914 - The First World War begins


The First World War was Australia’s first major military conflict, and the one that has had the most profound impact on its society.

From Gallipoli in Turkey, to the Western Front in France and Belgium, thousands of Australian men fought and died on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East. Of the 331,781 Australian men who served, 152,284 (almost half) were injured and 60,284 (one in five) died. 

Australia’s first involvement in the war was the hastily assembled Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. Two thousands sailors and soldiers set sail from Sydney on 19 August 1914, just two weeks after the declaration of war, in a successful mission to capture German New Guinea.

Troops of the First Australian Imperial Force were then quickly assembled and sent north to Europe and the Middle East.

In the early years of the war, most Australians were based in Egypt, to fight against the threat posed by the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The Gallipoli campaign the first major campaign of the war. On 25 April 1915, thousands of soldiers from Australia and New Zealand (ANZACs), alongside others from Britain, India and France, landed on the peninsula of Gallipoli. Their ultimate goal was to defeat the Ottoman Empire, and capture Constantinople, its capital city.

The campaign was, from start to finish, a disaster. Allied forces quickly became bogged down and, after eight months of brutal fighting, were forced to withdraw. By the end of a campaign that the Sydney Morning Herald called Australia’s “Baptism of Fire”, almost 8,000 Australian soldiers had been killed, alongside more than 50,000 troops from Britain, France and other parts of the Empire.

Australian soldiers also fought on the Western Front, taking part in the brutal trench warfare that characterised the first world war. In total, more than 40,000 Australian soldiers lost their lives on the Western Front.

The bloodiest single day of the war for Australia came on the night of 19th and 20th July 1916 at the Battle of Fromelles in Northern France. In a period of just 24 hours Australian forces suffered 5,533 casualties as they attempted, and failed, to capture territory from the Germans.

The impact of the First World War on Australia was immense, particularly the Gallipoli Campaign, which has become an enduring symbol of Australia's national identity. Although it was a massive military defeat, it singled Australia’s coming of age as a nation and Australia’s soldiers are celebrated for showing the Anzac Spirit - the courage, determination and mateship that defines Australia today.

1939 - The Second World War begins


After standing down the bulk of its military after the First World War, Australia was underprepared for the Second. When Australia declared war on Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, its regular army numbered just 3,000 troops

Military strength was quickly ramped up to almost a million servicemen and women. In total 575,799 Australians served overseas during World War 2 - that’s almost one in every ten Australians at the time.

Casualties were much lower than in the first world war - 39,429 Australians died in the Second World War, and 66,563 were injured

More than a hundred Australian pilots also fought alongside the RAF during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

More difficult defensive battles were to follow. Australians were heavily involved in fighting in Greece and, in particular, the lost Battle of Crete in May 1941. The same summer, however, 14,000 soldiers held firm under a five month German siege of Tobruk - their determined defence earning them the name ‘Rats of Tobruk’.

Because Australia had committed the bulk of its military forces to the conflict in Europe and North Africa, it was not well prepared to resist the Japanese advance in the Pacific in 1942.

In the months following the raid on Pearl Harbour, a lack of airpower, naval power and manpower meant that Australian and British Empire strongholds throughout the Pacific fell one after the other. After a disorganised, determined, and desperate last stand in Singapore, 80,000 allied soldiers, including 15,000 Australians, were taken as Japanese Prisoners of War.

Dozens air raids on northern Australian towns brought the war to Australian territory - between 900 and 1,100 people were killed in the Darwin air raid of 19 February 1942. These raids, combined with a Japanese invasion of New Guinea, prompted fears that a Japanese invasion of Australia itself was planned.

With Britain pre-occupied in Europe, Australia turned to Washington for support in the Pacific War. A deal was swiftly agreed which put Australian forces under the command of US General Douglas MacArthur. By 1943 there were more American troops in Australia than there were Australian troops.

Australian troops focused on pushing the Japanese from New Guinea - a feat which, in the face of dogged Japanese resistance was only achieved in April 1944, while the Americans focused on attacking Japan’s new Pacific islands strongholds.

As a part of the deal with America, Australia also scaled back its direct military involvement in the overall conflict. Instead, it focused on boosting production of military weaponry and supplies for allied troops engaged elsewhere.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Australia took over responsibility for administering territories such as Borneo and Lombok, and for guarding more than 300,000 Japanese who had been stranded across the Pacific by the Allied advance. Many Australian troops continued to serve overseas for a time, but demobilisation of the Australian army was rapid and completed by February 1947.

1948 - 'Populate or Perish' - Australia's new immigration policy


Between 1945 and 1965 over two million immigrants came to Australia. They travelled from all over the world, mostly from a Europe scarred by years of conflict. Together, they changed Australia forever.

In the aftermath of the second world war, Australia had two problems.

The first was that its economy, especially its manufacturing economy, had grown massively during the war. People were needed to work in the factories - more people than Australia had.

The second was that the resource rich, but sparsely populated, territories of Australia had looked incredibly appealing to other powers - not least the Japanese. "Populate or Perish" was the catchy slogan of Authur Calwell, Australia’s first Minister for Immigration.

The solution was to open up immigration to people from across Europe, as well as to British migrants. Victims of European conflict became the first priority and, between 1947 and 1953, Australia accepted over 170,000 displaced persons.

The policy was helped by a decision taken in Britain and other parts of its Empire, to change the law so that residents of countries like Australia and New Zealand would, instead of being British citizens, become Australian citizens, or New Zealand citizens. The British Nationality Act 1948 and the Australian Citizenship Act 1948 each came into force on 26 January 1949, and the first Australian citizens were created.

Displaced migrants from Europe were followed by economic migrants from Britain and the rest of Europe. Any Britain who could pay ten pounds (leading to the nickname ‘Ten Pound Toms’) could emigrate to Australia. And hundreds of thousands came from other countries in Europe - the most popular countries of origin for 1950s migrants were Italy, Germany, Holland and Greece. 

Almost all migrants to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s were white - immigrants from non-white countries were strongly discouraged for many years. Those that did come - for example, from the pacific islands, faced discrimination. The White Australia policy began to be abandoned in the 1960s, and today the majority of immigrants to Australia come from Asia.

1956 - Melbourne hosts the Olympic Games


The 1956 Melbourne Olympics were a global statement of Australia’s new found confidence. As host to the first Olympics ever to be held outside of Europe or the United States, Melbourne gave Australia a showcase on the world stage.

The Olympic Committee had been keen to take the Olympics to a new region, and Melbourne beat Buenos Aires of Argentina in the contest to host the Games by a narrow margin of just 21 votes to 20.  

The ‘Friendly Games’ as they were called, drew 3,314 athletes from 72 nations, to compete in 17 different sports. With thirteen gold medals, eight silver medals and fourteen bronze medals, Australia came third in the 1956 Olympic medal table behind only the Soviet Union (37 golds) and the United States (32 golds).

The Melbourne Cricket Ground was the main stadium for the 1956 Games, host to the opening and closing ceremonies, the athletics events, and the finals of the football and hockey tournaments.

Some facts about the Melbourne Olympic Games

  • The MCG was not only host to the main events. An exhibition baseball game at the stadium attracted an estimated 102,000 spectators!
  • The infamous Blood in the Water water polo match was played in Melbourne. The game became so violent that police were called in to restore order.
  • ​The 1956 closing ceremony marked the first occasion where teams marched together, instead of in groups divided by country.
  • All of the equestrian events at the 1956 Olympics were actually held in Stockholm, Sweden, several months earlier. This is because strict import rules barred competitors from bringing their horses to Australia.

1971 - Neville Bonner becomes Australia's first aboriginal Senator


One of the more shameful aspects of Australia’s history is that <a href="http://www.aec.gov.au/indigenous/history.htm">it wasn’t until the 1960s that all aboriginal people were entitled to vote in elections</a>.

Although limited voting rights were extended to indigenous Australians in the late 19th centuries, the ‘White Australia’ policy had rolled back many of these advances. Supported by the 1901 Commonwealth Franchise Act, almost all Aboriginal people were prevented from voting in elections.

These rules were relaxed slightly in 1949, when Aboriginal people who had served in the military were granted the right to vote, but it was not until 1965 that the franchise was extended to all Aboriginals in Australia.

Neville Bonner became the first indigenous Australian to sit in the Federal Parliament when, on 11 June 1971, he was appointed by the Liberal Party to fill a vacant seat in the Senate. Bonner was re-elected in competitive elections in 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1980, going on to serve as Senator for Queensland until February 1983.

As an activist Senator, Bonner was prepared to cross the floor and vote against his own party when he deemed it necessary - an approach that won him both respect and political enemies. In his first Senate speech, on 8 September, he said that he would play “the role which my State of Queensland, my race, my background, my political beliefs, my knowledge of men and circumstances dictate.”

Bonner’s lack of party loyalty was probably a factor in the Liberal Party’s decision not to select him as a candidate in the 1983 elections. He went on to unsuccessfully fight the 1983 election as an independent candidate.

Bonner was named Australian of the Year in 1979

Neville Bonner remains one of only five indigenous Australians to have served in Australia’s Federal Parliament - the others are Aden Ridgeway (Democrat, Senator, New South Wales), Ken Wyatt (Liberal, MP, Hasluck, Western Australia), Nova Peris (Labor, Senator, Northern Territory) and Joanna Lindgren (LNP, Senator, Queensland).

1966 - The Australia Act - independence from Britain


Although, by 1986, Australia had been effectively independent of the United Kingdom for many years, it was still technically possible for the UK to pass laws that would apply in Australia. It was also possible for legal appeals to be heard at the UK’s Privy Council, rather than in Australia.

To prevent this from ever happening, the Australia Act 1986 was introduced. In the same way as other laws that would separate the UK and Australia (for example, the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act and the Australian Citizenship Act 1948, both of which are discussed earlier in this article) the Australia Act 1986 was passed in both England and Australia. 

The Act made it impossible for any UK laws to be introduced in Australia. The Act also made it impossible for constitutional appeals to be heard in the UK’s Privy Council - instead, the High Court of Australia became the final venue for all appeals.

Despite this, the Queen remains Australia’s head of state. She is represented in Australia by the Governor General. Although the Queen and Governor General’s powers are mostly ceremonial, they do still technically have the right to appoint or dismiss the Prime Minister, and to dissolve the House of Representatives. These powers have only once been used unilaterally - in the Australian Constitutional Crisis of 1975, also known as ‘The Dismissal'.

Australia held a referendum in 1999 to consider whether it should replace the Queen as head of state and replace her with a President. The vote was lost, with 55% of Australians voting against the proposal, and 45% voting for it.

Many people still believe that Australia should become a republic, although Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s Prime Minister, said in 2015 that he did not believe any changes were likely until after the end of the Queen’s reign.

You can read a good overview of republicanism in Australia here

1993 - Native Title Act grants land rights to indigenous Australians


Although indigenous Australians were, as their name suggests, in Australia first, for centuries they did not have any right to land or waters that they had originally owned or used.

Land rights for indigenous Australians became a topical issue in the 1960s, when Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory began to protest against the use of their traditional land, largely for mining. As a result, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 was passed. It gave indigenous Australians increased rights over their lands - but only in the Northern Territory.

In the 1980s, public and political opinion began to recognise the importance of land rights. A set of principles was outlined in 1983, but then quickly dropped in 1985 under pressure from mining companies.

Pressure continued to build on the government but it wasn’t until 1993, when the Native Title Act was introduced, that Australia finally had a “national system for the recognition and protection of native title.”

The Act sets out a clear legal process which native Australians can use to prove that they have title to land based on traditional law and custom, rather than formal ownership documents. It also compels the Social Justice Commissioner to prepare a report about native rights each year.

2000 - Sydney hosts the Olympic Games


If the 1956 Melbourne Olympics announced Australia’s arrival on the world stage, the 2000 Sydney Olympics demonstrated Australia’s maturity and self-confidence.

Cathy Freeman was the undoubted star of the Games for Australia. She lit the Olympic Torch at the opening ceremony, going some way to demonstrating Australia’s increased comfort with its multi-cultural heritage. The Guardian newspaper called Freeman "a symbol of Australia's edgy transformation from the white male-dominated imperial outpost that staged the 1956 Olympics to the multicultural melting pot of 2000."

And then, as if that wasn’t enough, on an unforgettable night Freeman blazed her way to a gold medal in the 400 metres final. She remains, to this day, the only person to have lit the Olympic flame and to have won an Olympic gold medal

10,651 athletes from 199 countries took part in the Sydney Games, competing in 300 different sporting events. Australia finished fourth in the medal table, with 58 medals - 16 gold, 25 silver and 17 bronze. Ahead of them in the final table were China (28 golds, 58 total medals), Russia (32 golds, 89 total medals) and the United States (37 golds, 93 total medals).

The Sydney Olympic Stadium (now known as the ANZ stadium) was the centrepiece venue for the Sydney Games, packing in a record 114,714 spectators for the closing ceremony - the highest attendance ever recorded for a modern Olympic event. Today the stadium is in regular use as a venue for concerts, rugby (union and league), soccer, australian rules, speedway, and even international cricket.

2002 - The Bali bombings kill 88 Australians


On 12 October 2002, suicide bombers exploded two bombs at Paddy’s Pub in Bali, Indonesia. One bomber detonated a device in his backpack, inside the pub. Then, seconds later, a second bomber detonated a car bomb just outside the pub.

Together, the bombs killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians and 27 British. A further 209 people were injured in the blasts.

For some, the Bali bombings marked Australia’s loss of innocence; a day when the horrors of the world came to Australia’s backyard.

Australia’s response has, for the most part, been a nuanced one. Although it has significantly beefed up its anti-terrorism operations and been prepared to take a muscular approach to foreign policy, it has balanced this with a recognition that Australia cannot be secure without good relations with its neighbours.

To that end, Australian foreign policy has emphasised building bilateral and multilateral relationships with other countries in South East Asia and working with others to make South East Asia and Oceania as stable as possible.

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